Are Emeralds Real?

“Dad?” my son said from the back seat of the car. “Are emeralds real?”

Mercifully, there is some context for that question. He’d been over at a friend’s house, and they’d been playing Minecraft. I don’t know much about the game, but apparently “emerald” is one of the construction materials in the game. Which led to the question.

“Yes,” I tell him. “They are.”

“Wow!” he says.

You knew this one, didn’t you?

Yes. Yes I did. But let’s have some fun with it anyway, because I don’t know as much about them as I’d like.

What is an emerald?

Every source I found (which includes,, and Wikipedia agree that emerald is a variety of beryl. Chemically it’s beryllium aluminum silicate (Be3Al2Si6O18), with a green color that derives from trace amounts of chromium (the mineral that gives us chrome) and (occasionally) vanadium (a silvery grey mineral). Both minerals oxidize in a variety of colors, which explains how a silvery mineral can turn the mineral green. It naturally forms into hexagonal crystals.

The full market value of an emerald is based on four factors: color, clarity, cut, and carat weight.

  • Color: To be an emerald, the mineral must have a medium to dark green color (light green stones are classified as “Green Beryl“, which is not considered as valuable), as measured on a scale from 0% (colorless) to 100% (opaque and black) – the finest emeralds rank about 75% on this scale.
  • Clarity: All crystals will have some level of flaws, mostly consisting of inclusions (other minerals trapped in the crystal) and cracks. Flawlessly emeralds are stones with no inclusions or fissures visible to the naked eye.
  • Cut: This is not a natural property of the stone, but the way it was cut after it was mined. Raw stones are less valuable for the same reason that a tree trunk sells for less per pound than a table of the same wood, but a bad cut can destroy the stone.
  • Carat weight. A carat is 0.2 grams (or 0.007055 oz). The value of stones of th same quality does not change in a linear fashion, because larger high-quality stones are rarer than smaller ones. Consulting Singhal Gems International, a good quality 1.0 carat emerald can range from $500 to $1,125, while a good quality 5.0 carat emerald can range from $7,500 to $15,000 in value.

Where are they found?

The largest emerald deposits can be found in Colombia, Brazil, and Zambia. They are mined elsewhere in the world, but those three nations produce most of them. Colombian emeralds are often considered to be the overall finest form of emerald, as they are primarily colored by chromium. Zambian and Brazilian emeralds are more frequently colored by vanadium, with Brazilian emeralds being darker and more heavily included and Zambian emeralds having a bluish-green or grayish-green color.

What is the biggest emerald ever found?

That’s… tricky. What, exactly, do you mean by that question?

The International Gem Society website breaks them down into three categories: named emeralds, unnamed emeralds, and “other large emeralds”. They state that the largest named emerald is the “Emerald Unguentarium”, a 2,860 carat emerald vase currently on display in the Imperial Treasury in Vienna.

The Daily Mail disagrees with this statement, as they report on a watermelon-sized emerald named Teodora, which came in at 57,500 carats. It should be noted, however, that gem experts were skeptical of this claim, and that the owner was arrested on multiple fraud charges. A gem expert who studied it found evidence that it was lower-quality emerald (possibly mixed with white beryl) that had been dyed to make it appear more valuable. Because of this, when it went up for auction, no bids were made.

The largest unnamed emerald is an uncut Colombian crystal in a private collection that weighs 7,052 carats.

“Other large emeralds” is dominated by the Bahia Emerald, which was an 840 pound stone from Bahia, Brazil. The stone “reportedly contains over 180,000 carats of emeralds”, one of which is a single stone that is apparently described as the size of a man’s thigh. There is an ongoing legal battle over ownership of this stone, which shouldn’t surprise anyone since it’s been valued at upwards of $400 million. This stone, unlike Teodora, appears to be genuine.

Genuine, and large.


How Long Would It Take To Get To The Moon?

“Dad?” my son asked while we were playing with his Legos. “How long would it take to get to the moon?”

“I think that depends on how fast you’re going,” I replied.

“No,” he says, sounding exasperated as only a 6-year-old can, “I mean, if you were going as fast as the Death Star!” Because that was entirely clear from the context, right?

