Archive for Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Eureka! How to answer the baby question

February 21, 2007

"Mommy, where do babies come from?"

For many parents, this is the question that strikes fear in our hearts, especially if the wee inquisitor is a bit too young to learn about the facts of life. But for those of you who are in the midst of this conundrum or for those who have small children and are awaiting that fateful day, there's hope! Read up and commit the information in this article to memory, because you don't know when and where they'll strike -- and you must be prepared.

If as a parent you feel it's a little too early for your munchkin to know the nitty-gritty about human reproduction, we'll borrow a page out of the politician's playbook; that is, we'll answer the question without answering the question. We'll be truthful to be sure (OK, that part isn't in the playbook), and we'll answer with sound science (that's why this topic is here and not in Ann Landers), but we'll tap-dance around the core issue. So here's how it works: when little Bobby or Susie hits you with The Question, you'll give them a brief history of the universe.t goes something like this.

We are all made up of atoms. An atom is an element, which is a substance with certain properties that cannot be reduced to a simpler substance chemically. An element's properties are determined and defined by the number of protons present in the atom of that particular element. The six most common elements in the human body are (with the number of protons given in parentheses), in order, oxygen (8), carbon (6), hydrogen (1), nitrogen (7), calcium (20), and phosphorus (15). Other important elements that we need in smaller amounts include sodium (11), potassium (19), iron (26), sulfur (16), and so on.

The lightest elements (chiefly hydrogen and helium) were produced in the Big Bang about 13.7 billion years ago. These two elements remain the most abundant in the universe, accounting for 99 percent of all atoms. Heavier elements were formed much later in the furnaces of stars, with the smaller stars generating enough energy to fuse smaller atoms into larger ones up to a certain size. For example, two hydrogen atoms with one proton each fused to form helium, which contains two protons, two helium atoms fused to form beryllium with four protons, and so on. This nuclear fusion process releases a great deal of energy, which is what allows the stars to shine and hydrogen bombs to explode, so you can imagine the immense power in such a system. Our sun, a very average star in an average galaxy, has a surface temperature of 6,000 degrees. In the hidden interior where sunlight is being generated, however, the thermometer tops out at 40 million degrees! As the stars became hotter and more massive during successive stages of stellar progression, smaller atoms were converted into larger ones up to the size of iron by this same nuclear fusion process. For atoms larger than iron (gold, lead, and uranium, for example), more energy is required than a typical star can provide. That task is left to the supernova, a stellar explosion so great and powerful that it would take our sun 10 billion years to produce that much energy.

So when little Bobby or Susie asks where babies come from, go outside on a clear, dark night, point up at the panorama of stars and say: "You were made in the heavens." Hopefully, this obscure but interestingly truthful answer will satisfy your little nipper, if only temporarily.

The late, great Carl Sagan wasn't too far off when he said: "In order to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe." And speaking of Sagan, one of the best resources if you are interested in learning more about our universe is his classic book (and award-winning mini-series) "Cosmos." If the Tonganoxie Library doesn't have a copy, I will be happy to donate one; it's that good.

As always, please feel free to e-mail me with feedback or questions to

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