Chapter 1. Today, we’re talking about photosynthesis, fat and cow pee

>> Chapter 2: How to make sense of things that don’t make sense

Today’s mission: to get you interested in something you are absolutely NOT interested in

basil plantHello, my Alien friends. How are you today? Your antennae are drooping, so that’s not good. What can we do to make them stand up straight again? You look like my basil plant over there that I forgot to water this morning. With basil, all I have to do is give it some water, and it’ll be ready to rule the world again in about 5 minutes. Would you like some water too? No?

Why do we have to study this?

micky droopy1So, what did you do at school today? Photosynthesis?  What do you mean, “plants grow, big whoop!”? Do you have any idea how hard growing is for us humans and Aliens?

Why do you need to know this? Good question. Well, you can live a perfectly useful and happy life without knowing anything about photosynthesis. On the other hand, I’m pretty sure that LIFE ON EARTH wouldn’t go on without photosynthesis. And if Mr. Ingenhousz from Holland hadn’t figured out how plants grow about 250 years ago, most people today be starving.

Looking for explanations “for kids” on the internet

photosynthesisLet’s ask the internet. “Why is photosynthesis important?” Ok, let’s not look at Wikipedia, it’s way too long and complicated. Look at all that chemistry! I’ll tell you what I do when I want to understand something quickly: when I want a short, clear explanation, I look for information written for children. Let’s do a search for “photosynthesis for kids”.

Yes, I know you’re not a kid. Would you rather read Wikipedia? I didn’t think so.

einsteinPersonally, I don’t care if it’s for 6-year-olds if it helps me understand more quickly. As the physicist Albert Einstein said, “If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself.” People who write about complicated things for kids try to keep their explanations short and simple, which is just what we need.

Ok, look what it says here:

“Sunlight is the most important thing for life on earth.  Without sunlight, we would have no food, water or oxygen. Animals can’t eat or drink or breathe sunlight, but plants can turn sunlight into food, water and air by photosynthesis. A plant can grow bigger, make food and produce oxygen, just using water, sunlight and carbon dioxide – a chemical that’s everywhere, that all living things breathe out.

mikey dead“The xylem vessel sucks up water from the ground to its leaves, like a straw, where it combines with sunlight and carbon dioxide to make glucose, energy for the plant to grow, and the phloem vessel takes the spare energy back down to the …”

Ok, you can stop pretending to be dead. You can’t literally die of boredom.

Plant waste vs human & alien waste

Think about this, then: plants don’t excrete smelly, toxic waste like we do. Excrete means … eliminate, produce, expel – ok, poop. Plants poop oxygen. What we humans and Aliens need to breathe.

On the other hand, what we humans and aliens produce smells terrible and is difficult to get rid of. You’re lucky you didn’t arrive on Earth a hundred and fifty years ago before we invented systems to clean up our poop. Now we send all our waste down our toilets mikey a bit interested2along underground pipes to enormous factories to be cleaned up and turned into less disgusting and dangerous stuff we can get rid of safely. Can you imagine what our towns and cities used to smell like, especially before cars became popular about one hundred years ago, and we used horses to get around?

I think I saw an antenna twitch there …

How we get the energy we need. Plants vs. people & aliens

basil revivedSo, plants grow just with sunlight, water and carbon dioxyde. On the other hand, human and alien bodies need a lot of different types of food to grow and to keep our bodies working well. We’d die if we didn’t eat – eventually. It would take a long time, maybe weeks. It would only take a couple of days to die without water to drink, and we’d die in minutes without oxygen to breathe.

The reason it takes so long to die of starvation is that most of us in this part of the world have stores of food in our bodies that will keep us alive for a long time.  Look at me. I’d live for much longer than you would without food. Look at all the energy I have stored in my thighs and backside. I could live for months!

I’m not fat, I just save energy

energy storageFood for us is like petrol for cars. We run on glucose – sugar – so we turn food into glucose, and what we don’t need we turn into fat, and store it until we need it – like spare batteries. Unfortunately for me, I never seem to need to use it …

Good question. Unfortunately, just eating sugar doesn’t seem to be enough for our muscles, brain, bones, and heart to grow and work properly. We’re omnivores, designed to eat lots of different things which we use to grow and make our bodies work, and what we can’t use, we store as fat, or excrete it. The way we humans and aliens eat is expensive, complicated and produces a lot of waste.

