Category Archives: Armchair Astrophysics

An interdimensional mother-son story


Juniper’s Big Adventure

By Declan and his mom

Declan and I wrote this together by hand, passing the notebook back and forth, each taking a turn at contributing a line or two. He’s excited to share it. We hope you like it. 

Once upon a time, there was a jackal named Juniper, and he loved to bark at birds.

One day a toucan named Alfonso Frederico la Vesta visited him, carrying a mysterious briefcase.

Juniper attacked, as usual.

Alfonso Frederico la Vesta bopped Juniper on the head with his briefcase, which exploded into 100,000 pieces of glitter and 600 silver balloons.

Juniper hadn’t a ghost of an idea what was happening. He ran away.

The balloons followed him. The glitter swirled into a massive shiny funnel cloud.

After a while, the funnel cloud reached and picked up the jackal. He flew up into the sky and bounced on top of the funnel cloud like Super Mario™ for 317 miles. Then the funnel cloud flattened and lowered down to the ground.

Juniper landed in a strange place that had a chocolate marsh and trees that were made of staple guns and jigsaws.  They started to grow rapidly as the jackal came down.

Out of nowhere, a glowy castle emerged from the chocolate marsh. It had a moat that was made of liquid rainbow Skittles™. If you tried to swim across, the castle would catapult TNT jawbreakers, which exploded in a hot gooey mess. The castle seemed to enjoy targeting a particularly cranky bunny rabbit that was practicing ballet on the other side of the moat.

Juniper fell onto his bottom in awe, his tongue hanging out the side of his mouth. His eyes rolled back into his head for a moment.

A drawbridge made of Jolly Rancher™ candy dropped in front of Juniper that seemed to be just for him. As he walked into the castle, a giant Burple* monster with polka dots — which actually turned out to be UFO warp engines that were friendly — appeared.

One of the UFOs approached Juniper. The warp engine smiled at him, stuck out its tongue and licked the jackal on the nose, giving him the ability to make the moment become marshmallows. These marshmallows had tritanium in them, which made you fit and healthy.

“Wow, the present moment sure is sticky,” said Juniper. “But I feel like a million pronghorn bucks that have eaten unicorn milk that was impregnated by an interdimensional creature.**  Thanks!!!”

And so he went into the 2, 248th dimension, where everything flew by pooping rainbows from dimension zero.

“I feel kind of hungry for a pork chop,” thought Juniper.

Just at that moment, a cardboard foot flew into his mouth, but it tasted like lemonade.

“Delicious!” he thought.

Then Willy Wonka™ appeared and handed Juniper an infinite, updated version of his meal gum. He chomped it in his jaws and tasted the most delicious pork chop with applesauce that he had ever tasted. There was also steamed broccoli, a glass of high-pulp, fresh squeezed, not-from-concentrate orange juice and rhubarb pie with vanilla ice cream.  He turned the shape of each food, but quickly sprang back into jackal form.

He decided to make a video/life portal to the Cookieverse™. He was so full of rhubarb pie, having just been rhubarb pie, that he simply gazed at the cookies lovingly.

Reluctantly (although he knew he could come back), he went out of there and onto television.

Whoosh! Juniper felt his body flicker. Suddenly he was transported onto the bridge of the USS Enterprise-E, next to Lieutenant Commander Data. He blinked and looked down and saw that he was wearing a red Starfleet shirt from the original series.  They were searching for the Borg.

“I wonder if this means I am nothing more than an incidental character – an infinitesimal membrane – in the universe…?” thought Juniper.


* A color that only exists in alternate dimensions.

** The unicorn milk is what was impregnated here, not the unicorn.

The collage/illustration is also a TZT & Declan collaboration.

P.S. Declan was very enthusiastic about writing this story, so please feel free to share it or leave him a comment if you are at all inclined.

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Constructing immortality

I have become an aficionado of science documentaries; a connoisseur of Cosmos, a knower of Nova and a devotee of the Discovery Channel.

