It's a well-known joke that men care about the size of a woman's chest and women care about the size of a man's wallet. You've undoubtedly seen some hideous yet stupidly rich man in his nineties walking around with a 20-something super-model and thought "I know what she's after". Similarly, you've probably seen guys lining up around the block for a vapid woman with no personality who just happens to be good-looking. "Men are shallow" we scoff, feeling smug and holy about ourselves. It seems we judge men for going after beauty and women for going after financial wealth, but is this fair?
I recently saw a series of cynical YouTube videos in which a woman is approached by a man and asked on a date (harassed, really). She turns him down but then the twist comes...he is revealed to be extremely wealthy e.g. he gets into a sports car, pulls a ton of notes from his pocket, or reveals himself to be the author of a popular Science book available now from Amazon. Suddenly the woman reverses her stance and asks if the guy still wants to go on a date. The man responds by laughing in her face and accusing her of being a "gold-digger". Classy stuff.
I can't help but feel it would be easy to do a gender-reversed version. Some guy is approached by a traditionally homely woman and propositioned for a date, which he turns down. Then the hilarious gag is revealed "oh that's a shame, because I'm asking for my friend..." cue woman suddenly appearing from behind a tree who is stupendously pretty and the man reverses his mind. Television networks, I await your call.
I suppose we could all try not judging other people for their relationship choices and accept that human beings are emotionally complicated, but where's the fun in that? Everyone loves a gossip, so today I thought I'd look at the question of dating stereotypes and ask whether it's biologically accurate. What do we look for in a partner and do these couples last?
Oh, I should point out that although this is always a family-friendly blog, I will be referencing the fact that humans (spoiler alert) have sex for the purposes of reproduction and fun. I'm sorry we're like that as a species. I'll see if I can do something about it!
The Game is On
Biologically speaking, the point of finding a sexual partner is to pass on genes. Males do this by producing millions of sperm cells every day, making them expendable and easily replaceable. Females however are born with a few dozen eggs which never get replaced, making them valuable.
Females also endure a long and uncomfortable pregnancy, removing them from the mating-arena for several months. This is followed by the pain of childbirth and in some species a lifelong commitment to child-rearing. Biologically, a female has to be careful when selecting a mate because it represents a greater investment. If you breed with a weak, unhealthy male the offspring are less likely to survive and you’ve just wasted a precious egg.
Males, on the other hand, can produce genetic material on demand so they don’t need to exercise as much caution. For them, the optimum strategy is to breed with as many females as possible. Because both sexes are trying to do different things, a balance has to be found and most species tend to adopt one of two strategies. Either they enter into pair-bonding arrangements, or they enter into a tournament.
In pair-bonding species like gibbons or owl monkeys, males and females find a mate and remain with them for many years. The advantage for the female is that the male will help with child-rearing, the advantage for the male is that he is guaranteed a mate and doesn’t have to use energy searching for new females.
In this kind of species, males and females are sizing each-other up in order to choose who to have sex with. Both want to make a careful selection and impress partners simultaneously, so everyone is trying to make themselves look good but also scope what’s on offer.
In a tournament species like chimpanzees or gorillas, the females are in charge of breeding and males have to compete for attention. Once a female has chosen a mate, a brief sexual union takes place and then the male often leaves, trying to impress someone new. The advantage for males is that they breed with more females, while the advantage for females is that they control which males are worth their time and only select the very best of what's on offer.
In tournament species the males tend to appear very different from the females since they are the ones having to look impressive (think of the difference between a peacock and a peahen). Males also tend to have a large testicle-to-body ratio in order to produce lots of sperm cells. We call this disparity between the sexes 'sexual dimorphism'. In pair-bonding species however, the two sexes look similar because neither is in charge of selection. The testicle-to-body ratio is also smaller because males don’t need to go to the trouble of having large ones (a potential risk of injury).
The human species, as you might have guessed, sits awkwardly in the middle. Human testicle-to-body ratio is halfway between tournament and pair-bonding species. There are also some sexual differences between men and women but not too many e.g. women have breasts and wider hips while men have muscle mass and broader shoulders, but if you’d never seen humans before you might find it difficult to tell them apart.
Humans are a species where males try to breed with many females but also search carefully for a worthy female to settle with. The reverse is also true; females will be on the lookout for an advantageous male but are also trying to advertise themselves for selection. The outcome is that men and women are both trying to impress each other with a slight tendency toward men wanting multiple partners and women being picky.
Incidentally, this means the belief that men are more sexually promiscuous on average is completely false. In fact, it’s mathematically impossible. Because the number of men and women are equal, the number of pairings which occur on average has to be equal too. If we had five men and five women and one man mated with each woman, the female average is one partner each. But since there were five men and five encounters, this is an average of one partner per man. If each woman had sex with all five men however, the men’s average would increase to five but so would the women’s!
Logically, men and women have the same number of sexual partners on average. Where the myth arises is that men apparently try to have more partners than women, but because women are more selective everything balances out.
Do I look good in this?
Now we can ask the real question: what do males and females in a species look for in a potential mate? Typically, there are five characteristics which drive the process:
1. Symmetry – Having a symmetrical shape tends to be the result of a good immune system (nobody knows why). If you are symmetrical you are healthy and therefore will have healthy babies. In fact, the Biologist Craig Roberts found that women’s faces literally change shape around ovulation to become more symmetrical, increasing attractiveness. Men, on the other hand, don’t go through a monthly cycle of sexual change so their shape remains fixed.
2. Sexual exaggeration – We look for members of the opposite sex who are extreme versions of what typifies that sex. The reason, known as the Zahavi handicap principle, is also to do with health. Your immune system takes a lot of energy to maintain. In fact, it’s the third biggest energy demand after muscle movement and brain activity. If you have a really strong immune system you therefore have lots of energy spare and a good way to advertise that is by showing off, wasting energy on secondary sexual characteristics. Look at my ridiculous antlers, check out the size of my tail feathers, see how big my throat-pouch is! My immune system’s so good I’ve got energy to spare on growing these.
3. Fertility characteristics – This one is obvious. If you’re not fertile then mating with you is a waste of time, so you have to look as fertile as possible and advertise it constantly. Having lots of testosterone as a man gives you things like a deep voice, body hair, muscle mass etc. as well as higher sperm-cell production. Subsequently looking more masculine is an advertisement that you are a good baby-maker. Likewise for women, chemicals like estrone and estradiol are responsible for feminine characteristics as well as fertility so the more feminine you look the more likely you are to be good at baby-making.
4. Homogony – You tend to seek out breeding partners who are physically similar to you (but not too similar). If you’re a chimpanzee your brain wants you to mate with other chimpanzees. It’s far less likely for a successful breeding to occur if you have sex with a gorilla (chimpanzee-gorilla crossbreeding is theoretically possible, but has never been achieved). Your brain encourages you to breed with similarity so you go after people who remind you of yourself a little. The flip-side is that breeding with someone too genetically similar is not favourable because it increases the chances of genetic diseases being inherited. That’s why we usually avoid mating with close relatives. But it may explain why some species show a slight bias for sex with cousins (looking in your direction Einstein).
5. Child-rearing – If you’re going to be passing your genes into a smaller unit, you need reassurance it’s going to survive and if the potential mate is a capable parent, they are obviously going to be a suitable partner. The first four characteristics are to do with appearance and are driven by finding good genes to produce a healthy baby. The fifth is about parenting of that baby and this is the crucial difference between the sexes.
Parenting is the most important factor because it has a bigger impact on whether the baby actually survives. If the child is born healthy but the parent doesn’t protect or feed them, they’re going to die no matter how good their genes are. However if the child is born unhealthy but the parenting is good, they still have a chance of living. If you’ve got to choose one over the other parenting skills dominates good genes.
This means if you’re picky with mate-selection and you’re only planning on doing it a few times, you’ll have to stick with top priority - child-rearing. Quality of genes (physical attraction) is a luxury. If you’re not picky however you can look for good genetics as well as child-rearing skills. Not only that but if you’re attempting to have sex with many partners you don’t have to worry about child-rearing so much. Chances are one of those mates will be a good parent so physical attraction (good genes) becomes your only motivation.
You can see where this is going. If you’re the female of a species you’re more likely to take your time finding out about a male. If they are a high-ranking male in your troop, good at hunting, good at defending against predators etc. they’re more likely to provide for children.
If you’re male, you’re trying to partner up as often as possible so you don’t spend time sussing out female behaviour and personality. You’re more likely to make quick judgements about the quality of genes on offer which means emphasis on physical attraction.
We don’t deliberately do any of this of course. Men aren’t consciously deciding which women are attractive and women don’t deliberately give more consideration to a man’s status, it’s just what we’re drawn to. Men will still consider the personality of a female and women will still consider the physical appearance of a male, but it isn’t the bottom line. Women want a provider for the kids, men want good genes for those kids. Eggs are valuable, sperm are not. Women make something precious, men make something common.
It might therefore be unhelpful, even naive, to criticise people for picking the partners they do. Attacking women for choosing stability or attacking men for caring about looks is to criticise people for something they aren’t in control of. Not only that, this arrangement might actually be the optimum strategy for our species. We’re in a difficult position, halfway between pair-bond and tournament, with both genders wanting different things. There is no way to make everyone happy so a compromise must be reached.
What does the research say?
Psychology research is always a minefield. There are so many variables in human behaviour and social interactions that refuting a hypothesis is difficult. Psychology is an invaluable branch of Science but its data is often more open to interpretation than physics, chemistry or biology. Nobody ever debates that F = ma or that Helium has two electrons, but psychological studies are more broad. This is a good thing in my view however, because the human mind is complex and context is everything. We need to keep our understanding loosey-goosey otherwise we end up sticking to ideas that are precarious.
One of the most famous studies carried out on human pairing was the 1978/1982 Clark & Hatfield study. The experimental setup was simple. At Florida State University, strangers were approached by members of the opposite sex and propostioned for a date or for sex.
The words used by each propositioning party were: "I've noticed you around, I find you very attractive, would you go to bed with me/go on a date with me?" A few years later these words from the research paper were remixed into the jazz-punk song Would You by Touch and Go, making it the only pop song to get its lyrics from a scientific journal. I'm trying to persuade the other three members of my rock band to do a similar song with lyrics taken from this paper on quantum cosmology. Fingers crossed.
Clark and Hatfield found that both sexes were equally willing to go on a date (about 50% of both groups) but when it came to sex, the picture looked very different. About 75% of the men immediately said yes to sex, while 0% of the women were up for it. This would appear to confirm the breeding-selection hypothesis.
Obviously we've made the assumption that the people being approached were heterosexual. That's unlikely to have been true but statistically, heterosexual behaviour is more common among humans, so the results shouldn't be skewed too much. It looks like that's fairly cut and dried then: men are more willing to mate with a female after meeting them. But what of the status preferences of women?
One of the most shocking (to me, as a man) studies I ever came across is unfortunately one I can no longer find. I remember Professor Robert Winston making reference to it in a documentary but I cannot find the original paper...anyone out there able to help? The study carried out a simple experiment. A group of women were positioned outside a restaurant and told to rank men for attractiveness as they pulled up in their cars.
The twist was that on multiple occasions the same man walked past but with a different social status. On the first attempt he drove up in a shabby, bruised car and got out in scruffy clothes and was ranked as a bad choice. The same man, a few hours later, drove up in a swish sports car, an affluent suit and was ranked as an ideal choice by the women. It's the exact same guy, yet different status made him literally unrecognisable.
As a man I found this result shocking, but that's because men tend to focus more on looks, and it's unlikely I would mis-recognise the same woman in different clothes. Women I've spoken to about this study aren't shocked however. A man's status really does change his attraction factor.
So does that settle it? Well...not so fast. In 2015 Andreas Baranowski and Heiko Hecht updated the Clark/Hatfield study. Initially they replicated the results on a modern campus and nightclub, finding it to be the same today as back then. But in the second phase of the experiment they decided to do it in private. Women and men were invited into a "dating agency" and asked to select partners for dating or sex, being reassured that the people's profiles had been vetted by the agency. Each subject was shown ten pictures and asked to select who they would have sex with.
Men on average selected just over three. Women on average selected just under. There is a slight difference to be sure, which perhaps confirms the hypothesis, but both men and women had closer behavioural patterns than Clark/Hatfield suggested. It would appear that when men and women are asked about sex and it's done in private, with reassurance of safety, they're about even.
Perhaps one of the reasons women turn men down regularly is related to the fact that 45% of women have experienced some sort of sexual violence, coercion or intimidation from a man during their adult lives. Maybe it's also because society condemns women for having sex, so accepting a proposal in public is a shameful thing?
I've sometimes heard men justify their sexual confidence (harassing of women) by saying it's biology and everyone should accept it. But this may not be true. It looks like women and men are just as interested in sex, but the reason the discord arises is because women are treated worse than men, both by society and by men themselves. More women are raped than men. More women are shamed by their families/friends/colleagues/religious groups for having sex and so on. It's possible the stereotype of women refusing sex is actually men's doing so they should stop complaining about women being so cautious?
Maybe, just maybe, men need to stop harassing women or sexually intimidating them and defending their behaviour by saying "it's guys being guys." Maybe if men treated women better on average, women wouldn't feel sexually intimidated and everyone would actually have more sex and society would be happier as a whole? Just a thought.
What about love?
What these studies look at is sexual attraction and the desire for breeding. But where does emotional connection come in? This is where things get not only optimistic, but surprisingly touching.
A 2014 study conducted by Elizabeth McClintock reviewed 1,507 couples and assessed where they were in terms of attraction to one another, relationship stability and how long the relationship lasted. What she found, overwhelmingly, was that pairings based solely on attraction (physical or status) did not last. What a shock.
The model of men going for beautiful and women going for rich is definitely there and it can lead to a lot of relationships starting...but not surviving. McClintock found that relationships which actually work best (happiest couples) and survived the longest were when people go for what she calls matching. Simply put, nice guys pair with nice women. Hot women pair with hot men. Wealthy men pair with wealthy women and so on.
A relationship where a rich man propositions an attractive woman and the two "hit it off" is definitely a common occurrence, because the woman gets security for raising kids and the man gets a beautiful partner, but such relationships are, statistically, unlikely to last or be happy. It's a short term strategy only.
People should instead look for matches in personality...which sort of confirms another long-held truism. Relationships built on attraction or convenience rarely work. Personal connection wins out. How about that? Science actually confirms that loving relationships work better.
Is Evolution Really That Sentimental?
Arguably the world's leading expert on the evolutionary development of love, attraction and human relationships is David Buss of Austin University (much of whose ideas I used in this blog). Buss has spent over thirty years studying differences between sexes and in one of his most famous studies (1986 with Michael Barnes) Buss asked hundreds of men and women to decide what features of a partner were most important to them.
Buss and Barnes found there was certainly a tendency for men to go for physical appearance and for women to seek wealth. Men were slightly drawn to younger women and women to older men, but what they found was that the number-one thing both sexes looked for is simple...someone who treats you nicely. Not someone who provides for you or someone who looks good for you - someone who is nice to you.
Short-term attraction strategies are all about sizing someone up and that's when physical attraction or social status come into play. But long-term success is about something so obvious it seems ridiculous we needed Scientists to research it. But there you have it. You might be a super wealthy man who owns a flashy sports car and a business; that will probably help you get women for short term sex. And you might be a gorgeous woman with a voluptuous figure and flowing hair that will draw men's attention. But if you want to build a relationship with someone you have to do something else. Be kind to each other.
But why did we develop this desire for connection over attraction? As far as we can tell, while many animals exhibit sexual desire or social loyalty, deep feelings of love seem to be unique to humans. Does it have an evolutionary advantage or is it simply an accident? Poets, musicians, painters, authors, film-makers, scientists and philosophers have been grappling with that question for a long time and I don't think I can offer an answer. Love does seem like an anomaly.
After all, there is an alternative route which guarantees equal reproduction for all. It’s the one chosen by bacteria...bypass sex altogether. Bacteria reproduce autonomously, so they have no need to develop competition strategies which makes them more efficient breeders. However, because there is no need to find a partner, there is also no need to develop the emotions which encourage it to happen. Bacteria don’t feel companionship, they don’t feel love and they don’t feel empathy. Personally, I think those features are worth hanging onto, accidental or otherwise.
