Solar Science with Dr. E
Exploring Mars with rovers, designing better mission instruments, and researching asteroids keeps Bethany Ehlmann busy. Not too busy, though, to devote hundreds of evening and weekend hours to producing a children’s book—Dr. E’s Super Stellar Solar System—with National Geographic Children’s Books.
“Communicating what we do in planetary science is so important because it’s some of the most inspiring scientific work there is,” says Ehlmann, a professor of planetary science and a JPL research scientist. “We’re pushing boundaries and learning things we never knew.”
In the normal course of things, Ehlmann shares her knowledge of science through talks and lectures. The genesis of this recently published book came in 2013, when she was named an Emerging Explorer by the National Geographic Society, an accolade bestowed for outstanding work in the fields covered by the magazine.
Nat Geo asked Ehlmann to collaborate on a story-centered science book aimed at 8-to-12-year-olds. To draw in its young audience, the content is presented in a variety of ways—through comic strips, themed text, activities, and scientist profiles. Ehlmann herself appears as “Dr. E,” complete with infrared glasses and a superhero cape, and is accompanied on her adventures by a trusty robotic sidekick, Rover.
“It’s not a single narrative,” says Ehlmann. “It’s something you can hop around in. Images from missions and infographics delve into all the processes that shape planets. Some parts are more story driven. Others offer activities that are more hands on. The idea is to appeal to different styles of learners.”
For profiles, Ehlmann highlighted contemporary scientists—including Caltech’s Mike Brown and Konstantin Batygin—rather than “the old tried and true” astronomers from the 1500s and 1600s like Copernicus and Galileo.
What does Ehlmann hope her young readers will take away? “A continued sense of curiosity and an awareness that it’s in our power to learn still more about the mysteries out there. Science is not a collection of dry facts to be memorized. It’s a dynamic means of understanding the universe. And I hope they learn that science is fun, too.”
For Ehlmann, working on the publication has been eye-opening. “You can get really focused on being an expert on your own little part of the vast enterprise,” she notes. “Sometimes you need to step back. There’s nothing like having to explain to an 8-year-old to get you thinking of the big picture.”