Tag Archives: science

Space books that we love (for children… mostly)

One of the nice things about having a child fixated on space is that it’s an easy obsession to feed. The discount shelves of most bookstore chains are loaded with gorgeous picture books full of astronomical phenomena, courtesy of Hubble and other high-powered telescopes.

A few fellow parents hoping to foster or develop their child’s interest in space have asked me for book recommendations. We’ve checked dozens out of the library and received several as gifts, but there are only a handful that I would heartily recommend.

Rhyming & scientifically accurate books
There are still certain facts and concepts that I remember vividly simply because I learned a rhyme or poem or song about them when I was a child. I think these are handy and fun introductory books for kids, but I learned quite a few things from them too:

Comets, Stars, the Moon, and Mars: Space Poems and Paintings
“The Universe is every place,
including all the e m p t y space…”

I love the images in this book, as well as the rhymes that describe some characteristics of each planet, black holes, galaxies and more. You can crack the book open to one page and get your fill of Saturn and a few of its moons, or read the whole thing in one setting.

Planets: A Solar System Stickerbook
“First comes Mercury, catching sun’s rays/It has hot, hot nights and cold, cold days.”

A quick read with graduated pages that take you, in quick two-line rhymes, from the sun out to Pluto. This book and Goodnight, Moon were the first two books that my son memorized. He hasn’t forgotten that Mercury is both burning and fridgid, or that Uranus is lopsided.

There’s No Place Like Space: All About Our Solar System
“On Venus the weather is always the same/Hot dry and windy with no chance of rain.”

I don’t find the Seuss Learning Library books nearly as charming as any of the things written by their namesake. Still, this is a decent volume, written in highly Seuss-ian rhyme.

Fantasy/adventure space books
There is plenty of allure in the danger and mystery of the exotic locales that space has to offer, but I think that the latitude to imagine the completely off-the-wall is important too. Just look at your flip phone and consider how much Star Trek has influenced real science. I expect (and hope) that this list will grow substantially over time.

Space Boy
This is the story of Nicholas, who climbs into a his backyard rocket ship and takes a trip to the moon to get away from all of the noise in his house (because there is no noise in space). It’s a sweet and simple story, with bonus zero-gravity tomato slices.

Moongirl: The Collector’s Edition Book and DVD Gift Set
If you like collecting fireflies, and think that it makes perfect sense that children, romance and amusement park rides, not some man or dairy product, are responsible for the moon’s glow, then I can’t recommend this enough. The book, and the brief animated version of the story on the DVD (it’s under five minutes long), are both quality.

Books we want
There are a couple of new
titles that I’m really looking forward to reading, but that we might enjoy more once my boy is able to sit still a bit longer.

Icarus at the Edge of Time
We really love Brian Greene around here. For several months, his NOVA – The Elegant Universe was our Sesame Street. So I’m thrilled that he’s decided to recast the myth of Icarus as as a trip to a black hole in this giant board book. Just remember: when you’ve crossed the event horizon, there is no going back!

George’s Secret Key to the Universe
We haven’t graduated to chapter books yet, but when we do, this one, penned by scientist Stephen Hawking and his daughter Lucy, will be at the top of my list. Apparently, the bones of the story are deeper concepts of physics and time, wrapped in an adventure’s skin.

For more technical scientific information, including great photos, illustrations and conceptual explanations, I can’t recommend the various DK Books about Astronomy and the Universe enough, but they’re a pretty dry read on their own. Periodically, you can find one that has suggestions for cool, hands-on experiments, like reproducing the stormy clouds of Jupiter with food coloring and milk.

Happy space reading! If you have a book that you and/or your kids love about space, please tell me about it in the comments.

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Because motherhood has made me a nerd…

This video was going around the geekosphere a few weeks ago, but it’s appropriate today, since they’ve officially hit the switch on the Large Hadron Collider. I understand (because I have to be told) that the science in the rap is good for anyone who wants to try and understand what it is exactly that the LHC does.


The site that answers the question, “Has the Large Hadron Collider Destroyed the World Yet?” has been getting all the play, but the live-blogging of the opening events at Cosmic Variance is more informative.

In other nerd news, Bad Astronomer Phil Plait put out a great digest of Barack Obama’s science policy that I think you should read. This is one critical area that Hillary Clinton covered well during the primaries, that I felt Obama did not. I’m happy to see that he’s adopted most of what I liked about her platform, and then some. Yay!

P.S. Yo, America – let’s call a moratorium on thinking about, discussing or otherwise considering animals wearing make-up, okay? All of these euphemisms are making the presidential election seem like a Fellini film.

P.P.S. John McCain, you ought to be ashamed of yourself. I mean, really.