People & aliens vs. cows

But let’s talk about cows: they are herbivores, designed to eat grass, and they have FOUR stomachs to turn grass into everything their bodies need. And we drink cow milk, and eat cheese, steaks and burgers, and turn their skin into leather for shoes. Yes, let’s think about that. And cows make all this just from eating grass. And unlike our waste, cow manure is good for plants and we use it as fertilizer to help plants grow. Cows are almost as cool as plants.

Emissions: how cow farts and burps are destroying the environment

Actually, cows aren’t as cool as plants because cow emissions, the gasses produced in their stomachs – right, their farts and burps – are one of the biggest causes of global warming.

cow eatingWhat’s global warming? Well, the problem with only eating grass is that cows need to spend about eight hours a day eating. And grass is hard to digest and it makes them produce a gas from their stomachs called methane – the same gas we use in our cookers. This methane acts like a giant umbrella over us and stops the heat from the sun escaping into space. This means temperatures all over the world are rising, which is causing more floods and droughts and killing off plants and animals that need colder temperatures, and making the ice melt on the highest mountains and at the North and South Poles, which is making the sea-levels rise. The end of this story is that unless we stop global warming, we’re all going to die. But probably not in my lifetime. Maybe in yours.

More toxic cow emissions: cow pee

But although cow digestion has a terrible effect on our planet, we love all the things we get from cows, so we have lots of them, all over the planet. However, cows take up tons of space, they’re expensive to feed, and it’s not just their digestion that causes environmental problems. Cow urine – their pee – is full of a chemical called ammonia, acid rain3which turns into a gas and gets into clouds. When it rains, the ammonia destroys the plants and trees it falls on, and this is called “acid rain.”

Acid rain is a big problem. England has a lot of factories that burn coal, which also produces ammonia, and in the last century they realized it was killing the forests all over England. So, what did they do? They built very tall chimneys on the factories so that the ammonia would blow away from England … all the way to Scandinavia, where they destroyed forests there instead. Everyone agrees that was pretty rude of England.

What’s all this got to do with photosynthesis?

How has all this got anything to do with photosynthesis? Well, EVERYTHING is connected with photosynthesis. EVERYTHING comes directly and indirectly from plants. Without the combination of plants, sunlight, carbon dioxide and water, there would be no oxygen to breathe, no grass, no cows, leather, hamburgers, cheese, petrol, coal, factories, electricity, cars, smartphones, internet, people or aliens on this planet.

You still don’t get why you should care about photosynthesis? Actually, asking yourself who cares about whatever it is you’re supposed to study is a great question. Who cares martin droopyabout photosynthesis? I can think of two kinds of people right away. The first are the people who grow our food, and the second are the people who are trying to save our planet from global warming.

But I’m not going to tell you about them now because your antennae are starting to droop again. They were all straight and interested-looking before. Oh yes, they were.

cow cooker system

>> Chapter 2: How to make sense of things that don’t make sense Continue reading “Chapter 1. Today, we’re talking about photosynthesis, fat and cow pee”

Chapter 10. Sailing, Shakespeare and Insurance

<<Chapter 1: Photosynthesis, fat and cow pee<<

Yes, we’re still talking about the weather

Good day to you my Alien friends! Are we ready to talk about the weather? Yes, I know it’s taking me forever to get to it, but you’d be surprised how much we’ve already talked about it. Yes, especially when we were talking about Dr. Ryan Stone, Aristotle and Galileo.

Right, what are prevailing winds and why do they blow the way they do?

It’s difficult to understand things we can’t see, hear, feel, touch and taste

I’d like you to imagine something. Imagine a giant circular tube, like one of those rubber rings that you can play with in the water. Now imagine this giant circular tube sitting around the earth’s belly, on the earth’s equator. Now imagine two of them, one sitting just above the equator on the northern hemisphere, and another just below on the southern hemisphere. Now imagine these tubes are full of air swirling around inside them.

