Kids are awesome. Recently I visited a primary school as part of the scientists in schools program. I was there to tell them all about space and the solar system – which is not my professional area of expertise, but let’s face it, I am a total space nerd. As they all came trundling in I was a bit nervous, having never dealt with such a large group of children before. Almost immediately they began asking questions.
“Have you ever done any experiments in space?”
“Have you ever met Neil Armstrong?”
“I heard that Venus is hotter than Mercury, why is that?”
I was blown away. Instead of being disinterested and bored they were absolutely brimming with curiosity before I had even begun to show them anything.
And then the presentation started. I had Celestia, a space simulation program in which you can see all of the planets and fly or zoom around them, up on a projector. First I showed them the sun, and they gasped at seeing what it looks like up close. I showed them the sunspots, I showed them mercury, the innermost planet, and proceeded to go through the planets and their moons one by one.
Every sight was met with exclamations. “ooohhs” and “aahhhhhs” and “wooooaahhhhs”. The kids were so vocal, so uninhibited with their reactions that it filled me with awe. Somewhere along the way most of us adults lose that, which is a shame. I was reminded of my recent visit to the Australian Synchrotron, which awestruck myself and the other members of the tour. Yet awestruck as we were, there were very few audible exclamations from us. I didn’t exclaim when I learnt that the electrons are sped up to 99.99% the speed of light in only the first few metres, and the whole rest of the accelerator is just for pouring more energy into them, causing them to gain mass instead. I didn’t exclaim when I learnt that the whole floor we stood on floated in isolation from the rest of the building, to prevent minute vibrations from affecting the experiment. I did exclaim when I learnt that they have a computer system set up that is so fast it can react to changes in the electron beam before it comes around again for another circuit. Thankfully I haven’t lost all of my childhood wonder!
After the first ten minutes of talking with the kids I was getting overwhelmed with questions, so I had to press on and save them for the end, which was difficult. At times the class got so noisy their teacher had to interject to calm them down, but they weren’t being noisy because they were misbehaving, they were being noisy because they were interested and excited.
I did get a little worried after a question on supernovae, when a girl in the front row asked if our sun could ever explode. I said that it might be possible (though now I realize I was wrong about that), and the look of horror and fear that crossed her face really upset me. She seemed a little comforted by my quick assertion that it wouldn’t happen for billions of years, but I worry that I gave her nightmares. Still, it could have been worse, I actually considered telling her that she would be dead long before the sun would become a problem. Thankfully I thought better of it before opening my mouth!
Eventually we got all the way to Pluto (which they were especially interested in due to it’s demotion from planetary status) and had a little time left over. The kids were full of curiosity and some even managed to stump me with their insightful questions, which shows how intelligent they were. The whole experience was really rewarding, and I can’t wait to go back next term.