Love may indeed be a Darwinian screw-up. But even if it is, it's one of the most important driving forces in our emotional lives. Feelings of love, be they romantic, family-oriented or whatever, are the reason we're good to one another. I might even go so far as to say that's why kindness is more important in a relationship than anything else. A person who is attracted to you wants you as a possession - a person who feels compassion for you is going to treat you well and that is what makes you want to stay with them.
I say on my home page and at the end of my book "Science will save our species". It's become one of my catchphrases and I stand by it as a mantra. But I think something else might be even more important. Science is the tool we need to save our species, but a desire to be kind to each other tells us how to use that tool. I think it's possible that kindness and love, more than Science, are the things which will save us from extinction. They are perhaps the reason we will save not just ourselves, but each other as well.
It's on the syllabus
You hear it all the time as a teacher: "why do we need to learn this?" The stock response from most educators, myself included, is usually the predictable: "it's on the syllabus" or, just as toxic, "because it might be in the exam." Kids in classrooms often question the relevance of learning something and they are reminded that the point of school is to pass exams in order to get a job...in which you won't actually use the skills you've learned.
For example, many jobs in the UK require you to have a C-grade in English and Math. In order to get those grades you need to do things like manipulate algebra and recite Shakespeare. Name one job which requires you to do both. Apart from being the lead actor in A Math-Summer Night's Dream, a play I just made up, I can't imagine these skills being used in a lot of jobs.
It's a stupid way of approaching education and many pupils understandably question why they need to know who discovered Radium if they are planning on working in a legal firm or at a daycare centre. To a certain extent the people who design curricula are to blame, but it's difficult to know how to get around the problem. Which skills and knowledge should a school prioritise to give everyone a chance of seeking employment?
Most people don't need advanced math in their job for instance, but architects obviously do. Architects spend years learning math, so we need to start training them during their teens. The problem however is that you don't know which kids are going to become architects, so you solve it by teaching every kid the basics of math. By the time they all turn 18, the tiny proportion who are actually going to use it in their job are sufficiently prepared.
As a result you end up teaching 99% of students a bunch of skills they never use, but what's the alternative? Stop educating children and wait for them to turn 18 so they only study subjects they care about? If so, we would have the majority of people in their twenties living with parents, not earning, reducing the workforce and collapsing our economy...I assume, I mean I never studied economics. Which is kind of my point.
Maybe we should scrap academic subjects like English, Math and Science altogether. 99% of kids won't become mathematicians, scientists or englishisits, so why train them in these subjects? The most common jobs in the UK are working in retail, making food, office clerking or nursing. Wouldn't it make sense to teach kids how to do these jobs?
It's also worth pointing out that as society evolves, so does the job market. Some of the kids I'm teaching today will eventually apply for jobs which haven't been invented yet, so it's foolish to claim I'm preparing them for the future when I don't know what that future looks like. That's basically what we do with education at the moment though. We tell kids the point is to help them get a job and then we don't teach them how to actually do that. Instead we teach them which alkali metal is the most reactive.
We teach kids academic skills with the unspoken understanding that this is preparing them for academic-style jobs. Teach history so a tiny proportion of students can become historians, teach math so a tiny proportion can become engineers and teach Science so a tiny proportion can become Scientists. Under this model, most of the student popuplation's time is being wasted. This is madness.
Struggling and Juggling
I once saw a newspaper cartoon which dealt with this very issue in which a student raises their hand and asks the question "Am I ever going to need this?" to which the teacher responds "You won't, but one of the smart kids might." Burn.
It's indicative of the mindset many seem to have. The hard subjects are for the smart kids who get mentally-challenging jobs, while the other kids get less engaging jobs and have thus wasted 18 years in compulsory schooling. But this whole thing is backwards because getting a job isn't the purpose of education at all. I'll get to why in a moment, but first let's deal with this idea that harder subjects are for "smarter" kids. It's nonsense.
When I was 16 I attended a conference which featured a lecture on the mathematics of juggling. Incidentally, that tells you everything you need to know about me as a teenager. I was transfixed by the lecture and went home that evening to learn the skill. One of my friends grasped it in two days while another was able to do it in two weeks. It took me three months. I clearly wasn't a natural. I have lousy hand-eye coordination and was always last picked for the football team; physical skills aren't my forte at all. But by the time I learned to juggle, my skill was indistinguishable from my friends who had learned it quicker.
Why did I spend three months relentlessly practicing something I clearly wasn’t good at? Actually, I think that's the reason - I enjoy learning something I find difficult. Over the years I’ve variously taught myself to play the banjo, calculate sine functions in my head and do the moonwalk. I am not a natural juggler, musician, mathematician or dancer, but when I get the desire to master a skill I tend to kick my own ass until I can do it. If people call me talented they are mistaken. I’m just stubborn. And my road to Science was somewhat similar.
In a few days I have a friggin' book coming out about Chemistry. It might therefore surprise people to learn that when I first met the subject I found it incomprehensible. As a younger man, the periodic table was one of the hardest things I had ever come across but something about it intrigued me so I worked until I became competent at using it.
I accept that some people have a flare for certain things, just like my friends who learned to juggle in a heartbeat, but I don’t believe people are excluded from becoming good at something they aren't a natural at. They just have to want it enough.
Perhaps being good at something, perhaps even intelligence itself, is more about personality than ability? Maybe people respond differently to the frustration of finding something difficult and some people stick with the problem while others don’t care. Maybe that’s why some people underperform in high school. Little children always seem keen and eager to learn everything, full of questions and enthusiasm. By the time they hit sixteen many have given up on education and, far worse, themselves. Maybe the reason for low grades is attitude rather than aptitude.
I like to think most people can learn most things and Science is therefore no different. For example, I remember finding the topic of molar calculations tricky when I studied it at A-level, but now I teach it to my own classes and I wonder why I ever found it hard. I'm not any smarter and the subject hasn't gotten any easier, it's just my approach which has changed. Back then I had a mindset of "I can't do this" but once I realised I had to, I suddenly found it simple. Perhaps all people need in order to learn something complicated is the motivation to do so.
Too dumb for Science?
Because this topic has been on my mind for a while I tried an experiment with a few students last week. One of my students is, like many teenage boys, of the opinion that he can't do Chemistry. He happens to be football-mad though, so I asked him to write down the names of as many footballers as he could. He wrote 60 names without pause. Another student was able to name the constituent notes of at least 80 guitar chords. Another was able to name 40 “Fortnite skins” and so on. While they completed their lists I did the same thing on the whiteboard, except I wrote out the names of chemical elements.
At the end of the task they were gobsmacked at what I had done, so I asked if my ability was any different to theirs. Rather surprisingly, and a little tragically, they said yes. “That’s well hard sir” or “You can do that cos you’re smart” etc. I tried to point out that it was exactly the same skill but they wouldn't accept it.
Their ability to recall vast amounts of information was seen as easy, whereas mine was impressive. But I found their knowledge equally baffling. I know the names of about three footballers (all of whom are probably dead) I don't know any guitar chords and I have no idea what a Fortnite skin even is. It doesn't sound pleasant that's for sure. Yet these kids were insistent that my knowledge was "smarter" than theirs.
I pushed things further. The World Cup is currently taking place and there’s apparently a lot of strategy which goes into it. For example, if you look at who we’d come up against in the next round, it was actually ideal for England to lose their recent match against Belgium because it means we have a smoother route to the final.
My students began explaining how putting players at the back of a field against a heavy-striking team is better than spreading players evenly, how goals can be equated to points-scores with players choosing when it's best to score and I'm not convinced this is any more difficult than Science. Understanding cause-effect relationships, weighing up pros and cons, calculating probabilistic outcomes and beneficial strategies are all signs of higher-order thinking, no different to those in Science.
I’m not claiming everybody can be the next Feynman or Darwin, in the same way not everybody can play football like…Pele??...is he a football person??? Of course some people have a natural aptitude for a subject, but I think the basics of Science are well within the grasp of anyone who can appreciate sport statistics.
It took a while for me to get my message across (I have no idea if it worked) but I soon had a farily big obstacle to overcome. One of the students pointed out, to agreement from everyone else in the room that “Science isn't going help me get a job and I won't use it in everyday life.” This, I think, is the root of the problem. So many kids probably could do well in Science, they just don’t feel a need to because Science isn’t part of everyday life and it won't help them get a job.
Get Out, Get a Job
After this student correctly pointed out that knowledge of Science was unlikely to help him get a job, I argued that neither did football. He doesn't play or commentate on professional football and in fact there are less people working in the football industry than those working in Science. He did concede this point, but argued that his knowledge of football was different because it was a hobby and hobbies aren't supposed to help you get jobs...whereas that is the purpose of school. That worried me.
If we tell people the point of school is to get a job then they are certainly smart enough to recognise how irrelevant many subjects are. Kids switching off in Science lessons are not necessarily doing it because they aren't clever, it might just be the opposite. They know Science isn't going to help them get a job so what's the point in learning it in school? Maybe, just maybe, if we make the emphasis of education learning for learning's sake, kids won't question the point of studying something because they'll already know what it is.
We would still need exams because qualifications help those students who want to take a subject further earn their place doing so, but that doesn't mean every lesson should be geared toward a small number of kids who may want to do it at University. The point of a lesson should be to learn something interesting...because hello, the human brain is built for learning stuff! We've spent 65 million years of evolution developping brains which are well-crafted to learning and which enjoy doing so. Isn't that a good enough reason to learn things? We are made for it???
Admittedly not every kid wants to learn Science but then again neither did I originally. I didn't discover I liked Science until I was 14 and when I finally did, I didn't study it to get a decent grade, that just happened as a side-effect. Learning Science was interesting and rewarding in itself.
There's still a personality element of course. Some kids just aren't interested in how the Universe works. Fair enough. I don't really care about football. But I'm willing to bet if we shifted the emphasis of Science education away from "learn to pass exam" and back to "learn because the world is interesting" we'd have more kids engaging with the subject and their grades would take care of themselves.
School is supposed to prepare you for life and the point of life isn't just to get a job, pay your bills and die. Life is about finding your place in the Universe. It's about finding purpose and understanding, which education is absolutely crucial for. Studying history isn't about becoming a historian, it's about seeing how humans have overcome challenges. Studying English isn't about becoming a dictionary writer, it's about learning how people communicate and how emotions or ideas can be expressed. Studying math isn't about becoming a mathematician, it's about finding patterns in reality. Learning stuff isn't a means to an end, it's an end itself.
Facts from school aren't necessarily going to help you get a job I agree, but neither is eating your favourite food, watching your favourite movie, or falling in love, and we certainly enjoy those things. Your job is what you do to serve others; to contribute to society. Learning is something you do for yourself. For the sheer joy of it. That's the message we should be pushing in school.
Keepin' it Real
Rosalind Franklin once said "Science and everyday life cannot and should not be separated", which I agree with. But many people do not see it like that. What do we make of my student's other objection that Science isn't relevant to everyday life?
Football certainly is relevant to many people's lives because it's a big part of our culture. People talk about it in the street, watch it on television, play it in the park and spend money to attend matches...this doesn't happen in Science. You don't overhear people on the bus talking about the latest iterations of quantum gravity and you rarely see geology professors signing people's shirts after a successful lecture. How can we respond to the criticism that knowing Science isn't part of our life?
I think what we have to remember is that there was once a time when using the internet wasn't considered relevant to everyday life, and here you are reading this blog on your wifi. There was a time when the ability to drive a car wasn't an important skill to have, nor was the ability to type on a keyboard, use a gas oven or even operate a door-key.
In fact, if we go back in human history there would have been a time when even using money was seen as an obscure practice. Just because something isn't currently relevant to everyday life doesn't mean we should be happy with that status quo. When people spend their time only learning basic life-skills, society stagnates. When people start pushing their knowledge of what basic-life skills involve, society progresses.
I accept that many people don't make Science relevant to their everyday lives but just imagine a world where they did. Imagine a world where having Scientific knowledge was considered as commonplace as knowing how to boil an egg. Think how much we could achieve as a people.
And to address the earlier point about today's kids having jobs which haven't been invented yet, surely that makes a Scientific education more important. Politicians come and go, musicians have their fifteen minutes of fame, but the laws of Science are fixed. Culture shifts with the sands of time but the laws of Science are the one thing we have in common with future generations.
People living ten thousand years from now, and people living ten thousand years in the past, occupy the same Universe underpinned by the same laws of Science. That, to me, makes it one of the most relevant things we could spend our time studying.
Science isn't relevant to many people's daily routine but that's not because it has no place, it's because people choose to ignore it. After all, we don't need to use the internet, mobile phones, cars or gas ovens but doing so improves our quality of life. You don't need to talk about football all the time for that matter, but it's part of our culture and people's lives are enriched by it.
Science is the same. It could become a part of people's lives and that would make the world a better place. So yeah, fair enough, Science isn't relevant to many people's day-to-day existence. But that doesn't mean it should stay that way. Frankly, I want to live in a world where Scientists are treated like rockstars!
Just the facts ma'am
In one of the last interviews he gave, Carl Sagan said "We live in a world dependent on Science and technology in which nobody understands Science and technology. Sooner or later this combustible mixture of power and ignorance is gonna blow up in our faces." It's a poignant rejoinder to the accusation that Science isn't important but, as sobering as this comment is, my favourite quotation from the interview is the one I have as my banner: "Science is more than a body of knowledge, it's a way of thinking".
So often Science gets taught in schools as a bunch of facts which must be memorised and regurgitated, which misses half of what Science is. Science isn't just the facts we have amassed about our Universe, it's the painstaking method by which he have amassed them. This is why Science is crucial to life as a human.
Training your mind to think scientifically is about using reason, evaluating arguments, understanding evidence, making judgements, changing your mind when contrary evidence presents itself and learning how to determine what is real from what isn't. If we had greater scientific literacy, we wouldn't have as many people duped by snake-oil salesmen be they political, commerical or spiritual. If everyone was trained in how to assess the truth of claims, people wouldn't need to be taught which facts were true...they'd be able to figure it out for themselves. So, when are you ever gonna need Science? Discovering how the world works and what your place in the Universe is. That's when.
Science Loves Myths…Really
In my previous blog post, I argued that life is the result of Chemistry and Physics at their finest. Lots of people find this idea uncomfortable however because Science has a habit of shredding cultural myths and replacing them with brute knowledge. Obviously that’s an intellectually honest approach, but I do understand the objection because nobody likes abandoning a belief - even when trading it for truth.
Virtually every supernatural claim Science has investigated has crumbled under close inspection and that gives Scientists a reputation as curmudgeonly pedants who enjoy ruining people’s fun. Exactly the opposite is true though; Scientists want to believe in wondrous things just like everyone else, we just limit our cognitive diet to what can be proved reliably.
Every Scientific investigation is built on the hope that strange things are possible. Vigorous and rigorous Scientists are the ones willing to stretch their imaginations and consider possibilities outside what’s already known. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence that's true, but that doesn’t mean we have to reject extraordinary hypotheses in the first place.
Richard Feynman once described Science as being “imagination in a straitjacket” and I think that’s very apt. You obviously need to consider unproven hypotheses in order to investigate them, but keep your flights of fancy within testable parameters, otherwise nonsense will creep in.
The point of my last blog was to show that ethereal ideas have to be investigated and sometimes sadly, they have to die. However, I feel it’s important to redress the balance a little so today I’m going to write a counter-blog.
I’m going to select a far-fetched mythical creature and argue in favour of its biological plausibility. Not because I want to suggest such things are real, but to show how Scientists engage their imagination without the dreaded “anything is possible” mantra. Getting excited about outlandish ideas is crucial, but we don’t want impurities filtering into our head.
Here be Dragons
Ancient myths provide a panoply of monsters to choose from, so I'm going to narrow my thinking to something truly fantastical. Blood-drinking vampires are tempting, but they’re a recent invention and I want something universal to all human history. Older myth-monsters are always more intriguing because they speak to something primal in our psyche, and the two oldest supernatural creatures are werewolves and dragons.
Unsettling accounts of humans transforming into wolves date back to the 4th Century BCE but such stories are light on detail. The middle ages were when werewolves became iconic monster-men, and back then they were treated as literal beings.
You’re reading this as a 21st century internet-user so you consider werewolves artistic creations, but there was a time when they were considered a serious threat. One grisly court-case which took place in Germany, 1589, ended with the torture and execution of a man named Peter Stubbs on charges of being an actual werewolf…on the night of Hallowe’en no less.
