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January 21st, 2012:

Truly Scrumptious

The phrase was used on the TV recently (we were watching a cooking show) and I asked which musical it came from. So my wife and I had a disagreement. She posited “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” and I thought of “Mary Poppins” (for some reason*). Obviously she was correct but a Google (.co.uk) search revealed this as the second highest ranking page (it does have dreadful muzak – wasn’t that a web-design idea cast beyond the Door of Night over a decade ago).

I really don’t know what to think.

*”Positively Perfect in Every Way” and all that.

Science Fail From the Daily Mail

1. Why is the moon sometimes out in the day?
2. Why is the Sky Blue?
3. Will we ever discover aliens?
4. How much does the earth weigh?
5. How do aeroplanes stay in the air?
6. Why is water wet?
7. How do I do long division?
8. Where to birds / bees go in winter?
9. What makes a rainbow?
10. Why are there different times on earth?

Apparently these are the ten questions parents dread most and there is nothing about “birds and bees” (apart from the question actually about birds and bees). The answer to the other birds and bees question is obviously, “When a mummy and daddy love each other very much they remortgage the house and give a load of money to mustachioed fanny-mechanic Lord Winston”.

And these are the Daily Mail’s suggested answers…

1. The moon can be lit up by the sun, depending on where it is in the sky. If it reflects the sun’s rays, we can see it, even during the day. It all depends on its angle towards the Earth.
2. Sunlight arrives on Earth in every colour, but it hits particles in our air that ‘shine’ blue.
3. No one knows.
4. The earth weighs 6,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000kg – weighed by its gravitational attraction to nearby objects.
5. Planes lift up by ‘driving’ air downwards using specially shaped wings – the ‘push’ from the air flow is stronger than gravity.
6. Wet is a word that people use for liquids – primarily water – and the way they feel. Not all liquids behave the same way.
7. On paper, preferably.
8. Bees stop flying and birds flock together or migrate.
9. Sunlight going through water droplets in the air ‘splits’ into all the colours.
10. People decided to have ‘time zones’ so that it would be light during the day everywhere on Earth – if we didn’t, some people would have midday in the middle of the night.

I can’t say I’m especially happy with any of them.

1. Obviously depends upon the relative positions of all three bodies (easily demonstrated with pencil and paper if you don’t have an orrery (which you easily can have if you got a computer) and also the brightness of sunshine experienced. Hence the moon in daylight tends to be seen in winter.
3. Is not really an answer. You tell a smart kid “no one knows” they shall interpret that as “you don’t know”. It might be better to tell them about Pioneer and Voyager and SETI.
4. Now is it really? In order to play in that park you need to know G. Cavendish first got there in 1798 with an experiment that staggers me to this day. It’s like Raman’s original spectroscopic work done with Heath-Robinson kit in Calcutta. It’s now done with lasers. Respect!
6. Not an answer at all. That’s just saying it’s wet because it’s wet. A smart kid will see through that and a dumb one wouldn’t bother to ask.
7. Not an answer. I can’t remember how to do it, mind.
8. Not exactly true. There are birds in my garden right now. Some migrate. What flocking has to do with this is beyond me. Time I would suggest to get out some fat balls and feed the spuggies rather than that nonsense.
9. Not an answer. Note the scare quotes. There are really easy ways to explain this with a prism*. You can also use this as an opportunity to explain why that apochromatic ‘scope you just bought means that the school trip is off.
10. I am staggered that anyone could actually frame an answer to that without any reference to the rotation of the Earth.

You will note I have left out 2. and 5. This is because they are especially staggeringly wrong. Note again the scare quotes. Now this is kids so it is probably not the time to talk about Rayleigh scattering or the Kutta–Joukowski theorem but… those “explanations” are just lies. Actually they are worse than that they are ganz falsch. (That phrase of Wolfgang Pauli has variously been translated as “quite false”, “utterly false” and (my favourite) “not even false”). Let’s start with the blue sky before we try to fly in it. This is dead easy. This is my kiddy explanation. Light is a wave** and the shorter the wavelength the more it is scattered by the atmosphere so the blue (shorter wavelength) light is scattered all over the sky which is why we see a blue sky and a yellow sun. As to the planes. Gods this annoys me! I don’t know where to end but I know where to start and that is with a spoon and a tap. The first point is forward movement through the air is required and over some shapes lift is created not by a force down but by a suction up. Then get building model planes and with a bright little charver they’ll start on about things like laminar flow…

*In Nottingham there is a restored and working windmill. This belonged to the mysterious mathematical prodigy George Green (Green’s theorem, Green’s functions anyone?) anyway it now operates as a science education centre and it’s like… Well it doesn’t pretend to explain Green’s work because that’s college level stuff but for the kids it’s, “let’s play with prisms!”
**We can get into wave/particle duality later.

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