Counting Cats in Zanzibar Rotating Header Image

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.


  1. Richard Allan says:

    Uhh you left out “kilograms are not a measure of weight”.

  2. NickM says:

    True. Sorry. I was doing a “fast fisk” mind. I could have written a lot more on all this but I decided to keep it snappy. In my defence I’m not really sure at what point one needs to separate the concepts of weight and mass for kiddiewinks.

  3. RAB says:

    I was given Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopedia as a kid (still got the whole set) and the generations who grew up reading them would be gobsmacked at the level of cockwaffling ignorance displayed in the Fail piece.

    Each chapter had a puzzle or exercise for the kids, nothing fancy for the times, just what the average 10 year old should know. Things like how to calculate the height of that tall tree in the park sort of thing. But that would qualify as Rocket Science in our new wonderful world of Comprehensive education, wouldn’t it?

    Well Mee’s Encyclopedia answered all those questions in full, as a matter of course. He was a Nottingham man too.

    Talking of which, where is this restored windmill Nick? I haven’t been back to Nottingham since the mid 70s. A friend of mine lived in a cottage up a lane at the top end of Forest Fields, where there were many windmills once upon a time, all gone even in my time though.

  4. Stonyground says:

    The sad part about this is that the writer of the article could have easily researched the correct answers using the internet, as could any baffled parents. “The moon’s angle towards the Earth” what does that even mean?

    I has Arthur Mee’s encyclopedias as well BTW.

  5. Stonyground says:

    I HAD Arthur Mee’s encyclopedias.

  6. Tim Newman says:

    Planes lift up by ‘driving’ air downwards using specially shaped wings – the ‘push’ from the air flow is stronger than gravity.

    Fuckwits have pretty much described how a helicopter works. And what Richard Allan says, referring to mass would have made much more sense.

    As an aside, what has always baffled me is why two objects should attract each other by virtue of their mass. Is it an effect happening at molecular level, or does nobody know?

  7. Thornavis says:

    Aside from Honeybees most bees die in the winter, only the queens or larvae, depending on species, survive and they “stop flying” because they’re hibernating. I think the birds flocking bit is a reference to those species that do this to conserve energy or search for food, trouble is they’re quite likely to be migrants into the country so you’re actually more likely to see them in winter.

  8. NickM says:

    Tim, No! A ‘copter rotor works in much the same way a fixed-wing aircraft works. There is downwash but that’s not quite the main thing – a ‘copter isn’t a hairdryer or a hovercraft. As to gravity I suggest an interesting start might be “Mach’s Principle”. Yes, it is mysterious. I tend to think MP’s is wrong but a study of it can illuminate. I wrote my MSc thesis on a related matter so I’ll stop now before I bore you to arm-chewing levels. I have no idea where my copy of my thesis is. It might be in Gateshead.

  9. NickM says:

    Stony, RAB,
    I didn’t have that but I did have R J Unstead with his epic single volume history for kiddies subtitled, “From Cavemen to the Nuclear Age”. God knows what happened to that book but I stil have his, “People in History” which goes roughly from Caractacus to Alexander Fleming. Suffice to say I think the only foreigner who gets a look in is Albert Schweitzer. Great stuff about giving the Frenchies or the Spaniards (and all the rest) a good fucking kicking! You might say it’s biased but it isn’t really because it’s so myopic it doesn’t pretend to be fair. Criticising it for being anglocentric is like criticising a Coke advert for not mentioning the merits of Pepsi.

  10. Tim Newman says:

    Tim, No! A ‘copter rotor works in much the same way a fixed-wing aircraft works.

    I used to think that actually, that a helicopter’s blades worked the same way as a plane’s wings by inducing a higher pressure on top than below. But a lecturer in Manc Uni told me it works by pushing air down and using the opposite reaction to move upwards.

    I understand the difference with a hovercraft, which rides on the air cushion and doesn’t need much downforce at all (which is why it can scoot along on water). Is this not correct? I am willing to be corrected. But I’m reasonably sure helicopters push air downwards, which is why a glider can go over your head and you’d not know it but a helicopter would knock you over.