Ultimately however, although werewolves are cool, I decided to go with dragons. Books, poems, songs, artworks and local legends about dragons are not only found in every human culture, they seem to be the oldest monster we’ve ever frightened ourselves with. Reaching back to the earliest human civilizations, we find stories about dragons tormenting humans since the beginning of written thought.
Even in locations where you don’t get reptiles, dragon myths are still told. Every culture in the world seems to recognise the iconography of dragons which admittedly seems a little spooky. Anthropologically it makes sense though, because the human species started in one place and traditions which originated there (including fears) could easily have been carried along as we expanded our territory.
Not only that, some human knowledge seems to be truly innate and passed down through neural architecture. New-born babies know breasts are where they get food from and you’ve probably seen internet videos of cats freaking-out over cucumbers because the shape apparently triggers a snake warning in their brain.
Explanations for these mass-phobias are widespread of course, with the most famous being Carl Jung’s notion that humans share a collective unconscious mind. Jung’s hypothesis is definitely cool but it’s hopelessly vague and, more importantly, unnecessary. Occam’s razor insists we don’t need elaborate explanations for something if a simple one will suffice and I think there are perfectly straightforward reasons for the prevalence of dragon myths.
You, like every other sentient animal, are programmed to avoid predators and share a common fear of “big monster harming me,” so all we really need to explain is why humans invented dragons specifically.
Why be there Dragons?
I once heard someone suggest that the dragon myth is a hangover from pre-history when dinosaurs roamed the Earth. The claim goes that mammals who survived the mass extinction had a species-wide fear of giant lizards and passed them on. It's a neat idea but I find it doesn't work for two reasons. First, 65 million years feels too long for such a specific memory to survive in our brains.
Second, dinosaurs weren't actually reptillian, they were actually feathered, and we don't have a species-wide fear of being hunted by giant chickens. Although, having recently sat through the mess-terpiece that was Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom I can't help but feel that a giant chicken is the next logical step for the franchise. Nevertheless, I think we need to look eslewhere in our quest to explain dragons.
The word dragon comes from the Greek “drakon” which originally meant “sea-serpent.” Indeed, most early dragon stories emphasise these monsters living in rivers, lakes or oceans and in the Bible Satan is associated with dragons and serpents - the terms originally being synonymous. In fact, Chinese dragons are still considered to be river-dwellers, depicted as snake-like monsters, sometimes with a lion's head.
This all makes environmental sense because snakes were a significant threat to early humans. Their sneak attacks, sharp teeth and venom made them seem like evil creatures, so it’s no surprise people living in the Indus valley told stories of monstrous snakes. It’s also no surprise they sometimes made snakes even scarier by hybridising them with another feared predator – lions.
The first major work of fantasy fiction, the Gilgamesh epic, tells the story of a hero doing battle with a dragon called Humbaba (depicted below). Humbaba was a monster who had the body and head of a lion but was scaled like a snake, winged like a vulture and possessed a serpent for a tail...and penis for some impractical reason. Dragons are basically an amalgamation of all the unpleasant animals we used to contend with in pre-history.
According to Wikipedia, the modern notion of a dragon emerged in the 11th Century with the first depiction of fire-breathing coming from a 1260 manuscript. I dispute that however. I think the earliest example of a dragon as we would recognise it today can be found in the book of Job, dating to the 6th Century BCE.
In Job 41, a description is given of "Leviathan", a giant scaly demon living both underwater and on land. We are told it would be difficult to tame it like a bird (implying it could fly)...and it breathed fire. For my money, Leviathan is the oldest record of a fire-breathing dragon and as Christianisation spread across Europe, Africa and America, the dragon meme hitched a ride. Take that Wikipedia.
Do dragons exist?
But could they?
Let’s get down to it. If we take the principles of biology as currently understood, would it be possible for a dragon to evolve on Earth? Well, the idea of giant animals is evidently fine. Komodo dragons (obvious to discuss) can grow up to three meters in length, saltwater crocodiles can reach seven meters and reticulated pythons can hit over nine. Big reptiles present no problem.
Dragons themselves, like the size we see in Game of Thrones, are also within nature’s limits. Animals can’t grow to an indefinite size of course, eventually the mass of a body becomes too great for the density of bone, but provided we keep to dinosaur/elephant size then giant lizards are fine.
The wings are acceptable too. Nature has invented wings on several occasions in many different species. Birds obviously have them, as do insects, some mammals (bats), fish (flying fish) and one species of lizard has arm-flaps which help it glide on the air between trees (dracos). It’s what’s called convergent evolution: species nowhere near each other hitting on the same solution to a problem. Every species has the same trials of life to overcome. They all need to feed, mate, raise young, avoid predators etc. so they often end up developing similar ways of achieving these goals.
Another good example is the development of opposable thumbs. Primates and pandas both have them despite their hands being very different (pandas have six fingers, while primates have five). It's because bears and primates need to do the same kinds of things and random chance hits on the same good ideas every now and then.
It’s absolutely permissable to have features more commonly associated with one species crop-up in another. So do the laws of evolution permit giant lizard creatures with leathery bat-like wings? Abso-dragon-lutley!
And the fire-breathing?
This particular aspect of dragon-lore took me a while to figure out because fires don't occur in any known biological system. Lightning and lava are usually responsible for fires in nature, and when humans achieve it, we do so by striking metals or oxidising chemicals together. How do we rationalise a fire-breathing animal?
In the Christian Bale movie Reign of Fire, dragon breath is explained as dragons producing a natural napalm which they spit out. That's creative and all, but the problem is that flammable or incendiary chemicals don't catch fire on their own. They need an ignition source.
The more I thought about it, the more frustrated I got. Fires typically burn at hundreds of degrees celsisus and even birds, the warmest-blooded creatures on Earth, rarely exceed forty. It didn't seem there was any way of justifying an animal getting things hot enough to start a fire.
Until I remembered bombardier beetles....
Bombardier beetles possess one of the most chemically remarkable adaptations in nature. When threatened, two glands in their bodies eject separate streams of hydrogen peroxide and paraquinone which blend together in mid-air. When mixed, these chemicals form a jet so hot it reaches the boiling point of water, burning any predator away.
Paraquinone and hydrogen peroxide are also irritant chemicals so it’s a wonderful defence mechanism…if you try to attack a bombardier beetle, it pees boiling poison in your face. Fun fact, John Cusack repels people the same way.
So, here’s what I’m thinking. Suppose our dragons had similar glands in their throats to bombardier beetles. They could spit out a chemical cocktail close to 100 degrees Celsius and that might be enough to achieve ignition. Most substances need to be scraped, scratched or electrocuted to catch fire but there are a few which ignite when you simply warm them.
Triethyl borane, for example, will catch fire at -21 degrees. That would do the trick but it's probably not a good idea because the body temperature of the dragon would set fire to it as soon as the gland produced it.
White phosophorus catches at body temperature of course, but it’s a solid powder. Powders take weeks to form inside a body (think of kidney stones) and presumably the dragon will want to use its fire-breath regularly, meaning we want something that a gland can produce at short notice.
That leaves carbon disulfide, a colourless liquid which catches fire at 90 degrees, roughly the same temperature of a bombardier beetle jet. Carbon disulfide can cause erectile dysfunction in humans but, to my knowledge, nobody has ever tested this on dragons so there’s no reason to assume it would cause any harm.
If we therefore propose that a dragon has three glands in its mouth, one for paraquinone, one for hydrogen peroxide and one for carbon disulfide, when all three squirt together they could theoretically create an honest-to-god biologenic flame-spray on demand!
So while dragons might not exist on Earth there's no reason they couldn't exist in nature. In fact, given the sheer size of the Universe and the number of potentially inhabited planets, there may even be a world on which dragons have actually evolved.
And there you have it. We've entertained a crazy idea, but rather than justifying it by saying "magic did it" or appealing to some other unprovable notion, we've used facts we already know to be true. And this is how Scientists speculate. Sticking to the laws of nature doesn't mean you have to abandon extravagant dreams. In fact, sticking to the laws of nature can sometimes make your dreams possible.
I've never heard of it...
The idea isn't talked about much these days, but I can fill you in fairly quickly. Life-Force is a 1985 sci-fi horror movie directed by Tobe Hooper about aliens who dehydrate people to death, based on a Colin Wilson novel, The Space Vampires. And I'm not making this up.
Today it's a celebrated cult classic, famous for a young Patrick Stewart cameo and because the main character, played by Mathilda May, spends the whole film needlessly naked as she strolls around killing. Fun fact: the original poster had to be recalled because it featured May's nipples and the family version (below) had to be issued with lens flares painted over them. They don’t make sci-fi movies like they used to…perhaps that’s a good thing.
The movie got its title from an ancient, pre-Scientific idea called "life-force" or "vital essence" - a mysterious property all living things were believed to have. The assumption was that studying Biology was distinct from Chemistry and Physics, because living things were somehow separate to the crude matter of the inorganic world.
Supposedly, it wasn't possible to explain living phenomena without including this soul-subtance, and for centuries Biology was fused with philosophy, mysticism and magical thinking. Until Science destroyed it.
There are some hangers-on who still talk about living “energy” or “aura”, but people who trust things like clear definitions or the logic of parsimony have long abandoned the idea of life-force. Thanks to Science, we now know life isn't the result of some boring, primitive notion like magic. Life is Physics and Chemistry at their most complicated and beautiful. Here's how we figured that out in nine experimental steps.
Step 1 - Camera Obscura
The first hint that life-force might be unnecessary was uncovered by the Muslim scholar Abu Al Hasan. I’ve mentioned Al-Hasan in another blog because he essentially invented the Scientific method itself. The thing he's best known for however, is explaining how pin-hole cameras work.
If you make a tiny hole in the wall of an otherwise dark room or box, light from outside will project itself onto the far wall, creating a perfect image of the external world. This effect had been known since ancient times, but Al-Hasan successfully explained it as the geometric behaviour of light-beams moving in straight lines.
After building a number of pin-hole cameras with lenses to prove his idea, Al-Hasan got hold of a bull’s carcass and extracted its eyeball for comparison. Following a rather unpleasant dissection, Al-Hasan found that the retina of an eye behaves identically to the back wall of a camera. The pin-hole (pupil) allows light to enter and light-beams create a retinal image according to his geometric laws. There was no need of magic. Apparently you could explain the very nature of visual perception using only a basic appreciation of optics.
Step 2 - Doctor Death
Up until the 16th century, medicine was built on the work of the philosopher Hippocrates of Kos. Hippocrates never got his hands dirty with actual dissection of course, he just used intuition (guessed) and doctors learned their trade by reading his books and watching occasional amputations. It wasn’t until 1543 that a scientist named Andreas Vesalius decided to carry out genuine human autopsies and record his discoveries.
Vesalius began his career as a grave robber, unearthing bodies and dissecting them at his laboratory. This may sound immoral by today's standards, but if you want to make an omelette you’ve got to dig up a few cadavers.
Fortunately when he moved to Italy, he fell into favour with Charles V, who not only patronised Vesalius' research but began scheduling executions to match his lecture schedule so he would always have a fresh supply of corpses. Doctors of the city would be invited along and Vesalius became a morbid celebrity who would take the freshly killed criminal and cut them open as his assistants created diagrams for medical textbooks.
And, astonishingly, Vesalius began to discover that the human anatomy was not particularly different to that of animals. We had the same stuructre, the same organs and our skeletons differed only by shape and size. It would appear that ancient wisdom was wrong; humans were another breed of animal rather than a separate classification. Life-force was still part of the deal, but it was disconcerting to realise we probably shared the same life-force with dogs and cats.
This idea was heretical of course. You weren’t supposed to challenge the accepted wisdom of ancient thinkers, so it was assumed that the human body had simply changed form in the years between Hippocrates and Vesalius. The idea of throwing out an incorrect theory when contrary evidence arose wasn’t a big thing back then.
It was also Vesalius' discoveries which stirred up the first notions of ethical vegetarianism. If humans were made of meat just like every other animal, did we truly have the right to kill and eat other animals? Was it really that different from eating human meat?
Step 3 - Breathe With Me
About a hundred years after Vesalius, a physician named William Harvey dealt another blow to the ancient medical textbooks. It had long been taught that there were two kinds of blood in the human body, one manufactured in the liver, the other in the lungs.
Harvey measured the capacity of a human heart and, by timing the average pulse-rate, showed mathematically that the heart pumps 260 litres of blood per hour which would weigh three times more than the actual human. There was simply no way the liver or lungs could be manufacturing that much blood. Besides, where was it all going? Vampires?...SPACE VAMPIRES???
Harvey proposed that blood was circulated in a fixed amount, collecting something important from the heart and transferring it to the organs. Harvey’s discovery still had the idea of a life-force but in 1637 Renee Descartes (who thought therefore he was) showed that the heart was a mechanical muscle-pump and life-force was really being collected from the lungs. Apparently, blood was absorbing something we were breathing in.
It was just a matter of time before, in the 1780s, Antoine Lavoisier showed this life-force in the blood to be oxygen. He did this by collecting hundreds of guinea pigs and removing gases from their enclosures until he found the one they needed to live. Many guinea pigs died during this experiment.
Lavoisier also showed that the two types of blood were oxygenated and deoxygenated variations; there was no magical ingredient being added to blood from the lungs or heart. It was all based on Chemistry. (Lavoisier was one of the key architects of the periodic table and there's a whole chapter about him in my book Elemental...which you should definitely buy).
Step 4 - Warming to the idea
Lavoiser's commitment to Chemistry and guinea pig torture didn't stop there. He also became very interested in body heat – another mystery attributed to life-force. Lavoisier put more guinea pigs into a fiendish contraption which used their warmth to melt ice. By measuring the amount a guinea pig’s body could melt, he was able to calculate the amount of thermal energy they produced.
He then measured how much oxygen guinea pigs were taking in during the same time and burned an equal amount for comparison. He discovered that the amount of heat given off from a rodent body was identical to the amount of energy given out during a simple chemical burn. It would appear that body heat was an exothermic consequence of oxygen reacting with something in the cells of the guinea pigs.
A century and a half later, Julius Von Mayer showed that living things carry out a chemical reaction between sugars in their food and oxygen in the air. By measuring precisely the amount of sugar, oxygen, carbon dioxide, water and heat taken in or given out by a number of small creatures (presumably guinea pigs) he was able to show that the energy going into a living thing is equal to the energy coming out of it.
Energy conversation and heat laws, previously thought to apply only in the realm of Physics, were just as important in Biological systems. Apparently Biology had to obey the laws of Physics just as everything else did - it wasn't exempt or special.
Step 5 - You are all diseased
In the 1700s, the British navy was in trouble. More than 50% of its sailors were dying from scurvy; a horrible condition which causes your teeth to fall out, your skin to split open and you to die. Nobody could figure out what was going on until 1747 when the physician James Lind carried out the first medical trial in history.
Lind decided to run experiments on the crews of various ships, administering different diets to different sailors. Some were given cider to drink, some were given sulfuric acid, some vinegar, some oranges and (as a control group) some had to drink equal amounts of seawater. The results were clear: sailors who consumed oranges didn’t get scurvy.
By 1794 other foods like sauerkraut, lemons and limes were also shown to prevent scurvy and it became standard practice for ships to have a supply of citrus fruits on board (hence British sailors being nicknamed “limeys” by yanks). Finally, in the 1930s, the active ingredient preventing scurvy was identified by Norman Haworth as Vitamin-C (ascorbic acid).
It turns out that while most animals produce their own, a small number of species including monkeys, apes and bats do not make Vitamin-C. As a species, humans suffer from inherent Vitamin-C defficiency, which makes things uncomfortable for the life-force hypothesis.
If living things are bestowed with magical essence, why was it missing Vitamin-C? Why would humans and bats be born with a genetic disease while other animals get excused such a handicap? If life-force existed it was imperfect and incomplete…which sounds more like a natural, random chance thing than an ethereal, magic spirit thing. Incidentally, one other animal which lacks Vitamin-C? Guinea Pigs.
Step 6 - Back to the lab again yo...
One of the most pervasive (and ludicrous) ideas Science had to battle was the idea that there is a distinction between natural and man-made materials. This idea still hangs around unfortunately when people talk about “natural ingredients” in food as opposed to “man-made chemicals”. It’s a sophistric logic because humans are a part of nature, so anything synthesised by humans is a natural thing synthesising another natural thing...but there you go.