“I don’t know,” I tell him. “I don’t know how fast the Death Star is.”

“It’s really fast,” he assures me.

Where to start?

There are a couple of things we need to know here, in order to answer the question. How far away is the moon? How fast do we have to go at minimum to make it? Oh, and how fast is the Death Star? So, let’s dig in.

How far is it to the moon?

The distance from the Earth to the Moon varies based on the time of the month, because the Moon orbits us in an ellipse – so it gets closer and then moves further away. At apogee (the farthest it gets from us), it’s 405,400 km away, while it gets as close as 362,600 km at perigee. So, clearly, how long it takes will really depend on how fast we’re going – just like any other trip we can take.

How fast do we need to go?

How fast you need to go to get to the moon will depend on the method you’re using to get there, and the amount of time you want to take. So, let’s start with the concept of escape velocity. This is the minimum speed required to “out-pull” gravity and leave an object behind. If you launch at that speed or greater, you fly away. If you don’t, you fall back to the surface. Eventually. Escape velocity varies with the gravity of the object and is approximately 11.2 km/s, or 40,320 kph on Earth. Assuming there is no friction, which is a popular physics assumption to keep equations simple. If you launch at that speed, you fly away from the earth – you slow down over time, as Earth’s gravity pulls on you, but you never actually stop moving. Ever.

There’s a down side to trying to get to the moon by launching at escape velocity (say, by using a variant of Project HARP’s big gun): Earth’s force of gravity is 9.807 m/s2, so you’re pulling around 1,142 gravities at the instant of launch. You would be a thin, wide smear on your pilot’s chair well before you reached the moon.

Clearly, we didn’t send a gelatinized melange of Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Edwin Aldrin to the moon on Apollo 11 – those three men made it to the moon and back with bones and organs intact, after all. So, how did they do it? Well, the important thing to remember is that escape velocity is only needed if you have an initial push and then add no additional thrust after that. This isn’t how the Saturn V – or any other rocket for that matter – works. They lift themselves at a slower pace, but apply a constant (or near-constant) thrust by carrying fuel. There’s a point of diminishing returns on this, because you have to lift your fuel as well as the ship (something described in the Tsiolkosky rocket equation, which I discussed when I tried to describe how to make a house fly).

The Saturn V was a multi-stage rocket, with the first stage burning for 2 minutes 41 seconds and pushing the rocket about 68 km into the air (hitting a velocity of 2,756 meters per second). Then it ditched the first stage and started the second stage burn. This pushed it another 107 km (for a total of 175 km) into the air over the course of 6 minutes, reaching a velocity of 6,995 meters per second). Stage 3 burned for about 2 minutes 30 seconds, reaching a velocity of 7,793 meters per second and putting it in orbit at an altitude of 191.1 km. Stage 4 burned for six minutes, pushing the ship to a velocity of 10,800 meters per second once it was time to head for the moon.

So, how long would it take?

How fast are you going?

Let’s say you just boosted off Earth with a canon, firing you straight up at escape velocity. Let’s also say you timed things so that you’d intersect with the moon at perigee. That’s 362,600 km, or 362,600,000 meters. At 11.2 meters per second, that’s 32,375,000 seconds to reach the moon. This translates into 8,993 days, or 24 years, 7 and one half months. Approximately. Your gelatanized corpse has a long trip ahead.

Apollo 11 was moving at 10.8 kilometers per second, which (mathematically) means you’d expect the trip to the moon to take 33,574.07 seconds. In theory, this means 9.326 hours. It actually took three days. Why? Well, there’s two reasons and they’re both gravity. See, the Apollo 11 wasn’t maintaining constant thrust. It had fuel that it used for course corrections and orbital insertions and the like, but it coasted most of the way. Earth’s gravity pulled on the ship the whole time, slowing it down. In addition, the ship didn’t fly in a straight line. It was in a long, figure-eight-shaped orbit with the Earth and the Moon – like so:

But what about the Death Star?

Ah, yes. That. Well, it still depends on the speed the ship can manage.

How fast is the Death star?

