There was a time when little boys lying in their beds stared up at the ceiling to dream of space. Many of those boys imagined becoming astronauts. And some of them did.
Today’s youth still dream of space, as the following will show, but most of them will never get there. (Note: This makes little difference to at least one of my sons.)
My 9-year-old son, Ford, already knows more about space than either his father or I do. (Now is not the time to tell him that President Obama has shut down the manned space program.) In a different era, Ford might have had a promising career as an astronaut.
Instead, his interests likely will earn him the unfortunate fate that befalls other grown-ups with “hobbies” that don’t quite constitute a career. And like the others, Ford will be called a “buff.”
“Ford the space buff,” they will say.
However, as is the case in most families with multiple children, not all of our boys aspire to being astronauts. Last week I noted how Owen, 7, wants to be the University of Maine mascot when he grows up, and really, that’s a step up from his previous aspiration: “a fry cook.” The truth is that Owen has a way with people, and he probably will find a career that maximizes his dynamic social skills.
Ford has more patience for facts, reading, statistics and solitary pursuits. He prides himself on knowing just about everything on any subject (or acting like he does). He might make an excellent teacher. Although, his stellar writing probably means that he will write loads of books and make more money than his mother ever did.
Then there’s Lindell, 3. At this point, it’s hard to say what Lindell will do. He spends most of his days just trying to keep up with Ford and Owen, or, at the very least, not getting caught when he steals their “Star Wars” action figures. And as this dialogue among our three sons and Dustin during a recent car ride will demonstrate, he doesn’t have much interest in space — unless it involves candy bars.
Owen (pointing at the window, toward a group of stars in the sky): Is that a constellation?
Ford: That is Ursa Minor, or “The Lesser Bear.” People sometimes call it the “Little Dipper.” Ursa Minor contains the North Star, which is the closest star to the North Pole.
Verbal outpourings of knowledge from Ford such as this are common. No one skipped a beat.
Owen: Isn’t the North Star the brightest star?
Ford: That’s what people usually think. But, no; Sirius is the brightest star. You’ll find it in “Canis Major,” or “Big Dog.” A lot of people don’t realize, but Sirius is actually brighter and bigger than the sun.
Owen: Then why isn’t it the sun?
Ford: Because it’s farther away from the Earth.
Dustin: So the brightness of a star isn’t necessarily a good indicator of its size?
Ford: No, sometimes small stars look brighter because they are closer to us, and really big stars look less bright because they are father away from us.
Owen: Are all the stars in a constellation hooked together?
Ford: They are all separate stars. And they don’t move together, either. It only looks like they do from Earth because they are so far away.
Owen (moving the conversation dangerously close to parallels with “Star Wars’” planet Tatooine, which has two suns): If the brightest star is bigger than the sun, is it an extra sun for a different planet?
Ford: We don’t really know. Some people think that our sun is the center of the galaxy. Other people think the center is a black hole.
Dustin: What do you think?
Ford: Personally, I think it is a black hole.
Dustin: So what other galaxies are out there?
Ford: There’s Andromeda. But our galaxy is the Milky Way. They named it that because the band of stars makes a white ribbon in the sky, kind of like milk.
Lindell sat quietly in his car seat through all of this. He hadn’t asked questions or appeared to care about any of Ford’s answers. If I had to guess, I’d say what he had heard so far was “blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.”
Then suddenly, from the quiet left side of the car, came a small, hopeful voice.
Lindell: Wait a minute. Do you mean there are Milky Ways just floating around in space?
Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. She may be reached at email@example.com.