While scientists trumpet the potential catastrophic results of a supervolcano causing planetary extinction, parents should not be too quick to jump on the story as science fair fodder for their kids, because this news could be a snooze thanks to YouTube science fare.
The annual rite of passage for parents and kids – the school science fair – is coming up later this month. So, when I read the BBC News report this morning stating that it is much more likely than once believed that a “supervolcano” – like the one underneath Yellowstone National Park – could explode and wipe out civilization as we know it, the first thing I did was tell my son Quin, 10.
None of my sons have ever wanted to build a science fair volcano, like the one my dad and I made together years ago, because it seems they have become so cliché.
Quin’s project is on making a “true mirror” by placing two mirrors at right angles in order to counter the reversal that a common mirror makes of our reflection. He’d seen a Vsauce video on YouTube about why people don’t like what they see when looking at photos or videos of themselves. That’s because the mirror shows us a reverse or “untrue” image of ourselves, which we come to know and accept.
“I’d rather see how I really look than make some boring, goopy red mess all over the table,” Quin explained.
Maybe I was being a little childish in offering the supervolcano news this morning, hoping he’d see mom’s idea wasn’t lame after all.
Because this is about something I believed was cutting edge, I expected him to erupt with excitement, amazement, scientific curiosity, and wonder.
“Meh,” he said with a shrug. “When you think about it, it’s not nearly as scary as the ones on Mars. If the biggest one on Mars erupts it could turn the planet inside-out.”
Okay, but we don’t live on Mars.
And, according to a recent study published by ETH Zurich, cited in the BBC report, a supervolcano doesn't need additional factors other than its size to erupt.
"Once you get enough melt, you can start an eruption just like that," the study's lead author Wim Malfait told the BBC.
There are about 20 known supervolcanoes on Earth – including Lake Toba in Indonesia, Lake Taupo in New Zealand, and the somewhat smaller Phlegraean Fields near Naples, Italy.
None of this impressed Quin, because he is a modern geek-child with Internet access and an insatiable hunger for science factoids.
The child looked me straight in the eye and said the word, “Yawn!”
“Mom, seriously, Mars has the largest supervolcano in the SOLAR SYSTEM, called Olympus Mons,” Quin said heatedly. “THE SOLAR SYSTEM! It’s actually three-times taller than our planet’s biggest one, in Hawaii!”
Embarrassingly, I had to look that up. He was talking about Mauna Loa, and he was right.
You’d think an extinction-level event for our species would be a revelation to a child of 10, yet I was the one who got schooled as Quin spewed volcano facts at me.
Apparently, he’s not spending as much of his time online gaming as I thought, but rather has become a skilled researcher, and has even modeled a Martian supervolcano on Minecraft.
His volcanic-fact spew was often punctuated with verbal footnotes referring to a science video from The Discovery Channel on YouTube and the website Stumbleupon.com, which directed him to a host of “deadliest space phenomenon” videos.
Supervolcanic cataclysm had been news to Quin 10 months ago.
I suppose the lesson I learned this morning is that the science of parenting is ever evolving. As Henry David Thoreau once wrote, "It's not what you look at that matters, it's what you see."
I saw my child on the computer for long stretches and dragged him away because I thought I was looking at a kid wasting time and rotting his brain.
Apparently what I needed was a “true mirror” to see how my perception of my child’s interests differed from what was right in front of my eyes.