This is… questionable. According to the DS-1 Orbital Battle Station entry on Wookieepedia, the Death star had a speed of 10 megalight (MGLT).

So, what’s a megalight? Well, also according to Wookeepedia, a megalight “was a standard unit of distance in space”. Which is entirely unhelpful, although it does indicate that when it was used in the Star Wars: X-Wing Alliance instruction manual, it appeared to be a unit of distance and that when used as speed it should imply “megalights per hour”.

In all likelihood, “megalight” is a word that got made up because it sounded cool and had no actual meaning attached to it. But if we try to break it down, “mega” as a metric prefix means million. So, one megalight could be a million light seconds. However, this would mean that the Death star flies at 10 million light seconds per hour, or 2,777.7 times the speed of light – meaning that it could reach Alpha Centauri from earth in less than 14 hours of cruising on its “sublight” drives.  So I’m going to assume that this is not what was intended.

The Star Wars Technical Commentaries on speculate in “Standard Units” on what MGLT means in terms of real world [i]anything[/i]. The author of the article comes to the conclusion that 1 MGLT is “at least 400 m/s2” acceleration, which is roughly 40 gravities of acceleration.

One thing we also know about ships in Star Wars is that constant acceleration isn’t an issue – they have something close to the “massless, infinite fuel” I mentioned above. The Death Star isn’t fast, compared to the other ships in Star Wars, but it can accellerate at a constant 4 kilometers per second. Now Dummies.dom provides us with a simple formula for determining the distance (s) covered for a given time (t) at a particular acceleration (a), and that formula is s = 0.5at2. Which means we can reverse engineer, because all we need is the time. The equation looks like this:

362,600 = 0.5(4)t2
362,600 = 2t2
181,300 = t2
t = square root of 181,300 = 425.7933771208754 seconds

So, assuming that the Death Star didn’t engage it’s hyperdrive, it would take a little over 7 minutes to reach the Moon at a velocity of approximately 1,703.17 kilometers per second. And it would keep going, because it can only slow down at 4 kilometers per second. So, if the Death Star wanted to stop at the Moon, it would need to slow down about halfway there (yes, I know that orbital mechanics are a little more complex than this, but we’re talking about a 160 kilometer diameter ship that can accelerate at 4 kilometers per second. So cut me some slack, would you?). That it would have to accelerate to halfway to the moon, and then decelerate the rest of the way. So, that would look something like this:

2(181,300 = 0.5(4)t2)
2(181,300 = 2t2)
2(90,650 = t2)
2(t = square root of 90,650 = 301.0813843464919)
t = 602.1627686929838 seconds, or slightly over 10 minutes.

“All your tides are belong to us, now.”

What Fossils Did I Find?

Way back in February, I wrote about the fossils my son found. At that time, I promised him I’d do some research and find out what kind of fossils they were. To recap, here’s what they looked like:

Time passed, and he asked other questions, and I got busy studying for a certification test at work (which is why I’ve been so quiet the past few months). But finally, since I’ve had a chance to catch my breath, it’s time to answer a question: what, exactly, are those fossils?


My primary source for this is Identification Guide for Common Fossils of the Cincinnatian. Based on this guide, most of the fossils appear to be Brachiopods, most likely some species of Cincinnetina (since they’re common in the region) – from the pictures in the guide, though, they could be Platystrophia ponderosa. The point is, they’re certainly brachiopods, and they’re around 480 to 440 million years old.

To tell you the truth, my son was disappointed that he didn’t find a Tyrannosaurus Rex.  That wouldn’t be particularly likely, however, for a few reasons.  The first being that T. Rex didn’t live 440 million years ago, and the second being that if T. Rex did live 440 million years ago in Cincinnati he would have drowned.  Because Cincinnati was under water.

Map courtesy of The Paleomap Project

So, no Tyrannosaurs here.  Certainly not in the strata that was laid down on his brachiopods.

And what, exactly, is a brachiopod?

Well, Wikipedia says that brachiopods are:

…a group of lophotrochozoan animals that have hard “valves” (shells) on the upper and lower surfaces, unlike the left and right arrangement in bivalve molluscs. Brachiopod valves are hinged at the rear end, while the front can be opened for feeding or closed for protection.

