A Letter from a Third Grader, Part 2: My Response

Science is a joyful endeavor. Not always, and maybe not even most of the time, but let’s face it: at heart, scientists are still little kids, endlessly curious about the world and always exploring, always asking why. One of the criticisms pseudoscientists and anti-science types make of scientists is that we’re soulless and heartless, that our explorations bleed the joy and wonder out of life, but my experience is the opposite. Knowing more reveals the universe to be a wonderful place, full of interesting and marvelous things.

That’s the pep talk I basically gave myself before I wrote my response to the third grader who sent me a letter last week:

Dear [name removed],

Thank you for your letter. I’m glad to hear you’re learning interesting things about the Solar System. I teach astronomy classes at the college where I work, so I always try to learn new things about our universe every time I teach the class. One thing I love about astronomy is that you don’t need a telescope or a lot of expensive things to enjoy our universe: you just need to go outside and look up.

I first became interested in space when I was a little younger than you. There was a space probe called Voyager 2 that was sent to explore the four largest planets in the Solar System, and I saw the pictures it took of Jupiter in National Geographic magazine. That was the first time I really understood that there are worlds other than Earth, and I saw how interesting those worlds are.

Fomalhaut with a ring of gas and one of its planets

One thing that we know now that we didn’t know when I was young is that there are a lot of planets orbiting– astronomers have found over 500 planets in other solar systems! One of these systems is called Fomalhaut (if you say “foam a lot”, it’s close enough), and we can see how planets form. A star forms in the middle of a cloud of gas, and little lumps in the cloud form into planets. Scientists think this is how planets in our Solar System formed, too.


The planet I find most interesting right now is Saturn. The Cassini space probe is orbiting Saturn right now and taking pictures of the planet and its moons. Saturn is like a smaller brother to Jupiter: it’s made of the same stuff and it has a lot of big storms like Jupiter does. Saturn’s rings are not only beautiful, they are very interesting because of how they are shaped and how Saturn’s moons help make them the way they are.

Saturn's moon Enceladus

Since they are made of ice, they shine brightly in the Sun and light up Saturn even when it’s night on the planet. Saturn has a lot of interesting moons, too, including Titan, which is bigger than Mercury and has a thicker atmosphere than Earth, though we couldn’t live there – it’s too cold and the air has poisonous gases like methane and ammonia. Another moon is Enceladus, which is covered with ice, but has a big ocean underneath kept warm by volcanoes. Some scientists think there could be life in the ocean underneath that ice, which I think is very exciting.

I hope you keep learning more interesting things about our Solar System and our universe!

13 responses to “A Letter from a Third Grader, Part 2: My Response”

  1. Once I initially commented I clicked the -Notify me when new comments are added- checkbox and now each time a remark is added I get 4 emails with the identical comment. Is there any method you can remove me from that service? Thanks!

    1. Sorry about that—I’m not sure where the problem is. It may be a WordPress bug; let me see what I can do.

  2. Wow, awesome blog layout! How long have you been blogging for? you make blogging look easy.

  3. […] Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn and its moons, which has taught us a lot about the planet, Titan, and Enceladus. From a public outreach point of view, the pictures sent back are truly stunning. (My favorite is […]

  4. […] 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 the Voyager […]

  5. […] a given environment. In fact, the best candidate for life beyond Earth in our Solar System may be Enceladus, Saturn’s icy moon — which obviously doesn’t resemble Earth in very many ways! However, we know Earth can […]

  6. […] favorites much anymore, since every planet has something interesting to say about it — but in my response I wrote mostly about Saturn. However, if you had asked me that question when I was in third grade, I would have quickly and […]

  7. […] on Mars, and confirmation may be some time in coming. My scientist’s heart, though, is the heart of a child — and that is hopeful. Time will tell which is right, but I think all scientists have both […]

  8. […] hate to contemplate that idea, since I use Fomalhaut b in my astronomy lectures 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 […]

  9. […] spaceship with humans aboard would never chart a course into interstellar space like the Pioneer or Voyager probes (at least without solving the major problems that currently prevent interstellar […]

  10. […] first real awareness I remember of science came when I was young, and the Voyager probes were exploring the outer Solar System. My brother had the Voyager 1 photo […]

  11. […] written on several occasions how images from Voyager 2 first made me aware of other worlds—Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, […]

  12. […] am not a “natural” scientist. My interest in science is deep-rooted, and I’ve gone as far educationally in my field of physics as it is possible to do. However, […]

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