Published: Sept. 1, 2017 By

As 8-year-old Catherine Schwartz pondered the existence of mermaids, she decided to seek an expert opinion.

Scientist Cora Randall, chair of CU Boulder’s atmospheric and oceanic sciences department, came through.

In June Randall received a letter from Catherine’s father, Eric Schwartz, relaying the girl’s question about whether mermaids were real.

“She said that her friends all said mermaids are real, but her parents said they are not real, and she wanted to know who was right,” said Randall.

The professor was busy — but hardly too busy to take Catherine seriously.mermaid illustration

“Even though there’s no evidence that mermaids are real,” Randall wrote in her typed, one-page response, “I hope you’ll continue to imagine what could be. Keep asking questions and trying to understand whether something is true.” 

A CU faculty member since 1989, Randall said she wanted to encourage Catherine to look for scientific, evidence-based explanations without diminishing her sense of wonder.

“This seemed like such a natural question for an 8-year-old to ask that first I just wanted her to learn the answer,” said Randall, an expert in satellite remote sensing of Earth’s atmosphere. “But I also wanted to avoid disillusioning her; I wanted her to keep wondering about all the mysteries of the natural world.”

Catherine was thrilled to get Randall’s response, her father said, if also a little disappointed in the truth. But her enthusiasm for the mythical creatures hasn’t waned.

“She still loves mermaids,” he said.

Illustration by Raphael Lopez