“Lophotrochozoan” animals are a clade of bilaterally symmetrical animals with cillia around their middle, if that helps.

Brachiopods are related to mollusks and annelid worms (earthworms and leeches). There are around 330 living species. There were a whole lot more of them back in the past, with the greatest diversity of Brachiopods occurring in the Devonian. The Permo-Triassic mass extinction crushed a lot of that diversity, and it has never fully recovered.

Modern brachiopods feed by sucking water in through their sides, using their cilia to trap particles of food, and then expelling the water and any waste products through the front. They absorb oxygen through their skin, and have colorless blood, and some modern species can live over 30 years (assuming they aren’t eaten).

Case closed, right?

Well, except for this strange little thing:

Uhm. What is that?

I have no idea. I’m pretty sure that’s not a brachiopod. Not unless we’ve got the shell end-on, and it also folded in a pretty dramatic fashion. After some digging, I four possible candidates. Here they are.

1. It’s just a rock. Needless to say, I find that boring. It is the null hypothesis, but I don’t think it’s accurate. after all, the color resembles that of the other fossils in the piece of stone my son found. So, although it’s certainly possible, I don’t think it’s correct.

2. It’s a piece of an Isorophus cincinnatiensis. This might be a reach, because it would make it a fragment of an arm of a 440 million year old echinoderm. Pros for the argument are that it’s from the region, it’s about the right size, and it looks kind of like the arm seen in this picture. Cons for the argument include the fact that it doesn’t look a whole lot like the arm in that picture.

3. It’s a bit of coral. I couldn’t find any pictures of coral that curves like that, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

4. It’s something I can’t identify. Yes, yes, that’s an utterly lame hypothesis. But I’ve got nothing else, and I’m pretty sure it’s some flavor of fossil. So, I’ll probably just leave it at that. Unless someone reading this happens to know what that might be.

If My Hand Set On Fire, Would It Hurt?

I don’t actually remember where this question came from, or why my son asked it. I mean, I suspect it was inspired by playing a video game. Or maybe from watching cartoons. I just have “If my hand set on fire, would it hurt? How bad?” in my notes, with no context whatsoever.

That happens, sometimes. I’ve got a bunch of questions I jotted down, and many of them lack context. But, in this case, it makes a fun follow-up to my last article.

Sources of burns

To start answering his question, let’s start with how you can get burned. More things than just fire can burn you, after all – just ask your skin, after a day at the pool without sunscreen. In fact, the John Hopkins Medical Library provides four different sources of burns:

  • Thermal burns. These burns are due to heat sources which raise the temperature of the skin and tissues and cause tissue cell death or charring. Hot metals, scalding liquids, steam, and flames, when coming into contact with the skin, can cause thermal burns.
  • Radiation burns. These burns are due to prolonged exposure to ultraviolet rays of the sun, or to other sources of radiation such as X-ray.
  • Chemical burns. These burns are due to strong acids, alkalies, detergents, or solvents coming into contact with the skin or eyes.
  • Electrical burns. These burns are from electrical current, either alternating current (AC) or direct current (DC).

So, if my son’s hand was to be set on fire, he’d experience a thermal burn. Alternately, if he got a sunburn he’d have a radiation burn, if he poured lye on his hand he’d have a chemical burn, and if he stuck his finger in a live lightbulb socket he’d get an electrical burn. He’d also have parents doing their best to stay calm until he was taken care of, but that leads into an entirely different question of the “would you still love me if I did something stupid?” type.

(For the record, he’s never actually asked that question. But the answer is: “Yes, I would. I might not be happy with your behavior, but I’d still love you. Now take your fingers away from that electrical socket.”)

Ultimately, each of these sources of burns has some unique characteristics. But they all have the same basic effects.

