Local author and educator Meg Thacher was recently announced as a finalist for the 2022 American Association for the Advancement in Science and Subaru Prize for Excellence in Science Books. Thacher’s children’s book, “Sky Gazing,” is nominated in the Hands-On Science Book category. 

The book offers a tour of our solar system and teaches sky gazers how to find planets and constellations in both hemispheres.

Thacher, who is also an instructor in the Astronomy department at Smith College, joined Zydalis Bauer to share more about “Sky Gazing” and this national recognition.  

Read the full transcript:

Zydalis Bauer, Connecting Point: Local author and educator Meg Thacher was recently announced as a finalist for the 2022 American Association for the Advancement in Science and Subaru Prize for Excellence in Science Books.

Her children’s book, entitled “Sky Gazing”, is nominated in the hands-on science book category. It offers a tour of our Solar System and teaches sky gazers how to find planets and constellations in both hemispheres.

Thacher, who is also an instructor in the astronomy department at Smith College, joins me to talk more about the book and this national recognition.

Meg Thacher, Author & Educator: I’ve always wanted to write a book for kids about doing astronomy in the city, because you can’t see as many things. And a lot of people think that you can’t do astronomy in the city at all, but you can see the Sun and the Moon, and some really bright stars and planets, and even the International Space Station going overhead.

So, I wanted to write a book about that. And I’ve been writing for magazines, for kids magazines, for about three years, and suddenly out of the blue, Deb Burns, who is an acquiring editor at Story Publishing, contacted me and said, “Hey, you teach astronomy and you write for kids. Could you write us an astronomy book for kids?”

And it was just it was perfect timing for all of us.

Zydalis Bauer: You have a degree in physics, a master’s degree in astrophysics, have studied astronomy and are currently teaching that at Smith College.

Where did your interest in science begin?

Meg Thacher: Well, it probably began when I was a kid. I’ve always been curious about how things work. My dad used to always take us on nature walks when we were kids, and my mom always liked math.

Then, when I went to college, I took physics classes and I just loved it, and I had a wonderful astronomy professor, and that’s just how I got interested in it.

Zydalis Bauer: It’s been history ever since, right?

Meg Thacher: Absolutely.

Zydalis Bauer: Now, speaking of that interest that begins as a child — which I think it happens for so many of us. I know my daughter right now, it’s like one science experiment and she wants to be a scientist. You mentioned that you wrote for children’s magazines, and this book is targeted for kids age nine through fourteen years old.

What is it that you love so much about targeting and writing to this age demographic?

And in turn, what challenges come up trying to explain these complex concepts in a way that these children can actually comprehend?

Meg Thacher: They just really love communicating about something I love, in terms that are really compelling for kids and really meaningful and exciting for them. What’s challenging for this demographic, really, is writing about science in a way that’s understandable to kids, and that means definitely using vocabulary that’s age appropriate, and making sure that I write to the proper reading level. That for me is the hardest part.

But you also have to make sure that you’re writing about concepts that kids understand at this age. Like, I can’t talk about nuclear fusion to five year olds, right? But I can talk to them about observing the Moon.

So, it’s really trying to trying to keep it age appropriate, as much as possible, that’s the challenge. And it’s a fun challenge for me.

Zydalis Bauer: And I know that you’ve also described astronomy as a gateway science.

So, can you expand a little bit on what that means to you and why do you think astronomy is so compelling for us all?

Meg Thacher: Well, I call astronomy a gateway science — and I don’t think that I’ve made up that term, by the way. I think a lot of people call it that.

So, kids, kids just love space. They also love dinosaurs and they love giant machines. And so these are topics that we can use to get kids interested in other science. And it also inspires wonder.

Astronomy provides a lot of different ways in for kids. So, there are some kids who are interested in space travel, and there are other kids who are interested in the stories that people make up about the constellations. There are some kids that just love it when stuff blows up, and that happens a lot in astronomy. And the night sky is very beautiful.

So — so, I think there are lots of different ways for kids to connect with astronomy, and that’s one thing that makes it compelling.

Zydalis Bauer: And let’s talk about some of those different ways that kids can connect with astronomy through your book, because this book is nominated in the hands-on science book category for this award.

So, in what ways will readers experience some hands-on activities through your book, “Sky Gazing”?

Meg Thacher: Each chapter is about a different topic of — different type of sky object. So, the Sun, the Moon, the planets, and the stars. And I talk about how to observe them, and where to look for them in the sky, how to find them.

But there are sky charts in the star and constellation chapter. Every chapter also has a little section about how to observe these objects with binoculars, and I also have some special events and tell people how they can safely observe solar eclipses, and when they should look for meteor showers, and how to observe those. So, that’s why it’s hands on.

It also has just a lot of information so people can flip through and say, “Oh, I want to know about what happens at the end of a star’s life,” and you can flip to that section.

Zydalis Bauer: The other thing that I really love about this book is how inclusive it is with the entire Earth, right? So you’re including not just our hemisphere.

What was what was the decision making behind that to add that into the book and include other people, the world really, in this book?

Meg Thacher: I want all kids to be astronomers, not just American kids! Not just kids living somewhere where the sky is very dark.

I’m always very careful when I’m talking about astronomy to say, “Now this is what it looks like in the northern hemisphere. If you were in the southern hemisphere, it would look like this,” and it just seemed to naturally flow out of the way I usually teach, and the way that I usually talk about astronomy.

Zydalis Bauer: In addition to teaching astronomy at Smith, you also are the academic director for their summer science and engineering program for high school girls.

What advice would you give to children and young adults who have an interest in science and possibly pursuing a career in science one day?

Meg Thacher: I would just say, “be curious.” That’s what got me into science. Just thinking about why is that? what’s happening right now?

Stay open minded as well. I know a lot of kids are really interested in one particular kind of science, but that can change over your life, and that’s OK.

I would also tell kids, don’t be afraid of math. When you’re in elementary school, math is mostly addition and subtraction, facts, and learning your multiplication tables. And that’s not really the main idea of math. Math really is the language of science.

So, astronomy is math and algebra and geometry and calculus and all kinds of different things. So — so, math is a lot more than just what you’re learning in school to make sure that you get a good grade on the test. It’s very expansive.

Zydalis Bauer: The American Association for the Advancement of Science, which presents the award that you have been nominated for, it really emphasizes the importance of good science literature and encouraging children — and actually people of all ages — to explore that literature.

What do you hope that children, adults, families gain from your book?

Meg Thacher: Well, of course, I want them all to learn about astronomy. And get interested in astronomy, and become astronomers, so we’ll have more astronomers and more people studying it.

But really, the other thing is, I just want everybody to go outside and enjoy the night sky with their friends and their family. It’s part of our heritage as human beings. I mean, the oldest stories that that people have told are about the stars. And they were ways of figuring out what was going on in the world.

It’s the oldest science, so it’s really — as a human, you should go out and look at the stars as often as you possibly can.