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.

paper airplane and crumbs

Black Holes at Bedtime

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about “black holes.” As fellow space geeks probably know, a black hole is formed when a massive star burns out and collapses on itself. These mysterious cosmic vacuum cleaners have so much gravitational sucking power that even light can’t escape them. (To learn some cool things about black holes, and help you visualize how something very small could have gobs of gravity, I’d recommend this well-made video.)

Normally, I don’t devote much thought to “black holes,” except, of course as a useful metaphor for my career or life, when things go horribly wrong. Anyway, black holes play an important role in a bedtime story I recently read to my kids, Finian (age 7) and Olivia (age 3). This delightful blend of fact and fiction is called George’s Secret Key to the Universe, written by Lucy Hawking, and her famous physicist father, Stephen Hawking (seen here in his cameo on The Simpsons.)

The fictional part of this book is the story of a boy named George who meets his new neighbor, a girl named Annie, and discovers that her scientist father has the world’s most advanced, superintelligent computer, named Cosmos. Of course, this sci-fi thriller features a villain who wants to get his hands on this computer, and use it for his own nefarious purposes. Interspersed throughout the story, are plenty of full-color photos of planets, moons, galaxies, exploding stars and more. There are also fact-pages woven through the text, which give statistics about various planets and other astronomy topics. The writer and editors of George’s Key were wise to not cram too many facts into the dialogue. This kind of approach rarely works as the tone becomes less about characters and conflict, and more about facts that are “good for you.” My kids really were gripped by George’s adventures, and appreciated the whimsical illustrations by Garry Parsons. They were less enthusiastic about the factual sidebars. I’d be reading along and say, “Hey, do you want to learn more about real asteroid belts before we continue?” Invariably, they responded, “Just read the story, Daddy.”

Without giving away too much of the plot, one of the adult characters has vanished—and the heroes suspect that he is trapped in a black hole. George and Annie have to read Annie’s father’s notes about black holes in order to save the day. One chapter answers, in kid-friendly terms, questions like: What is a black hole? How is a black hole made? What happens if you fall into a black hole? Can you ever get out of a black hole? Most of the simplified explanation of black holes went over my children’s heads. My son Finian, who loves doing water experiments in the bathtub, did make an insightful comparison between his homemade whirlpools and the black holes way out in space. (Hey, did you know that there’s a massive black hole in the middle of our Milky Way galaxy?)

I’ll leave you with one of the more surprising things about black holes. Astronomers knew about black holes probably 50 years before they became known by the general public. Why? For decades, “black holes” lacked a catchy name. They were known instead as “gravitationally completely collapsed objects.” (Can you say that three times fast?)

The “black hole” got an enormous marketing boost from the distinguished American physicist John Wheeler, who frequently wrote and lectured about this phenomenon. Based on some quick research, I learned that Wheeler didn’t coin the term “black hole” himself, but was one of its champions.

Hope the rest of your summer is a “big bang”!

JDB

paper airplane and crumbs