Let’s talk about skin

Your skin has three layers: the epidermis, the dermis, and the hyodermis. The epidermis is the outer layer, composed of four to five layers of skin cells that protect the underlying layers. These cells manufacture and store keratin, a tough and fibrous protein that also (in a slightly different form) makes up our fingernails and hair and the horns of a rhinoceros. The epidermis also contains the skin pigment melanin, meaning that much of our conceptions of race aren’t even skin deep. The living layers of the epidermis are covered with layers of dead, keratinized cells that flake off over time. Beneath the epidermis is the dermis, two layers of connective tissue that contain blood and lymph vessels, nerves, hair follicles, sweat glands, and other structures. Finally, the hypodermis is connective tissue filled with more blood vessels and subcutaneous fat that serves to connect the skin to the bones and muscles.

“Solid burn, Branch.”

Returning to the John Hopkins Health Library, we learn that there are three classifications of burns – and you’ve probably heard what they are: first-degree, second-degree, and third-degree. Each of these relates to how deep the burn penetrates into the skin. First-degree burns are also referred to as superficial burns, and only affect the epidermis. It’ll be red and painful, dry to the touch, and lacking blisters.

Second-degree burns are also referred to as partial thickness burns, and both the epidermis and dermis are damaged. The skin will still appear read, but it is likely to be blistered and swollen.

Third-degree burns are also called full thickness burns, and this is where it gets really bad. The hypodermis is also damaged in a third-degree burn, and parts of the body below the hypodermis may also be involved. Parts like muscles, tendons, and bones (some sources call this a fourth-degree burn when this occurs). Third-degree burns will look whie or charred, and there tends to be no feeling in the burn site. Why? because the nerves have been destroyed.

Burns are further classified by burn percentage, which estimates the total area of the body affected by the burn. This is done on a “rule of nines”, in which body coverage is estimated in multiples of 9.

The chart doesn’t call out a hand specifically, but it would probably be considered 4.5%.

How much would it hurt?

There are a number of pain scales. The one I found first, and will be using as an example, ranks from 1-10 (well, technically 0-10, but 0 is “No pain. feeling perfectly normal.”). So, here’s the levels:

  1. Very light barely noticeable pain, like a mosquito bite or a poison ivy itch. Most of the time you never think about the pain.
  2. Minor pain, like lightly pinching the fold of skin between the thumb and first finger with the other hand, using the fingernails. Note that people react differently to this selftest
  3. Very noticeable pain, like an accidental cut, a blow to the nose causing a bloody nose, or a doctor giving you an injection. The pain is not so strong that you cannot get used to it. Eventually, most of the time you don’t notice the pain. You have adapted to it.
  4. Strong, deep pain, like an average toothache, the initial pain from a bee sting, or minor trauma to part of the body, such as stubbing your toe real hard. So strong you notice the pain all the time and cannot completely adapt. This pain level can be simulated by pinching the fold of skin between the thumb and first finger with the other hand, using the fingernails, and squeezing real hard. Note how the simulated pain is initially piercing but becomes dull after that.
  5. Strong, deep, piercing pain, such as a sprained ankle when you stand on it wrong or mild back pain. Not only do you notice the pain all the time, you are now so preoccupied with managing it that you normal lifestyle is curtailed. Temporary personality disorders are frequent.
  6. Strong, deep, piercing pain so strong it seems to partially dominate your senses, causing you to think somewhat unclearly. At this point you begin to have trouble holding a job or maintaining normal social relationships. Comparable to a bad non-migraine headache combined with several bee stings, or a bad back pain.
  7. Same as 6 except the pain completely dominates your senses, causing you to think unclearly about half the time. At this point you are effectively disabled and frequently cannot live alone. Comparable to an average migraine headache.
  8. Pain so intense you can no longer think clearly at all, and have often undergone severe personality change if the pain has been present for a long time. Suicide is frequently contemplated and sometimes tried. Comparable to childbirth or a real bad migraine headache.
  9. Pain so intense you cannot tolerate it and demand pain killers or surgery, no matter what the side effects or risk. If this doesn’t work, suicide is frequent since there is no more joy in life whatsoever. Comparable to throat cancer.
  10. Pain so intense you will go unconscious shortly. Most people have never experienced this level of pain. Those who have suffered a severe accident, such as a crushed hand, and lost consciousness as a result of the pain and not blood loss, have experienced level 10.