Because space remains the iron core of my son’s interests, I’ve been to the edge of the known universe and the inner spaces of the quantum realm hundreds of times (with the help of CGI animation).  For six years, I’ve lived with an almost constant awareness of the infinite without as well as the infinite within.

Thinking about all of that vastness, it is now hard for me to imagine religion at odds with science. My throat gets caught in moments when scientists reflect on things like the stardust that created us, the possibilities that lie within all that we don’t know and how fantastic and improbable humans really are.

A few weeks ago I was watching the Science Channel show Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman, which routinely takes on big questions that science cannot answer definitively. The season premiere  investigated the possibilities of life after death.

After circulating through heaven-like scenarios, the possibilities of existing without form or blipping into nothingness, one scientist, who had lost his wife to a brain tumor, declared that there is one indisputable form of an afterlife: memory. You and I are each a mosaic, he said, a swarm of finite characteristics and memories and experiences. And a rougher version of us — a portrait made up of thumbnail-sized porcelain shards instead of so many billions of pinpoints— is carried within all of the people that love us.

Having been through recent losses and facing new ones, this thought is like a nice warm bath. I think of all of the people who make up me, the ways that I fashion them into my own design. The first ones are obvious, living and dead. But those people I didn’t know all that well, yet still feel the loss of because of one moment of connection? This gives me permission to let that solitary moment glimmer. Those people I’ve perhaps known too well, who left me feeling damaged? Let me reach for the lotus growing out of all of that muck and flatten its soft petals.  That vulnerable person I just met today? Let me hold on to her, reflect her.

There is so much you are that I can carry. There is so much I can be that you can carry. And chances are that we’ll both do that whether we mean to or not.

When I hear about God, I have a hard time keeping myself from getting tangled up in his long, angry beard.  When I hear about science, I have a hard time keeping myself from turning up my nose at religion. Cynicism has sometimes made me likeable or funny at parties, but truthfully, it’s not nearly as useful as I thought it was.

A little over a year ago, I started putting faith in people, not knowing what they would do with it and not exactly caring anymore. I desperately needed to put faith somewhere. I stopped worrying about where. Now I find that it is alive and breathing all on its own.

I am the haphazard engineer of immortality for others and for myself. A scientist told me so. And these crazy ruins are among the most extraordinary places that I have ever chanced to visit.

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A note to my boy, who is six today

Dear Declan,

You are six today. Six!

That’s halfway to twelve.

That’s one-third of the way to 18.

You’ve grown so much this year. Taller. Wiser. Kinder.  More confident, and though I didn’t think it was possible, more curious. Aggressively curious, even. And infectiously thrilled by every new thing that you learn.

You wander around the house, wondering aloud, asking questions I don’t know the answers to, like “Why is Qatar so small?” Or quasi-rhetorical ones, like “3.5 billion years isn’t a very long time for life to take to evolve, is it mom?” (Props to Carl Sagan.)  You quiz me to find out if I know which continents use the most electricity, or sit up with a start, just moments after waking, and tell me “I just got what plasma actually is.”

On Mother’s Day, you explained how the Himalayas were formed to three separate audiences, how they are folded and getting taller every year. No wonder I got so excited when I found a DNA stencil at the craft store yesterday.

We’ve traded in bedtime storybooks for brief tomes about Silicon, Chlorine, Fluorine & Iodine, and Sulfur. Then you always manage to extract sciencey, psychedelic stories from my imagination in which you are the star (sometimes of the plasma variety) before you fall asleep.  Thankfully, you return to storybooks now and then when I grow weary of molecules. When there are pictures or short chapters, you do most of the bedtime reading.

All that, and I can still say silly things like “hey, my son turned into a pink punch balloon” at the dining room table, watch you peek over said balloon and say to me in earnest, “no mom, I’m right here.”

Earlier in the school year, you started asking me six times four, three times seven, nine times ten from the back seat of the car, using your fingers like the Montessori chains.  “I’m not sure if it’s safe for mommy to do math and drive,” I told you.  You kept testing my multiplication skills anyway.

