Astronomy questions from sixth graders, Part 1

By Phil Plait | May 19, 2008 1:17 pm

Note: There is a special note to teachers at the bottom of this post. If you’re a teacher, please be sure to check it out!

My friend Tina is a teacher at the Saegert Sixth Grade Center in Austin, Texas. She asked her sixth grade students to send me questions they had about astronomy, and I answer them on camera. There were so many I had to split this into five parts! Here’s Part 1.

The questions in this part are:

1) Why are you called the Bad Astronomer?

2) Have you ever been to space?

3) Do you think aliens are real?

4) If you were a scientist, what would you do? :-)

5) Is there life on other planets?

6) Will humans ever live on the Moon or Mars?

7) What’s your favorite planet?

8) Pluto: planet or not?

There are 4 more parts to this video, and I’ll link to them as I put them up. Maybe one per day, first thing? We’ll see.

SPECIAL NOTE TO TEACHERS: Many schools block access to YouTube. There is another video hosting platform called TeacherTube, which is designed to be used in schools. I’ve uploaded this video to my channel there, where you can access it in your school (note: the video is in higher-resolution on YouTube). If you do, please let me know! I’d love to know what the students thought of the video — warts and all.


Comments (43)

Links to this Post

  1. Science For the Kids!! « THE SKEPTIC DAD | May 30, 2008
  1. Blu-Ray-Ven

    congrats phil. I wish I had the ability to speak a professional astronomer when i was in school. but having been following your blog for the past 3 years makes up for it. i learned long ago astronomy is the field of science that makes us all feel connected with the Cosmos.

  2. Dan

    PZ asked question #4, didn’t he?

  3. Naked Bunny with a Whip

    #4: Pwned!! *snickers*

  4. Bhima

    Wow! It’s been nearly 40 years since I was in 6th grade and I had fun listening to that! But aren’t you obliged to wedge in the word ‘billions’ at least once?

  5. Austin Armadillo

    I’m an astronomer, and I definitely vote for Saturn as my favorite planet (outside of Earth)!

  6. Quiet Desperation

    I would have such fun with the little rug rats.

    2) Have you ever been to space?

    Only chemically.

    3) Do you think aliens are real?

    (looks around suspiciously) No. There are no aliens. Now go and nap and forget you asked that question.

    4) If you were as scientist, what would you do? :-)

    As scientist? Is that like “with child”?

    5) Is there life on other planets?

    Yes, and it doesn’t like you.

    6) Will humans ever live on the Moon or Mars?

    Yes, but you can’t come. It’s only for the cool kids.

    7) What’s your favorite planet?

    Whichever one has the green skinned slave girls.

    8) Pluto: planet or not?

    NOT! And for anyone who disagrees, it’s jihad time! You think it’s a planet, don’t you? INFIDEL!

  7. Quiet Desperation

    LOL! Accidental smiley there.

  8. Crux Australis

    Dammit, now not only am I in love with 15 year old Splendid Elles, I am also in love with the 43 year old Bad Astronomer! I will definitely point the other science teachers at my school to this video. Thank you Thank you Thank you Thank you Thank you Thank you Thank you Thank you Thank you

  9. ABR

    If you were a scientist, what would you do…what WOULD you do?

    Now, If I were a scientist,
    Ya ha deedle deedle, bubba bubba deedle deedle dum.
    All day long I’d biddy biddy bum.
    If I were a scientist…..

  10. delphi_ote

    Nicely done, sir!

  11. davidlpf

    Dan, if PZ asked question 4 it is only because he does not what a REAL scientist does, him being a BIOLOGISTS.

  12. I work in science outreach, and fielding questions like this after doing Starlabs in schools is one of my favorite parts of the job. I’ve gotten versions of most of these questions before, so I really look forward to seeing (and think I can probably guess) what some of the other questions are. Keep up the good work!