You’re getting a headache? I’m not surprised. We humans and aliens find it difficult to understand things in the physical world that we can’t touch, see, hear, feel and taste. It took us thousands of years to accept that the earth goes around the sun, because we can’t see it happening. It’s easier to believe that the sun goes around the earth because we can see it moving above us from east to west and disappearing at night-time. So, trying to understand why the winds blow in the way they do is hard.

Who cares about the weather? Sailors, ship-owners and people who are afraid of the weather

But if you live in a part of the world with weather that can kill you, with hurricanes, typhoons, blizzards and droughts, then you might ask yourself why the weather behaves like this, and if you can predict it, so you can plan to be out of its way when it happens.

And if you’re a sailor who sails across oceans, and you were sailing 500 years ago, you wanted answers to questions like “Where am I, and where is this wind going to take me?”, “Why does the wind here always blow in the same direction, but not all year round?”, “What do those big funny-shaped clouds mean?” and “Why is there no wind here?”. And, “How can I get my ship safely across the ocean and back home in one piece, with all my treasure?”

Because sailing across oceans was so incredibly dangerous, and expensive, we only became seriously interested in answering these questions when we started discovering new “worlds” – the continents outside of Europe – and realised that we, ordinary people, could become rich beyond our wildest dreams if we risked going to these new worlds. Or risked our money to pay for ships to go to new worlds. Any ideas that helped make sailing a little bit less dangerous, like understanding where the trade winds blew, and for how long, or having accurate maps of the stars to navigate with, were very valuable.

Shakespeare wrote a lot about the dangers of sailing because he lived during the Age of Sail

Just over 500 years ago William Shakespeare wrote a play called “The Merchant of Venice”. It’s a story, set in Shakespeare’s time, during the Age of Sail, about Antonio, a rich merchant, in Venice. Antonio had spent all his money on ships going to the new worlds, which would, when they came back full of valuable things from faraway lands, make him even richer. Because all his money was invested in ships, he needed to borrow money from a Jewish man called Shylock.

Why it’s important to Shakespeare’s story that Shylock is Jewish

At that time, Jews, (followers of the religion Judaism), had been persecuted all over Europe for hundreds of years, and had been exiled from most countries, including England, where Shakespeare was from, back in 1290. Jews in Venice, (one of the only places in Europe where Jews still lived), weren’t considered citizens and didn’t have the legal rights of citizens of Venice, for example, the right to own land; they had to live in a ghetto, which they were locked into every evening, and were forced to wear yellow hats to show that they were Jews.

Why were they being persecuted? At that time, lending money, and demanding payment for the loan, (a percentage of the money you lent, called interest) was considered a crime, called usury, forbidden by the Christian bible, so only Jews could lend money. This was very convenient for the citizens of a state. When they needed money, they could borrow it. But then, if too many important citizens owed too much money to the Jews, they could decide that the Jews were criminals because they lent money. Then the citizens would make up stories about the Jews – for example, that they were blood-sucking vampires, yes, really – and then confiscate all the Jew’s wealth, burn down their houses, and finally, force them to leave their state.

Back to the Merchant of Venice. The problem was, Shylock and Antonio hated each other. Antonio hated Shylock because it was fashionable to hate Jews at the time, and Shylock hated Antonio because Antonio took every opportunity to publicly mistreat and humiliate Shylock for being Jewish, by spitting at him, calling him names, ruining his business reputation, and worse.

Shylock’s loan, and what he wants in return

So, when Antonio asked Shylock to lend him money, Shylock made him sign a contract which said that he would not charge Antonio interest, but if Antonio didn’t pay back the loan in exactly three months, he would have to give Shylock a pound of his flesh, taken from whatever part of Antonio’s body Shylock wanted. That’s right, a pound – that’s just under half a kilo – of his body. If Antonio didn’t pay back his debt.

And, guess what, Antonio’s boats all sank. I’ll tell you how this story ends another time. It’s a great story, and luckily for us, people of that time would have to wait almost a hundred years for insurance to be invented – or Shakespeare’s story would have been very different.