The first person to prove we could manufacture “life chemicals” in the lab was Friedrich Wohler in 1828. One afternoon, mostly by accident, Wohler synthesised some crystals by reacting ammonium chloride with silver nitrate and, after careful analysis, discovered them to be pure urea. Urea is a chemical found in the urine of animals and therefore impossible to make artificially...except it clearly was possible. Wohler’s discovery showed that “man-made” versions of “natural" chemicals were the same thing.
It was another Scientist named Marcellin Berthelot who took things further and threw life-force into serious turmoil. Following in Wohler’s footsteps, Berthelot decided to catalogue and synthesise every known “biological chemical” he could think of using inorganic lab ingredients. He managed to create ethanol (yeast excrement), methanoic acid (ant blood), benzene (found in Styrax bark) and began advocating the idea that living things were complex arrangements of molecules. You could, in principle, create any substance found in a living thing if you knew how to arrange the atoms.
By the mid twentieth century we had figured out the atomic compositions of thousands of biological substances. Max Perutz solved the structure of Myoglobin and Haemoglobin, Linus Pauling solved the protein alpha-helix, Franklin, Watson and Crick solved the structure of DNA and the undoubted queen of Biochemstry, Dorothy Hodgkin, successfully figured out steroids, penicillin, Vitamin B12 and Insulin (a molecule of 777 atoms, getting her the most hard-earned Nobel Prize in Biology).
There was no life-force needed to account for any of it. If you were careful you could glue atoms together in the right order and make any living thing you wanted. In other words: nature isn't adding anything to life, it's just arranging atoms in phenomenally complex ways.
Step 7 - It's alive! It's aliiiive!
In the 1790s, Luigi Galvani was dissecting frogs in his lab. Most of his experiments concerned electricity, so his laboratory was filled with electrical equipment and by chance, a metal scalpel which had built up a charge came into contact with the sciatic nerve of an amputated frog leg, causing it to twitch. Galvani's curiosity was galvanised. Sue me.
He began conducting (pun intended) other experiments like wiring frog corpses to his electricity machines or fixing them to metal rods during thunderstorms and discovered that motor neurons are wires carrying small currents. Whereas life-force suggested movement was the result of a spirit inside your body pulling strings, Galvani showed that movement is the result of electrifying muscle tissue and could be carried out on dead muscle just as easily as live.
Allessandro Volta took things further and showed that the electrical currents in neurons were identical to those generated by batteries and finally, in 1865, Julius Bernstein proved that chemical reactions in cells are capable of generating the tiny voltages Galvani had discovered. Once again, a mysterious bio-property could be explained in terms of Physics and Chemistry.
It has been speculated that the discoveries of Galvani and Volta influenced Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein in which a hubristic Scientist attempts to reanimate human tissue. Sadly, this original version was heavily rewritten into the far more famous, "audience-friendly" version of 1831, removing a lot of the satire...and presumably painting lens flares over Frankenstein's nipples! Frankenstein was one of my favourite novels as a teenager and arguably the first work of modern Science Fiction. If you decide to read it, I recommend Shelley’s original 1818 text. It's got more bite.
Step 8 - It's dead, it's deeaaad!!!
In 1896, Eduard Buchner (shown below) was interested in fermentation. If you feed sugar to a bunch of yeast cells, they crap out ethanol and carbon dioxide. By now, life-force was in serious question and the Scientific community was divided on whether fermentation was a biological or chemical process. Some assumed yeast cells were converting sugar to ethanol via life-force means (aka hocus pocus) while there was a growing feeling that yeast cells contained a chemical which reacted with sugar.
The distinction between biological and chemical processes was, of course, a false dichotomy which Buchner proved in a blindingly obvious yet brilliant experiment. He tried to achieve fermentation with dead yeast.
If Biology was basically Chemistry, then structurally there should be no difference between a living cell and a dead one, so if you killed the cells and burst them open, their chemical guts should be unchanged. Lo and behold, Buchner successfully achieved fermentation with dead yeast cells, proving that living stuff could carry out the same processes as dead stuff.
Step 9 - Soup's Up!
By the 1950s Darwin’s theory of natural selection was so well-evidenced, it was accepted that life on Earth originated from a common ancestor billions of years ago. The only question was how that life got there in the first place.
It was one thing to say living things are today the result of biochemistry, but the initial spark which gave rise to proteins, enzymes and information chains was still unexplained. It was sometimes nicknamed “Darwin’s Black Box” because nobody could figure out how to get life from a sterile Earth. So naturally people plugged life-force into the epistemological gap.
But then, in 1953, Harold Urey and Stanley Miller decided to replicate the conditions which had birthed Biology. By stewing all the chemicals known to exist on Earth at the time (easily learned from studying rocks, ice cores and cosmic nebulae), they filled a flask with methane, ammonia, hydrogen, water and began spark-plugging this "primordial soup" to simulate lightning.
After a week the soup had changed composition entirely. It was filled with amino acids, the building blocks of proteins and enzymes. If it was possible for lifeless chemicals to synthesise amino acids in a few days, imagine what could be achieved in a few hundred million years with a churning ocean, lightning, hydrothermal vents, rock pools, ultra-violet rays and so on.
(NB: some people have mistakenly criticised the experiment because along the road to making amino acids, the Miller-Urey experiment also made cyanide and formaldehyde, which are obviously poisonous, leading to fallacious rejection of the results. What's not being understood by these people is that the cyanide and formaldehyde are part of the sterile mixture of chemicals...if you react them long enough they do make amino acids, that's the whole point of the experiment.)
The final “missing link” between these amino acids and simple proteins has not yet been discovered, however. We’ve figured out step 1 of the life process, and we know steps 4,5,6,7... etc, but we’re missing a few steps in between. It is here that the remaining spiritualists and witches set up camp, insisting life-force must exist within those few question marks left in the chain.
As a Scientist, I have to concede that they may be right. However, I think it’s unhealthy to cling to an un-evidenced hypothesis. Furthermore, the history of Biology has shown that the more we’ve studied it, the smaller life-force’s reach has become.
It makes sense that early explanations for living things would favour magic over testable laws of Science...nobody knew any testable laws of Science! But now that our knowledge has matured, I think we can safely shrug off the cloak of mysticism. We cannot know with certainty of course, but wisdom suggests that life-force has been truly sucked dry.
Soul leaving body: YouTube
Life-Force poster: thecultmoviereview
Look into my eye: giphy
Hannibal Lecter: wikipedia
Shameless Plug: shamelessplug7
Guinea Pig 1: imgflip
Guinea Pig 2: angryapps
Dorothy Hodgkin: thefamouspeople
Pain in the ass frog: knowyourmeme
Primordial Soup: defendingthebible
I was recently reading a blog by a fellow Science teacher (teacherofsci) in which he shares tips for running an engaging Science classroom. He suggests that the most important things are to be fun, be yourself and be active. I agree with him whole-heartedly and thought I’d share my measly two cents.
I’ve been teaching two subjects for seven years now and on Monday I will say goodbye to my form; a group of 25 pupils I’ve looked after and cherished for half a decade. It’s definitely time to take stock of my life and think about what I’m doing. Last time I got in a mood like this I wrote a blog about why I’m a teacher (here's why), today I thought I’d write about what I’ve learned as one.
I’m not going to write “top ten tips for the Science classroom” because I don’t think I have anything worth sharing. Every teacher, every class and every lesson is unique, so it’s foolish to give guidelines on what you should or shouldn’t do. There is no “magic bullet” that will work in every situation.
What I can share, however, are things I wish someone had told me when I started. If you’re thinking of becoming a teacher then maybe this will be helpful, and if you’re one of the people who trains teachers... don’t forget to mention this stuff.
1. You can't win every kid
You love your subject. You can remember when sparks started to fly for you, often because you had an inspirational teacher, and you want to do the same for someone else. You want to show the next generation how beautiful your subject is.
But instead of the subject you love, I want you to think back and visualise the subject you hated. For me that was art. I remember my teacher Mrs Williams trying to explain how important art was in the hopes of engaging me at the age of 14, but she needn’t have bothered. I knew art was important and I appreciated it just fine.
Art is a truly wonderful subject and I respect people who can do it. I just wasn’t interested in doing it myself and nothing could have changed my mind. Mrs Williams wasn’t a bad teacher, she just couldn't beat my hard-wiring. You probably had your own subject you didn’t care about. You dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s to get the teacher off your back, and that is how some students feel about your subject.
I am in love with Science and cannot fathom how anybody couldn’t be. But some people apparently aren’t. I’ve seen students daydreaming and yawning during lessons on black holes, quantum phenomena, the human brain and the chemistry of dynamite. I’ve done lessons where I have literally set fire to my arm and students have been checking their phones.
It’s tempting (and human) to take it personally, but sometimes it’s not you. Some students aren’t bothered about your subject because it's a part of who they are. It sucks because you know they’re missing out but you have to make peace with it.
This doesn’t mean you should give up trying to make your lessons engaging or blame the kids if they lose interest. You still need to keep busting your guts every day, but you need to accept that you will still fail sometimes. Even your best effort won’t be enough.
2. There are five kinds of student...
A – Students who love the subject already
B – Students who don’t love the subject, but will discover it with your help
C – Students who don’t love the subject and never will, but want to pass it
D – Students who don’t love the subject, but will suddenly care at the last minute.
E – Students who don’t love the subject, never will and genuinely don’t care if they pass.
Teaching student A is easy. You don’t have to put effort into convincing them your subject rocks, you just need to provide answers to their questions. Be warned though: you’ll unconsciously find yourself putting more effort into student A because you feel you’re getting more of a response. It’s a common mistake, particularly in the first few years, so be wary; all students need your attention.
The most emotionally rewarding moments in teaching tend to be with pupil B (for me at least). There’s something powerful about helping someone discover a passion. It doesn't happen all the time, so relish these moments.
Pupil C are the ones I'm most proud of. Don’t get me wrong, I love teaching students who appreciate my subject, but I respect students who work hard at something they don’t like. I’ve had many kids tell me they just don’t get Chemistry or Physics but gave it their best shot regardless and it's always nice to see these kids doing well.
And then we come to D and E. I will say that E is fortunately rare. I’ve taught very few students who genuinely didn’t care and it's impossible to tell, ahead of time, which students will suddenly start to work hard when the end is nigh. Often you’re surprised.
Student D can be really tricky of course. They hate your subject, they’ve put no effort in all year and have probably been rude to you. When they suddenly switch on in the last few weeks it’s tempting to say “you're on your own.” It’s human to feel like they’ve ignored your help all year so how dare they click their fingers and demand you jump to attention and help them. But guess what…that’s your job.
Your need to keep student A’s passion alive, convince student B your subject is worth their time, help student C jump through the exam hoops and give support to any student who comes to you...including student D.
3. You're a person
I got told a lot during training that “it doesn’t matter if the kids get on with you” and it’s a poisonous lie. It’s one of the most important things. There’s a fairly obvious reason too: it’s easier to learn from someone you get on with.
If your students have a good working relationship with you, not only will they feel respected in your classroom, they are more likely to ask questions. If they’re afraid of you, they aren’t going to stop you when they don’t understand something. You won’t be teaching them at that point, you’ll just be talking at them.
Teaching, at its best, is a two-way street where students explain what you need to teach and what isn't working. If they think you aren’t human, they’re less likely to have that dynamic with you. I’ve also found (as I’ve mentioned on another blog) that relaxing and being yourself tends to make for better lessons anyway. Some might argue this is a waste of time because it’s not teaching them anything. But I disagree because your job isn’t just to teach your subject.
Like it or not, you being the “adult” in the room means you’re showing students what an adult looks like. We notice personality traits of people around us and if teenagers see all their teachers as personality-vacuums, it doesn’t paint a very optimistic picture of being a grown up. So be yourself. Be human.
4. They're people too...not exam machines
When you train as a teacher, you hear about how to assess immediate learning, monitor academic progress, calculate benchmark grades etc. etc. but there’s little emphasis on the fact you’re dealing with human beings who have lives outside your classroom.
When I was a teenager I was busy forming lifelong friendships and growing a sense of humour. I was questioning how much of my parents’ lifestyle I wanted to adopt and reject. I was working out my political and religious beliefs. I was discovering my taste in music, movies, art, books etc. Not to mention the infuriating distraction of suddenly being attracted to girls. In all honesty, school was a secondary concern during my teens and I was one of the “motivated” kids.
The people in your class have stuff going on in their lives which are more important to them than your lesson objectives. And that’s normal. I’d be puzzled by a teenager who wasn’t dealing with a bunch of stuff outside of school.
As a teacher, you’re the person with knowledge. Your job is to get that knowledge into the brains of as many people as you can and brains aren’t calculators. Brains are emotional, messy networks of illogical consciousness. People have insecurities, fears, hopes, anxieties, loves, mood swings and it’s worth remembering that. It’s a good idea to find out who you’re trying to help before you figure out how to help them. So treat your students like they’re people. They are.
5. They're also teenagers
Teenagers are not the same as adults. For one thing, their circadian rhythms are out of sync with daylight. The adult body-clock tends to wake up in the morning and fall asleep during late evening, but adolescents are biochemically inclined to fall asleep around 1 in the morning and wake up mid-day. Contrary to pernicious and slanderous myth, teenagers aren’t lazy, they’re just tired by 9–5 standards.
In Britain, the school day starts at 8:45 which is fine for most adults. But imagine if, as an adult, you were forced to start work at 4. You might be a little grumpy, a little lethargic, a little on edge, even a little emotionally drained. It’s no secret that depression is common among teenagers and lack of sleep is a significant factor.
Another thing worth remembering is that the adolescent brain is different to the adult brain. Teenagers have surplus hormones flooding their system, which can lead to extremes of uncontrollable emotion and their pre-frontal cortex (a part of the brain in charge of behaviour regulation) is still growing. So cut them some slack. Teenagers are more complicated than adults and you need to appreciate that.
Oh, and let’s not forget that today’s teenagers are growing up in a different world to the one their parents grew up in. The internet has changed our culture in a marked way. I don’t need to list all the ways it has revolutionised our culture because it should be obvious. But if you sometimes wonder why teenagers are different to “what it was like in my day”, that’s because the world is different to your day.
6. Everybody struggles with bad behaviour
My youngest pupils are 11 (upper end of children) and my oldest are 18 (adults). Every class in between is a mixture. Some of your kids are wanting to play on the swings while others are wanting to discuss Kantian empiricism. Pitching to such a diverse range of people is a challenge.
Also, remember you’re there by choice. They aren’t. 11 – 16 year olds are in your class because the law says they have to be. You’ve got people who are forced into subjects they don’t like, many of which they will never use again, they aren’t paid for it, they’re on an emotional roller coaster, discovering their sexuality and identity…and they’re tired. It would be surprising if they didn’t act out.
Some teachers have a reputation for being good with behaviour management but there is no such thing as a teacher who gets perfect behaviour all the time. I know a teacher who is beloved and respected by all students in his school. You never hear him being bad-mouthed. And yet he recently had a group of boys vandalise the front of his house. The reason wasn’t because he had annoyed these students…he doesn’t even teach them...it was because he was a teacher and therefore “the enemy”.
It sounds a little defeatist but I’m being realistic. Even great teachers get challenged by students sometimes. It’s not necessarily anything the teacher has done, it’s because a lot of teenagers hate going to school and some of them will make this plain.
I’ve had cans of coke thrown at my head. I’ve had bike-chains whipped at me. I’ve had students give me the middle finger and tell me they hope I get “raped and shot,” and that’s mild. I know teachers who have had their water bottles poisoned. I’ve known teachers get air rifle bullets through their windows and I even know one teacher who, years ago, had a student try to blow up their car.
I’m not trying to excuse or defend these extremes of behaviour. But difficult behaviour is inevitable. Often in teacher training they suggest strategies for behaviour management and give the impression it will magically make your lessons run smoothly…it won’t. I feel like when trainee teachers are being given all these ideas for managing behaviour it should be prefaced with the message “this will work about 40% of the time.”
Again, it’s about managing expectations. If you think you can be the teacher who never has a kid misbehave you’ll get frustrated quickly. You might be really good at controlling things but you’ll still have kids who won’t behave and this isn’t your failing. It’s not their energy drinks either, nor is it TV, the government or fluoride in the water…it’s school and you're a part of it.