A few weeks ago, you sat down at the dining room table with me and asked “what is 122 times 365?” I thought you were just seeing what I could do in my head, but you had a greater purpose. I leaned on my phone calculator for an answer. You repeated the number I read — 44, 530 — and looked thoughtful for a moment before you declared: “that’s how many days the oldest person who ever lived was alive.”

I am always a little stunned, although I shouldn’t be at this point, at the things you understand – like the kind of math you have to do in order to find that number. And then I’m a little sad, because I also understand why the length of a life might be of such interest to you. You watched your Grandfafa fade away last summer, and bravely read a book at his funeral.  The last year has taken us to a plethora of hospitals and funeral homes. You know I spend every Saturday morning with someone else who will be passing soon. You dive-bomb me with hugs and kisses the moment you sense any sadness.

Sometimes, I am overcome with worry around 4 a.m., feeling this is all much too much for you – deaths, illnesses, separated parents – all this while you’re figuring out how to keep your feet clean in the muddy world of playground politics. But we’re good about talking right now, you and me. We share and work through things.  We feel sad when we need to. We rebound. It feels like most of what we do when we are together is laugh.

I try to remember to stop and breathe you in the way I did when you were a baby, to breathe in these fleeting moments when I can still carry you, still snuggle you so that you can feel little and safe.

The real reason I imagine that you want to know how many days are possible in a lifetime is because you are busy calculating how to make each one count. And you do. You really do. More than anyone I have ever met.

Declan, I love you so spectacularly much that my heart can hardly stand it.

Happy sixth birthday.

I love you infinity,


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The re-education of a science mom

The other day, my son was asked to draw a picture of something he is grateful for.

He made semi-scribbly, red twisty lines. Above them, he wrote “DNA.”

I asked him why. Why DNA?

“Because it’s here,” he said. “No life would be here without it. Not the trees, not you or me. Nothing.”

To be honest, I am far more grateful that he is happy we exist than I am that he understands DNA.

I asked him if I could blog about what he said and he agreed.

“What should I say about DNA?” I asked him.

“Life needs it in order to be here, just think about it,” he said. “Just write about it in a long sentence. Write that it controls cells. That cancer happens when DNA is broken.”

I think back on high school and remember myself as a girl with an aversion to science.  Today, I don’t know that it was an aversion so much as something that my teachers presented in a way that I couldn’t find relevant to my daily life. I was technically adept, but confounded by chemistry. And if there were programs designed to promote women and girls in science and math in 1980s Central Ohio, we never crossed paths. I veered into social science and the arts and humanities, where the world seemed to invite me.

So now I live with an almost six-year-old whose aptitude for understanding quantum mechanics, geology, biology and especially astronomy have long since dwarfed my own. This is thanks to Google, several extremely cool kids’ science books, our fantastic local science center. a great, old-school observatory, the vast array of images in discounted Hubble Telescope picture books, PBS, National Geographic, the History, Science and Discovery channels and the availability of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos on Netflix.

When my son was two, he was in love with everything he could find out about the planets, moons, stars, dark matter and endless nebulae (he loved watching the short film Powers of Ten over and over, which we found on a now-defunct kids’ astronomy site). Around that time, Neil DeGrasse Tyson floated the idea on some talk show or other that he was working on a book that would tell parents the key things they needed to know to be scientifically literate and raise scientifically literate children.

I’ve longed for this book, although I think my re-education in science has gone okay without it. My son used to get frustrated with me over the things I couldn’t answer. Now we’re both content to let him do most of the teaching.  Truthfully, he always has.

Here’s the thing, though: If it all went away tomorrow, if his interests suddenly took a radical turn into Batman and baseball and fart jokes, I like to think that I wouldn’t turn into a judgmental parent who turned her nose up at “lesser” pursuits. I’d be sad to see interests that have been so fun and exciting and integral to his life diminished, but our lives would be easier. I wouldn’t have to evaluate, every year, the thorny politics of introducing him to a new classroom and new teachers. Parents wouldn’t dislike me because I’m worried about my smart kid.  To most, it doesn’t sound like a problem. It sounds like bragging.

