A Letter from a Third Grader

Late last week, I got a letter from a third grader. It was pretty random—his school is in Pennsylvania, and I’m not exactly Neil deGrasse Tyson. However, in the age of the internet, I guess if you were looking for people who teach or study astronomy, you might turn up my name. In any case, here’s an excerpt from his letter:

We are learning about the solar system. One thing we learned is that Mercury has no atmosphere. I would like to ask you some questions. First, how did you become interested in learning about space? Also, why do you think there are planets? Last, what is your favorite planet and why?

If anyone is interested, I’ll post my actual letter back to him later, which I’m still working on. It’s surprisingly hard for me to write to a third grader; I’m not used to communicating with kids that age, so I’m trying hard to strike that difficult balance between taking him seriously (not talking down to him), but not talking over his head. In other words, I’m attempting to get into the head of my third-grade self, which although it’s buried pretty deep is still there.

It helps that I remember how I got interested in space: Voyager 2. The space shuttles were cool and all, and of course I wanted to be an astronaut (when I didn’t want to be a paleontologist), but there was something truly awesome about seeing the pictures of Jupiter and its moons (Io and Europa especially) in National Geographic. The Saturn pictures a few years later had a similar effect, and I hope kids that age are finding their way to photos from the Cassini-Huygens probe, which are 10 times cooler than Voyager’s images. I think happily about how much truly wonderful information is available now. In an era of increased public anti-science sentiment and “No Child Left Behind” misguided educational policies, I’m happy kids have more science than ever to inspire them whether or not they pursue a scientific career down the road.

9 responses to “A Letter from a Third Grader”

  1. This is just so cool.
    I think you should tell him to look up Thierry Legault, the French astrophotographer:

    But writing to a third grader is really hard work, just as teaching any children. It is challenging even if you talk to them every day, because their thoughts are so different than our own.

    1. Writing the response is very difficult, though I did decide which planet I’ll list as my favorite (everyone will have to wait for the sequel blog post).

      Thanks for reminding me about Legault—I’ve added his page to the links for this site.

  2. […] Science Vs. Pseudoscience A Blog of Science and What Lies Beneath « A Letter from a Third Grader […]

  3. […] already told part of the story through my interactions with the third-grader who wrote to me (part 1 and part 2). The short version is that when I was young, I was fascinated by the pictures taken by […]

  4. […] intervene from so great a distance—this is a remarkable feat. I’m unabashedly a fan of robotic exploration, and so even though planets are not my area I follow missions like this with a lot of excitement. I […]

  5. […] particularly excited about is the Juno probe, to be launched this August. Back in the winter, I got a letter from a third grader asking (in part) what my favorite planet is. I demurred a bit with him — I can’t say I […]

  6. […] a lot less dense than our rocky planet. The best images and data we have about it still are from Voyager 2, which visited in 1989, before most of my current astronomy students were […]

  7. […] a lot, and also used it as an example in the letter I wrote to a young child who asked me about my interest in space. However, sentimentality makes for poor science. Fomalhaut b may yet prove to be a planet, though […]

  8. […] also have such a ridge, but there aren’t any sufficiently good images of that moon right now. Voyager 2 is the only probe to have visited Uranus, and its flight path wasn’t aligned to get shots of […]

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