Conveying science

I’ve been placed in the fortunate position of working with teens who need help. They’ve all dealt with drug issues and are trying to rehab while maturing and learning. I help in both areas, but I especially enjoy helping in the second realm.

Many of these kids have been out of school for years, so as a result they’ve missed quite a bit in life and formal education. In fact, even if they were in school, they probably have missed out on a lot of what I want to tell them. For instance, while in front of a world map, I told one kid a few basic geography facts while conveying the historic and biological significance of the Galapagos Islands. He really enjoyed it, learning it for the first time. He even enthusiastically told his peers what I told him, emphasizing how big the tortoises are on the island. But what really struck me was how interested another kid was in some basic facts about the Universe. I started by showing him this picture I’ve posted before:

This is an image taken near Saturn. The little blurry dot outside the rings on the right is Earth. A zoom of Earth is seen in the top left. It’s a great picture that really puts things into perspective quite simply. Showing it to this other person, I was genuinely impressed with the fact that he was blown away by the obvious insignificance of Earth and human life. I didn’t need to lead him to my world view.

I followed up on the image by telling him about light waves and the fact that when he sees starlight, he is actually looking into the past. Soon another “client” (I hate that word) joined us before “lights out” (aka., bed time) and I told them both about some scale-related facts, i.e., big numbers about the Universe. Not only did they love it, but I felt fantastic about it all. I love conveying science. In fact, they and I are both pretty excited about continuing the talk next week. Here’s the video I plan on showing them:

I think this is all great, from the video and beyond. These are basic facts about the Universe – everything is 13.7 billion years old, Earth is 4.6 billion years old, life has been around for 3.9 billion years, Earth is relatively insignificant, especially when compared to stars. It is extremely important that people have this frame of reference; I was so glad that, without any input from me, one client said he couldn’t imagine that there wasn’t other intelligent life in the Universe. I was more than happy to add my two cents. I mean, of course there is other life. There are too many stars, too many planets, too many opportunities. Other life is there. And his mind is already there – which makes sense. Anyone who has any degree of honesty and is fortunate enough to come to any degree of understanding necessarily recognizes how insignificant this pale blue dot is in the wide scheme of things.

I plan on more science talk, but I think the best thing I can do for these kids is bring them outside at night. If it happens to be a clear enough night, staring at the stars and contemplating the very basics of the Universe might be more than any drug rehab program can ever do.

300,000,000,000,000,000,000,000

That’s the number of stars – 300 sextillion – scientists now estimate to be in the observable Universe.

The research, led by Yale astronomer Pieter van Dokkum, is being published by the journal Nature. In an interview with Space.com, von Dokkum said the findings are based on data gathered when the researchers were analyzing “red dwarfs” — stars that are dimmer than our sun and much smaller.

The “faint signatures” of those red dwarfs in eight galaxies “located between about 50 million and 300 million light-years away,” led to the new calculation of how many stars are out there, Space.com writes.

This has also led von Dokkum to speculate that there are likely trillions of Earth-like planets out there. This makes sense given the mundane nature of our solar system. Why wouldn’t there be more planets like ours? And life on those planets? We may be locally rare, but on the scale of the Universe only arrogance could say we’re likely to be exclusive inhabitants.