If you go around telling people that your kid is smart, special, or at least has a high aptitude for a particular subject, I’ve found out that you’re likely to do that child more harm than good in the classroom, on the playground, in life. What you say can turn morph into a temporary blind spot for teacher, who has heard a thousand parents’ confident descriptions, many of them wrong, or at least lacking the perspective on a sea of children that an experienced educator has.

I try to let my son unfold before his teachers without my assistance. And if they are good teachers, they find him. They see him.  And if they are very good, they know how complicated it can be for sweet-faced boy who still has all of his baby teeth to know so much, so very, very much. Together, we see him recognize the reality of things that once just seemed cool or interesting to know before, not scary or heavy. I see it suddenly weigh on him and I sometimes wish I could erase that thing he learned a year ago, that thing I thought he would forget. He rarely forgets.

And so I let him explore Super Mario Galaxy, joke books, America’s Funniest Home Videos and Justin Beiber. I am relieved when dances like a lion, puts a pylon on his head or tells me about playing “crazy baby” on the playground with a friend. I don’t want him to be the ultimate brainiac of the universe. That’s lonely. I want him to be every bit his brilliant self, but I also want him to be happy. I want him to feel okay and whole when he’s not feeling brilliant.

I imagine Sagan, as well as Tyson and the wide host of living celebrity science advocates I am now acquainted with as people with a dark blue sense of humor.

I keep joking with friends: “If you’re going to raise an astrophysicist, better to raise an astrophysicist who can make jokes about his balls.”

Or maybe it’s not a joke. Maybe it’s my science mommy prayer.

This post is a contribution to the #scimom collection, an experimental conjunction of mom and science bloggers.

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The John Wayne of Meijer

I’ll always drive an extra mile for the sake of a reasonably-priced artichoke.

In my daily swim through the morass of marketing e-newsletters that are available, I accidentally found an obscure and unexpectedly useful one recently. It lets me know about artichoke sales in my area.

As I visited the Eastern perimeter of the city yesterday, I realized that I was within striking distance of a big-box store that this e-newsletter alleged to be brimming with artichokes. So I went. And it was. Yay.

But you can’t go to such a place just for artichokes. So I bobbed and weaved through it, filling my cart with a variety of staples.

My mother requested diet soda, which I found in Bunyanesque 2-for-1 packages. Just as I wrestled with one and realized that I was going to have to move to the other end of my cart to heave it underneath, a cavalcade of shopping carts weaved toward and past me. I propped the diet pop on the cart handle and waited.

A man with a bandana-wrapped head, zero sleeves and lite Hulk Hogan facial hair stopped in front of me.

“Let me help you, there, little lady!” He said. I handed him the soda box. He heaved it under my cart for me. I thanked him. He gave me a manly nod and moved upstream.

This can only mean three things:

1) My quest for artichokes brought me to a mythical encounter with the legendary John Wayne of Meijer, and I should write a trucking song about him, a la Red Sovine’s Phantom 309.

2) Since I’m not particularly little, this was qualitative evidence that my fitness regimen is working (i.e. the wall squats I did Friday – and subsequent literal pain in the ass I’ve experienced all weekend – were worthwhile).

3) The underlying reason that we go to big box stores is to recognize our relative insignificance in the universe. As we meander through huge, galactic clusters of Easter candy, swarms of garden hoses and fields of snack food, we unconsciously see ourselves as Carl Sagan’s pale blue dot, a mere, subatomic speck of a little lady “in the great enveloping cosmic dark.”

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Solar System ejection blues


Picture 1 of 7

Ever since he was the whole universe when he was two, he has gotten progressively smaller and smaller.

He’s been planning to be the dejected, ex-planet Pluto since last Halloween, which gave me plenty of time to try to figure out how to make the costume, in spite of the fact that there’s not a lot of data out there about what Pluto truly looks like just yet.

We went for “dirty ice ball” and made the decision to anthropomorphize the former 9th planet much like this song did, even though, as a scientist, my son is actually quite at peace with Pluto being relegated to Kuiper Belt object. He tried to muster real righteous indignation for the camera, but felt a lot more comfortable with peevishness.

