Teaching Kids the Power of Perspective (READY JET GO!)

One of my most thrilling moments as an Educational Consultant for kids TV happened yesterday. I watched an especially remarkable episode of READY JET GO!, a PBS science series I’ve worked on for a number of years.

ReadyJetGo-team

READY JET GO!’s educational mission is to build on children’s wonder and curiosity about astronomy and earth science via entertaining, funny stories that teach the basics about the planets, moons, stars, asteroids, comets and so on. The premise of the series is that an alien boy named Jet Propulsion has come to Earth from Bortron 7, a distant planet in the Milky Way, with his parents who are intergalactic travel writers. (It’s catchy opening theme song can be enjoyed here.)

The thing with animated programs is that they often take many months to produce, so an early draft of a script I would review takes a year to be presented on air. The episode that knocked my socks off yesterday is called “The Tiny Blue Dot.” This episode addresses the concept of “perspective.” Young children, as you know, can be very self-centered. It takes effort and maturity for kids to see beyond themselves, and have some compassion for the broader world. So, one of the learning goals of the series is to inspire children to think of Earth from a broader point of view, and to realize that our own Sun is actually a star—one of billions in the Milky Way galaxy (which is just one of more than a 100 billion galaxies in the universe)

While looking back at some old script notes I wrote, back in 2014, I found that I had suggested to the writers that we teach young children the word “perspective.” The episode I watched yesterday, entitled “The Tiny Blue Dot” (which is available via Amazon and YouTube for free for subscribers, or a small fee) was inspired by a photo taken in 1990 by NASA’s Voyager 1. As this famous space probe flew to the outer reaches of our solar system, it took a photo of Earth from that distant “perspective.” In it, Earth is just a tiny “pale blue dot” which Carl Sagan eloquently spoke about. He wistfully comments about this distant view of Earth: “On it, everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives.”

Inspired by Sagan’s words, RJG series creator Craig Bartlett and composer Jim Lang wrote a beautiful, touching, song “Tiny Blue Dot,” sung by Jet’s parents and the other characters as they look at our planet, billions of miles away. HERE IT IS! Please enjoy and share it with the little “Earthies” that live in your home.

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SCIENCE STUNTS: Dr. Dazz, Olivia and More

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Calling all curious kids! My latest book SCIENCE STUNTS explores the magic of science—and the science of magic. Sci-fi writer and inventor Arthur C. Clarke wrote “Magic’s just science that we don’t understand yet.” Some science tricks today would have seemed like witchcraft hundreds of years ago. (Tangent: Check out this amazing, true story of how famous magician Robert Houdin actually stopped a rebellion using the science of electromagnetism.)  As a child, I loved performing magic shows at birthday parties as “The Great Jordini.” Around that time, I also became fascinated with science experiments that had a big razzle-dazzle factor. So, when I was asked to write a kids science book that showcases the fun side of physics, I jumped at the opportunity. I did a bunch of research to find an engaging collection of science explorations that illustrate physical phenomena such as gravity, motion, heat, magnets, sound, light, and electricity. I was thrilled when my CRAZY CONCOCTIONS illustrator Anthony Owsley agreed to create wonderfully wacky illustrations again.

The book is hosted by Dr. Dazzleberry (“Dr. Dazz,” to those in the know), a physicist and magician who wears a rhinestone-studded tuxedo. He was inspired by some of my heroes, including Neil deGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye, and Penn Jillette. To help Dr. Dazz explain “The Science Behind the Stunt,” I created cartoon versions of Isaac Newton, Galileo, and Albert Einstein. (In the Acknowledgments I had fun telling this talented trio: “If there are any errors between these covers, I blame you guys for not jumping in a time machine and correcting them.”)

My daughter Olivia, to whom this book is dedicated, graciously agreed to demo some of the experiments from the book in a series of YouTube videos. Take it away, Olivia!!!

Wooden Block Tower

Laser Light Bend-o-Rama

Fire and Ice

 

 

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The Day I Met Leonard Nimoy

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Last week, I was deeply saddened to hear of Leonard Nimoy’s passing. Ever since I discovered the original Star Trek series when I was in 4th grade in the early 1970s, I have found his varied and illustrious career “fascinating” (as a certain alter ego might say.) As a kid, my friends and I spent many hours transforming my bedroom into the Enterprise, and building models of ST spaceships, phasers, communicators and tricorders. I knew what the acronym IDIC stood for, and even got a kick out of Nimoy’s and Shatner’s infamous “Golden Throats” recordings. Later, I eagerly followed Nimoy’s career as a hosted “In Search Of…” and appeared in the 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and directed a bunch of entertaining movies, Trek-related and otherwise.

