A Christmas message
Recent events at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut remind me of the necessity of our mission at Perkins Observatory.
Many of you know about our nighttime programs. But Don Stevens and I spend a considerable amount of our time doing field trips for school classes. Many of the classes consist of very young children, no older than 5– or 6– years old. Just today, as I write these lines, we had a group of kindergartners.
What do you do for such youngsters? In a hands-on educational environment, how do you get students to hold the rings of Saturn in the palms of their hands?
So we pull out all the stops. The universe does not have to be boring. We owe it to the students — and the universe — to make it just as vibrant and exciting as it really is. We launch rockets at Perkins to demonstrate Newton’s third law of motion. For every action, there is an opposite and equal reaction. When you walk, you have to push backward to go forward. I demonstrate the latter example by walking and talking innnnn slowwwwww moooooootion. Some of the parents think this demo is “undignified.” But the kids love it, and they get it.
And we try to make it mean something. That is harder than it sounds. What you have to do is find some experience from a kid’s real life that emulates concepts and distances that are unfathomable, frankly, even to me.
For example, every kid memorizes certain facts about the solar system: You can fit one million Earths inside of the sun. Our planet is 93 million miles from the sun. Those numbers are, of course, too big to mean anything at all, not just to the kids, but to anyone at all.
So the one-million-mile-wide sun becomes a volleyball, and Earth becomes a pinhead. We pace out the distance, 33 steps, with our “pacecraft” and notice that the sun is exactly the right size — a pinky fingernail extended at arm’s length. We put our pinkies in the sky to show just how small the sun appears in the sky. It’s a giant hydrogen bomb, but it looks so small in the sky at 93 million miles way.
Above all, you must know your audience at every age level. What works for a first grader makes a middle schooler uncomfortable. When I demonstrate how the craters on the moon formed, I hit an image of the moon with my fist so hard that the screen flips up. The six year olds crack up so much that I’ve seen them fall to the floor. The eighth graders think I’ve messed up and cringe with embarrassment. It took me a month of practice to find just the right stroke to get screen apocalypse. I’m doing it on purpose, but don’t tell the kids.
I’ve done such demos for so many school classes and other groups that I’ve lost count at 8,000 times. When I heard the news about Sandy Hook, I had to pull my car off to the side of the road. Ten thousand first-grade faces flashed before my eyes.
Perhaps those kids will live another 90 years to live to inspire the lives of others. Or perhaps, as recent events prove, there lives will be but a shimmering, glimmering instant in a cosmos old beyond measure.
The best Christmas gift that we can provide is not a new Nintendo or Xbox. It is simply to be there. We must provide them a safe place of shelter. We must keep them warm and feed them. But after that is done, we must feed their souls with knowledge. Hunger and want will break their bodies. Ignorance will break their spirits.
Do something special with a child this holiday season. Ice skate. Walk around the neighborhood and sing carols. Launch a balloon. Show them the stars. Dance with joy that you are still on the planet.
In our case at Perkins, we must, all of us, dedicate ourselves to showing those children the wonder and majesty of the universe they live in and are an integral part of. It is our duty — and as I hope you all will come to understand if you don’t already — our greatest joy.
Merry Christmas. Happy holidays. Joyous Kwanzaa. Shalom. Allahu Akbar. Om. May your winter-solstice celebration be filled with peace and joy, and may it be spent with children.
We are all traveling through space on a tiny spaceship, an island of beauty, a speck of rock hurtling through a dark and dangerous void. We are all members of the same race, the human race. Let’s start acting like it.
Tom Burns is the director of Perkins Observatory. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.