Motherhood has again taken me light years beyond anything I could have imagined. (I’m looking forward to the subatomic years.)

Happy Halloween & Viva Pluto!

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Team WhyMommy Virtual Science Fair

Known to the blogging world as WhyMommy, Susan Niebur is an astrophysicist, a mother to two young boys, an advocate for cancer education and research, and a survivor. Since 2007, she’s graciously, frankly and bravely let us into her life through her blog, Toddler Planet. She’s let her readers walk with her as she’s battled Inflammatory Breast Cancer and dealt with its physical and emotional fallout, all the while advocating for women in planetary science.

She’s had a recurrence, and is slated to have surgery today. So, to let her know that we’re all thinking about her – thinking of the whole of who she is, not just this tenacious disease she keeps kicking — Stimeyland is holding a virtual science fair. People have been making an effort to do something science related (with kids or on their own) and posting about it today in Susan’s honor.

If you read Tiny Mantras at all regularly, you might guess that I don’t go through a day without doing something science-related. And you’d be right.

So far this week, I’ve overseen the assembly of an anatomy floor puzzle and helped my son navigate CERNland — a kids’ site designed to explain particle physics and illuminate what the Large Hadron Collider is doing. We’ve snapped together models of the Ares Launch Vehicles that NASA is developing to take people back to the moon, and eventually to Mars. We’ve read Millions to Measure.

I thought I would compile a list of a few of my favorite posts about raising a science-inclined child and the things we’ve done to keep up with him, focusing particularly on Susan’s passion (also Declan’s) — space:

I gave birth to the whole universe — This is the way we tell a bedtime story.

Beginnings of a solar system magnum opus
– This is the way we write a song.

Sometimes, science makes us anxious. It makes us dream. We sleep in the rings of Saturn.

Every placemat, book and ball in our house has been part of the solar system at one point or another.

Space changed the way I look at art.

Halloween costumes — My son has actually been getting smaller every year. First he was space, then the solar system and last year he was Jupiter.

I once had to convince my son he was on Triton (Neptune’s moon) to get him to take a bath.

There is really nothing cuter than a 2-year-old talking about space or going through Hubble Space Telescope images or interpreting the world through space or warning you about impending doom.

Spaced out at NASA’s Plum Brook Station — This is a huge NASA site in Ohio that’s rarely open to the public, but they had an open house in 2008 and we went. We also like hanging out in Space Shuttle tires in Wapakoneta.

Here are some kids’ space books we love. Here is one Carnival of Space. And another.

Be well, Susan. Kick this cancer to the Kuiper Belt.

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As we drove home from school today, Declan told me that he knew nanodiamonds could keep our dog Arrow from dying. Now, Arrow is barely six years old and pretty robust, so I’m not sure why this was on his mind (other than the fact that a National Geographic special about spatial relationships in the universe schooled him on the nanodiamonds stuff), but he was insistent.

I told him that nothing could keep Arrow, or anyone, from dying sooner or later, but that Arrow seemed very healthy and happy to me right now. He was angry with me and pretended to sleep for a while. I let it be until the next question comes.

I’ve only watched the news after Declan is asleep or when he is elsewhere this week. It takes my breath away to watch the devastation, the human suffering, the chaos happening in Haiti. At this death-sensitive age, I can’t imagine him being able to process much about this, so I haven’t figured out what to tell him. Meanwhile, I feel helpless and grateful for every little thing I have here – fresh air, clean water, a roof, a car, family, schools for my son, food, music, books, love, jokes.

This afternoon, the father of one of his schoolmates passed away after a short battle with cancer. The boy Declan shared a class with last year was the older of two and their third child is due in less than a month. The preschool’s community and friends of the family have rallied to do everything from laundry to childcare to grocery shopping to help them during this tragic time, but this is just heartbreaking news. I wish him peace.

This is a loving and kind family. The mother is a young and passionate wife and parent. I can’t fathom the stress of being self-employed, almost nine months pregnant, parenting two young children and losing your spouse. So if you’re listening, and you’re feeling generous, you could help them out a little bit financially to help ease some of their material stress as they begin to grieve and await this new birth.