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Tiptoeing through the solar system

Some parents I know risk their feet and balance daily to toy cars, Barbie dolls or little plastic animals. In our house, it’s the Solar System – a collection that’s been growing for well over the past year and a half.

I try to get Declan help me to put all of them away in bins every night – inevitably making the floor a blank canvas for him to lay solar systems all around the room the next morning.

We’ve gone through periods of obsession with particular planets, and he’s long since rejected soft blankies with dogs on them in favor of shimmery fabrics from the craft store that he calls “the fabric of space and time.” He might be astrophysicist Brian Greene’s youngest groupie.

I replaced one of the shades on my back car window with window clings of the planets last year. And there’s nary a spherical object in our home that hasn’t, at some point, been substituted as a planet, moon or star.
The first acquisitions were paper and cardboard planets. One system went on the wall on his second birthday, but it only stayed there for a couple of weeks while he memorized their order. He learned their names when he was about 20 months old, during a watershed language-accumulating phase – one week colors, the next week shapes, then numbers and then planets – at his insistence.

Ever since, he’s wanted to hold his planets, to lay them out on the floor in order, to whoosh them past his face, one by one. The glow in the dark asteroids are used to make the asteroid belt sometimes. Other times he’s made it with a bunch of crumpled scraps of paper.
These are from a lunchbox full of small & mostly handmade things, there are dried balls of Play-doh that he made and Fimo shapes we made together (the flat sparkly one is Andromeda galaxy). There are also eight big marbles that his dad got for him, which Declan promptly gave planetary names.
This week’s most popular solar system is made up of balls from around the house. There are 10 because this collection includes Pluto and Charon, its moon. (I’m never sure which planet’s moons are going to make it into the mix.)
This is a nesting toy that readily became the outer planets – Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and missing Pluto (which has rolled somewhere else in the house).
We have a couple of different solar system floor puzzles (gifts) that he loves and has started to mess up and reassemble without my help in the last couple of weeks. And the last page of this Teddy Bear book (based on the jump-rope rhyme) has nine bears, which he renamed as the planets (again, Pluto included) several months ago.
These bath letters represent the solar system and more, straight out of the Interactive Universe web site he loves – they are (counter clockwise): Sun, Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto, Hale-Bopp comet, Haley’s Comet, Helix Nebula (subbed the backwards 2 because we didn’t have another H), Orion nebula, Proxima Centauri (the nearest star to us after the sun), Black Hole, Milky Way (Y, because we only had two Ms) and Andromeda Galaxy.
Recently, all of this playroom space travel started to develop into a deeper appreciation for Earth – its oceans and continents, its gravity, all of the unique ingredients it possesses that made us possible.

Because he insists that we continually remain on this galactic ride, that new appreciation for the earth, our place in the universe is all of ours, not just his.

Also see Jupiter in its earthly incarnations.

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What do you see?

“These are the pillars of creation,” he said to me today. “See? They look like a daddy, a mommy and a baby.”

They are inside of the Eagle Nebula – a stellar nursery.

I’m glad that he sees us among the stars.

Here’s a tour he loves to take:

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Saturn has rings!

It’s roughly a light hour (or 746 million miles) away, but when you look through a telescope it’s just right there, so clear with its rings and its many moons. I thought about Galileo seeing it for the first time 400 years ago, how he must have puzzled, the stir his telescope created.

I teared up a little after I looked at Saturn, wondering how I made it to my late 30s without looking so closely at the heavens before. It’s yet another gift my son has given me.

We also examined the surface of the moon and saw a distant galaxy (M105, I think). Then it clouded up and other people left, allowing Declan ample time to play with some computer program that let him fly through the universe, as well as to chat with an astronomer who also happens to clearly enjoy kids.

I got the last-minute notion to run us up to Perkins Observatory on Friday night (thanks to Ed for the reminder). I’d considered it last summer, but hadn’t gone because Declan was still just two, and three was the suggested youngest age, although I think they’d have made an exception if I’d just asked.

At any rate, I’m so glad we went – what a wonderful, family-friendly place, full of people who are just thrilled to tell you whatever they can about the skies. Dec was excited to see through the different telescopes, but he also could have spent hours looking at their book collection, examining globes of Mars and Venus, and trying out all of the different astronomy computer programs. (His mouse skills are so good, it’s a little bit freaky.) I think we’ll be making regular visits back, so that we can see more of the planets as they come into view. And celebrate the sun in July.

If you are in Central Ohio, I highly recommend visiting Perkins. They recently lost their major source of funding (OSU), because while they have the second-largest telescope in Ohio, there are more powerful ones out there nowadays that the university can lease to do its research. However, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more enthusiastic proponent of science than Director Tom Burns, and that makes the place a real local treasure. He seemed genuinely thrilled to be with people in the crowd who were about to undergo the life-changing experience of seeing Saturn through a telescope, and he was so, so kind to my son.