I couldn’t find any pain chart rankings for burn pain, partially because pain is a subjective (although real) phenomena. The Chicago Clinic explains, however, that

Burn pain can be one of the most intense and prolonged types of pain. Burn pain is difficult to control because of its unique characteristics, its changing patterns, and its various components. In addition, there is pain involved in the treatment of burns as the wounds must be cleansed and the dressings changed. Studies have concluded that the management of burn pain can be inadequate, and such studies have advocated more aggressive treatments for pain resulting from burns. Lastly, some burns can be mentally traumatic and/or physically disfiguring and lead to psychological pain that must be addressed, as well.

So there’s that.

Can Metal Turn Into Fire?

The three of us – me, my wife, and my son – are on our way home from dinner yesterday, and my son’s been talking excitedly about a video game he got to play in a store.  “And then I knocked him into the water,” he announces, “and then I knocked him into the air, and then I won!  Daddy didn’t win a lot, though.”

“I made the mistake of trying to figure out what the buttons do,” I add.  “Our son just pushed things at random.  It’s nice to see that button-mashing is still a strategy.”

“Can metal turn into fire?” my son asks.

Eh?  Where did that come from?  My wife and I look at each other quizzically.  “It can melt,” she says, slowly.

“But can it turn into fire?”

“Do you mean ‘can it burn?'” I ask.


“I… think so?”

Can metal burn?

Brief answer: Yes. And in different colors.

Like I told my son, I think so.  Long ago, I was told that burning is just a special form of oxidation (aka “rusting”).  I don’t remember who told me that, or when, or why, so I don’t know that I can trust it.  Also, I vaguely recall that thermite is a metal that burns, and that titanium can burn.  So, yeah.  I’m utterly ignorant on the subject.

Let’s start with “burning”.

Conveniently, a while back I wrote an article titled “When Ice Is On Fire, Does The Ice Melt” where I discussed the concept of burning.  Here’s what I wrote:

Burning, more properly called a combustion reaction, is a little more complicated. There’s an entire subfield of chemistry called thermochemistry that deals with burning (or, more properly, the energy release from a combustion reaction). In general, though, you need a compound to combust and an oxidant to react with the combusting compound, and some energy to get it started. The oxidant and the combusting compound then combine in a chemical reaction to produce one or more new compounds, and since the reaction is exothermic the process of making the new compound(s) generates more energy than it gives off.

Yes, that does mean that once you get a combustion reaction started it will continue as long as it has combustible compounds and oxidants. That’s why fire spreads.

It turns out that I’d missed two important concepts when I wrote that article, though:  flash point and ignition temperature.  The flash point is the lowest temperature at which a combustable substance vaporizes into an ignitable gas, while the ignition temperature is the lowest point at which a combustable substance vaporizes into a gas that will self-ignite.  Note that word “combustable”, though.  Not every substance has a flash point or ignition temperature, because some substances (such as water and other combustion reaction products) are simply not combustable.

Look, we’ve been patient.  Can metal burn?

Well, some can.  If they’re combustible, which gets to the best definition I’ve seen in a long time:  “A combustible metal is defined as any metal composed of distinct particles or pieces, regardless of shape, size or chemical composition that will burn.”  Literally, a metal is defined as a metal that can burn if it is a metal that burns.  Although, in fairness, “burns” means “sustains ignition”.

The combustible metals that are :

And because I know you’re curious, here’s some sample solid metal ignition temperatures.  Bear in mind that, for comparison purposes, a Bic lighter can reach temperatures of 3,590.6 F (1,997 C):

  • Aluminum:  1,832 F (555 C)
  • Barium:  347 F (175 C)
  • Calcium: 1,300 F (704 C)
  • Iron: 1,706 F (930 C)
  • Lithium: 356 F (180 C)
  • Magnesium: 1,153 F (623 C)
  • Plutonium: 1,112 F (600 C)
  • Potassium: 156 F (69 C)
  • Sodium: 239 F (115 C)
  • Strontium: 1,328 F (720 C)
  • Thorium: 932 F (500 C)
  • Titanium: 2,900 F (1,593 C)
  • Uranium: 6,900 F (3,815 C)
  • Zinc: 1,652 F (900 C)
  • Zirconium: 2,552 F (1,400 C)

Hang on.  I have so many questions now.