  11. RAB says:

    Ta Nick. That close to the city centre then?

  12. CIngram says:

    Cavendish’s was a remarkable achievement, but I must say, he had such small balls I’m surprised he could do it at all!

  13. Stonyground says:

    The discussion here made me think of this from the Longrider blog.

    “From Richard Wallace giving evidence at the Leveson Inqury:

    Asked about bloggers, Wallace says: “The out and out cowboys – I don’t see in the long term they can survive … people want information that is competent and true.”

    This from someone representing an industry that routinely dissembles, engages in churnalism, publishes lies, dodgy statistics, junk science and outright garbage as if it is fact and will, given half the opportunity, engage in criminal activity to get a story.

    He says that the Mirror is a trusted brand.


    The Daily Mail managed to get every single question that they themselves cited in this article either partly or completely wrong. most of the commenters here could get most of them right off the top of our heads, the ones that they were unsure about could be researched in seconds. “I don’t see in the long term they can survive” must surely be applied to the dead tree press. Why on earth do people pay even a small amount of money for inaccurate information when more accurate information is available for free? Even on the rare occasions that bloggers get their facts wrong they are instantly put right in the comments.

  14. drsolly says:

    “Planes lift up by ‘driving’ air downwards using specially shaped wings”

    If that were true, inverted flying wouldn’t be possible. It’s easy to make a rubber-powered plane with flat wings.

  15. Able says:

    Hmm, epic fail on their science edumacashun here I think (what else would you expect from a journalist, these are the people who push AGW, second hand smoke, renewable energy after all). Obviously even using google was beyond them. ‘Lies to children’ is how modern education works, look at how something like the structure of an atom varies from level to level (at each level they say ‘you remember what we told you about atoms, well that’s not quite true, it’s…’ then repeat at the next level)

    NickM gets it right about helicopter lift – it’s Bernoulli’s Principle as with fixed wing flight. (hey Nick, try explaining how a ducted fan works to a journalist for an example of how logic and scientific principles are verboten to those employed by the msm.)

  16. bloke in spain says:

    Sorry, but your newspaper is closer to how an aircraft stays up than you are. Yes an aerofoil produces lift but most of the lift comes from the angle of attack of the wing.
    Best description of how an aircraft flies I’ve ever read is here: Lots of lovely maths, if you like that sort of thing, for added entertainment.
    Note that the aircraft flies by forcing downwards a mass of air equivalent to it’s own mass. Nil points on “suction”. There’s no such animal. Your describing the low pressure side of high/low pressure interaction. A Hoover doesn’t ‘suck’ dust & air into the pipe. The air pressure pushes it in. Tut, tut. That’s first year science.
    Helicopters do indeed fly by exactly the same principle as fixed wing aircraft. A phenomenon that illustrates this is /wiki/Retreating_blade_stall
    which effectively limits the top speed of helicopters to not much over 200 knots. Incidentally, it can’t be simply Bernoulli’s Principle acting on helicopter rotors if you think it through. That would imply a low pressure region over the rotor blade & the normal atmospheric pressure under the blade pushing it up. Far from producing the characteristic helicopter down wash, the air would be moving up towards the blades.
    Not all aircraft have the classic, asymmetric aerofoil, shaped wing. Aerobatic aircraft have symmetric aerofoils so that they can be flown inverted. All the lift comes from the angle of attack.

  17. Tim Newman says:

    Okey doke, I stand corrected re: choppers. I’m probably the only person on here who flies one to work quite often, too.

  18. NickM says:

    Well I travel by bus sometimes but don’t have a PSV license. I take the train quite regularly but have never gone on strike from my fifty grand a year for holding a dead man’s handle and opening the doors. Anyway, ‘copters can’t be that tricky – Sarah Ferguson can fly one! When I have the money I will get a pilot’s license but strictly fixed wing because those whirly-birds are death-traps and utterly inelegant. I know they serve purposes but up to a 1/3 of power transmitted to the anti-torque rotor! That is inelegant. There must be a better way and there almost was…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *