Date: March 16, 2010

Title: Scouting Merit Badge


Podcaster: Damian Handzy

Description: A Ukrainian boy scout troop describes what it takes to earn the merit badge in Astronomy, and their counselor talks about how important it is to have knowledgeable people instructing scouts in the sciences. The scouts cover requirements about the constellations, the moon, the sun and the planets.

Bio: Luca Iwasykiw, 13, lives in Westchester and goes to school in New York City. Matthew Handzy, 13, lives in New Jersey, where he also goes to 7th grade. Ihor Shuhan, 13, lives and goes to school in upstate New York. Despite their geographic dispersion, these three boys belong to the same Ukrainian boyscout troop, in Passaic, New Jersey. Plast, The Ukrainian Scouting Organization is a member of the International Scouts. The main difference between it and your local scouts is that our meetings and camps are held in the Ukrainian language. These three boys are in the process of earning the merit badge in Astronomy with their counselor Damian Handzy.

Today’s sponsor: This episode of “365 Days of Astronomy” is sponsored by Check out the site for the soon to be published sci-fi thriller by RC Davison, “Orbital Maneuvers”. The novel follows a space shuttle crew’s struggle for survival after being stranded in orbit by a devastating asteroid impact on the United States. Shuttle commander, Susan Corin must not only contend with the aftermath of the disaster, and a damaged shuttle, but must deal with a crew member whose homicidal actions have put the rest of the crew in grave danger. At the website you can read the first 3 chapters of the book, read background information about the space shuttle, the International Space Station, asteroid impacts and more, as well as sign up to be notified when the book is published. Thanks to 365 Days of Astronomy for bringing this wonderful source of information about space and astronomy to the public.


Hi, this is Damian Handzy. In my first 365 days of astronomy podcast last year, I mentioned that I am a scoutmaster who uses astronomy, among other sciences, to promote rational thinking and humanism. As a scoutmaster, I have an opportunity to show young people who are otherwise steeped in traditional modes of thinking that an evidence and reason based approach to forming, holding and in my opinion most importantly discarding beliefs is the only one that has actually been shown to improve the lives of real people. Astronomy is a great tool to help demonstrate this approach simply because it’s fun, and it’s easily accessible. The examples of discarding age-old beliefs in the face of newer and more accurate information is plentiful in Astronomy.

Last summer, I spent time at several Ukrainian scouting camps with my telescope showing kids from age 7 to 18 the moons of Jupiter and our own moons’ craters. I even spent an entire day inside an inflatable planetarium giving over 20 shows, each lasting about 25 minutes. This year, my troop of Ukrainian scouts is working on earning the merit badge for Astronomy, which has a number of requirements for them to demonstration knowledge and skill in this field. Even though we hold our meetings and camps in the Ukrainian language, we’re making an exception for this podcast. I asked the scouts to pick one of the requirements for the merit badge each that they thought could be explained in a podcast.

In doing this podcast, my hope is not only that my scouts do something memorable and creative in the course of earning this merit badge, but that you, the listeners, who have telescopes and who enjoy interacting with kids consider contacting their local scouting chapters to volunteer – Astronomy really is a great way to introduce all kids to the notions of scientific thinking and rational evidence-based thinking, and I will argue that organizations like the scouts are in more need of such introduction than other organizations that have already embraced these notions and incorporated them into their regular programs.

I’ve aksed each one of these 13 year old boys to put into their own words the answers to the requirements they chose. As you listen to them express their comprehension, I encourage you to think about how you might go about helping children this age, or any age for that matter, to better understand that natural world.

First up is Luca, who’s going to talk about the requirement to know about the constellations.

Hi my name is Luca Iwasykiw. On a clear night you can see thousands of pinpoints of light that we now know are massive and extremely hot stars. People have been gazing at these stars for millions of years. In ancient times, people watched the sky and saw that stars moved in set patterns across the sky. Some stars rose in the east, moved across the sky and set in the west. Night after night, the stars appeared in the same patterns in the sky. Astronomers in ancient times drew star maps which helped them remember where and when they would see the same stars in the night sky. The astronomers divided the sky into small parts and within those parts they put the stars into smaller groups called constellations, each with its own name and story. Obviously, constellations only suggest the things they represent and they are entirely the creation of human imagination. Constellations are named after dogs, fish, bear, people and birds. There are also fictitious creatures like the dragon and the Centaur – a half-man / half-horse creature from mythology. Astronomers gave constellations Latin names such as Canis Major which means Big Dog and Pisces, the Fish. The constellation Cancer means crab, Taurus means the bull while the constellation Orion is the name of a hunter in ancient stories. Astronomers made drawings to show how the stars of each constellation represented a picture. For example, the constellation Leo forms a picture of a lion; the stars of Cygnus are inside a picture of a swan. The bull Taurus is right next to Orion on the sky. The picture of Taurus shows it charging at Orion. The hunter Orion is pictured with a club to fight the bull, Taurus.