7. Beware of "research"
One of the most common bits of teacher advice I was given while training was the motivational poster shown below. You may have come across it yourself. I remember being a little suspicious of the conveniently rounded numbers, so I went looking for the source material and discovered the reason the numbers seem odd is because they are fake. It’s the work of a man called Paul John Phillips who wrote a military training leaflet in 1947 for the Socony-Vacuum Oil company which contains the numbers. And he made them up.
Perhaps you have come across the idea of “multiple intelligences” and how people are clever in different ways. That started with Howard Gardner in 1983 and it’s not based on research either, it’s based on a popular psychology book he wrote which is not widely accepted by the scientific community.
Maybe you’ve heard there are such things as visual, auditory and kinaesthetic learning styles? Or that you can improve learning with “brain gymn”? Or perhaps you’ve been told that people with “growth mindsets” make new brain connections every time they make a mistake? The evidence for these claims is at best non-replicated and at worst non-existent.
Every few years some educational research rolls out and teachers across the world run with it. I’m not saying be cynical - some teaching experts have fantastic classroom strategies which really work - but do be skeptical. A lot of this "research" does not deserve the name.
8. Every teacher has their own style
Something worth doing when you become a teacher is observe others. You pick up good ideas (as well as traps to avoid) and see lots of different ways of doing things. And they’re all OK.
The lessons with clothes lines running across the room and thousands of post-it notes stuck to kids’ faces are a fun change from routine but I’ve seen no evidence that anyone learns better from this. In fact, I’ve sometimes found teaching “chalk and talk” pays off more because if you run a fun-fair, kids remember the thrill of the game but forget what the actual learning was supposed to be.
The more I teach, the more I’ve come to realise that different teaching strategies are just a matter of personal style. There are some types of lesson I can’t pull off and, by contrast, I’ve had other teachers say things to me like “I couldn’t do what you do, tim.” It’s tempting to be flattered by this but my style of teaching is no better than anyone else’s, it’s just mine.
There’s really only one wrong way to teach: be boring. Everything else is worth a shot. And what’s more, having teachers with different styles is a good thing. Sometimes a student might get an explanation from Teacher 1 which doesn’t work for them. If they get help from Teacher 2 and hear the same explanation, it’s a waste of time. But if Teacher 2 has a totally different approach, the student hears different ways of tackling the problem and has a better chance of finding what works for them. So don’t feel you have to conform to another teacher’s way of doing things. Try your own way.
9. Use your holidays
Teaching is a rough gig. According to the Department for Education, if you add up the number of hours worked the average UK teacher pulls 21 extra working days per year than someone in a 9-5 job. What’s more, you do this in a shorter period of time. People like to moan about teachers getting long holidays…but we earn them.
I’m not pretending teachers are harder working than non-teachers - every job has its stresses and stressors. It’s just that teaching suits a particular personality. The “give it all you’ve got and then crash” personality. The important thing is to include the crash bit.
It’s very tempting, particularly when you’re new, to work during the holidays. Teaching requires buckets of energy, so a lot of new teachers keep surfing the adrenaline and work right through the breaks. But eventually you'll run out of steam and it will be in the middle of term.
I discovered this the hard way. During my first two years as a teacher I didn’t switch off at all. I worked an 8-6 day, every day, including weekends, for 24 months straight, only stopping for two or three days around Christmas and Easter. I ended up in hospital at the start of my third year.
A part of me is a little bit proud of that (I had enough energy to work for two years solid) but mostly I consider myself an idiot. I worked so hard I made myself sick and ended up in intensive care rather than the classroom where I was needed. Your students will benefit if you switch-off during the holidays, otherwise you’ll collapse in front of them and it won’t be pretty.
So pace yourself. Those holidays are crucial for sanity. Put them to use. Spend a few weeks not thinking about lessons. Read all those books you said you’d get round to. Write that screenplay. Write a book (although who would do something like that?). Learn to play an instrument or speak a language. The key message is: if you don’t have a break, you’ll have a breakdown.
10. Want to be there
This one seems obvious, but being a teacher shouldn’t be a job you do to pay bills...it should be your calling. It’s a sad fact but some people go into teaching because they couldn’t think what else to do with their degree. I find that attitude problematic. As a teacher you’re handling people’s futures. That’s not a job that’s a duty.
Imagine a doctor who didn’t care whether their patients got better or not. Would you want such a doctor treating you? Or treating your children? Granted, teaching isn’t as serious as medicine because you’re not dealing with people’s lives…but you are dealing with their futures and that’s still pretty important. Teachers are helping the next generation become the next generation and if you don’t agree, you shouldn’t become a teacher.
You have to be an optimist, an idealist and even a bit of a dreamer. You have to be in this job for the sake of the species, not your savings account. And if you think I’m being overly dramatic and you think “teaching isn’t that big of a deal” then stop wasting your students’ time and get out of the profession.
If you’ve tried teaching for a bit and “it’s OK I guess” then my advice is quit now. You’ll hate your job in five years. And, what’s worse, the kids will hate you too. You’ll be exhausted, stressed and you won’t inspire anyone.
But if you’ve tried the classroom and felt “this is awesome” then that’s all you need. If you love it despite the stress, if you still care about the kids when they’re horrible to you, if you haven’t lost any passion for your subject and still believe you can make a difference in people’s lives, then you have what it takes.
Love your subject. Love teaching it. Everything else is unimportant.
I'm getting paid to do this???
In part 1 of this blog I explained how I got a contract with the Little, Brown Book Group to write my debut book Elemental, released on the 5th of July. I've recieved lots of enthusiastic and curious responses, with a lot of people asking about the money. So I might as well talk about this aspect because it's interesting.
To be abundantly clear, I don't write about Science for the goal of earning fat stacks. I write about Science because I think it's awesome. I don’t monetise my YouTube channel (much to the horror of many students) and when people have asked me what I'll spend the money on I haven't had a good answer.
But let's be frank. I’m a human being living in the 21st century who needs to buy food and pay bills. Money isn't everything but it's useful and if people are willing to pay me for working (the time and effort required to write a book is basically a second job) I might as well say yes to that.
There are two ways you get paid as an author. First, you get what’s called an "advance”. This is a lump-sum which you recieve in thirds from the publisher. You get the first chunk when they sign you up, the second when you deliver the manuscript and the final one when the book gets published.
Then you earn royalties on book sales. However, to make sure publishers secure a profit you don’t start seeing royalties until you’ve broken even on your advance. Elemental has already been sold for a tidy sum in China and Poland however, so fortunately I’ve paid off my advance already. That means once the book hits shelves I'll start earning straight away. Provided people actually purchase it. (So...buy my book please).
Despite a lot of people asking however, I don't think it would be in good taste to divulge how much my advance was or what my percentages are. Just assume I’ll be eating lobster and gold-plated salads in private jets for the rest of my life.
Writing 101 with tim james and friends
In February 2016 I signed an 18-page contract which gave me nine months to write a 45,000-word "light-reading guide to Chemistry". All I had to do was write the damn thing and unfortunately there isn't much I can tell about my writing process.
I don’t sit in a log cabin sipping hot-chocolate in front of a typewriter, delicate harp music in the background as a roaring fire pillows thick smoke into the air. My writing process is to sit in the corner of a dark room and think of good sentences. That’s about it. Oh, and I wear my hooded cloak as I do so. I'm wearing it right now.
I can definitely tell you the book went through five drafts though. The first draft was simply getting the ideas down - it wasn’t so much a book at this point as a scrabbly scaffold of interesting Chemistry facts. Draft two was when I turned this loose assortment of mini-essays into a coherent piece of writing with a structure and draft three was when I tried to make it readable. Following this, I asked other humans to have a look at it.
I needed people to check how good my explanations were, fact-check the information and tell me if the book was any good. I thus enlisted the help of friends, co-workers, students and Science-editors who I knew would be meticulous, straight-talking and critical. I wanted them to tear my writing apart.
This book wasn’t just me mucking around on the internet, it had to be worthy of people's hard-earned cash! (Speaking of your hard-earned cash…buy my book please). So, if you write something and want others to read it, my advice is not to choose people who are going to be complimentary. Pick people who will give you brutal truths you'd rather not hear.
And the people I asked were predictably fantastic. They told me when it was boring, when it made no sense and when I was waffling indulgently. They pointed out errors I made, lousy phrases I used and even suggested improvements. This is an important tip for becoming a writer: your ego needs to take a bath. If you can’t face criticism you aren’t going to write anything good. Nobody writes a perfect book on the first draft unless they're Sylvia Plath or Robert Heinlein (who allegedly wrote one draft only). And I'm not them.
I then spent my Summer battering the book into a version I could submit to the publishers. This was an arduous process of re-writing, referencing, cross-referencing, finding sources, taking other people’s notes etc. etc. and finally, on 29th August 2017, two months shy of the deadline, I had the fourth draft finished. Complete with childish humour and godawful illustrations which astonishingly my editors have decided to leave in. Any of my students reading this will already know how abysmal my drawings are...so there's that to look forward to.
The editing process which ensues after a book gets submitted to publishers is quite long. First, your text goes to a desk editor. This is someone who gives feedback on style and decides if what you’ve submitted is what the publishers asked for.
The next person in line is the copy editor who goes through and cleans up your grammar. This might seem strange because if you've secured a book deal you probably know how to write. But the thing is…and brace yourselves for this…grammar is not official. I know this may come as a shock to people who love correcting others when they misplace a comma or split an infinitive, but there are no officially recognised “laws of grammar”.
When you're writing, you can use whatever grammatical structure you please, provided the intent of the sentence is clear. It’s not like mathematics where there is a right answer - grammar is a matter of taste only.
For example, I capitalise the word Science on my website, while the generally accepted approach is that you shouldn’t. But that’s a preference which I simply don't have. I like the way the word looks when capitalised and nobody is confused by what I'm talking about. So I do it anyway. This is why a copy editor is necessary; writers have their own personalised grammatical style and preference but publishing houses have an agreed "house style" which your book has to match.
Then there’s a legal team who read through your text and make sure you aren’t plagiarising or writing anything libellous. There’s someone who goes through and makes sure all the references you’ve used are real. Then someone makes an index, someone else collates the illustrations and finally you have something ready for print.
In December 2017 I was sent this fifth draft for minor tweaking and after 274 e-mails between myself, the publishers and my agent Jen, the book was completed and good-to-go on 13th March 2018.
One thing which has been a huge surprise is how much deliberation goes into deciding the title, subtitle and front cover for a book. We went through at least fifteen title combinations and seven cover designs before we settled on the one displayed above.
Initially I found this peculiar, but it makes perfect sense when you think about it. A movie trailer is composed of clips from the movie, but books don’t have trailers. What would it even involve? A bunch of disconnected sentences strung together for 2 and a half minutes? We're not writing a James Joyce novel here.
The book’s front cover is the advert, so the old adage “never judge a book by its cover” is total nonsense. It’s really important to get the cover of a book right, but unfortunately I suck at this kind of thing. I don’t know anything about marketing, so I let my publishing director and agent take the wheel at this point, although I can say with a little pride that the title we eventually chose came from my suggestion.
I started writing in June 2015. It’s three years later and I’m about to see my first book hit the shelves. There’s every chance this will be the only thing I ever get to publish because it might flop dreadfully and get hideous reviews. If that happens I doubt any publisher will touch me again. But maybe, just maybe, the book will do well and I’ll get to write another.
Obviously I want my book to do well because I put a lot of work into it. I love Science, I love writing about it and all joking aside, I am proud of Elemental. Have I written the greatest pop-Science book of all time? Of course not. But I'm hopeful that I've written something people will find entertaining and educational. Chemistry is a beautiful subject and I’ve done my best to convey how elegant and downright cool it is, but if I never get the chance to write professionally again then so be it. I am still grateful to everyone who helped Elemental happen.
Think only this of me
When I was 14 years old, a teacher leant me a textbook on quantum chemistry and something inexplicable happened. A light in my brain, one I didn’t know was there, switched on. That book was Valency and Molecular Structrure by Edward Cartmell and Gerald Fowles, published in 1956.
I read it 54 years after publication so Cartmell and Fowles will never know that their book inspired a lonely, nerdy teenager to dedicate his life to Science. I have no idea how well Valency and Molecular Structure sold and I’ll probably never find out because it’s now out of print. But it exists. Those guys wrote a book and their words went further than they did themselves, switching on lights in people’s heads long after they’d written the final full-stop.
I’m a Science teacher because I want to switch on lights. I want people to find the world interesting, to learn about it, be inspired by it and to help make it a better place. My book won’t change civilization as we know it but maybe some 14 year old kid somewhere, far into the future, will pick up a copy of Elemental and have a lightbulb moment of their own.
That’s why if Elemental doesn’t become the world’s highest-selling Science book I won’t care. Writing my first book has been a remarkable journey and if it is also my last, then at least I made a small mark on Science literature. And that is a good feeling.
As my launch date gets closer, I’m constantly reminded of interviews you see with actors at the Academy Awards who say things like “I don’t care whether I win. It’s an honour just to be nominated!”
I used to think this was for show because they secretly wanted to win more than anything. But I have come to realise that they are being sincere…because it’s exactly how I feel. Naturally an oscar-nominee is hoping to win and naturally I’m hoping my book will do well, but really it’s just an honour to have a book published at all. If I never get to print another word then I can say I gave it my best shot. James out.
P.S. Buy my book.
As many of my readers will know, I have a book coming out in a couple of months. Elemental: How the Periodic Table Can Now Explain (Neary) Everything is a light-hearted guide to Chemistry, and the whole thing is amazing. I mean the fact I have a book coming out, not the book itself. Well, yes the book too. My book is amazing. Buy my book. It’s a giddy feeling because I’ve always enjoyed writing about Science so to say “I am a professional Science author,” is extremely gratifying, if a little daunting.
The way a book creeps into existence is a fascinating process. I had always assumed an author wrote a book, sent it to a publisher and if the publisher liked it they printed it. I soon learned this was as naive as the belief that babies are brought by the stork. Or the belief that a book gets brought by the Amazon delivery truck. Speaking of which, here’s a link where you can pre-order my book from Amazon: Buy my book.
Generally I tend to write about Science on this blog, with occasional forays into life as a teacher and intermitent essays on hermeneutics. But my recent adventures in publishing are probably worth sharing. Partly for other aspiring writers, partly because it’s really interesting, and partly because I need to shamelessly promote my book…Buy my book.
So, you think you’re a writer?
Cast your mind back to June 2015. The U.S. Senate had just given metadata responsibility to telephone companies, I Really Like You by Carly Rae Jepsen was in the charts, and St Bennets’ Hall of Oxford University decided to admit female students after 118 years of refusing them. Seriously.
It was around this time that I got an idea. I was watching a video of a comedian complaining about being ill-equipped to answer his children’s Science questions. “Electricity? It just comes down the electricity pipe, right?” As part of my job, I spend a lot of my time answering questions like this, so I know how to answer where electricity comes from.
I also know what causes itching, why dogs wag their tails and why you shouldn't put metal in a microwave when the inside is metal anyway. I figured I might be able to help flummoxed parents with these questions, so I decided to write a bunch of answers as a casual hobby.
After about a month I had over 100 entries, so I put them into chapter-categories and turned it into a book called What is Fire Made of: Answers to Burning Questions Kids Ask. I thought it was readable and potentially useful, so I decided to see if anyone would help me get it out there. And it turns out the very last people you should send a book to are publishers themselves.
Writing is a very common hobby these days. No longer is it reserved for sweating melancholics languishing in candlelit dungeons - lots of people write books and lots of them want to get published. It’s hard to find exact figures, but large publishing houses recieve something like 5,000 submissions a year. Only 1.5% of these manuscripts get picked up while the other 98.5% never see the light of a printing press.
Rejected books might be unmarketable, they might be offensive or, putting it bluntly, they might be badly written. Although I'm uncomfortable suggesting that last one because it arrogantly implies my book is one of the good ones. Although it is. Buy my book.
So, if you’ve written something, take my advice and save the price of postage. Anything submitted to a publisher will probably go straight to shredder, and I'm not talking about the machine there. I mean it gets fed to Shredder, the arch-villain from Teenage Mutant Ninja Tutrles. It's a little known fact but after being defeated by the turtles for the dozenth time, Shredder retired from crime and now works for the publishing industry consuming rejected author manuscripts.
