Category Archives: Armchair Astrophysics

Outré d’ouevres

We had spaghetti and meteor-balls for dinner.
Declan also ate a bag of crunchy frotons that came with the salad.

Rather than sneak all kinds of food to the dog as many toddlers do, he gets completely unsettled if the dog comes anywhere near him while he’s eating.

Tonight, he dismissed the pooch with a firm “Buzz OUT, Arrow!”

Afterwards, we all retired to the family crash pad to watch a movie. One of the newer Star Wars films was on cable when we turned the television on. Declan fixated on an asteroid-dodging sequence for about 45 seconds then dashed all the way across the room and pressed his face against the wall.

“Violence!” he yelled. “VIOLENCE!”
“I’m scared of the television,” he told me.

The only other thing he’s ever been that scared of is the dinosaur puppet that says “Bwah!” on Baby Mozart.

More mysteries of toddlerhood

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Blinding me with science

Negotiations over things like bathtime and meals with my terrible two-year-old keep getting stranger and stranger. On some days, I must serve soy nuggets in flower formation with a pile of ketchup in the center to make food appetizing, or sing the same songs or read the same books 364 times in a row.

Today Declan wouldn’t put on a sweater before he had to go out into the cold with his father. He wanted to watch episode three of Elegant Universe for the second time. (My favorite thing he has said to me while watching this show – which I am still struggling to understand – is “Look, mom! It’s Ed Witten!”) Mind you, we do love Blue’s Clues, Elmo and prominent theoretical physicists around here.

I grabbed a kelly green thermal shirt and said “look, it’s a Brian Greene shirt.” That worked well. He wore it until bathtime tonight, when, after insisting that I draw Saturn in the water and spiral galaxies on the bath tile with pink foam soap several times over, he finally surrendered to the desire to get into the warm water and told me “I need to take my Brian Greene shirt off.”

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The specter of cousin Eugene, part one

Growing up, my family had a parable for parents who bragged too much about the intelligence and promise of a child.

“Careful now, or he’ll end up like Cousin Eugene.”

I can never remember the exact relationship of this cousin Eugene to my grandmother, but his station in life went something like this: He was the boy genius who learned to do everything earlier and better than any of his peers – he could read, write, add, subtract, draw a map, conduct emergency surgery on his dog, negotiate a peace treaty between rival playground factions and make a perfect baked Alaska. Surely, his mother would boast, he would one day find the cure for several major diseases, invent a hovercraft that could travel at the speed of light and be easily elected the first president of the world that he single-handedly unified.

But Eugene apparently grew up to become something the family saw as no big deal in light of his boyhood promise – an office manager for a sign shop or a car salesman or a professional envelope stuffer. I personally don’t feel comfortable with disparaging Eugene’s accomplishments as an adult. I have no way of knowing that he wasn’t the greatest undiscovered Tango dancer in North America, that he didn’t hand-write pages and pages of of equations that decisively proved a unified theory of everything but got lost in a tragic barn fire, or even whether he just managed to be an unshakably happy and loving person.

I only know him as a fable with a moral that warns us not to brag about our children, lest they grow up with the burden of disappointment, be it in themselves or from the people who anticipated their greatness. I can’t think of anyone I know who doesn’t have at least a sliver of cousin Eugene in them.

To be continued…

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Random acts of sweetness

Declan and I have been spending time outside of the house this weekend in order to give Dan some time and space to finish a paper for school (he’s taking some classes at OSU).

Yesterday, we took my mom (Declan calls her Giga), who is still recovering from painful shoulder surgery and cannot drive, out to do some errands. It wasn’t without it’s rewards for him. He got a wooden train and a “tangerine” Fiestaware place setting out of the deal – every two-year-old’s dream! (He is actually tremendously excited about having his own orange mug.)

Afterwards, we camped out at Giga’s house for a while and watched a movie. When we finally left, he obediently thanked her for the train and the orange cup. She walked us out to the car, where he blew her kisses from the car seat and suddenly said “thanks for all your help today, Giga” followed by additional thanks for the train and cup.

Today we went to the bookstore, where he made me sit on the floor and read an entire children’s book about human anatomy to him. He’s very excited to learn that we have “tunnels” in our necks and chests that help us breathe and talk. He’s also obsessed with the ways that pupils respond to light. When he asked about a picture of a cat scan, I told him what that it was a picture of the brain, inside of the head. He thought about it for a minute.

“The pupil gets smaller with the light and bigger with the dark so you can see the nebea in there,” he said, pointing at my eye.

“Nebea” = “nebula.”

If you’re feeling spacey, there’s a diagnosis you won’t find anywhere else.

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Life is a carnival

It absolutely made my day to see that our photo essay Jupiter is everywhere made it into this week’s Carnival of Space. Yay!

If you are interested in submitting something of your own, home base for the carnival lives over at Universe Today.

Declan imparted some further wisdom about the gas giant to me earlier this week:

“Jupiter doesn’t make any sense. The red spot doesn’t make any sense.”

That’s basically true.

Launch cosmic jukebox

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Star Trek & the fabric of space time
Star Trek & the Fabric of Space Time from Tracy on Vimeo.

