Exploring the Cosmos in the stacks

This column, part of the monthly Heavy Metal Librarian series, originally ran in the Get Out! section of the Green Valley News on February 25, 2024. The series is authored by Charlie Touseull, Tween/Teen Librarian at Sahuarita Library. 

Like a million other kids of the 1970’s, I became fascinated with science and technology because of my love for Star Wars. I must have seen that movie in the theatre about 10 times. The special effects were just amazing! I thought to myself, how did they do that?!  What is light speed? Is there life on other planets?! With each viewing of that galactic epic my curiosity about the science behind the film grew stronger and deeper.

As I expressed my growing interest in science, my parents encouraged that critical exploration of the mysteries of the universe by taking me to the library to check out a lot of books about astronomy, physics, geology, and what made the world that we lived on such an incredible place. I needed to know more about galaxies far far away, I needed to know more about the Milky Way, our solar system, the sun, the planets, but especially about the world I lived in, the world where the film was made.

Indulging in the world of science fiction as a young person served as a catalyst into a whole new world of discovery. I was able to indulge in tales of fantastical lands and creatures and the outlandish adventures of otherworldly heroes engaged in extraterrestrial struggles and adventures in order to find parallels to what was happening here on earth. Through those outlandish tales, I was able to explore the science behind it all, what truths were behind those possibilities of space travel, the possibilities of life on other planets, and how humans could one day travel beyond the moon, and the cultural connections that linked film to reality. To explore these and other things, those forays into learning involved using my library card at my local branch.

Exploring the shelves of the public library was not just a moment for research, but it was a time to hang out with my family, my friends, and connect with them over things that sparked our imaginations and interests in the world around us. It served as a conduit, a way to initiate those discussions about where humanity would be headed in the future and how our community would deal with that changing world. Libraries will always hold that ability to bridge the ages and to spark wonder in what was and what could be.

Around the time that The Empire Strikes Back was released in the summer of 1980, there was more popular representation about science in the popular media. I became obsessed with Carl Sagan and his television series Cosmos. He was the rare individual who could distill a vast world of complex scientific information and distill it so that novices could find an entryway into the scientific disciplines that were fueling revolutionary discoveries throughout the sciences. His voice reminded me of Mr. Rogers, except that I was learning about the vastness of the universe, but still being exposed to the empathy and lessons of the interconnectivity of all things.

In the book Cosmos, Sagan wrote, “The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.”

Other scientists who found mainstream notoriety and influence and who also walked a similar path as Carl Sagan include, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye The Science Guy, Stephen Hawking,  and Richard Feynman. Their books and the media presence of these persons so dedicated to learning about the mysteries of the universe continue to inspire countless young people to explore the worlds of science, technology, art, and math (S.T.E.A.M.) in countless ways.

At public libraries, we always encourage our patrons to find their passions and explore our collection to find that next big thing that excites them and sets them down a path of discovery and wonder. We do that by providing access to both print and eBooks, offering access to a vast array of educational databases, and by promoting events that bring together the public and educational institutions, in order to promote the love of lifelong learning.

In continuance of that tradition of exploration and discovery, Sahuarita Library will host a S.T.E.A.M. Maker Fair on February 29 from 4:30 to 7 pm. The fair is being held in collaboration with Sahuarita High School and Walden Grove High School. This interactive event is free and open to the public.

At the Maker Fair many different types of the sciences will be represented and presented in a way that learners of all ages can participate and engage with. We will be working with students and educators from Sahuarita area schools, as well as presenters from the Pima County area to inspire you with their scientific skills.

We will have on exhibit various science experiments on display, in addition to demonstrations of the scientific method, art exhibits, 3D printers, robotics, and seedling giveaways.  We will even have a sewing exhibit, a telescope to use, and other interesting things to spark the imagination. 

The Sonoran Southwest is a premier destination for the sciences. For example,  within a short drive from our library, we have several world class optical science institutions operating here. Kitt Peak Observatory is just a short drive away, and at the University of Arizona they have one of the most prestigious mirror labs in the world that operates underneath the football stadium. The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is another location that promotes the science of the southwest, and you can get a free pass to explore it with the Library's Culture Passes.

It is only through curiosity, exploration, and discussion that novices can find an entryway into the world of science. Libraries exist as equitable spaces in order to fuel that interactive growth and make it so that all members of our community can have equal opportunity to reach those heights necessary to become proficient enough in sciences to influence the next generation of thinkers, doers, and dreamers. Since not everyone has the ability to spend countless dollars on an ever-expanding bookshelf or tuition to a expensive educational institution, public libraries provide free access to that vast wealth of cumulative knowledge that humans have cultivated over time.

Either through our curated collection spread out over 27 branches, or through Interlibrary Loan, you can get a world class education through the public library, if you wanted to, that would make Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting say, “How you like them apples?”

We hope to see you at our second annual S.T.E.A.M Maker Fair on Thursday, February 29 from 4:30 to 7 pm to find an intergenerational connection to the sciences and the world around us and keep that spark and spirit of innovation and discovery bright.