  13. Very cool, Phil. There were times in that video you reminded me of Carl Sagan in the way you said things. Well done.

  14. Matt A

    @ ABR – I actually did laugh out loud, although I refuse to use the acronym…

    Looking forward to the rest of these. I think cheerful enthusiasm is one of the more important qualities a teacher can possess, and one of the things that TV seems to repeatedly miss the mark on. There are of course counter-examples, the titans of their field, like David Attenborough, Adam Hart-Davis, Robert Winston, David Bellamy, Patrick Moore, and the incomprable Jacob Bronowski. * But time and again I find I’m more interested in the little shows made by people who really can’t understand why anyone wouldn’t find this stuff cool than by the bigger budget shows, which always seem to be fronted by people who are more presenter than educator…

    Having just re-read that extended round of “Things were better in the old days”, I would also like to add that I want my pipe and slippers, and you kids should get off my lawn.

    * Apologies for the Brit-centric viewpoint, but then I am British – if I throw in Carl Sagan, Bill Nye and the Mythbusters team, do I get some points back?

  15. Pluto: why do scientists hate America?

    A friend recently pointed out that Pluto’s ‘non-planet’ status is actually a conspiracy of scientists who hate America. Pluto is the only planet discovered by an American, while others were discovered by people from other countries, and they remain planets.



  16. justcorbly

    I think it’s pretty neat that a sixth grader asked you if you’ve ever been in space. Not too ago that would have been an absurd question. Here’s hoping when that kid’s offspring are in the sixth grade, that question will be the equivalent of asking if you’ve been to Denver.

  17. BaldApe

    A note to teachers re. You Tube videos. The new version of Real Player has a feature where you can run your cursor over a video and a little “download this video” tab shows up. You can download the video and take it to school on a disc or flash drive or whatever.

    That’s how I took the equinox egg video in a little while back.

    That and lots of cool chemistry demos.

  18. BAMom

    You really are a good teacher. However, why, do you say I hate your being known as The Bad Astronomer? Actually, I think it is the perfect moniker.

    Matt A
    Your reference to Dr. Jacob Bronowski brought a tear to my eyes. I met him years ago when he was working with Dr. Jonas Salk at the Salk Institute. [ I also met Dr. Michael Creighten there as well.] But it was Dr. Bronowski who found a place in my heart. I bought his book, ” The Ascent of Man”, for the BADad .
    Thank you for the memories.


  19. James H.

    Phil, excellent presentation. I think we will take a look at this in my astronomy class tomorrow, just to kind of reinforce things here at the end of the year. I think I will ask the kids in my class the questions, then let them hear your answers and compare the two. You should really be on some type of astronomy videos, you would be good at it. Send Neil Tyson a demo tape!

  20. zeb

    Hey, don’t forget we’ve already discovered a Pluto-like object bigger than Pluto: Eris.

  21. Mark Martin

    “6) Will humans ever live on the Moon or Mars?”

    Interestingly, people already have lived on the Moon. They just don’t live there anymore.

  22. davidlpf

    Baldape,had that version of Realplayer for a while it is great can download something from the net and watch it later, but if you over do it your hard drive cam fill up fast.

  23. Stan/Tx

    Good job. I will send this to my sister so she can use it in her school.

  24. Chris H.

    My younger sister is in the 5th grade and she enjoyed your video–so you have one fan already!

  25. NorthGuy


    Thank you for helping to make science understandable to those of us who are not scientists. You’re doing good work here. BTW, I finished 6th grade just before the Apollo 11 mission. There was a lot talk then that we would be living on the moon one day. That won’t happen for me, but maybe today’s 6th graders have a real chance.

  26. MandyDax

    Phil, this was wonderful. I’m not a teacher (I’m a bit of veal in a cube farm :( ), but I’m really glad you put this up at TeacherTube, which is not a blocked site. I can listen to the video and glance over once in a while as I’m doing my paper-pushing.

    I gotta say when I was a kid, my dad took out his telescope (which was more like a glorified spyglass, and he found Saturn for us. It was small and fuzzy, but the rings were visible. It was amazing. To see the V-ger pictures in Nat’l Geographic, it’s one thing, but to see it in a telescope is an entirely more real experience, despite the low resolution.

  27. madge

    @ Jewel
    I remember watching Carl Sagan field questions from kids in his old school in Cosmos and YES this really reminded me of his enthusiasm, love of sharing the wonders of the universe and his philosophy that there is no such thing as a dumb question!

  28. madge

    REALLY good talk Phil. Looking forward to the others. I think EVERY kid on the Earth should get to see Saturn through a telescope, no matter how small ( the kid OR the telescope : ) The rings give a real sense of a 3 dimensional object out there in space. It did it for me and later for my own kids. My son is now a fully fledged science geek and my 9 year old daughter wants to be head of NASA when she grows up!