In March 1980, I had the delightful pleasure of meeting a mustachioed Leonard Nimoy in person. Even though my home was in Buffalo, NY, I was living in Athens, Georgia at the time because my father was on sabbatical at the University of Georgia. My parents had read that  Nimoy would be appearing in Vincent, a one-man show about Vincent van Gogh in Atlanta, and eagerly got our family tickets! Several weeks before seeing the play, I decided to write him a fan letter. My Grandpa Milton was always writing letters to people he admired and frequently got replies. So what did I have to lose? In my letter to Nimoy, I gushed about my admiration for his work, shared that we both were born in the Boston area, and even composed a limerick in his honor (which I still remember by heart):

An actor named Leonard Nimoy

Is as famous as Helen of Troy.

This time, he appears

Without pointed ears,

The image of Spock to destroy.

I also send him a picture of my 16-year-old self, and told him I couldn’t wait to see his play (and I happened to mention the matinee I’d be attending.) The day of the show, my family and I were milling about the lobby, waiting to enter the theater. The house manager walked up to me and said, “Are you Jordan Brown?” When I confirmed I was, he said, “Oh, good. Mr. Nimoy would like to meet you after the show.”

I was stunned and delighted. As promised, I went backstage after the performance, and was escorted to Nimoy’s dressing room. I mentioned to him that I was thinking of becoming an actor, and that I was visiting Georgia for the year because of my father’s sabbatical. He asked what my father taught, and I said, “mathematics.” Nimoy replied with a smile, “Oh, that should be very helpful for your acting career.” I can’t recall much of our conversation but I did get his autograph (see below), and continued to admire him for the rest of his life and career.

 

LNautograph

 

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The Fun Side of Physics – 2 New Books!

Exciting news for young scientists! Simon & Schuster just published two children’s books I wrote for their new Science of Fun Stuff series.The Thrills and Chills of Amusement Parks and The Innings and Outs of Baseball. Both books are aimed at kids in Grades 1-4, and are filled with silly illustrations, and loads of fascinating facts.

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The Thrills and Chills of Amusement Parks helps kids understand the basic physics behind roller coasters, bumper cars, and “step-right-up” midway games. This book also presents the sweet, sweet chemistry behind cotton candy. (If you check out this link on Amazon, you can peek at the inside the first chapter.) To help readers grasp “the forces behind the fun,” I explain Isaac Newton’s famous laws of motion and ideas about gravity, and show how they relate to the sciences of “Ahhhhhh!” “Whoooa!” and “I think I’m going to be sick!” The last section features amusement park trivia and a quiz.

 

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The Innings and Outs of Baseball explores the physics of homeruns, curveballs, the “sweet spot” of a bat and more. Readers learn such cool facts as the ball’s stitches rub against the air as they hurl through it—which causes friction and helps it fight the pull of gravity. Why is this important? For one thing, if baseballs didn’t have stitches that cause air resistance, then hitting a homerun wouldn’t be possible! A chapter on baseball experiments describes how scientists study superstar hitters, and even created robots that can pitch and hit. The last section features information about the history of baseball and a quiz.

 

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If I Had a Banjo: R.I.P. Pete Seeger

If I Had a Banjo: R.I.P. Pete Seeger

A couple days ago, one of my all-time heroes Pete Seeger died, after 94 remarkable years. After a lifetime of creating music, fighting for the underdog, and bringing people together, Pete’s “get up and go got up and went.” (Thanks to YouTube, here’s a clip of him singing this funny song)

The only good thing about his passing is that it provides me with an occasion to sing his praises. As a musician, storyteller, activist, and educator, Pete was a fascinating and phenomenal force of nature. Last September, I had the great fortune to see one of his last concerts in Peekskill, New York. In addition to singing such classics as “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” he dazzled the audience with his rendition of “English is Crazy” which points out some quirks of the English language, such as “if a vegetarian eats vegetables, what does a humanitarian eat” and “why do we have noses that run and feet that smell?” For the whole song, go here.

But I digress (yet another talent that Pete was good at.) Before I went to see Pete last September, I read through a fascinating book, In His Own Words, a collection of miscellaneous letters, articles, etc. that Pete wrote over his lifetime. Most surprising was an interview he gave to Seventeen magazine in 1963, when he was 44 years old.  Well worth checking out!

About eight years before that interview, when Pete was 36, he was asked to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. I loved reading the transcript of his testimony, which became public not too long ago. He humbly told the committee that he was just a “banjo picker,” and that he refused to answer any questions concerning his “associations, philosophy or religion.” Pete’s tenacity, wit, and integrity are so inspiring.

Pete’s passion and joyful music holds a permanent place in my heart and soul.

Bye, Pete. You’ll be missed!