They are currently on a drive to increase their endowment and save the observatory, so bring plenty of change for the change vortex, money for a Moonpie and whatever else you can spare when you visit.

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Cruciferous, cosmic mommy

Declan and I ate at the dining room table tonight. He likes dinner best this way, and seemed particularly thrilled that we had exactly the same things on our plates.

Then he pointed his fork at me and made the following observation:

“You like broccoli, cauliflower and Carl Sagan.”

“And what do you like?” I asked him.

“I only like Venus.”

Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.
— Carl Sagan

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Wonderful epitaph

“Here lies Arthur C Clarke. He never grew up and did not stop growing.”

— From BBC News
. Apparently, this epitaph was the author’s request.

You can also watch him talk about the three wishes he had for humankind on the occasion of his 90th birthday here.

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The specter of cousin Eugene, part two

Continued from this post.
I’ve subscribed to a variety of developmental newsletters ever since the week I found out I was going to be a mother. During my pregnancy, I enjoyed seeing what food item they would compare my baby’s size with each week (shrimp, lime, coconut) and which parts of his body were forming.

For the first year of Declan’s life, the weekly email missives let me know the scope of abilities that he could have, and told me which ones he definitely should have. They reassured me that I had some idea what I was doing as I got the inevitable questions from the many many expert strangers that a baby’s presence in the world invites. They reinforced certain notions I had been given about parenting that might make you look crazy, particularly to the non-parenting world, like my sister-in-law’s suggestion that I talk to Declan about the daily things we did to help his language skills develop. It’s somehow easier to justify the loony look of talking to your six-month-old about a Diane Arbus photograph at MOMA or the uses for red cabbage at the grocery store when you know that what you can point to the effectiveness of your actions underneath an “expert” heading somewhere.

These days, the newsletters appear monthly. The last one came on Declan’s two and half year birthday. It suggested that at his age, he should know a few colors, body parts and people, and be speaking in two-word sentences.

“You can help her improve her verbal skills by giving her details,” writes the cheerful email. “If she says, ‘Dog sleep,’ for example, you might say, ‘Yes, Spot is curled up and fast asleep on the chair.’ She can’t imitate your complex language patterns just yet, but she’s learning more all the time.”

This visited my inbox during a week when Declan has repeatedly been reciting the following (his shorthand of a part of the narrative from the documentary 95 Worlds and Counting):

You go down into the holes, if you dare, re-verberating, supersonic gas rushing out.
A pool of liquid nitrogen boiling fervently.
When nitrogen boils, intense pressure builds, until the geyser finally ends.

While visiting my brother’s farm over Thanksgiving, I tried to settle him down after a full day of cousin playtime. The usual lullabies, like “Hush Little Baby” (known to us as “Baby in Town”), weren’t very effective.

“Can you sing about liquid nitrogen?” He asked me sweetly.

I tried. I really did.

And that, like dozens of other stories about the things that occur in our daily life, can be related with innocent intentions and still end up making me feel like Cousin Eugene’s mom.
The divide between celebrating his appetite for learning and being perceived as a braggart is a hairline. Some look at me as though I must be one of those Olympic coach parents who insists on putting him through wicked daily mental gymnastics, rather than a person who simply tries to open the channels to the things he shows interest in. Fortunately, others, sometimes strangers, take in his qualities and marvel at him with me.

own actions in public can have a similar effect – sometimes his interests can completely throw people who don’t expect that his answers to ordinary questions will be quite so complicated. And while some people react beautifully, others look at him like a mutant (particularly seven-year-old boys).

I do see every child as brilliant in their own right – in ways that manifest differently, and certainly with widely varying degrees, including some that aren’t so obvious. Yet culturally, we are so prone to compare individuals, to see confidence and the celebration of accomplishment as things that make us somehow personally deficient, not healthy and happy and learning. I try to see these things in Declan’s peers and appreciate the things that they can offer each other.

Parenting magazines constantly tell us that all kids learn at their own rate, and remind us that we shouldn’t read too much into a child’s abilities at a young age. After all, Albert Einstein had early speech delays. Neurosurgeon Dr. Harvey Cushing had dyslexia, as do novelist John Irving, artist Robert Rauschenberg and billionaire Richard Branson. The same publications, along with other, more experienced moms also remind me regularly that Declan’s esoteric interests in space may just evaporate one day, and that it would be completely normal for him to forget many of the things that he knows so well right now.

I try and keep my own opinion – and expectations – of him in check, for both of our sakes. But when he gets as excited about science and scientists as he would if Steve from Blue’s Clues walked into the house for dinner tonight, it’s hard not to bask in the glow all that he is becoming and feel proud.

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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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