'An Earthling's Guide to Outer Space' Tackles Cosmic Questions from Kids and Teens

 The cover of "An Earthling's Guide to Outer Space: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Black Holes, Dwarf Planets, Aliens and More" (Simon & Schuster Canada, 2019) by Bob McDonald.
The cover of "An Earthling's Guide to Outer Space: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Black Holes, Dwarf Planets, Aliens and More" (Simon & Schuster Canada, 2019) by Bob McDonald. (Image credit: Simon & Schuster Canada)

Canadian science journalist Bob McDonald said he's always liked the question-and-answer format in books and interviews, because it's what scientists use in their investigations — and it's how kids learn.

So, the host of Canada's national radio station (CBC) show "Quirks and Quarks" created a whole Q&A book to answer questions about space targeted at kids and young teenagers, between ages 8 and 14. It's called "An Earthling's Guide to Outer Space" (Simon & Schuster Canada, 2019), and it is available for purchase Tuesday (Oct. 22).

"I just talk to them and use plain language," McDonald told Space.com about speaking with kids. "I try to stay away from all the scientific jargon. It [the book] is not a textbook. It's an introduction to space, and hopefully they'll take it from there."

Related: Best Space Books for Kids

Canadian journalist Bob McDonald has covered space exploration for about 40 years and now has a new book for kids. (Image credit: Bob McDonald)

McDonald has been popularizing science for kids (and adults) for more than a generation. In the 1980s, he was a docent at the Ontario Science Centre, a major museum in Toronto. After moving into journalism, he hosted "Wonderstruck," a series aimed at teaching children about science, on CBC Television between 1986 and 1992. The inspiration for this new book came from the "Heads Up!" science series, a kids' show he hosted on Canadian educational station TVOntario between 2005 and 2008. 

McDonald is also a bestselling science author, with titles such as "Canadian Spacewalkers" (Douglas & McIntyre, 2014) and "Measuring the Earth With a Stick" (Puffin Canada, 2001). For his latest book, he decided to take a "participational approach" to encourage kids not only to read the information, but also to conduct science experiments based on some ideas in the book. One fun idea is constructing a garbage can "gravity well," for example.

McDonald said the more theoretical questions were also a lot of fun, such as the chapter about figuring out Earth's cosmic address. "It took us a long time to figure that out and where we actually live," he said, adding that, for millennia, most people believed Earth was at the center of the universe. It took even more time to wrap our heads around the fact that there are galaxies other than our own and that the universe is 13.8 billion years old.

While the technology for teaching kids may have changed in the last 40 years, McDonald said that kids haven't changed from when he started teaching them in the 1980s. "The difference is there's so much information available that they can find something on their phone, but it doesn't always stick," he said. The book is meant to encourage kids to think beyond memorizing facts and to come to a real understanding of how the universe works, he said.

McDonald recalled a letter he received from a parental fan of "Wonderstruck" who watched one of the regular kitchen-demonstration segments on the show that McDonald did in his own home. "They said, 'Thank you for the program. The beauty of your show is it keeps teaching after the television is turned off.'" He said that he hopes the same thing will happen with the new book.

"An Earthling's Guide to Outer Space"

Buy "An Earthling's Guide to Outer Space: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Black Holes, Dwarf Planets, Aliens, and More" (Simon & Schuster Canada, 2019) by Bob McDonald on Amazon.com. The hardcover is $24.99, and it's also available on Kindle for $12.99.

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for Space.com for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: https://qoto.org/@howellspace