 

 

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Remembering Tanner: Such a Good Dog

Tanner in his favorite chair

[WARNING: For a blog entry, the following is long. So grab a cup of your favorite beverage and sit back. At least I managed to avoid the overused, odious phrase “A dog’s tale.”)

It seemed a lot longer, but Tanner was only with our family for 972 days. Tanner was the beloved beagle we adopted from Pets Alive, a no-kill animal shelter that strives to find “forever homes” for abandoned dogs, cats, horses, pigs, and other destitute creatures. For two and a half years, Tanner bought immeasurable joy to our lives. On May 17, at the young age of 7¾, Tanner died due to kidney disease. In honor of our laying down his gravestone this weekend, I wanted share some memories of how he impacted our lives.

Tanner was hardly a puppy when we got him. According to his records, Tanner was five years old. (If you believe in the concept of “dog years,” Tanner and I were the same age last fall—and I would kindly implore you to not do the math.) Pets Alive had rescued Tanner from a large dog pound in North Carolina, where he was scheduled to be put to death via gas chamber, a process that many animal advocates consider heartless and inhumane.  Our veterinarian suspected that Tanner had probably been a hunting dog, who was no longer considered useful to his people.

Before this gets too depressing, let me get to the reason I’m writing about Tanner now—to celebrate and honor our time with him. Before these details fade from memory, I want to share some stories about his marvelous life with us. As a parent of two, I also want to talk about how having a pet die turned out to be meaningful, powerful experience for my children.

Beagles and Burgers

On September 18, 2010, we went to Pets Alive to meet Tanner. (That was the name he came with, and we kept it, figuring the poor guy had enough dramatic changes in his five years. We might have thought differently had he been named “Manson” or “Dahmer.”) My wife Ellen, eager to get a beagle, had spotted Tanner’s photo on Petfinder.com. From the moment we took him for a walk, we knew that he was the one. He was bursting with energy and playfulness. On the way home, our first stop was lunch at Wendy’s. No dogs are allowed inside, of course, so we dressed up Tanner as a human and…  (Just kidding, wanted to see if you were paying attention.) We actually went through the drive-thru, and parked near a picnic table, so Tanner could wolf down a burger (minus the bun).

Tanner riding in the car with Finian and Olivia

When we got home, the kids took Tanner in our yard to play. We kept him on a leash, because we live in a woodsy area, and were worried that a deer or squirrel would catch our new dog’s attention—and he’d run off forever. My sister Sharon, a vet, said that beagles are famous for becoming distracted outside. She described a beagle’s philosophy in four words: “Nose down, brain off.”

For Ellen and me, one of the joys of having a dog is letting him or her sleep at the bottom of the bed at night. It took several weeks for Tanner to feel comfortable doing this. Given his previous life, we wondered if he had ever slept inside. For weeks, when we tried to go to sleep with him, he’d leap off the bed and jump up on bedroom chairs, sniffing out the window. Gradually, however, Tanner learned to love lying at the foot of our bed with us.

Dr. Kate’s Shocking News

About two months after we’d adopted Tanner, he developed a hacking cough, and seemed to have troubles walking. I took him to our local vet, known to all as “Dr. Kate,” and she ran some blood tests. She was concerned that he might have Lyme disease, quite common in our area. When the tests were completed, she came into the room where I was playing with Tanner. She asked, “How much are you attached to this dog?” I responded, “What? What are you talking about?” She explained that Tanner’s blood tests showed that he had heartworm! She didn’t know how advanced it was, but if left untreated, he would be dead in a matter of months. Dr. Kate said that she didn’t mean to be harsh, but she wondered if it might be best for us to return Tanner to Pets Alive, and get a healthier dog. No way!! Our home was Tanner’s “forever home.” But his having heartworm presented a mystery. His paperwork from Pets Alive showed that he tested negative for the disease, and we had faithfully given him his heartworm meds. After consulting with my sister, the vet, Dr. Kate figured out what had happened. Tanner had contracted heartworm (transmitted via mosquitoes) down South, prior to his being rescued by Pets Alive. There were roundworms growing inside Tanner’s lungs, and other vital body parts. Since the disease was in the early stages, it had not shown up in the bloodwork beforehand. Dr. Kate and Sharon discussed his case, and determined that there was hope. With careful planning and expensive injections, Tanner could be parasite-free in a couple of months. So, we went through the treatment, and Tanner dodged the bullet! We figured he’d live to a ripe, old age with us.

Doggie Heaven on Earth

Every summer, for the last twenty years or so, Ellen and I have visited the same beach in Kennebunk, Maine. Known as Gooch’s Beach, it might be better be called Pooch’s Beach. That’s because before 9 am and after 5 pm, dogs are allowed to roam free there with their owners. Dogs get to fetch balls, run with abandon, sniff new friends, and even frolic in the ocean. Here’s a picture of Tanner on the surf. We’re headed back to Maine in August, and we will miss having him with us on the sand.