In 1928 The International Astronomical Union, an organization made up of astronomers from all over the world, decided on 88 official constellations. The following constellations can be found in the Northern sky: Ursa Major (the Great Bear), Ursa Minor (the Little bear), Cygnus (the Swan), Vulpecula (the Fox), Leo (the Lion), Taurus (the Bull), Gemini (the Twins), and Draco (the Drgaon). The following constellations can be found in the Southern sky: Scorpius (the Scorpion), Lupus (the Wolf); Canis Major (the Great Dog), Lepus (the Hare), Volans (the Flying Fish), Pavo (the Peacock), and Cetus (the Whale).

Next is Matthew, who’s talking about the planets.

Hi. My name is Matt. Our troop is doing the merit badge astronomy. In Ukrainian, it’s ‘Astronomia’. The requirement I’ll be speaking about is to know all the visible planets. I’m not sure why they don’t want you to know all the planets. Maybe it’s time to update the requirement. In this brief segment, I’m not going to have the time to cover all of the visible planets. OK, let’s start with Mercury. Then we’ll talk about Venus and Earth, and then we’ll finish it off with Jupiter.

Mercury’s mass is only 5% of earth’s, but it’s also much smaller. It’s so much smaller that 100 pounds on Earth weighs about 38 pounds on Mercury. Also, the substances in the core are the same as the substances in Earth’s core. Our counselor, who’s also my dad, says that that’s because all the planets formed out of the same swirling mass of gas but their distances from the hot sun determined what kinds of matter could become solid when they formed. Mercury’s diameter is very small – only 3,000 miles. That’s like from Maine to LA. Now, onto Venus.

Venus’s diameter is only 400 miles less than Earth’s diameter. That means that Venus’s diameter is 7,600 miles. Also, if you weighed 100 pounds on Earth, you would weight 10 pounds less on Venus – about 91 pounds. Venus sounds a lot like Earth, except it’s not. Even though Venus is not the closest planet to the sun, it sure is the hottest. Venus’s clouds trap heat and make it a runaway green house. The atmosphere pushes down on the surface of Venus with 90 times more pressure than our atmosphere and it’s made of CO2, which is also poisonous. It gets up to about 900 degrees Fahrenheit there, hot enough to melt metal. Let’s talk about Earth now.

It has a diameter of 8,000 miles, which is like going from NYC to LA about 3 times. Also, if you can believe it, Earth is 93 million miles from the sun. That’s like going from NYC to LA 37,000 times! Since 1 year is actually 365 and ¼ days, we add another day in February every 4 years to make up for that lost distance. Last but not least, Jupiter.

Jupiter has a red eye storm that has been raging for over 400 years! That means it was there when the Declaration of Independence was being signed. CRAZY! Also, Jupiter has the most amount of moons – 63. Even more amazing – there may be even more moons we haven’t discovered yet. One of Jupiter’s moons is bigger than the planet Mercury! One day on Jupiter is about 10 hours. That may seem short, but the years are long there – about 12 earth years. Well, that sums up my part of the podcast.

And finally, we’re going to hear from Ihor, who’s going to talk about the moon.

I’m Ihor Shuhan. To do the moon I had to sketch it, showing 5 seas and craters. I had to label them. The ‘man in the moon’s face’ is made of lunar seas. They are not like our earthly seas – they have no water. The seas are much bigger and more visible than the craters. Then I still have to draw the moon in the same place for an hour for a week. I have to include trees and buildings on the horizon. And then tell the changes I observe. The Earth’s gravity pulls on the moon and keeps it in orbit. There are first-quarter, third-quarter, full and new moons. Please don’t laugh – our instructor took some balls and made a small model of the sun, Earth and moon for us. It didn’t make it any clearer than I already knew. I then described the sun’s composition – Hydrogen, Helium, Oxygen, Carbon, etc. the sun is medium sized to other stars. An effect the sun has on Earth’s weather is ocean currents. A sun spot is a storm that has been raging and thundering and roaring for thousands of years. Some are bigger than Mercury.

I had to identify one red star – Betelgeuse. Betelgeuse is 1,000 times the size of the sun, and if it were in our solar system, it would reach to Jupiter. Even though it is so big, it does not emit so much light as the sun. a blue star is Sirius and a yellow star is Capella. Capella is a cluster of stars – I’m not sure exactly how many are yellow, but some are. Ever wonder why a blue star is blue and a red is red? Blue stars are blue because of their surface temperature and mass. Yellow stars are medium and actually look yellow, like the sun. Red stars are coolest and have less mass. I got most of my info off of the Internet, from my dad, and from my very own noggin.

So there you have it. Scouting merit badges are designed to give children an introduction to the specific topic, and for many scouts this will form their first impression of Astronomy. For this reason alone, I think it’s important to have people with accurate information who can convey a real sense of wonder and awe at nature giving these scouts that first and lasting impression. Won’t you join me and be one of them?

End of podcast:

365 Days of Astronomy
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