During breakfast one Sunday, I announced to my four children we would be going to the planetarium. None of them heard me. My youngest was banging his fork on the table in a manner loud enough to wake Mars. The two middle children were trying to resolve an interpersonal conflict by stabbing each other with straws. And the oldest child wasn’t even at the table, having gone off to coax a gumball out of a machine that looked to be army surplus from the Korean War. But after repeating my announcement a few times, it was my youngest who finally stopped banging his fork, looked up at me with an expression of excited comprehension, and smiling, declared, “I just burped.”
Eventually, my children came to the dreadful realization they would spend their Sunday not in front of an iPad but engaged in a Family Activity. Regarding this Family Activity, they wanted to know two things: a) what is a planetarium?, and b) that sounds boring. But after a while, during the car ride over, they asked questions showing genuine curiosity. A few of the questions I could answer, such as “Do we have to go? (Yes),” and “Do they have iPads? (No).” But then they started asking questions I couldn’t answer. Nevertheless, when confronted with questions I cannot answer, I feel it is my duty as a father to satisfy their thirst for knowledge by patiently answering them to the best of my ability, which is to say, I make things up.
So for those parents who have as much chance of correctly answering planetarium-related questions as obtaining full-ride admission to Harvard Medical School, I offer you the questions my children asked me, followed by plausible-enough-sounding answers.
Why are we going to a plant aquarium?
First off, it’s a planetarium, not an aquarium. A planetarium is a place that (I wanted to be as precise and scientifically accurate as possible here) has to do with space. Whereas an aquarium is the tank in our house where goldfish stay briefly on their journey from pet store to toilet.
How long will it take to get there?
According to the GPS, it will take about 50 minutes. Or about 20 seconds less than the last time you asked.
What is the solar system?
The solar system is the sun and everything that goes around the sun. I believe it was Sir Isaac Newton John who first determined, after an apple fell on his head, that the sun keeps the planets in orbit through an unseen force, the same force that dropped the apple on his head, the force we know today as giant magnets.
What is the largest planet in the solar system?
The largest planet in the solar system is of course Juniper, followed closely by Cybertron.
Do astronomers live at the terrarium?
Almost, but not quite. The scientists who study space are actually called “astrologers.” These astrologers measure planetary motion to predict the future, doing so with an accuracy that, amazingly, is slightly worse than chance. They’re always saying things like, “The Sun is in 15 degrees Cancer” or “Neptune is in 11 degrees Sagittarius” or “Rocky Road melts in 38 degrees Freezer.”
You’re not going to tell us any dad jokes about going to the planetarium, are you?
Yes, I am. Thank you for reminding me.
What do you do before a visit to a planetarium? No, it’s not an eye-roll. Give up? You “plan it.”
What about Pluto? Isn’t Pluto a planet?
Pluto used to be a planet. But in 2006, the members of the International Gastronomical Union, whose mission as scientists is to pursue an objective truth, one stripped of emotions, personal biases, and false beliefs, decided the matter by popular vote. As a result, Pluto was demoted to a separate class of celestial body called a dwarf planet. But if you ask me, “dwarf planet” sounds like it’s still a planet, just a tiny one. So I think Pluto should still count as a planet.
How far away is the sun?
In space there is a measurement called AU, which stands for astronomical unit. And it just so happens, entirely by coincidence, that the sun is exactly one AU from Earth. Why that should be is one of the great unsolvable mysteries of the universe.
Are you trying to trick us into learning something?
Absolutely not. Now, does everyone have their tickets? They’re printed on the back of your worksheets.
By the time we arrived at the planetarium, my children had run out of questions, and I felt good about imparting just enough information to avoid any follow-up. We spent an enjoyable afternoon there, learning a great deal about our little corner of the universe. And if I am permitted one last dad joke, I can honestly say the experience was out of this world.