Tanner in Maine (Gooch's Beach)

A few months after we got Tanner, my son discovered another one of our dog’s favorite things to do. Finian would lie on the ground and gently bring Tanner on top of him, as if Tanner were the all-powerful Alpha Dog. Tanner would wag his tail uncontrollably and lick Finian’s face for what seemed like forever. I’m so glad I was able to capture such a moment in this photo.

Tanner "dominates" Finian

Tanner’s Last Days

In March of 2013, Tanner was experiencing back pain. He’d yelp sometimes when we picked him up, and didn’t seem himself. So, I took him to Dr. Kate for a checkup. She checked him for Lyme (tests were negative), and examined his various vertebrae. She discovered he had one sensitive area, but didn’t want to start steroids unless absolutely necessary. She suggested that we give Tanner aspirin, and let him take it easy.

But the problem didn’t go away. Several weeks later, Sharon suggested Dr. Kate ran some blood tests to see what was going on. It turned out that Tanner’s kidneys were in bad shape, and that it was critical he be put on an IV as soon as possible. Dr. Kate said the costs could be high, and recommended we bring Tanner to my sister’s vet hospital in New Jersey right away. Panicked, I took the kids out of school, packed up Tanner, and we were off.

Sharon, a holistic vet, kept Tanner for a couple weeks. She ran numerous tests to try to figure out what was going on. It seemed as though his kidneys were barely working. In addition to putting Tanner on an IV, she gave him acupuncture, which he enjoyed. She prepared him special foods (which he nibbled at), and administered fluids to flush his kidneys daily.

Once his condition stabilized, we returned to my sister’s home to bring Tanner home. When Tanner saw me, he barked, wagged his tail, and even did that cute lying-on-top-of-me thing described above.

Sharon then gave me a long list of the meds I would need to give him. The most dramatic change was that I would have to give him subcutaneous fluids—twice a day—for the rest of his life. In other words, I’d have to inject a needle under his skin twice a day and let IV fluids drain into his body. It was sort of like doggie dialysis—since his kidneys could no longer flush the toxins out of his body. I felt squeamish at first, but wanted to do anything to help Tanner feel better and stay alive.

Tanner hung on for another couple weeks, but then stopped eating. We knew things were bad when I drove him to McDonald’s and bought him a burger, and he sniffed at it, but didn’t try eating it. He didn’t seem in pain, but he seemed perpetually uncomfortable. I would lift him up to his favorite chair, and he would “ask” to be taken down.

After talking it over with Ellen, we decided there was only one thing to do. On Thursday, May 16, I called Dr. Kate’s office to schedule an appointment to have Tanner euthanized the following day. (This humane process is described in piece I wrote for Sesame Workshop about our previous dog, Satchmo.)

That afternoon, I put Tanner in the car, and picked up Finian and Olivia at school. With tears, I told them the very sad news: It was Tanner’s last day with us. At the playground at school, Tanner found a cool spot in the grass and relaxed on the ground with Finian. The kids petted him and told him how much they loved him. It was clear from Tanner’s eyes that he was not feeling well. He wasn’t wagging, he wasn’t licking. His spark was gone.

Tanner and his boy on his last day

That night, the whole family spent their last hours with him. At bedtime, Tanner made his usual rounds, first going to Olivia’s room, then Finian’s, and finally ours. Ellen got home from work late that night and cuddled with Tanner on our bed. I had troubles sleeping, worrying about having to bring him to the vet the following day. I knew that Tanner was quite ill but wondered if maybe, just maybe, we might do something to extend his life a little longer. Was it really time to say goodbye?

When Ellen and I woke up early the next day, we discovered that Tanner’s body was stiff. He had died peacefully in his sleep. When the kids awoke, they got to see his lifeless body, and give him one last pet. His bodily fluids were starting to leak, so I wrapped him up in a blanket and plastic bag, and put him in our garage to keep his body cool until that evening. Shortly before sundown, after I had a chance to dig a grave on our property, next to Satchmo’s, our family gathered to bid our final respects. We buried him along with some of his favorite toys. Finian and Olivia each wrote him a note, which we also put in the grave.

Once he was buried, we debated what words to put on his gravestone. We finally settled on something we’d say to him, when we were cuddling with him:

Tanner's gravestone

Bye, Tanner. We miss you!

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Rave Review for CRAZY CONCOCTIONS

Happy Holidays! I was delighted to discover that a kids chemistry book I recently wrote, CRAZY CONCOCTIONS, was reviewed in Science magazine. Spread the word to any young mad scientists you know. But please don’t tell Dr. Fickleschmutz.

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