For the past few months, courtesy of the DVR, he’s liked to watch the opening sequence of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and recite what he could along with it. The other day, he started reciting it in the car.

Question I get now: “He likes it because daddy likes Star Trek?”

No, that would be mommy.

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Our long national anti-bathing nightmare is over!

We’ve endured a bathtub strike for close to a month now. Any bathing of Declan has been done with washcloths, terrycloth puppets and a lot of tears. For some reason, the bathtub, once one of his most cherished places, started to terrify him a few weeks back. I took advice from the Internet, where most of my trusted sources of advice said: “This too shall pass. Honor his fears and sponge bathe him – don’t force it.”

And so I launched a public relations campaign for the bathtub. I bought a Little Einsteins’ Rocket that I made a tub-exclusive toy. For days, he would play with it from the side of the tub. I went back to our old colored water tricks: “Don’t you want a blue Earth/Neptune bath? A red Mars bath? A green Uranus bath?” All to no avail.

Meanwhile, for two weeks running, the video 95 Worlds and Counting has been his obsession. He wants to watch “Holes” — the name he gave it because he loves the animation of the descent into the holes on Neptune’s moon of Triton — as many times and as often as we will let him. “It would be very interesting to go down in the holes, if you dare,” he says, in tandem with the scientist being interviewed. Then there’s something or other about supersonic sounds and landing in a pool of liquid nitrogen.

So naturally, I recently decided that the bath water should become liquid nitrogen, which I make with blue bath tablets and bubbles. On Wednesday night, after the great recliner debacle, I pulled out virtually every toy that could be a bath toy. I drew volcanoes and a supermassive black hole (by request) on the wall with bath crayons. I yelled “let’s be scientists!” and called everything from filling cups of water to watching washcloths submerge “experiments.” I asked him if he dared to go down into the holes of Triton into the pool of liquid nitrogen. I managed to get his socks and overshirt off without any shrieks of horror. (We still must wear the rotating Nemo underneath at all times.) In all of my imaginings of motherhood, I definitely never could have pictured this.

His dad came in.

“We are scientists dad!” Declan shouted. Then Dan was able to get him into the tub (under the condition that the diaper and Nemo shirt stayed on). Then there was the experiment where they filled the diaper with bath water and took it off so we could all marvel at its bizarre absorbency. And then Nemo came off – and we had our boy back in the bath.

Last night, Declan requested a bath again. A yellow-red-brown-green Io bath (he settled for yellow, then orange-red). I started the routine again, and Dan managed to get him in the water again.

Of course, the problem we now have is that once he’s in, he doesn’t want to get out.

Life soundtrack: We Are Scientists, “The Method”: Launch

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Child helps journalist

Here is a story that I wrote for Columbus Alive this week.

Declan helped.

Not because he is a particularly good editor or writer at two and a half, but because he makes me think about the nature of the universe as well as its incomprehensible size — things that can come in handy when you’re writing about art. In this case, keeping up with his interest in spatial dimensions and string theory directly applied to the wonderful work and artist that I wrote about.

I consider some of the abstract concepts in galleries, community centers and museums on a fairly regular basis. In print, I try to make them less intimidating to people, to help them see the joy, intrigue and adventure inherent in considering the questions that art can raise. I don’t always succeed, but I try.

Growing up, I always considered science, especially physics, to be too large and logical for the likes of someone like me. But Declan has helped me see the joy, intrigue and adventure inherent in considering the questions that astrophysics can raise and how, much in the way that you don’t have to be a critic to appreciate art, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to appreciate the cosmos.

Life soundtrack: The Posies, “I Am the Cosmos”: Launch

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Jupiter is everywhere

This is Jupiter. A gas giant.
The fifth planet from the sun.
1,300+ earths could fit inside of it.
My son sees it everywhere.

Someone decided against these placemats at the grocery store and discarded them in the cereal aisle this past spring.
“I need Jupiter!” Declan squealed, pointing at them from the cart. He held them in awe and smushed them into his face for the rest of the shopping trip. He would not leave the store without them. Thankfully, they were on clearance for 25 cents a piece:

Marketers call this a swirly-something-or-other, but Declan calls it a Jupiter popsicle. (There are Mars and Venus popsicles in the same box, but that’s a story for another day.)
I have become very good at drawing Jupiter.
(For the record, I did not know the names of the Galilean moons until I had Declan.)

Sometimes we call this ball Neptune, because of its color.
But since it’s the biggest one we have, it’s the Jupiter of our ball solar system.

We heart Jupiter.Related post: Tiptoeing through the solar system

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Halloween costume, phase one

We had the idea that Declan could be the Milky Way, Andromeda or the Sombrero Galaxy for Halloween. I bought glittery fabric paint, a black shirt and a bunch of space stencils to start the process, but he quickly decided that he wanted to take over and commandeered the paintbrush. I think it actually turned out better than anything I could have made. It certainly looks more like actual space than stencils would. He even has his own sense of exactly when to stop.

I suggested that it looked somewhat nebula-like, but he said no, it’s a whole bunch of galaxies and black holes.

Small thinking, mommy. Why be a galaxy when you can be the whole universe for Halloween?

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