Insurance – another invention from the Age of Sail

Insurance was invented to protect people like Antonio from losing all their money on ships which at the time had a very high chance of not returning, because they could get lost, sink in a storm, be attacked by pirates, get stuck in the doldrums – which I’ll tell you about in a minute – and any number of other things. Insurance is a contract you buy to protect yourself against losing money, for example in case your house catches fire, or in case the ships that you’ve spent all your money on sink. You pay a little money every month, called a premium, and you promise to be careful, in other words, to avoid setting fire to your house or deliberately sinking your ships. If the worst happens and your house catches fire or your ships don’t come back, the insurance company gives you a sum of money to cover the cost of what you’ve lost.

Explaining trade winds: George Hadley and his “Hadley Cells” – or “Hadley Slightly Squashed Circular Tubes”

Anyway, back to prevailing winds and circular tubes. A man called George Hadley in 1735 was the first to come up with the circular tubes idea to explain why the winds blow the way they do, which also explains why we have rainforests and deserts, why there are parts of the world with no wind, and which proves that the earth rotates on its axis.  The name of this explanation – or model – for how winds blow is “Hadley cells”, because “Hadley cells” sounds better than “Hadley slightly squashed circular tubes”.

George Hadley’s model explains why winds don’t blow straight up and down from the cold poles to the hot equator, but zig zag across the northern and southern hemispheres, blowing from west to east near the equator, then east to west closer to the poles, and then west to east from the poles. Now imagine a big coil or spiral of cooling and heating air, going round and round inside your giant circular tubes. Can you picture it?

How to make wind

Have you ever been inside a warm house in winter and opened a window and felt the cold air rush in? That’s wind created by the difference in temperature between the outside and the inside. The warm air flows up and out of the window and the cold air rushes into the space left by the warm air.

We have warm air rising from the equator, pushed towards cooler parts by the earth’s spinning, where the air cools off, falls back towards the earth and then rushes back towards the equator where it warms up and rises again. So, we don’t really have circular tubes sitting around the equator, it’s just this circular movement of the air. And the cold air close to the ground moving towards the hot equator creates prevailing winds called trade winds which blow towards the east because the earth is spinning towards the west.

The connection between cold and hot air, wind, rainforests and deserts

All the heat, evaporation of water, and hot air rising at the equator also creates a lot of hot, wet weather, which gives us rainforests all around the equator. And where the cool air falls, there’s no water evaporation and no rain, and that’s where you get circular strips of desert all around the world, on both sides of the equator. You can see this if you look at a physical map of the world.

And then a very strange thing happens in the space between the circular tubes on the equator. This is the area I mentioned before called the doldrums. If you’re in a sailing ship and you find yourself in the doldrums, in that part of the sea that’s on the equator, there’s no wind, and it’s boiling hot. Well, there’s either no wind or you’re in the middle of a hurricane-force storm. This was a very bad place for your ship to get stuck in during the Age of Sail, as there could be no wind for weeks, and then suddenly, violent storms. And it was impossible to avoid the doldrums if you were sailing from the northern hemisphere to the southern hemisphere.

Ok, that’s enough talking about the weather today.

<<Chapter 1: Photosynthesis, fat and cow pee<<

Chapter 9. How to make a great discovery

>>Chapter 10: Sailing, Shakespeare and insurance>>     <<Chapter 8: Where in the world is Dr. Ryan Stone?<<
School is just too hard

How are you today, my young alien friends? Still not great? Because you’re never going to understand physics, biology or the causes of the Second World War? But all we do together is talk about physics and biology, history and geography, and probably some chemistry, some maths, and a few other difficult subjects as well, and you don’t have trouble following me, do you?

How long does it take to understand stuff?

I must say, I really don’t understand how they present some topics in your school textbooks, as if it took five minutes to discover and understand things. For example, it took us at least 300 years to understand enough about electricity to use it (although we had been wondering about it for thousands of years), it took us at least 2,300 years for everyone to agree that it’s the earth that orbits around the sun and not the other way round, and it took us hundreds (if not thousands) of years, since people first started to ask themselves questions about the wind, to understand things like prevailing winds, and the relationship between wind and deserts. And yet your teachers expect you to understand and remember these things immediately.

“Who wants to know?” A useful question to start your research into something difficult

A question I sometimes ask myself when I’m trying to understand a difficult subject is, “Who wants to know?”

