Thank you to Jeffrey Bennett, Ph.D, for contributing this article.
From dinosaurs to the stars, most young children are naturally excited about science. Unfortunately, that enthusiasm sometimes fades as kids grow older, especially if science has been taught to them in a dull way or is somehow perceived as being uncool. You can help restore your child’s enthusiasm by engaging in discussions about some of the most exciting ideas in science. There’s almost always some cool science in the news, but to help get you started, here are five of my favorite “mind-blowing” ideas from science. This set may inspire even elementary school kids, but should be especially helpful for those of you with tweens or teens.
1. If You Could Hold the Sun in Your Hand…
Imagine that we could shrink our solar system down to one ten-billionth of actual size, which would make the Sun about the size of a grapefruit. How big and where would Earth be? Remarkably, Earth would be only about 1 millimeter in diameter, or roughly the size of the period at the end of this sentence. This tiny dot orbits the grapefruit at a distance of 15 meters (16.5 yards), completing one orbit each year. The Moon — the farthest a human being has ever traveled — is only about 4 centimeters (2.5 inches) from Earth on this scale, which means you could fit the entire orbit of the Moon in the palm of your hand.
Meanwhile, the rest of the planets are spread out over a distance of some 600 meters (more than 1/3 mile) from the scaled Sun. How about the nearest star besides the Sun, or the next grapefruit on this scale? Incredibly, it would be some 4000 kilometers (2500 miles) away — the distance across the United States. Let’s put these ideas to work: Imagine that aliens really visit Earth in UFOs. Given that we’ve never traveled farther than the Moon, what kind of technology must they have to be traveling among the stars?
2. Counting Stars (and Planets)
Our Sun is just one of more than 100 billion stars in our Milky Way Galaxy. Now, “100 billion” is easy to say, but a little tougher to wrap your mind around. So let’s suppose you’re having trouble going to sleep tonight, and instead of counting sheep you decide to count stars. How long would it take you to count 100 billion of them? If we assume that you can count at a rate of one per second, then it would take 100 billion seconds — and if you do the math, you’ll find that this is more than 3,000 years! Moreover, based on recent data from the Kepler mission, we infer that most stars have planets, making it likely that there are some 100 billion Earth-like planets in our galaxy. Knowing that it would take more than 3,000 years just to count these worlds, let alone to study them in depth, what do you think about the likelihood of there being other life, or other intelligent life?
3. Black Holes Don’t Suck.
Imagine that the Sun magically collapsed, retaining the same mass but shrinking in size so much that it became a black hole. What would happen to Earth and the other planets? Ask almost anyone, and they’ll tell you confidently that the planets “would be sucked in.” But it’s simply not true. The Sun’s change would make Earth very cold and dark, but Earth’s orbit would remain essentially the same. So what do black holes really do? For a quick taste of the reality, imagine watching a former friend falling into (which is different from being “sucked into”) a black hole. As your friend approaches the black hole’s “event horizon,” you’ll notice her time slowing down — for example, her heart beats will come farther apart — and light coming from her will become more and more redshifted (from white light to red light to infrared to radio). In fact, from your point of view, time will come to a stop at the event horizon, which means she’ll never actually reach it, though she’ll fade from view due to the increasing redshift. But from her point of view, she’ll barrel straight down through the event horizon in a very short time. What do you think she’ll see?
4. We Make the Universe Self-Aware.
The vast scale and amazing phenomena of the universe may make us seem small and insignificant, but there’s another way to look at it. As far as we know, we are the only piece of the universe that has any idea that the rest of the universe exists. Moreover, a common thread among nearly all philosophies and theologies is that a key purpose of life is to become truly self-aware. So in this sense, we may actually be of the utmost significance to the universe, because after 14 billions of cosmic evolution, it is through our brain power that the universe has finally achieved self-awareness. Given this fact, what is our responsibility to the universe?
5. The Greenhouse Effect Makes Life Possible.
Turning to a more pressing topic, global warming is one of the most significant threats we face, and it is driven by something called the “greenhouse effect,” in which carbon dioxide (and other greenhouse gases) make a planet warmer than it would be otherwise. But the greenhouse effect is not in itself a bad thing; in fact, without the naturally occurring greenhouse effect, our planet would be far too cold for life as we know it. Of course, just because the greenhouse effect is a good thing for life and humanity doesn’t mean that more would be better. Just ask Venus: With a thick carbon dioxide atmosphere, Venus has a greenhouse effect so strong that it bakes its surface hotter than a pizza oven — providing clear proof that it is possible to have too much of a good thing. What is your plan for solving the problem of global warming?
Dr. Jeffrey Bennett (www.jeffreybennett.com) is the founder of Big Kid Science and the author of five children’s books–including the first children’s books to be launched to the International Space Station as a part of the new literacy program Story Time From Space. He also writes textbooks and books for adults—his most recent being On Teaching Science. He lives in Boulder, Colorado.
- Learn about the Voyage scale model solar system, located in several cities including Washington, DC, Houston, and Kansas City, which shows the solar system on this scale. Link: http://www.jeffreybennett.com/model-solar-systems/voyage-scale-model-solar-system/
- Try a few activities to learn more about the scale of the universe. Link: http://www.jeffreybennett.com/pdf/Scale_Activities.pdf
- Discussion of what science really tells us about extraterrestrial: see my book Beyond UFOs (Princeton University Press)
- Discussion of black holes and Einstein’s theory of relativity: see my book What is Relativity? (Columbia University Press)
- Video and article summarizing the science of global warming: www.globalwarmingprimer.com