Convincing the Skeptics

May 2016 Science Snacks

Author Marianne Dyson’s Science Snacks Newsletter

Howdy, and a special welcome to those of you who subscribed via the Rice/Ride Family STEM Festival, the Texas Library Association conference, or the Ohioana Book Festival in April. I hope you enjoy your first science “snack.”


Caption: At the Ohioana Book Festival Panel on Nonfiction for Young Readers, all the authors agreed that it is critical to get experts to check the facts before publishing. Left to Right: Nancy Roe Pimm, Marianne Dyson (standing), Julie Rubini, Carmella Van Vleet, Kerrie Logan. Photo © Marianne Dyson.

Convincing the Skeptics

How might a future Martian prove to skeptics back on Earth that she is really on Mars?

This question is addressed in my story, “Dropping the Martian Ball” included in The Callahan Kids: Tales of Life on Mars anthology. The main character, eleven-year-old Mariah, is challenged by a “celebrity teen” on Earth to prove that her recording of a trip to visit the Viking 1 lander is not actually being faked from Utah.

Mariah performs a demonstration similar to the hammer and the feather drop done by the Apollo 15 astronauts (Scott and Irwin) on the Moon in 1971. Because gravity pulls on all objects equally, they fall at the same rate and impact the surface at the same time—unless there is a layer of air to slow them down, in which case the shape becomes very important! The Moon has no air, and so a feather and a hammer, or anything else dropped from the same height, fall and hit the dust at the same time. (Watch the Apollo video.)

Mariah drops a ball and feather and challenges someone to try this in Utah and compare their results.

Want to try it, but don’t have a feather? You can use paper to demonstrate air’s effects on falling objects. First, drop two sheets of paper, holding them horizontally. Observe how they flutter to the floor, arriving at the same time. Then crunch one up (changing its shape) and drop both sheets again. Guess which one hits the floor first?

Even though this demonstration proves that the shape/area and not the weight is what slows the feather, some people hold on to the misconception that heavier objects fall faster. To further convince them, drop two identical tubs with lids. Then place a heavy object like a battery in one while leaving the other empty. Drop both again. (Note that the more massive one impacts the surface with more force and may leave a dent because Force=Mass times Acceleration.)

Mariah uses the sublimation of water into the thin atmosphere as additional proof that she’s on Mars. Her brother shows how far he can hit a baseball in the lower gravity—with almost disastrous consequences. The different brightness/size of the sun, the lack of a global magnetic field, the curvature of the horizon, the change in temperature with height, or the passage from west to east of the moon Phobos might also have been used to demonstrate their presence on Mars.


Get 10 percent off print copies of The Callahan Kids anthology containing my story “Dropping the Martian Ball,” using a code on

As Mariah discovers, some people will never be convinced of the truth no matter what evidence is offered as proof. But you can decide for yourself what to believe by doing experiments, checking facts using multiple sources that include peer-reviewed references and bibliographies, and asking questions of experts associated with academic or government institutions.

So though Mariah’s story is fiction, I hope you’ll try her experiments on Earth so you’ll be ready to respond to the skeptics when you visit Viking on the real Chryse Planitia. Be sure to check for the letter “B” that Astronomer Carl Sagan noticed on a nearby rock. Do you think it was carved by aliens?

Writing about Space

As a special promotion for my recent appearances, Springer is offering a 20 percent discount on print (regular price $39.99) or eBook (regular price $29.99) copies of my memoir, A Passion for Space, until May 19. Go to the website page for the book and enter the following code: xykH7xQj9MGQTx5.

Speaking about Space

Look for me at the following events. Watch my website Contact page for updates.

Saturday, May 7, 6:30 pm. NASA Enthusiasts, Chelsea Wine Bar, 4106 Nasa Pkwy, El Lago, TX 77586. Free, open to public.

Friday, May 20, Author visit, Woodridge Forest Middle School, Porter, TX. Speaking to 8th graders about their Future Space.

Saturday, May 28. Speaking at Gulf Coast Mensa Regional Gathering, Crowne Plaza Northwest-Brookhollow, 12801 Northwest Freeway, Houston. Open to public.

Saturday, June 18, panels 10-11 am and 1-2 pm. Comicpalooza, GRB Convention Center, Houston.

Saturday, June 25, Mars talk & teacher workshops, Center for Earth and Space Science Education, Tyler Junior College.

Author: Marianne

Marianne Dyson is an award-winning children's author, science fiction writer, and former NASA flight controller. To invite her to speak or order her books, visit her website,