  29. autumn

    Phil, you are awesomer than awesome at conveying science to the masses. My stepsons love your videos, and this one will be shown to them as soon as I can sit ’em down after school tomorrow.
    Thank you for doing that thing you do.

  30. Tyler Durden

    @Quiet Desperation

    Don’t ever have children. Please.

  31. Great work, Phil.
    I wish I’d had someone like you around when I was in 6th grade!

  32. @madge – that’s exactly what I was thinking. I rewatched Cosmos a couple months ago and listening to Phil reminded me a lot of Carl Sagan. The way Phil explained things, while remembering he was conveying an idea to children, he simplified it without ever talking down to them. And managed to keep the enthusiasm and passion for all of it.

  33. sirjonsnow

    Why would anyone ever *want* to go to Denver??

  34. Sue Mitchell

    You don’t like roller-coasters???! :-O

    Wuss! 😉

  35. Navneeth

    Phil, I think you should have inserted your favourite picture of Saturn, the one in which it occults the Sun, as seen by Cassini, when you were answering the question about favourite planet.

    I hope you put in pictures next time – the kids’ll love it. :)

  36. Eric

    I’ve asked this question before, and I’ll ask it again – Phil, when are you going to start working on your 13 part PBS series?

  37. Maugrim

    I agree with Navneeth, I was thinking all through the Saturn response “ooh, please let him put in that awesome Saturn picture, it would be great!”

    And I loved this video. You’re in your element here, Phil, and it shows.

  38. StevoR

    Any chance of having a written transcript for these &otherUtube etc .. presentations, please BA?

    (On dial up, computer is very excrementally slow & useless – & too poor to get another one for a bit.. Surely I’m not the only person like that.)

    Hmm … sounds like fun though so I might give it a shot :

    The questions in this part are:

    1) Why are you called the Bad Astronomer?

    Me : When you’re old enough kiddies, watch the movie ‘Pulp Fiction’. There’s a scene in there with a wallet that explains why that is … 😉

    2) Have you ever been to space?

    Me : I’m stealing Quiet Desperation’s line here – only chemically or when I’m nicley drunk! 😉

    3) Do you think aliens are real?

    Me : Define “aliens.”
    If they’re people from another land – sure! 😉
    If they’re intelligent creatures elsewhere in the vastness of the cosmos -sure! 😉
    But if you mean flying saucer-little green men who travel lightyeras to abduct drunken rednecks & molest cattle (or is it vice-versa?) then : NO WAY! 😉

    4) If you were a scientist, what would you do?

    Me : Uh .. he is a scinetist & this is part of what he does. 😉

    5) Is there life on other planets?

    Me : If not then there will be when we take it there one day …

    6) Will humans ever live on the Moon or Mars?

    Me : Hope so for Mars. Have done – if only all too briefly – for the Moon!

    7) What’s your favorite planet?


    8) Pluto: planet or not?

    See question 7 above – & the IAU can take a long walk off a short jetty for saying otherwise!

    Hey, seeing as Pluto is “the American planet” why not just get the President of the USA to tell the IAU to reconsider their decision – OR ELSE!!!

    Heck, we invaded Iraq for less … ! 😉

    (Cue Team America theme music : “America F… Yeah!” 😉

  39. StevoR

    D’oh 8 + ) = 8) emoticon not 8 ) … Argh!

    Sorry for the typos – if only I could edit here …

    As for the swearing surely just uing a letter & dots (or dashes or asteriks ) or whatever!) is okay. Surely, surely, even the most puritannical ppl (or pppl!) will let me get away with that! 😉

    Seriously if you can’t .. Please, could you just remove that one offensive well .. not even “F word” .. just ‘F’ and let the rest of my post above stand okay? Please? 8)


    Yeah, yeah I know I’m not giving up my day job with those answers but still allow a bloke some fun here! 😉

  40. StevoR


    One day I’ll actually surprise y’all and get a post right here first time … :-(

    Sorry about the italics not ending where they were supposed to .. after pppl for puritanical people. Sigh.