What I want to know is, who would benefit from knowing about the subject I’m trying to understand? Who cares how the wind works? Or why the winds blow in the directions they blow in?And why some winds always blow in the same place, in the same direction, at the same time of year?

One answer is sailors. There have always been boats, and people in boats have always been very interested in the weather. A bit of rain and wind which is no big deal on land can mean big waves and drowning if you’re on water. And while days with no wind aren’t a problem for us on land, it could mean your sailing boat being stuck in the middle of an ocean for days, and sometimes weeks, and dying of hunger and thirst.

When we started doing serious long-distance sailing: The Age of Sail

About 500 years ago, during The Age of Discovery, which was also known as The Age of Sail, because there would have been very little discovering without sailing, people figured out how to build ships that could travel across oceans to unknown continents, and back again.

Why hadn’t ocean-sailing ships been invented before then? That’s an excellent question. Maybe because sailing across oceans was so dangerous you had to be out of your mind to consider it. Or maybe because until about 500 years ago we still thought that the sun and all the planets moved around the earth. This meant that our maps of the stars were not very accurate.

When you’re at sea, how can you know where you are?

When you’re in the middle of an ocean, there are no mountains, road-signs or monuments, and the only things that can help you guess which direction you’re going in, and where you might be, are the sun, the moon, the planets and the stars. For, example, if you can see the North Star, you know wh you are in the northern hemisphere because you can’t see it from the southern hemisphere. Today every smartphone has GPS, which can tell you exactly where you are, wherever you are. But we’ve only had GPS for about 20 years, and before then, navigating – figuring out where you are – was done with the help of charts of the stars. We needed the telescope to be invented to understand why the stars move around the way they do, and to help us make useful maps of the stars, which made sailing around in our oceans possible.

Galileo Galilei: the first to show planets orbiting around the sun

Then, about 500 years ago, the Italian scientist Galileo Galilei came along. He wasn’t the first person to say that Earth orbits around the sun, but he was the first person to build a telescope powerful enough to look at how the planets move and start to show that the Earth moves around the sun.

With his powerful telescope Galileo could see four of the planet Jupiter’s moons. Moons orbit around planets, and with his telescope you could see that these moons weren’t orbiting around Earth, but around Jupiter. He could also see that the planet Venus was moving around the sun and not the earth. He could see for the first time that the way the planets moved around in the sky could only be explained by the earth moving around the sun, together with all the other planets.

Galileo vs. the Catholic Church

At that time, suggesting that the earth wasn’t at the centre of the universe would get you into big trouble with the Catholic church, and when Galileo announced what he had discovered he was arrested by the Spanish Inquisition, a kind of police force for the Catholic Church, and forced to tell everyone his ideas were wrong, and was imprisoned for the rest of his life.

They say that when Galileo tried to make the officers of the church look at the moons of Jupiter through his telescope, they refused, saying that the Devil (an evil being who, according to many religions, is responsible for everything bad) was capable of making anything appear in the telescope, so it was best not to look through it.

Good stories vs. truer, but less exciting stories

At least, that’s one version of what happened. It’s a great story, but things probably didn’t happen that way. We love stories, especially ones where there are good guys and bad guys, in this case Galileo, the misunderstood genius, against the big, bad Catholic Church. About 70 years ago, a German writer called Bertolt Brecht took the story of Garibaldi, improved it by changing a few important details, and turned it into a dramatic play. And now, this story is what our teachers teach us about the history of Garibaldi’s discoveries in our schools.

A battle of ideas: Geocentrism – the sun goes around the earth, vs. Heliocentrism – the earth goes around the sun

So, this is what probably happened, and this is what often happens when you make a new scientific discovery, and why scientific progress has often been slow and hard. The first person in Europe who tried to say that the earth moves around the sun was Aristarchus, from Ancient Greece, and he said it about 2,400 years ago. However, Aristotle, the much more famous ancient Greek, had argued more convincingly, one hundred years before, that the earth is at the centre of the universe, and everything moves around it.