Factotums of the Publishing World
Publishers do want to find new authors of course, but they don’t have time to read through an endless slew of potential books, this is where literary agents come in. Literary agents are like talent-scouts who read submissions from authors and pick out those which have a chance. Publishers rely on literary agents to find books worth taking seriously so the bottom line is: if you don’t have an agent, a publisher won’t look at you.
Literary agents aren’t just talent scouts though. They also act like solicitors who represent their authors and make sure they get a fair deal. Publishing law is complex and most people outside the industry have no idea how it works. International rights, royalties, distribution agreements, marketing costs etc. are a headache and I honestly can’t tell you much about them. But I don’t have to because my agent understands it all. That’s the whole point.
Literary agents are also navigators of the publishing landscape; knowing which publisher specialises in what. This might sound strange because a lot of people don't give thought to who the publisher of a book is. Can you tell me who Stephen King’s publisher is? Or John Green’s? Possibly not, but it's actually of great importance.
When you go into a bookshop you look for certain genres or authors and might therefore assume that publishing is a free-for-all. That’s how it works in the movie industry where film studios produce every genre. But in publishing, things are highly specialised.
If you’ve written a children’s cook-book which teaches kids how to navigate the kitchen, publishers who specialise in children’s books or cookery guides will be interested. If you’ve written a children’s cook-book which is about the best way to cook and eat children themselves, that’s a different kind of publisher altogether.
You probably don’t know which publishing house specialises in which genre or sub-genre (I certainly don’t) but again, this is where your agent comes in. Agents know which publishers print what books, which editors to contact and what kinds of things they’re looking for. They also act as liaisons between you and the publishers, making sure the book is something they want to read and something you want to write.
Your agent takes a small percentage of the money you make and in return they promote your book to potential buyers. Not to mention helping you edit your proposals, refine the text itself, give you feedback on style and make you presentable to your readership (my readership includes you incidentally...buy my book).
Hang on, I need to get this…it’s my agent calling
Once my book was in a readable state, I began researching literary agents in the UK, particularly those who had an interest in popular Science. A couple got in touch and wanted to know more about me, as well as ideas for future projects. For obvious reasons, agents and publishers want to find someone who will write more than one book so they’re really looking for authors, not just the book they've written.
I quickly got a good vibe from The Graham Maw Christie literary agency, and in particular Jen Christie who considered my submission. Jen did a really good job of explaining what she was interested in and what I should be doing to get publisher attention. The GMC agency had done a few Science titles prior to mine, but were looking to get into it more seriously, so when they offered me a contract (September 2015) I said yes without hesitation.
It’s a pretty weird feeling to have someone think your writing is worth investing time in, and it’s strange to be one of those people who has an agent. But also…it’s pretty sweet. I have genuinely said the words “that’s my agent calling” in the middle of a conversation. Oh, and here's my page at the GMC website with a hauntingly youthful look on my face.
Thanks, but no thanks
My agent Jen began approaching publishers with What is Fire Made Of? and several expressed interest, although none were biting. The general response was that they liked my style but they weren’t sure about the book itself.
For one thing, there are similar titles out there already and my book would be white noise. Novels are different because once a genre explodes (vampire-romance for instance), lots of authors join the game. But non-fiction works differently because you’re in competition with the internet. In a world where the answer to many questions can be Wikipedia’d people are only going to buy a book if it’s offering them something unique. This means in non-fiction it’s important to write what nobody else is.
The concept of my book also presented a problem. Was it for children or the parents of children with difficult questions? It’s hard to write a book for both types of reader and my book was an awkward hybrid. So although a lot of publishers made nice noises, it got rejected and Jen decided What is Fire Made Of? wasn’t going anywhere. This is another thing an agent can do: they can tell you when it’s time to stop flogging the dead poet.
Jen also pointed out something I hadn’t really considered. First-time authors are approached with caution because they are a risk. Publishers have to get a feel for you and I was a complete unknown, largely staying out of the limelight. Was I someone who had a lot to write about? Would people want to read my writing? Or was I just a one-book guy that nobody would be interested in?
So Jen suggested I be more proactive with getting my face out there. I was reluctant at first because I don’t want to promote myself, I want to promote Science (speaking of which, buy my book) but she had a point. Nobody knew who I was. Plus, I enjoy teaching Science so why restrict it to my classroom?
It had never occured to me to put myself on the internet because other people seem to be so good at it already. But I decided to give it a shot. I launched this website around January 2016, along with my YouTube channel and instragram. I soon discovered that I actually had lots of things to talk about and, even stranger, people seemed to like reading it. If What is Fire Made Of? wasn’t going anywhere that wasn’t a problem. I had other things to write.
A lot of my ideas were shot down immediately (I wanted to do a book about the Science of death, dying and corpses for instance) but some of them had promise, so Jen and I worked on proposals for several months. I wrote outlines and sample chapters for five books, including one novel, and while this period was very frustrating, I learned a lot about writing itself which paid off when we finally got somewhere.
Welcome to the Big Leagues
In August of 2016, a year after she signed me, Jen began talking to a publishing director at Piatkus, Constable & Robinson - a formerly independent publisher recently bought by the Little, Brown Book Group.
Constable & Robinson has won three “Publisher of the year” awards in the last decade and Little, Brown has won four. Little, Brown published J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy and are also Leonard Susskind’s publishers - one of my favourite Science writers.
Little, Brown are in turn owned by the Hachette Book Group, one of the five largest publishers in the world (third largest for educational books) and in 2016 they had 44 titles reach #1 on the NYT bestseller list. These guys are serious players. So, like a bright-eyed and hopeful Dick Whittington, I headed for London in search of spectacle and good fortune.
From the outside, Hachette HQ looks like any other office block, but once you go inside it’s a contemporary cathedral. You walk through polished glass doors into an atrium of echoing surfaces at least six stories tall. The welcome desk was so big it needed three receptionists and there were security guards to check my bags and issue me with a nifty ID badge saying “author” on it.
I met with the publishing director and headed to a private garden/restaurant on the roof, with a tower view overlooking the Thames as we talked about writing and Science. And, after a few hours, an idea started to emerge.
There’s a lot of pop-Science books about Physics and Biology but surprisngly few on Chemistry. There are academic “introduction to Chemistry” texts and a few books which talk about elements and their uses, but nobody has yet written an informal beginner’s guide to Chemistry and the periodic table. I began writing that evening.
The book hadn’t officially been commissioned (I had to prove I could deliver what had been asked for) but it was a thrilling opportunity and, 357 e-mails later, Jen and I had a decent writing sample. We suhbmitted and on 6th February 2017 (six months after the pitch meeting) the book was bought for Piatkus, Constable & Robinson > Little, Brown > Hachette. I was officially a professional author.
Join me in part 2 where I'll talk about the process of how a book goes from initial idea to finished product. And buy my book. Please. If the cute cat didn't motivate you, perhaps I should try the following approach instead. Buy my book otherwise...
Bits ‘n’ Pieces
Easter Sunday is, in the Christian calendar, the most important festival of the year, more theologically significant than even Christmas. In the secular world it isn’t celebrated quite as fervently, but since Western history was dominated by Christianity, Easter Sunday is still a widely observed event.
For Christians, it symbolises Jesus’ atonement for the sins of mankind and the rebirth of humanity through Godly salvation. Outside Christianity it’s all about chocolate, eggs and rabbits. That's a weird combination of stuff though. Jesus wasn't a rabbit. Rabbits don't lay eggs (as far as I'm aware, I'm not a Biologist) and chicks don't eat chocolate. I am confusion.
So, I’ve decided to write a blog about Easter and its cultural paraphernalia, largely because the school term has finished and I finally have time on my hands, but also because it's interesting to look at the history and Science behind these traditions. Oh, and I might as well do the Science of chocolate while I'm at it.
The Origins of Easter
Let’s be clear about something first: Jesus of Nazareth absolutely existed and no self-respecting historian would claim otherwise. Whether you believe Jesus to be a prophet, the Messiah or literally God himself is up to interpretaion. What isn’t up to interpretation is whether he was real or not. He was. Get over it.
The influence of Christianity on Western culture over the past two millenia cannot be overstated either. Even our dating system comes from the life of Jesus. I mean, I just made reference to "two millenia". Two millenia since what? The birth of Jesus...duh.
We get our concept of a yearly date from a Romanian monk named Dionysius Exiguus who calculated Jesus’ birth as happening 753 years after the founding of Rome. This year was obviously the most important in history so it was called year zero. Anything before then was BC (Before Christ) while everything after became AD (from the Latin Anno Domini…year of the lord).
However, Exiguus screwed up. The gospel of Matthew (Matt 2:1) records that Jesus was born “in the days of Herod the King”. This is a reference to Herod the first, who died 749 years after the founding of Rome - making the date 4 B.C. Furthermore, the gospel of Luke (Luke 2:1) tells us Jesus was born “when Quirinius was governor of Syria”. Quirinius occupied this post from 6 - 4 BC, so if Jesus was born during the lives of both men, he must have been born six to four years before Christ. Nice going Exiguus.
The date of Jesus’ execution is a little easier to pin down though. The gospel of John (John 2: 20) tells us Jesus first visited Jerusalem in the 46th year after the Temple started construction. We know Herod began this project in 19 BC, so that places the date as 27 AD. We are then told that three years passed before he was crucified (John 2:13, John 5:1, John 12:12), making the final year of his life 29 AD.
The gospel of Luke however refers to Jesus first visiting Jerusalem in “the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Ceasar” (Luke 3:1) which was 29 AD - the year John records him dying. Fortunately, the three synoptic gospels record the time between Jesus’ visit to Jerusalem and crucifixion as one week (not three years) so all four gospels agree on the date of death, even if they disagree on the rest of his timeline.
We are also told the crucifixion took place on “the day of preparation” (Matt 27:63) a reference to the Jewish week. In Judaism, Saturday or Shabbat is considered the final day of the week (Sunday is the first) and it is a day of rest and religious contemplation. The day before is the “day of preparation” for Shabbat, meaning the crucifixion took place on a Friday. Jesus’ resurrection is reported to have happened two days after the crucifixion, making it Sunday morning. The early Christians decided Sunday was therefore a more appropriate holy day and made Monday the start of their week instead.
And in case you’re curious, in 1988 the International Organization of Standardisation decided Monday was officially the first day of the week, going with Christian custom rather than Jewish. What a fun meeting that must have been.
Jesus was in Jerusalem to celebrate passover which, in 29 AD, took place on Monday the 18th of April. We know he celebrated this passover with his disciples, so the crucifixion must have occured the following Friday, making the date of his resurrection April 25th. But Easter’s date moves every year! This year it's happening on April 1st. Next year it will be April 21st and last year it was April 16th. Why is Easter, quite literally, a movable feast?
Look to the Moon
The Babylonians based their yearly calendar on the moon’s phases. Every twelve lunar cycles was a regeneration of the twelve signs of the Zodiac so the year was split into twelve “moonths” or “months”. The Egyptians however marked their year after the four seasons giving us a 365 day repetition. They didn't know about the solar system, but their calendar was inadvertantly based on Earth’s orbit of the Sun.
This gave us two rival calendars being used in 1st century Judea; the lunar and the solar, and they do not sync-up. The Jewish calendar has the feast of Passover fixed on the 15th day of the month of Nisan based on the Moon-calendar and since the Chrisitian church was originally comprised of Jewish and Greek people, their date for Easter was fixed according to the lunar system. But from the perspective of the Romans (who adopted the Egyptian Sun-calendar) Easter moved back and forth iwith the moon's phase.
Since the Roman empire eventually conquered most of the Western world, it was their Sun-calendar which won out and we now mark a year as the time taken for a solar orbit. By contrast Christmas, a festival introduced centuries later, has a fixed point in the solar year (December 25th) but oscillates from the perspective of the Jewish calendar.
The name “Easter” arose in 7th Century Germany, from the Goddess Eoster, a deity associated with spring and fertility whose feast was celebrated in April. The name Eoster seems to come from an even older German word Austro which means “shine”. This is most likely where we get the word “East” because it's the place where the Sun begins to shine every morning - an obvious symbol of new life.
Oh, and during the 12th Century, the word good also meant “Holy” so the Friday of Jesus’ crucifixion - originally called Holy Friday - came to be called Good Friday. Just in case you were wondering why it was a "good" thing Jesus was brutally tortured and executed.
So where do eggs and rabbits come in?
Easter eggs are, surprisingly, one of the oldest Christian traditions, possibly as old as communion itself. Eggs have always been a symbol of new life, particularly around the Spring season. The early Christians began painting eggs red to symbolise the blood of Jesus and as time marched on the decorations became more elaborate until egg-painting became a staple part of Easter fun. The rabbit connection however gets a bit weird.
Rabbits are notoriously hard to tell their sexes apart. Males and females both have small genitals which look similar, even on close inspection. For centuries, people believed rabbits were simultaneously male and female meaning they could have sex with themselves and induce “virgin birth” thus becoming associated with the Virgin Mary.
There. That’s a fact you now know.
During the sixth century Chinese artwork also featured a lot of rabbit images (nobody knows why) and it was adopted by the Romans, so when they converted to Christianity they brought rabbits along and at some point, the rabbit became tied specifically to Easter.
That seems to have begun in 17th century Germany where The Easter Hare served a similar function to Santa Claus - punishing naughty children and rewarding good ones on the night before Easter. My guess is that Christmas already had a winter-spirit so the rabbit was picked as his spring equivalent. And since colourful eggs were a big part of Easter already, it made sense for these to be the Easter Hare's gifts.
Right, now that we’ve done rabbit genitals, let's talk about chocolate.
What is chocolate?
To get chocolate you start by picking fruit of the Theobroma cacao tree which tends to grow in South America. When you open the fruit you’ll find white seeds which you have to ferment with a fungus called aspergillus.
Once the cacao seeds have been digested, you remove the shells, grind them up and heat the whole thing. A thick brown paste forms which separates into cocoa powder (a brown solid) and cocoa butter (a white wax).
People of the Inca and later Aztec empires would often use both ingredients as stock for various drinks, sometimes mixed with chilli powder, giving rise to an early form of what we call hot chocolate. When the Spanish invaders landed they took the recipe home and began adding sugar, honey and vanilla to soften the bitter taste.
Chocolate drinks became very popular throughout Europe over the next hundred years. So popular in fact that in 1662 Pope Alexander VII sanctioned the consumption of chocolate during lent saying that chocolate did not count as breaking your fast. Thus, chocolate became associated with Easter.
It wasn’t until 1847 that the confectioner Joseph Fry perfected a way to solidify the chocolate drink into a bar. By a careful process of churning and cooling slowly, Fry was able to prevent cocoa crystals forming (which made things brittle) and generated lumps of sweet brown matter with a similar consistency to soap.
Fry’s company marketed three types of chocolate bar: milk chocolate which contained cocoa powder, butter and sugar; white chocolate which contained only cocoa butter and sugar; and dark chocolate which contained the cocoa ingredients and no sugar.
Then in 1873, Fry decided to capitalise on the significance of eggs during the Easter season and began making chocolate eggs instead of bars. Originally a solid piece of chocolate, this became the infamous Easter egg.
Chocolate has since become the most widely consumed confectionary product in the world and, like anything popular, this has led to innumerable myths and pseudofacts. To finish, let’s take a brief look at some of the more famous chocolate myths and seperate the powder from the butter.
Is chocolate really poisonous to dogs?
Yes. Chocolate contains a chemical called theobromine which is poisonous to most animals so it has to get broken down once it’s inside you. Dogs break it down very slowly however, so theobromine can reach toxic levels for them very quickly. A big dog eating a small bar should be fine, but a small dog eating a large bar is at serious risk.
Technically, theobromine is poisonous to humans as well, we’re just good at breaking it down before it does damage. You’d have to eat around 40 kilograms of milk chocolate in 24 hours to reach toxic levels. Bearing in mind a standard bar of chocolate weighs 40 grams, this is a thousand bars in a day. You're probably safer than your dog.
Is chocolate addictive?
Yes and no, depending on what you mean by addictive. When we talk about addiction we usually mean a person doesn’t just like a particular substance...they feel unable to function without it. The boundary gets a little hazy because you could argue that some people cannot function unless they get the thing they want i.e. they need it. The debate gets even more complicated because addiction has many causes, most of which are poorly understood.
