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A collaboration over too much coffee.
coffee and pen

24 November, 2004

The Universe According to Kids

Speaking to children with serious expectant faces, about the space travel and our solar system can either be a daunting task or a trifle… depending on how one approaches it. For me it was the former because diluting my talk to a level where 10 to 14 year old kids can understand the complexities of the Galileo Mission to Jupiter and its findings, seemed like a topic that had been eating chunks of my brain off for days. I decided to improvise according to their response.

The dreaded moment arrived and I started the power point presentation. It was a huge relief, as the talk progressed, to realize that kids who sign up for a model making workshop to produce a strikingly realistic model of the satellite that NASA designed, curiously the whole model was also from NASA, have to be familiar with planets and their moons. So Io, Callisto, Europa and Ganymede were not entirely unknown to them. Some had even seen close-up images, and some had information to offer too -pretty accurate information at that.

As I plodded through the entire solar system, and focused on Jupiter and its mysterious Red Spot and its many moons, curious faces sparkled and shone with question marks superimposed on their pretty little heads. Twenty-two eager kids, perhaps the brightest from each school, with an impatience that flipped and flopped underneath their stiff postures, and shone through their iron-clad discipline. So I dropped the plan to allow them questions at the end of the two hour presentation –and the kaleidoscope of child-like queries, started churning out like a roaring volcano.

Looking back, I feel very proud of their unbridled imagination, the uncorrupted romance and the inquisitiveness that fuels the fire inside those minds… I encouraged them to ask me the silliest questions, and they stumped me with highly sensible ones! One little girl who looked barely 6, though she was 10 years old, Rucha, asked the sharpest queries and added the juiciest portions to the explanations. For instance she wanted to know if there was a possibility of life on the cold moon Europa, where scientists have suspected liquid water… due to heaving up and down of the thousands of kilometres of thick ice sheets, sometimes cracking up.

I said it may be possible for organisms that thrive on anything but oxygen to survive in these inhospitable climes –don’t we have trees and micro-organisms here that thrive on carbon dioxide? Methane consuming bacteria have also been found in deep seas. She then wanted to know, if micro-organisms could derive oxygen from water –and I had to admit yes, electrolysis is a process that does precisely that.

Why do the ice-sheets heave, she wanted to know. Because of multiple-pulls from the neighbouring satellites or Jupiter's other moons and also the huge planet itself which is a failed star. Had it been hotter and larger, it would have been a sun itself, I replied. Why did we abandon the spacecraft that worked for 14 years?
Well by then it was one third of what we had sent out... and it could have never
broken off from the huge gravitational pull. How did it die? Not by high temperature
as we think, but due to immense pressure... Jupiter exerts millions of time higher
pressure on object near it than the Earth does...

Other kids wanted to know about aliens and life on Jupiter or its planets. Many seemed excited obviously –so I had to explain how hot the gaseous planet is, and the lack of rocks or mountains or terrain… also ruling out life on planets due to their very cold and very hot atmospheres. A small boy then diverted us by asking is it true that aliens came to the earth to teach the Egyptians how to make the Sphinx. This brought back fond memories of intellectuals sipping coffee in canteen at the Medical College in Baroda, and of late night issue-based parties, with my internship-doctor friends whiling away the hours during the interminable night duty. I have a lot of stories to tell about those… but lets focus on Jupiter. Well, I had to explain about he excitement brought in by Eric Von Danniken – a Swiss archaeologist who has written probably seven or more books on this controversial topic. I am a diehard agnostic and I hate to contradict anyone who has an exciting hypothesis till it is proven correct or otherwise. The kids seemed a tad disappointed that aliens may not be peeping into our workshops and taking digital videos of the proceedings… but then Carl Sagan also asked why would anyone on our planet bother to teach the ants our alphabet? If the aliens are here, why would they bother to stop us from being at one another's throats all the time? It is up to us to.....

Don’t know how many will become astrophysicists or astronomers –but I had a sacred glimpse into the young psyche –and I was pleased as punch by the peek. I came away with the resolve to do this more often and rope in the grown-ups who have equally guileless queries and that spark of learning still burning bright inside. Like my close landscape artist friend Satish Patel now lost to the US of A, asked me when I wanted him to join a stargazers club : how can we afford to be ignorant man, under this wonderful night sky?



Blogger dinesh said...

Hey Max. Neat! The strange thing is- I started reading your piece thinking it was a science fiction story and only halfway realised that you were recounting an actual experience. Felt good to know the kids' interest in other worldly matters.
Cool Carl Sagan quote. Never heard that before.

25 November, 2004 13:09  
Blogger Max Babi said...

Hi Dinesh,
Carl Sagan, along with a Russian astronomer
at the peak of the Cold War, wrote a massive
book abt a 1000pages long, Is There Extra-
terrestrial Life? There was no internet,
no fax, no nothing...they plodded away at
their mechanical typewriters. Ishigorsky or
some such name... in that book he has said
this. Amazing man, Carl.


25 November, 2004 18:16  

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