Take care. Breathe. Hug your loved ones tight.

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Interview at Mama Joules’ place

If you are looking for ideas about how to engage children with science, Mama Joules has got resources and fresh ideas about everything from physics to geology to gardening. I plan to make her site a regular destination.

She and I exchanged emails through the crazy holiday time, and she’s published an interview with me about keeping up with a child whose scientific interests are greater than those of his/her parents. It was a lovely opportunity for me to reflect on the parts of motherhood I expected the least – those that have required me to become an amateur astronomer.

I also think it’s super cool to be among the ranks of her interview subjects, which also include the President of the National Tarantula Society and a beekeper.

Check out Meet Jupiter’s Mother. That’s the first part, here is the second.

I’ll update this post and Twitter (@TinyMantras) when part two is published.

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I gave birth to the whole universe

I decided to make up a bedtime story last night, choose-your-own adventure style.

Me: “Once upon a time, there was a boy named… Antonio or Declan?”

Declan: “Declan!”

Me: “This boy Declan grew up to become a… paleontologist or astronaut? Which should he be?”

Declan: “A paleontologist goes around looking for dinosaur bones and putting them back together to make, like, T-Rex.”

Me: “True. So is that what you’d like to be? Or an astronaut?”

Declan: “I don’t want to be those. I want to be something I want to be.”

Me: “Like what?”

Declan: “Space.”

Me: “Space? Like… all of space? The universe?”

Declan: “Yes. Space.”

Me: “Uh… okay… Once upon a time there was a little boy named Declan who was actually all of space. He was as big as everything and expanded a lot while stars and galaxies and planets formed inside of him. He watched the Earth as it started to form, and people started to evolve…”

Declan: “I couldn’t do that. Everybody knows that space doesn’t have eyes. It can’t watch anything. It just is. It’s everywhere.”

Me: “Uh… okay. One day he yawned, and 14 stars and 732 planets were sucked into his mouth.”

Declan: “No. Only a black hole could do that.”

Me: “Well if you were all of space and you yawned, wouldn’t that be like a really big black hole?”

Declan: “Maybe. But space doesn’t have a mouth. It doesn’t have any kind of face.”

Me: “Well what would you do if you were space, then?”

Declan: “Nothing. Just be.”

Me: “Okay. Where would those stars and planets go if you yawned? What would space’s stomach be like?”

Declan: “Maybe nowhere. Maybe another dimension. They would be spaghettified. We just don’t know where they would go.”

Me: “Okay. So maybe they would go into space’s stomach! So… Declan, who was all of space was just hanging out, just being everywhere and expanding while the stars formed…”

Declan: “And the stars made people.”

Me: “Okay. The stars made people on Earth…”

Declan: “Now say that mommy and daddy and Declan were born on Earth.”

Me: “Mommy and daddy, who lived on Earth, decided to have a baby, and Declan, who was actually all of space…? Was born?”

Declan: “That’s right.”

Me: “Okay, so, mommy and daddy had a baby who was actually all of space, but they didn’t know that, and he tried to tell them all about the universe.”

Declan: “Babies can’t talk.”

Me: “No, but he tried. He said “ooo” and “da” and “thpppphhh” but they didn’t start to understand until he learned to say words.”

Declan: “Then he taught you about the universe. That’s what you say. You didn’t know about it until I was born. You didn’t even know that after Pluto there was Eris and Ceres until I watched shows and told you.”

Me: “And read books. That’s true. So… Declan came along and learned to talk and started to teach everybody about space and the universe.”

Declan: Nods.

Me: “And then a giant sea lion — bigger than anything, bigger than all of space — that was made out of happiness came along and swallowed the enormous Declan and everything in the universe, including everyone on Earth, became very peaceful and happy because it was very cozy in the sea lion’s stomach.”

Declan: “No!” (Laughing)

Me: “Why not? Sometimes scientists talk about our universe actually being a small part of something even bigger.”

Declan: “Okay.”

Me: “Phew. The end.”

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