  41. mike burkhart

    You know thes are the same questions I had about space and astronomy when I was in grade school thats why I cheaked out every book on astronomy the school and public libary had and why I was sometimes refered to as the “space freak” by the other kids this love of astornomy I think came off of my love of science fiction (witch I still have at 40) who says comic books will rot your mind and also the fact my mother gave me a book on astronomy when I was 7 .Ive been intersed ever since

  42. Xeno


    To the best of my ability. Capitals for emphasis. I split the difference on adding speech slurs.

    I saw that someone else had picked up on the request for transcripts only after I penned this one. Thankfully, he doesn’t seem to have gotten to this one yet, so it wasn’t all in vain.
    Also added a transcript for “Why Don’t Gas Clouds in Space Dissipate?”.

    TITLE: Answering kids’ questions about astronomy, Part I, Phil Plait,

    Hi! Phil Plait from here. My friend Tina Anderson is a teacher at the Saegert sixth grade center in Austin, Texas – and when she told her students that she had a friend who was an astronomer, they decided they had a TON of questions. So she collected all the questions from all the students in her school, and sent them to me to answer on camera. So let’s see what we’ve got!

    TITLE: Why are you called the Bad Astronomer?

    Why are you called “the Bad Astronomer”? Well, my mom hates that, but actually it’s because I deal with bad astronomy; myths and misconceptions about astronomy. People who think the moon landings were faked.. or that you can stand an egg on end on the first day of spring. Things like that. And I correct these misconceptions on my website. So I’m not a bad astronomer, at least I don’t think so.. it’s just that I DEAL with bad astronomy, so that’s why I call myself that.

    TITLE: Have you ever been to space?

    Have I ever been to space, and do I want to go? Well.. I’d LOVE to be in space. How cool would it be, to be able to float in orbit around the Earth, and be able to.. to throw food up in the air, and just, you know.. throw it right into your mouth and have it shoot right into your mouth and all that kind of stuff – that would be so much fun. The problem is.. I’m TERRIFIED of getting into a rocket. I don’t even like going on rollercoasters. So being on a rocket is not really something I would want to do, but on the other hand, you know, there are other people who LOVE that sort of thing.. I know a few astronauts and they LOVE it! They can’t wait to get into space, and so maybe YOU’LL get into space someday.. you know, that’s something that you could really try to do. You just got to stay in school, study, work really hard.. and if you’re interested in that sort of thing, you can apply to be an astronaut, and maybe some day – you’ll walk on the moon.

    TITLE: Do you think aliens are real?

    Do I think aliens are real? Well, I THINK there are aliens out there, but I don’t KNOW this for a fact, and here’s why: When I was your age we didn’t even know if there were planets orbiting other stars, but starting in 1995 astronomers discovered planets, planets orbiting other stars. Now these are GIANT planets, like Jupiter.. we don’t THINK there could be life on them, but the fact that we’ve discovered other planets means that they can form. There are other planets orbiting other stars, and that means there must be millions and millions and MILLIONS of planets out there just in OUR galaxy.. and there are BILLIONS of galaxies in the universe. So just from the sheer NUMBERS it seems really, REALLY likely that there are aliens.
    Now.. are they VISITING us? ..I don’t think so. I think that if there were aliens coming here in spaceships, we’d have much, much better evidence than blurry photos, and terrible video, and that sort of thing. Uh.. maybe someday, you know, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence is a program that actually uses radio waves, big radio telescopes to try to pick up signals from alien life and it’s possible that one day they’ll detect alien life out in space. That would be really, really exciting. But for now, we just don’t have that evidence. But I’m hoping soon, we’ll find a planet like Earth orbiting another star, and if we do that that’ll make the chances a LOT better that aliens exist.

    TITLE: If you were a scientist, what would you do?

    This is one of my favorite questions – if I were a scientist, what area would I work in? Well.. I am a scientist! I’m actually an astronomer. I have a degree in astronomy. I did research for several years using the Hubble telescope, and some other projects.. but I decided that I had more fun WRITING about astronomy.. TALKING about astronomy to kids! It’s.. it’s really cool to do scientific research.. it’s really exciting – you can learn so much about the universe.. but it’s also a lot of fun, especially for people like me, to just talk about it, and write about it and excite other people about it! And I decided that’s what I’m best at, and that’s what I want to do.