For example, one suspected mechanism is that the body can start using the ingested chemical as a substitute for chemicals it normally produces itself. Over time the body stops producing its own supply and when you stop taking the drug you find your body lacking something. Thus, you get withdrawal symptoms. It’s suspected that opioid addiction works along these lines.
This kind of addiction is usually termed "physical addiction" because it has a measurable impact on the body's biochemistry. By contrast, there is the so-called “psychological addiction” where the chemical doesn’t necessarily alter the biology but you find yourself dependent nonetheless.
What is speculated to happen is that certain chemicals cause a rise in dopamine - a neurotransmitter associated with happiness. To prevent your body getting overloaded with dopamine (which would lead to schizophrenia), the body increases production of enzymes to break the dopamine down.
The more you take the drug, the more efficient your body gets at producing the enzymes and you find the drug becomes less and less effective over time. This is building up a tolerance. As a result, you find yourself needing to use more and more to get the desired effects which (unbenknownst to you) leads to an increase in the amount of enzymes as well.
When you finally stop taking the drug your body is still producing the enzymes in large amounts, but you’ve stopped boosting your dopamine. All your naturally-produced dopamine gets destroyed and you get cravings, insecurity and sometimes depression.
Chocolate can cause a very small surge in dopamine so it is definitely possible to become psychologically addicted to it. There are certainly reports of people who become so dependent on chocolate they don’t feel comfortable without eating it...would we therefore say they are unable to function?
Harsh critics might say these people need to use willpower to quit whatever they have become dependent on. While others might point out that addiction to chocolate can be just like addiction to any other chemical. The terminology is ill-defined but the take-home message is that even when a particular food or drug is described as “non-addictive”, that only means it’s not phsyically addictive. You can still become addicted to it. So be careful folks.
Wasn’t there a study which proved chocolate helps you lose weight?
No. Although it certainly seemed like it when Johannes Bohannon made global headlines in 2015, claiming to have found a link between chocolate and weight loss. As interesting as this news story was, things were not as they seemed. Johannes Bohannon (known by his real name Dr John Bohannon of both Oxford and Harvard University) was actually carrying out a subtle experiment, not on chocolate but on the media. He wanted to see how carefully newspapers, magazines and websites would check a Scientific study before reporting it, so he decided to perform a deliberately terrible experiment and see how many outlets would pick it up.
The trick he used was to carry out his experiment on a small number of people (15) and look at dozens of changes to their bodies. By measuring all sorts of things he was able to find a link purely by coincidence. A technique called "p-value manipulation".
Imagine I gave three people a pill and asked them how they feel. Let’s say by coincidence all three of them have good days at work. I could then claim “this pill makes you have a good day at work” Or if, by a different coincidence all three people happened to sneeze a lot, I could claim “this pill makes you sneeze”.
If you keep asking people for information you’ll find a pattern eventually and it just so happened that the 15 people in Bohannon’s study all lost a tiny bit of weight, so that was the outcome reported.
Bohannan also decided to break with scientific protocol and went straight to the media with his claim, rather than getting other scientists to peer review the article first. A lot of reporters seized on the story because it sounded amazing and the study exploded.
Bohannon’s experiment teaches us several things. First: when a Scientist is doing an experiment they should have a clear view of what result they’re measuring i.e. don’t keep looking for results until you find them (because you always will). Second: just because the words “a study has shown…” are used in a report doesn’t mean that study was a good one. And perhaps most importantly, when you hear a headline about a Scientific discovery, check to see what other Scientists think.
Does Chocolate Cause Bad Skin?
No. This one’s a very popular factoid but it seems to be completely untrue. Many studies have been conducted on the impact of chocolate on human skin and none have found a link. If you have a sudden rash on your skin, there are lots of things which could be causing it, but it's not chocolate. My guess is that there's something a lot less dramatic going on.
One thing which is known to cause bad skin is stress and when you’re under a lot of stress the body produces cortisol which gives you bad skin. People also tend to manage stress by eating high caloric foods e.g. chocolate so I propose that stress causes both overeating chocolate and bad skin, leading to a misattribution of cause and effect. Any thoughts?
And finally...is chocolate an aphrodisiac?
No. Chocolate contains small amounts of tryptophan which the body can turn into serotonin, a chemical often produced when people fall in love. The claim runs that consuming large amounts of chocolate therefore causes amorous feelings. But the amounts contained in a bar are vanishingly small; far less than in a leg of turkey or a glass of milk which are not usually associated with hanky-panky behaviour. I suspect chocolate simply tastes nice so people give it to loved ones on special occasions (eg Valentine’s day) when amorous feelings are already on the table.
Is it theoretically possible to consume so much chocolate it becomes a subsitute for romance and sexual thrill though? I guess technically yes, but you’d have to eat crate-loads of the stuff and as we’ve already seen, that will kill you before you fall in love. If you want to feel all loved up you’re better off watching Titanic rather than dying. And if you don’t like Titatnic you’re probably dead inside already.
Happy Easter Folks!
Easter Egg: Leicestershirediabetes
Easter Bunny Boomerang: deviantart
Christian Bale as Jesus: fanpop
Robert Powell as Jesus: rejesus
Mary Painting: apollo-magazine
Three Hares: Chinesepuzzles
Fry's chocolate: flickr
Scary Easter Bunny: YouTube
Chocolate Cancer: Twitter
Chocolate Skin: nowloss
What are the odds?
As it says on the above DVD cover for Die Hard 2...Die Harder (sweet mother of mercy) lightning shouldn't strike twice. It's an expression we use to mean "astonishing events don't occur on repeat". The odds of something unusual happening are small, so the chances of an unusual thing happening more than once should be even rarer...right?
Well, not quite. While a rare occurence is by definition uncommon, if you run your observations for a longer period of time the chances of it happening more than once don't change. Suppose the odds of you finding a four-leafed clover are 1 in 50. If you go looking at clover-leafs 50 times you'll probably find a four-leafer. That's rare. But if you look at clover leafs another 50 times you'll probably find a second one because now you've made the odds 2/100, which is exactly the same as 1/50. The chances of a rare event happening don't necessarily diminish, they can actually stay the same.
There's also the fact that the more people involved in "experiencing events" i.e. living on planet Earth, the more chance you have of one person experiencing several remarkable occurences. For example, Florida resident James Bozeman won his state lottery two years running in 2012 and 2013. Harry Black of British Columbia bought two winning lottery tickets in the same lottery also in 2013, and then there's Joan Ginther who won the Texas state lottery four times in 1993, 2006, 2008 and 2010.
Ginther's case is fascinating because after winning $5.4 million in 1993, she was still playing the lottery 13 years later. And her method was remarkable: she just bought tens of thousands of tickets for each lottery, spending her winnings from the previous lottery on winning the next. That might be more to do with compulsive behaviour than luck admittedly, but it's still pretty interesting. It also demonstrates that our ability to grasp probability is not intuitive.
When a rare thing happens to you, you get spooked. But rare things have got to happen to someone. I once saw a person dropping a glass of drink onto a hardwood floor. The glass inverted perfectly, landed over the drink and caught it upside down without spiling a drop. The drink was now resting on the floor with the liquid trapped inside and no damage to the glass.
The odds of that are astonishing, but when you consider the sheer number of people having drinks and knocking them over all over the world for the last few centuries, chances are it probably happened on several occasions. Even if something is a one in a million chance, if a billion people are involved that means it will happen a thousand times. One in a million chances are not actually very rare.
One of my favourite psychological experiments on probability was carried out by Richard Dawkins in his Royal Institution Christmas Lectures (1991). Dawkins instructed every member of his audience to stand up and told the left half of the room to think "heads" while the right half thought "tails". He then flipped a coin and half the room sat down because they had failed to predict the outcome. Then he repeated it with the remaining half, some of them focusing on heads, some on tails.
He did this again and again until only one person was left standing; someone who had accurately predicted/psychically influenced the coin a dozen times in a row. That person was no doubt thinking "what are the odds that every time I visualised a particular outcome it came true?" but Dawkins pointed out something crucial. By pure chance, a small number of people will always end up beating the odds. One person genuinely did get 12/12 predictions correct but you have to remember that 200 people in the room didn't get this accuracy. I guess you could call his experiment an example of COIN...cidence.
It shouldn't happen, but it does
So, what about lightning? Does it strike twice? Well, there are certainly people who have been struck on multiple occasions. The all-time champ is undoubtedly Roy Sullivan (pictured below) who was struck six times during his 80-year lifespan. He also claims to have been struck once as a child (although this one wasn't documented). Even Sullivan's wife was hit, presumably because the lightning missed its target.
The odds of this happening to one person are slim. According to Marry Anne Cooper, a lightning-researcher at the University of Illinois (probably the most badass job imaginable), the odds of you getting hit by lightning once in your life are about 1/3000. Sullivan's numbers seem inexplicable, but then again he was a park ranger in Virginia, a state which gets a lot of lightning, and he spent a lot of his time outdoors looking for people who got lost in storms.
So it would appear that lightning can hit a person more than once by pure chance, but can it hit the same location on the Earth's surface? Is the safest place to be during a thunderstorm right where you saw it strike a few moments ago? Let's look at the Science.
What is lightning anyway?
When two objects rub against each other they can break each other’s atoms, chipping off electrons in the process. These electrons get transferred from one surface to the other and a precarious charge imbalance has been created. One of the objects now has an excess of electrons and they will try to escape their unstable surface, usually by tunnelling into the Earth itself.
Because Earth is enormous it has room for surplus particles, so electrons sitting unhappily on the surface of an object will zap toward the ground, going through anything that’s in the way, including you.
That’s what causes the static shock people get after brushing their hair. Strands of human hair pick up electrons from the brush and as soon as you touch something connected to the ground they jump across, creating a spark in the process. A lightning bolt is the same thing multiplied millions of times...we think.
The problem with lightning is that it’s an unpredictable and dangerous phenomenon, which makes it very hard to study. We know it happens more in warm countries and it tends to occur during rainstorms, but that's all we're certain about. Please take the remainder of this explanation as speculative. It's a little more than a hypothesis, but it's not quite strong enough to be called a theory yet and there are plenty of meteorologists who disagree.
Lightning is largely thought to be the result of rain and dust blowing around inside a cloud, causing electrons to hop around and accumulate in one region, like they do between strands of hair. Once a big enough charge build-up has accumulated, things get unstable and rivers of electrical energy start leaking out like tentacles seeking a quick route to gain stability. These ribbons of charge go darting outward from the cloud and we call them lightning bolts - although you’ve probably never seen one because they're very faint. What you usually see during a storm is the result of lightning simultaneously coming up from the ground toward the sky. Strange as that might sound.
The electrically charged part of a cloud has the ability to ‘sniff out’ a path toward an oppositely charged object, typically the Earth. This scout party is called a “leader” but for reasons not understood, the Earth begins doing the same; sending a bunch of positive charge upward in its own quest to be neutralised. These upward-lightning bolts are called “streamers”.
The two threads of opposite-charge snake through the air and meet like the hand of God touching Adam in the Sistine chapel. At the instant of connection, a flow of electricity occurs between ground and sky and it’s this linking of leader and streamer your eyes actually see - what's called the "flash". Fun fact: lightning in a snowstorm appears green and pink. Nobody knows why.
This kind of thunder
Often, lightning flashes occur between two clouds, one creating the leader and the other creating the streamer. But when this happens between cloud and ground it's referred to as a lightning "strike".
Strikes are about 10 kilometres long and while you don’t want to get caught inside one, the effects are rarely lethal. They can carry up to 30,000 amps (more than enough to kill) but the bolt passes through your body in a fraction of a second so the effects aren’t sustained long enough to be lethal, only to burn horribly, creating intricate injuries called Lichtenberg scars.
The temperature of a lightning strike is also pretty extreme, around 30,000 degrees Celsius - five times hotter than the surface of the Sun. It has been known for this temperature to boil the water inside trees and cause them to literally explode, so lightning is far more likely to blow you up than electrocute you.
That heat also causes the surrounding air to expand rapidly. This creates a shockwave in the atmosphere which goes travelling outwards from the lightning like a sonic boom. This is the thunder you hear shortly after seeing the flash.
Although if you are unfortunate enought to get hit, your chances are pretty good. 90% of people struck by lightning survive and although it can cause siezures, chronic fatige and in the worst cases blindness and brain-damage, most people struck by lightning have little memory of it other than seeing a bright flash, falling unconscious and waking with a splitting headache.
Goodness gracious, great balls of fire!
One of the most fascinating versions of lightning known to exist is the so-called "ball lightning" ...although its name in German is krugelblitz which is obviously better. For many centuries, the phenomenon of krugelblitz was thought to be a tall-tale (a ball-tale? Anyone? No?), but it turns out to be a genuine occurence.
Although shockingly rare and without any explanation whatsoever, lightning can sometimes wrap itself up into a ball and go darting around through the air like a maniacal fairy. I love krugelblitz because it's one of those things where we have absolutely no clue what's going on. Just that it happens. Here's what is believed to be the first photograph of ball-lightning, taken by a lucky bystander in China.
So does it strike the same place twice?
The answer is emphatically yes. All the time in fact. At any given moment there are around 2,000 thunderstorms on Earth with about 100 flashes per second. It's estimated about half of these are strikes so roughly 50 bolts of lightning will hit the earth during the time it takes you to read this word: krugelblitz.
Where does it tend to hit? Well, the charged leaders are trying to reach Earth via the quickest route possible which usually means striking the tallest object around. Since that doesn’t normally change (unless King Kong is in the neighborhood) most lightning tends to strike the same spots over and over.
The Empire State Building for instance, is struck by lightning once every two weeks, as are many other tall buildings. The iron in their shell is an excellent conductor and streamers can easily form from their spires (as in the picture below).
Also, while central Africa holds some of the records for most lightning strikes in a single year, the town of Lakeland, Florida gets hit once every three days, holding the record for the most lightning-prone place on Earth. So actually, if you know a place has been struck by lightning recently, don’t assume that place is safe. Assume the opposite.
We do have to be careful though and address a common lightning myth: that lightning will only strike the tallest object around. It's more accurate to say lightning has a preference for it. Well...that's not accurate at all because lightning isn't conscious and doesn't have feelings but you get what I mean.
Lightning leaders (the ones going from cloud to ground) move in random jumps, each having a maximum range of about 45 meters. So if a bolt of lightning is about to strike a building and you’re 46 meters away you’re probably safe. But if you’re within the 45 meter danger zone, there is a chance the lightning might change its mind at the last minute and snap out to get you. It’s rare to deviate but technically lightning can strike anything it wants.
But where shall I go? What shall I do?"
If you're standing in the middle of a thunderstorm and your hair starts pointing upwards I have some bad news for you. An upward streamer is about to form around you. Your hair is standing on end because you’re building positive charge and you’re about to get hit. You need to act quickly. Firstly and most importantly, finish reading my blog (priorities). Then you've got to make yourself lightning-invisible.
Oh, and don’t waste time putting on rubber-soled shoes. A bolt of lightning packs around a hundred million volts. You think an inch of rubber is going to stop it? Think again. It’s going to tear through you and your shoes like a bullet through tissue paper. Your best bet is to surround yourself with metal, usually by getting inside a car or a metal building. That sounds counter-intuitive but it’s completely logical.
Electricity wants to get to the ground through the path of least resistance. The metal bodywork of a car is much easier to travel through than a human body so given the choice, electricity won’t even glance at you and will stay inside the metallic shield you’ve surrounded yourself with. The bolt will travel through the roof of the car, down the doors, through the rubber wheels (often melting them in the process) and straight into the ground. In the picture below, from George Westinghouse's 1941 electricity experiments, you can actually see artificial lightning striking the top of a car and coming out near the front left wheel, leaving the occupant unharmed.
Although some electrons might briefly tickle their way through the air toward your body, they find it so difficult they usually just go back to the metal and carry on. So, while the worst place to be during a storm is near a skyscraper (in case it changes course) one of the best places to be is directly inside it. Same with planes. In fact, if you've ever been inside an aeroplane, chances are it was struck by lightning at some point during your journey. Pretty cool, right?
