Space odysseys at local schools
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Space odysseys at local schools

Schechter students quiz Hubble astrophysicst on far-out matters

At the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County, educators like to stress the importance of asking questions (or “inquiry-based learning” in the educational jargon).

Last Friday, the questions – or at least the answers – spanned 18 billion years in 60 minutes.

The New Milford school was hosting a celebrity scientist – Mario Livio, a senior astrophysicist at the Hubble Space Telescope Science Institute and author of several books on physics and math for a popular audience. Livio was raised and educated in Israel, and began his career teaching at the Technion there – which is where Schechter’s head of school Ruth Gafni came to know him – before coming to America to work on the Hubble.

Livio displayed an image of the Helix Nebula – a ring of gas 2.5 light years in diameter, about 650 light years from earth in the constellation Aquarius – to a room full of eager third, fourth, and fifth graders.

Livio’s formal presentation was brief. He described the orbiting Hubble telescope in a couple of sentences. He averred that he usually spoke to an older audience. “I’m not that used to speaking to children of your age group,” he said. And he explained that the beautiful colored nebula projected on the screen had been thrown off by the star at the center, whose radiation now illuminated the gas and created the beauty.

Then he asked for questions.

Dozens of hands went up.

After fielding a couple questions about life in outer space – “No, we have not found life anywhere else yet. But we have found organic materials, the things bacteria are made of. Those we have found in lots of places” – he called on a child who returned to the picture of the nebula.

“What will happen to the earth when the sun does that?” the child asked.

Livoi’s gentle delivery was never more in evidence than when he delivered the bad news:

“The earth actually will be scorched. All life will be extinguished, and the earth will fall into the sun,” he said. “But not to worry. That will not happen for another five billion years.”

Another question ranged backin time.

“What was before the Big Bang?” a girl asked.

“This is of course a very tough question,” Livio replied. “This young lady just told us that our universe – we think – started with a big bang, and time and space were created at the big bang. So she asked, what was before the big bang?

“Since time appeared at the big bang, there is no before, because ‘before’ assumes there is a time before that; since there was no time before that, there was no ‘before.’

“We know when the big bang happened. The big bang happened about 13.7 billion years ago. We know that number quite accurately, but there was no time before that,” he said.

Some of the questions were more childlike.

“Why do scientists wear lab coats?”

“Not all do. I don’t. Normally it’s the scientists who work with material that could make their clothes dirty. Scientists like me who sit in front of computer screens, we don’t wear lab coats.”

And some cut to the heart of what Livio sees as his educational message.

“How old were you when you first became a scientist?”

“It’s a somewhat tough question to answer,” he replied.

“I was always a very curious child. Curious children – you can almost say they are already scientists. They like to explore and find out about things.

“But to become a real working scientist you have to study a lot. When all was said and done, I was 30 when I became a working scientist. But in a sense you are already a scientist if you are curious now,” he said.

Livio had started his day at Schechter speaking to faculty members. After fielding questions from the elementary and middle school students, he was escorted to the first and second grade classrooms, where again he fielded questions. One first grader asked about Pluto’s demotion from planet status in 2006 – about a lifetime ago for him.

The question made the school’s director of academic affairs, Dan Jaye, very happy.

“To know that we have created an atmosphere here where a first grader is engaged in a conversation with an astrophysicist about whether Pluto deserves recognition as a planet puts smile on my face,” he said.

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