Yeah, probably.  Let me anticipate them.

A metal doesn’t have to be a “combustible metal” to burn.  Any number of other metals will burn as well, but only as long as you apply heat.  Combustible metals, however, sustain burning even after the outside heat source is removed.  Aluminum will burn like a log, but copper will only burn as long as you apply sufficient heat.

Your pocket lighter will probably not set your cast iron skillet on fire, for the same reason that it will not set a log on fire.  A significant percentage of the object that you are trying to burn has to be heated to the flash point before it will catch fire.  You could probably set a super-thin iron wire on fire with a lighter, but you’d need a larger and sustained flame to ignite something big.


Oh, and here’s two more useful facts to know:

  • “Burning combustible metals can extract water from concrete, intensifying burning to cause spalling and explosion of the concrete.”
  • “Water applied to alkali metals will result in hazardous decomposition, ignition or explosion.  Alkali metals include lithium, sodium, potassium, cesium and francium.”

So, if you do manage to set your cheap fake diamond on fire?  Call a professional.


Why Does Size Matter Not?

I’ve been home sick for a couple of days, and I’m feeding my son breakfast before getting him off to kindergarten and then collapsing on the couch. He loves it. He’s taking the opportunity to ask me questions (“how would you blow up a planet?”), and talk to me, and show off his progress reading.

“Dad,” he asks, “what did Yoda mean when he told Luke that size matters not when your ally is the Force?”

“Well, son,” I say, trying to use this as a teaching moment, “it’s all about how he lifted the X-wing. Did he use his muscles, and drag it out of the swamp?”

“No,” my son said.

“You’re right. He used the Force.” I leaned forward, just a little. “And he meant that, if you believe in yourself and believe you can succeed, you can do anything you want.”

He considered that, then last ones at me. “Dad?”

“Yes, son?”

“Would you rather fly an X-wing, or the Death Star?”

This is going to be a little different, isn’t it?

Yep. Believe it or not, this isn’t a science blog. It’s a blog dedicated to trying to answer my son’s questions. It’s just that, most of the time, he asks questions that I can answer with science.

Size matters not

This really isn’t one of those questions. I mean, sure. There are probably studies on confidence and how it generates success. But that’s not the point, not really.

My son is six. To him, the world is a huge, exciting place filled with wonder and possibility and excitement. And, thanks to him, I’m being reminded that the world is filled with wonder and possibility and excitement. So, as I see it, it’s my job to encourage him and teach him and help him take advantage of everything the world offers.

That starts with confidence.

See, I’m well aware that there are things that are by definition impossible. But I’m also aware that, all too often, we look at things that are merely difficult and declare them “impossible”. “I can’t get out of debt.” “My family can’t make it on one income.” “I’ll never get in shape.” “I’ll never be able to retire.” A million fears become a million reasons to never try.

I don’t want my son to learn that. Not from me, anyway. “Dad,” he’ll say, “I’m going to build a robot!” Or he’ll declare to me that he’s going to build a speeder bike, or a lightsaber, or buy a house next to us so we won’t get lonely, or that he’s going to fly. And it would be easy to accidentally crush his dreams, in the name of “teaching” him.  Instead, I try to respond with this: “Cool! That might be hard, though. How should we start?”

“So certain are you. Always with you it cannot be done. Hear you nothing that I say?”

For the record, we have never built a robot, or a speeder bike, or a lightsaber that works outside our imaginations. That’s mostly due to the fact that sticks and rocks and Legos and paper aren’t the optimal components for such things. But we’ve spent hours working on them, and chasing each other with them, and playing and learning.

My son’s got plenty of time to learn that some things may very well be actually impossible. Right now, though, he’s learning a more important lesson: if you fail, and you still want to do it, try doing it a different way.

“Size matters not, when your ally is the Force.” Sure, I can’t teach my son to move an X-wing with his mind. But I can teach him that it can be moved, and that he can use his mind to figure out the way. And I can teach him to try again, and try something different, if he doesn’t succeed. And to remember that you don’t fail unless you give up.

In the process, maybe I’ll learn it again for myself.