An Urban Legend...which is actually true
So, in summary, rare events can occur to the same person multiple times, even on the same day. Lightning is a mysterious phenomenon but we know it can strike the same person twice and often prefers to strike the same location. The best place to be during a strike is either inside a metal cage or far away from anything tall. But if it does hit you, you're probably going to be ok.
To finish with I can't help but recant a morbid, albeit fascinating story you may have run across. Have you ever heard the tale of the woman who allegedly got killed by lightning because the electricity conducted through the underwire of her bra and her breasts were so big that all that metal killed her? I heard that story on the school playground years ago and assumed it was an urban legend. But it's not.
It happened on 22nd September 1999 in Hyde Park, London. The two unfortunate women were named Anuban Bell (24) and Sunnee Whitworth (39). What's more, the coroner Paul Knapman claims he had seen it happen once before. Knapman had, at the time, been the coroner on some 50,000 cases making death by underwire bra-lightning a 1 in 25,000 chance. That does mean technically, technically, if you have large breasts (and therefore more underwire) you have a slightly higher chance of getting killed by lightning. Sorry about that.
Obviously that all seems horrible and a rather grim place to finish the blog. If only there was a way to cheer people up after reading such horrifying news. If only a great rock band had recorded a song about lightning to lift people's spirits. And no, I am not talking about Thunder by Imagine Dragons (no offence to my ID fans out there). I'm clearly talking about AC/DC. If only they had recorded a song about thunderstorms. If only...
A good question
In the seventh Century BCE, Thales of Miletus was mystified by the mineral lodestone; capable of attracting iron from a distance and repelling other lodestones depending on orientation. Three centuries later, Shaggy 2 Dope of Insane Clown Posse highlighted Thales’ quandry in the song Miracles with the inspirational lyrics:
“Water, fire, air and dirt;
F***in magnets, how do they work?
And I don’t wanna talk to a Scientist,
Y’all motherf****rs lyin’ getting me p***ed.”
If you’ve not come across the horror-core, hip-hop band Insane Clown Posse I can save you a lot of trouble. This is them:
This isn’t the first time I’ve made jokes at the expense of ICP on my website and when they released Miracles the internet exploded with derision. One interviewer handed them a children’s Science book, while Saturday Night Live did a sketch where the Posse ask increasingly dumb and obvious questions. But, as it happens, I see their point.
Not only are magnets wierd, when Scientists try to explain them the answers never seem complete or clear. How does a magnet know when another magnet is close? How do they know which way the other magnet is facing and why does this alignment cause attraction or repulsion? How can a magnet “reach out” through empty space, sometimes through other objects, and influence another magnet at a distance?
These are good questions and consequently (this is a sentence I never thought I’d type as a self-respecting adult) I understand where Insane Clown Posse are coming from. How do magnets work and why does it seem like Scientists always lie about them?
As a teacher, I can probably explain the phenomenon of magnetism half a dozen ways but I have to be honest, Shaggy 2 Dope is correct: all of the explanations are cheating. They are pedagogical slight-of-hand tricks which don’t answer the question honestly. This can be frustrating for anyone wanting to learn and it’s just as frustrating for Science teachers.
We aren’t lying though, I promise you that Mr Dope. The problem with magnets is that there is no satisfactory explanation for how they work and I’m going to explain why. This question is going to take us right to the heart of what Scientific explanations really are. It’s going to get quite philosophical but hopefully it will shed some light on the very nature of what Science is capable of. So, magnets…how do they work?
Fantastic Mr Feynman
In a famous interview with Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman, Christopher Sykes asks the magnet question (link at the end). Feynman answers with a surprisingly bald sentence “What do you wanna know - the magnets repel each other.” Sykes starts to get frustrated because Feynman is merely stating what everyone already knows, but then Feynman points out that the difference between describing and explaining is often very slim.
Thing is, Richard Feynman was not just one of the world's greatest physicists, he was one of the greatest explainers of Science too. He had a knack for breaking complicated ideas into simpler statements, but on this instance he seems to be telling us very little. And this is really worth noting. If Richard Feynman can’t explain magnetism any simpler than stating what happens, can we really expect to do any better?
Fantastic Mr Faraday’s Fields
Probably the most important Scientist in the history of magnetic research was the equally legendary Michael Faraday. A few hundred years before Feynman took centre stage, it was Faraday who was the world’s most renowned Science populariser.
Unlike Feynman, Faraday had no formal schooling and didn’t feel comfortable with mathematics, but they shared a desire to understand the world in the simplest terms possible. They were both from the school of “if you can’t say it simply you don’t understand it” and Faraday had an elegant way of dealing with magnetism - by introducing the concept of a field.
Magnets clearly have the ability to create environments around them which influence similar environments. These environments can act through solid objects, so they are not made of magnetic particles and they also aren’t disturbances in the geometry of empty space, because only certain objects are affected.
Faraday began visualising these environments of influence as lines spreading from the object, with arrows showing the direction in which the influence pointed. The shape of a magnet’s influence-environment can be measured precisely and we refer to it as the magnet’s field, illustrated below.
Fields are typically what Science teachers use to explain magnetism. We say a magnet creates a field around it with a distinct shape, or sometimes we talk about the Universe having a magnetic field and magnets distorting it. When two magnets are facing top to tail the lines of the field are pointing in the same direction and they reinforce. If you flip them, the field arrows are pointing in opposition and the magnets separate.
This sounds like a solid explanation but it hasn’t told us anything we didn’t already know. The question “how do magnets influence other magnetic things in the environment” has been answered by saying “magnets create an environment which infleunces other magnetic things.” We’ve answered the question by re-stating it.
Faraday’s field-lines are useful as a description of where the field is but they don't tell us what the field is. I mean, what’s it made of? What specificaly is pointing in a certain direction? Why does having the fields aligned cause attractions and repulsions at all? In other words…magnets, how do they work?
Down to the wire
Perhaps a different way of asking the question might get us closer to an answer which feels right: why are some things magnetic but not others? Only a few substances are magnetic on their own (Iron, Cobalt, Nickel, Gadolinium and Terbium) but any metal can be forced to magnetism by passing a current through it. What clue does that give us? Well, what makes these metals special is that their electrons are arranged in specific ways. Electricity is also about electrons, so maybe electrons themselves are magnetic?
It turns out that this is correct; electrons have a tiny magnetic field surrounding them. When they are stacked up with fields aligned (as they do in metals like Iron or in electric wires) the result is a giant field. Other metals don’t arrange their electrons the same way so they aren’t magnetic.
Magnetism seems to come from something electrons are doing and their field-strength has even been pinned down to three properties, related by the following equation:
This tells us that any particle which has mass, electric charge and some property named S (which stands for something I don’t want to get into) will be magnetic. When we investigate other particles which have mass, charge and S, we find they are also magnetic so the equation is obviously accurate. But it hasn’t told us what the magnetic field is.
The first problem is charge. Mass is a very easy property to explain but charge is not. Electrons repel each other and attract protons, similar to magnetic behaviour, but what makes this happen? We can describe electrons and protons as having electric-charge fields but this is the same cheat we’ve used before. It’s just describing what they do, not how they do it.
I need to point out that we actually do have a pretty good understanding of what causes an electron to have a charge, but asking how this causes interactions with other particles is the magnetic field question all over again. (NB: some people might be thinking the answer is to do with photons, but this only rephrases the question into: why do electrons cause photon behaviours around them? It’s a red herring).
The other problem is the property S. We roughly know what charge is, but we don't have a clue what causes a particle to have S. It’s something quantum mechanical and therefore beyond our intuition. The only way we know this property exists is because an experiment was carried out to detect it...which consisted of firing electrons between mangets. The experiment showed that there is a particle property distinct from electric charge and it has something to do with magnetism but this doesn’t add new information. It’s saying “magnetic particles have a property which responds to magnetic influence”. Well…duh.
We’re back to square one. Magnets are magnetic because electrons are magnetic. They are magnetic because they have properties which cause magnetism. The above equation and the field lines are describing what the phenomenon is going to be like, which is of great use (every electrical device in the world works because we’ve learned to control magnetic and electric fields) but they are just descriptions of a phenomenon which don't tell us how the phenomenon arises. Feynman’s answer is still the best.
Still you Shaggy. Very much still you.
I feel it in my fingers, I feel it in my toes. Magnets all around me, and so the feeling grows
While answering Christopher Sykes, Feynman points out that magnetism doesn’t spook us when we experience it in other contexts. Right now you’re sitting on a chair and think of yourself as being in contact with it. But you aren’t. The electrons in you and the electrons in the chair are repelling electrically and magnetically (the two are closely linked, so for simplicity I’m going to describe them as one thing).
If you were to zoom in, you would see that both sets of electrons have magnetic fields which push against each other and allow the surfaces to repel rather than merge. The very act of touching an object is basically magnetic repulsion, it’s just that the gap between the particles is too small to see. Quantum mechanically, particle repulsions happen all the time but we aren't used to seeing quantum behaviour at the everyday level.
That's what makes magnets hard to understand. They are a quantum process being studied by classical human brains and when you have a phenomenon which the human brain can’t understand you can only describe it, not explain it. “What do you wanna know? - the magnets repel each other.”
Be positive and get real
The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once said “at the basis of the whole modern view of the world lies the illusion that the so called laws of nature are explanations of natural phenomena.” He was saying that laws of nature are merely descriptions rather than explanations.
On another occasion he said “man has awoken to wonder…Science is a way of sending him to sleep again,” and he also criticised Science for “reducing the explanation of natural phenomena to the smallest number of primitive natural laws.” Wittgenstein was undoubtedly a philosophical genius but I have to be honest, he was a grumpy git.
The two positions which arose from his influence on early 20th century philosophy are called realism and positivism. Realism says that Science explains the world. Positivism says Science is only keeping track of what happens and has no explanatory power.
According to positivists like Wittgenstein and Shaggy 2 Dope, all we are doing as Scientists is saying that a particular thing happens and then saying "the thing which makes it happen is what makes it happen.” We might give it a name or measure it mathematically but it's not a true explanation.
I think this is an unfair criticism and a semantically obscure one. After all, we could dismiss philosophical statements by saying “the answer to any question is whatever answers it.” If you decide the answer to every “why?” is simply “because” then you might as well ask what the point in questions is. The answer is just whatever the answer is. Science can do something far greater than just describing what we already know.
Hitting Rock Bottom
I remember asking my Physics and Chemistry teachers why molecules had certain shapes. The answer was that atoms themselves had the shapes and they dictated the angles. So I asked why atoms had these shapes. The answer was that electrons moved in a particular way which arose from their charge being opposite to a proton’s. So I asked why electrons and protons had opposite charges. The answer was “that’s the way things are.” And then I got frustrated.
It seemed defeatist. Although I don’t know what I expected. If you take any phenomenon and keep asking “why?” you will eventually hit the bottom of the ladder and be faced with “that’s the way things are”.
Let’s say we discovered electrons have tiny harpoons firing out of them on one side, creating magnetic attractions in one direction. That would feel like a proper explanation until someone thought to ask “well why do they have harpoons in the first place?”
Every time we uncover a mechanism we are generating a question…why is it like that? Even if Science arrives at a single theory which explains everything in the Universe we could sill ask “why is that theory true?”
In a sense, this means we can never really explain anything because every answer is resting on a deep-down truth that the Universe just is a certain way. But I think that’s a ludicrously pessimistic approach. There is every reason to try and answer questions about the world because I think there is a subtle difference between explanation and description.
Describe vs Explain
Let’s take one of the most common questions I get asked as a teacher: why do we dream? If we follow it through with the eternal “why” question we eventually get to the limit of ignorance:
Q: Why do we dream?
A: Because the outer layers of the brain shut down and the inner layers, full of crazy thoughts, take over.
A: Because the brain has to conserve energy.
A: Because there is a limited supply of it.
A: Because food contains a specific amount.
A: Because food gets its energy from the Sun and the Sun only generates a certain amount.
A: Because the Sun gets its energy from the limited number of particles inside it.
A: Because particles smashing together at high speed gives out energy.
A: Because movement and energy are closely related by Einstein’s theory of special relativity.
A: Because that’s just the way it is.
The answers to the above questions are what I think we mean by “explanation”. As we answer the question we are re-describing accepted knowledge but in a way that adds information. An explanation is therefore the steps between the original question and the final “that’s the way it is” statement. So a teacher's job is clear: describe all the steps by adding information until the person asking is satisfied.
This is really what makes magnets difficult to explain. The gap between “how do they work?” and “that’s the way they are,” is very small. That’s the point Feynman was making. The magnets repel each other and there is no deeper level, that’s already it. We’ve hit the boundary of wierd quantum stuff and there isn’t anything we can say to add to the description.
As I’ve said, the final question will always be: why is it like that? But what that question refers to will keep changing. We start by asking “why is A like that?” and get the answer “because B is true.” Then we’ll ask “why is B like that?” and get the answer “because C is true” and so on. The question will always get asked and the answer will always give rise to another question. Maybe one day we will have an answer to every question but it will be too weird to know what the next question to ask is. To me this is exciting because it means Science will never run out of things to investigate and it will never know everything.
So what’s the point?
Explanations are just descriptions with extra information and right at the bottom of every explanation we have a big fat question mark. Science can’t answer the fundmanetal “why is the world like that?” so Wittgenstein would query what the point of Science is full stop. I think the answer should be obvious.
Earlier, when we answered where dreams come from we ended up at special relativity, but there are many other questions which would take us to the same point. If you asked me why light moves the way it does (nothing to do with dreams) we would end up at special relativity. If you asked me how a nuclear bomb works, we would end up at special relativity. And so on.
Special relativity is a "law of nature" which means it is a fact we use to explain other things, not the other way around. It's one of the axioms we have to accept until someone goes a level deeper. This is what scientific discovery is about, trying to go as far down the ladder as possible until we have a bunch of statements which we can't add information to - we just say what they are.
When Isaac Newton discovered gravity, he was recognising that the descriptions we use for planets and stars can be used for objects moving on Earth. He unified two separate realms with a single principle. Michael Faraday discovered that the descriptions we use for electric properties can be used for magnetism too. Steven Weinberg, Abdus Salam and Sheldon Glashow were then able to unite Faraday’s electromagnetic laws with radioactivity and it keeps going.
When we uncover a Scientific “law” we are describing a link between apparently separate events or processes. It’s phrasing one thing in terms of something else and this is what Wittgenstein hated. Generalisations were to be avoided in his world view because there was no reason to assume separate events were linked by anything other than coincidence.
Perhaps tomorrow half the electrons in the Universe will decide to flip charge for no reason. Maybe gravity will vanish altogether. I can't prove this won't happen. But we don't live our lives assuming the Universe is illogical and generalisaitons work by accident. We assume we live on the inside wall of a logically bound Universe and go from there. When you wake up, you don't know for certain that the floor will be there when you put your foot down, but you do it anyway.
The tree metaphor
I imagine special relativity like a branch on a tree with observable phenomena being the twigs and twiglets which sprout off it. When we ask a question about the world we’re starting at some point on the outside of the tree and every successive question works inward toward bigger and more general answers.
At the moment, Science is built on a few main boughs of this imaginary tree and we haven’t yet unified them into a single trunk. But when we have done so, that trunk will extend down as far as we can go, maybe even connecting to other Universes with different laws.
Magnetism is one branch on this tree of knowledge. We can observe its effects and we want a deeper explantion but that’s because we’re used to starting out on the twigs. Magnetism is already one of the principles which explains other things, not the other way around. We may discover a magnetic mechanism one day and that would be fantastic, but the next generation of hip-hop clown rappers would simply ask “the magnetic mechanism - how does that work?”
The point is that the more links we discover, the more we can make a difference to the world. You’re reading this on a computer screen based on laws of electricity which…deep down…are based on mystery. You wear clothes and live in buildings made from chemicals that are based on laws which...deep down…are based on mystery.
The medicines you take, the books you read and everything else that makes life grand are all based on things we can't comprehend, but that doesn't mean we should stop asking questions about things we can comprehend. We’ve tasted fruit from the tree of knowledge and it has undoubtedly made the world a better place. I see no reason to stop eating.
I have now, hopefully, explained how magnets work, why the question is difficult to answer, what the philosophy of scientific explanation is, what the job of teaching is and managed to quote Richard Feynman, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Insane Clown Posse in one blog. And now, I'll leave you with the master...
I love science, let me tell you why.