Is space more awesome than ever, now that we've walked on the moon and beheld the stunning photos transmitted by the James Webb telescope? Or is the night sky, thanks to modernity, more meh? In particular, do kids find the universe more meh than the metaverse?
Once nudged to consider the cosmos, even jaded kids can be gobsmacked. "The things my students are most interested in are things that make them feel small," says Abby Morton, a high school astronomy teacher in a working-class Boston suburb. "They love anything that gives them context."
During class, Morton hands out palm-sized diagrams of the solar system. If the solar system were that big, she asks her students, how big would the Milky Way be?
"Bigger than the football field!" they venture, or even, "Bigger than Massachusetts!" In fact, she tells them, the Milky Way would be the size of the United States. That mic-drop sense of grandeur continues to inspire even Gen Z.
"No matter where you come from or who your ancestors were, they were looking at the stars," Penn State astronomer Michael Siegel tells his students at the start of the semester. Siegel studies supernovae—"the biggest explosions in the universe." While stars are exploding daily, they do that close enough to be seen by the naked eye only once every 200 years.
Whenever that happened in history, Siegel says, the event "would be marked on petroglyphs and recorded in all kinds of ancient writings." An exploding star in 1006 "was recorded all over the world."
These explosions and other celestial events, such as eclipses, were often seen as portents. But even the everyday night sky was once consulted the way we consult our phones today. When stars were in a certain position, it was time to plant crops. Out on the seas, the stars were used to navigate ships. And of course, everyone on Earth was busy telling stories about who and what was above us: warriors, animals, heaven, and God(s).
Then came the telescope in the 1600s, demystifying the celestial world. But new knowledge did not seem to dethrone the stars from their exalted place in our hearts.
This summer, about 20 sophisticated types—artists, conservationists, yours truly—were visiting a friend on a remote ranch when he trained his telescope on the moon. One by one, we put our eyes to the lens and spontaneously exclaimed the same thing: "Wow!"
It was impossible not to be stunned and joyful upon seeing the moon in its ice-white glory. This happened even though we all know there's no chariot pulling it, no man living on it, and no cheese to be had on it (yet).
We know the moon is just one planetary object in a universe teeming with black holes and galaxies—a universe so old and huge that the stars whose light we love might not even exist anymore. We also know, at least vaguely, about relativity, weightlessness, and perhaps even frozen water on Mars. All this scientific knowledge has not dimmed our awe.
The dimming of the night sky is another story. A hundred years ago, everyone had access to an inky, star-filled sky. Now, according to the International Dark-Sky Association, millions of people may never see the Milky Way unless there's a blackout.
Even today's parents beheld much starrier skies as kids. "In the '80s, if there was supposed to be a comet or meteor shower, we would have neighborhood parties where we'd all take out blankets and food and we'd hang out," says Kay Eskridge, a 40-something Kentucky mom who grew up in Indiana and attended these parties starting at age 6.
Today, says Eskridge, "you really have to make a point" to get kids excited about the night sky, starting by driving far from the city to access darkness. And frankly, she adds, "I don't know anybody else who talks to their kids about constellations or the moon cycles."
But perhaps the biggest problem of all is that overprotected kids spend so much of their time indoors. When the moon is full, Judy Ronay, a middle school pre-engineering teacher in upstate New York, reminds her student to have a look. "Miss Ronay," the 12-year-olds reply, "we're not allowed to go outside."
That's the darkest part of our era.