    TITLE: Is there life on other planets?

    Could there be life on Mars or any other planet? What planet do I think is the most likely candidate, other than Earth, to have extraterrestrial life? Well, Mars is a BIG target for looking for life. A long time ago, a billion years ago, Mars had water on its surface. We’ve seen a lot of evidence of that. And we THINK life can arise when there is water. And so, that’s a good place to look and NASA and other space agencies have been building space probes and detectors to land on Mars, to orbit around Mars and look for signs of life. And it’s possible we’ll find it, and I think that if we DO – my opinion – is that Mars MAY have had life a long time ago, but doesn’t any more. So we may find evidence that there was life a billion years ago, two billion years ago.. something like that. But it sure would be exciting if we found evidence for life NOW. If there were bacteria or something like that, on Mars now.
    But Mars isn’t the only place to look. There’s a moon of Jupiter called Europa, that’s basically a big ball of ice, and underneath that ice shell, which is maybe several miles thick, there could be an ocean. The whole moon might just be an ocean that has a frozen surface on top of it, and there is a lot of talk about sending a probe there, that would dig down through the ice, and go into the ocean and look for life there.
    There’s a moon of Saturn, called Enceladus, which is a lot like Europa, and it too might have life in a sort of an underground ocean. And, uh, Saturn’s largest moon Titan, has a very thick atmosphere made of methane, and there’s a lot of what are called “organic compounds” – carbon based molecules – there, and we think that those are the basis of life as well. And it’s possible there’s life on Titan. So there are LOTS of places in our solar system that we might be able to find life. The thing to do is GO THERE and find out, we need to spend the money, and build these machines and send them there and look for signs of life. And then maybe someday we’ll send people there, and then we’ll REALLY be able to look really hard to see if we’re really alone in the solar system or not. Even if we find bacteria, that would be a HUGE discovery and would be very cool.

    TITLE: Will humans ever live on the Moon or Mars?

    Will humans ever live on the Moon or on Mars? ..Yes! Yes, yes we will. NASA is looking to put people back on the Moon, maybe around the year 2020 – something like that, and eventually put colonists.. you know, on Mars! To send people to Mars, to actually LIVE there, that will take a long time. Mars is a long way away and it’s pretty hard to get there. But the Moon is.. pretty close! It’s only about three days away by rocket. And so who knows? By the time you’re in your thirties, you graduate from college, YOU might be living on the Moon.

    TITLE: What’s your favorite planet?

    What’s my favorite planet? Well, that’s easy – it’s Earth. It’s because we live here and I like it here, it’s pretty and it has air, and we can breathe and all that sort of thing.. But if you mean a planet BESIDES Earth, I’d have to say Saturn. Simply because Saturn’s got those MAGNIFICENT rings! And even through a small telescope, which is the kind of telescope I had when I was a kid.. a really inexpensive, junky, telescope with a lens about that big, uh.. still you could see Saturn’s rings, and it’s really REALLY beautiful. And now that we’re sending probes to Saturn, like the Cassini probe, it is returning UNBELIEVABLY beautiful pictures of Saturn, it’s rings and it’s moons. And so I think if you talked to most astronomers, they’d agree that Saturn is their favorite planet.

    TITLE: Pluto: Planet or not?

    Pluto – planet or not? Good question. We have a definition of what a planet is. Now, personally, I think defining what a planet is, is kind of silly. It’s really, really hard to do. But there is a group of people, part of the International Astronomical Union, a group of professional astronomers, and they made a list basically – a planet is this, and this and that. And by those definitions, Pluto’s not a planet anymore. And I kind of agree, by any REAL definition of what a planet is, even if you make really vague ones, Pluto’s not really a planet. It’s really small, it looks more like a giant chunk of ice, and there are thousands and thousands of these Pluto-like objects that have been found outside of Pluto’s orbit. And it looks like Pluto is just one of the bigger ones of these. There will probably be bigger ones that we’ll find later, much farther away, much farther out from the sun. So really, I think Pluto shouldn’t be a planet – but still again, defining what a planet is, is really tough so I think if you want to think of Pluto as a planet.. go ahead! But it’s by definition, but what we officially call a planet, it’s not.

    TITLE: That’s it for Part I! Stay tuned for Part 2. Phil Plait,


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