The nine-year-old loves science. He loves space-related topics in particular, and while he still watches way more "Phineas and Ferb" than any human should, he'll drop everything for a documentary about the planets, moons, distant galaxies and black holes.
Science fact has led to science fiction. (Or maybe, more accurately, science fiction -- namely, Star Wars -- led to science fact, which has now come full circle.) He watched "The Martian" the other night, but not before his mom gave him the "Okay, there are some bad words in this movie -- mostly because a guy is stranded 100 million miles from home and he's understandably frustrated" speech. He seemed unfazed by the language, which could mean one of several things: He's pretty mature for his age (debatable); he hears it all the time at school (plausible); or he's caught me cursing when I didn't think anyone was listening (almost certainly).
Whatever, he loved that movie. And it's my sincere hope that he continues to love science (since the already-long-shot odds of him making it as a professional athlete were officially dashed when he announced his retirement from soccer last fall). I was well into my twenties before I learned that lesson. After goofing off for much of high school and college, graduate school was a rude awakening; it became a perpetual game of catch-up -- I was with students who had spent their entire academic lives doing science and math. It wasn't too late for me to cram a lifetime of book-learning into 3-4 years, but it wasn't ideal either (duh).
The point: The importance of science and math is a point I make often. But kids, it turns out, are sometimes more receptive to advice when it's not coming from the same person who hounds them about brushing their teeth, or cleaning their room, or making sure THEIR JEANS ARE RIGHT-SIDE-OUT before tossing them in the general direction (but never into, mind you) the dirty-clothes hamper.
(Added bonus: Me taking those same jeans out of the dryer only to realize that the pockets were stuffed with tissues, candy wrappers, erasers -- you name it -- and now the content of those pockets are distributed equally between the lint trap and the other clothes in the load. This happens frequently. And by frequently, I mean every time. Good times.)
So it doesn't hurt that a rocket scientist frequents our local coffee shop. This isn't a euphemism -- this guy helped build Skylab. He's now retired, but still as sharp as ever, and he's always excited to talk to the kids about, well, anything -- but he brightens whenever the conversation turns to space.
Naturally, he was excited to hear that the nine-year-old was riveted by the "The Martian," and even more excited when I told him that the nine-year-old blew through 13 episodes of "Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey," the Neil deGrasse Tyson reboot of Carl Sagan's "Cosmos," which originally aired in 1980.
There's so much to love about this series, but the most poignant, at least for me, were the final minutes of the final episode. You hear Sagan talking about Earth. He calls it the "Pale Blue Dot," a name inspired by an image taken by Voyager 1, looking back at our planet, as it left the solar system.
"It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience." Sagan says. "There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known."
I didn't say anything to the nine-year-old when we watched it together, but those words stuck with me. And days later, I decided to show him the clip again, to get his thoughts.
"It's funny," he said afterwards, which was about the last response I was expecting.
"How do you mean?" I asked.
"That part where he talked about the 'rivers of blood spilled' by kings to become rulers of a 'fraction of a dot' -- that part was funny."
The implication (I think, anyway): Relative to the vastness of our universe, it's sorta silly that people do all these horrible things to each other for fleeting "glory and triumph."
The lesson: Sometimes, the philosophical ramblings of a nine-year-old are worth paying attention to.