Aristotle: world champion of everything, especially arguing

Aristotle had a lot to say about a lot of different things, including physics, biology, psychology, philosophy, and politics. They say that no-one has ever known as much about so many different things as Aristotle. Aristotle was also an expert in rhetoric, which is the study of how to argue. Aristotle was very good at arguing. This is important, because if you are a scientist and you have an amazing new scientific idea, but you can’t convince people you’re right, then your idea won’t get very far.

The main problem with Aristarchus’ ideas was that they were based on the belief that everything was made of four elements: water, earth, wind and fire. Aristarchus believed fire was the most important of the four elements, and the centre was the best position be in, so the sun, being pure fire, had to be at the centre of the universe. Aristotle’s ideas were based on what he could see in the sky: the sun, moon and stars passing overhead as if they were stuck onto an invisible globe spinning around the earth. Aristotle’s ideas were more convincing and were believed for more than 2,000 years because they were based on the observation of things that everyone can see, and because, although they didn’t explain everything, they made sense. Whereas Aristarchus’s ideas sounded crazy.

Aristotle was wrong, but he was being scientific about it

Aristotle was using the beginnings of a scientific method, whereas Aristarchus was basing his ideas on beliefs. If you’re a scientist with an important idea or discovery, you need to do three things for your idea or discovery to be taken seriously.

  1. First of all, you need to show your idea is right, because it’s based on things you, and everybody else, can see and test.
  2. Secondly, your idea must be useful. It must give us more answers than previous ideas, to all our questions about the way things work.
  3. Thirdly, you need to convince all the other scientists around that your idea is best, which usually means convincing them that their ideas are wrong. That’s probably the hardest part.

Does your discovery help us answer questions? Or does it make you ask a whole lot of new, more difficult questions? Can you answer those more difficult questions?

Aristotle’s ideas made explaining day and night easy: the sun rises, moves across the sky and when it goes down on the other side, it’s dark. On the other hand, if the earth rotated around the sun, it would also have to be spinning on its axis to explain day and night, and you can see that we’re not all flying off into space, are we? If the earth were spinning on its axis, how do you explain why things fall straight down to the ground, but fire goes straight upward? If we’re spinning so fast, why isn’t there a strong wind all the time? Ridiculous!

Without a telescope to get a closer look at the planets and the stars it was difficult to start answering these questions. And even when Galileo came along with his telescope and got a closer look, he still couldn’t answer all these questions to the satisfaction of the scientific community. Galileo’s ideas didn’t satisfy either the church, which at the time was encouraging scientific discovery by building and running most of the schools and universities, or other scientists, because he couldn’t answer these and other questions, and so, couldn’t prove that the sun goes around the earth.  He was probably put under house arrest because while he was arguing his ideas, the Pope, the leader of the Catholic Church, thought Galileo was making fun of him. It’s never a good idea to annoy powerful people.

Standing on the shoulders of giants …

On the bright side, Galileo made a lot of money from selling his telescopes to sailors and helped start the Age of Sail. And 80 years later when the English scientist Isaac Newton was presenting his work explaining gravity, which was immediately accepted, he said, “If I have seen further, it’s because I was standing on the shoulders of giants.” He was saying that his discoveries wouldn’t have been possible without the scientific thinking of people with gigantic brains like Galileo.

No I haven’t got around to telling you about the winds yet, have I? That’ll be for next time.

>>Chapter 10: Sailing, Shakespeare and insurance>>     

<<Chapter 8: Where in the world is Dr. Ryan Stone?<<

Chapter 8. Where in the world is Dr Ryan Stone?

>>Chapter 9: How to make a great discovery>>     <<Chapter 7: Everything is interesting, even the weather<<

The wind is tricky to explain so let’s talk about a movie instead

Hello, my alien friends, today I wanted to carry on telling you about the wind, but it’s a bit complicated, so first I want to tell you about the last scene of a great movie I watched recently, Gravity, from 2013. I know I’m not supposed to spoil movies for you, but it’ll make talking about the weather more interesting.

In the final scene of this movie, Dr Ryan Stone, an astronaut who is the only survivor of a disastrous space mission, has managed to get back to earth: her space capsule – the part of the ship that protects astronauts when they are blasting through the earth’s atmosphere into space, and when they’re returning to Earth – has floated down on its parachute and landed in water, luckily, or she wouldn’t have survived the landing.

Do you remember landing on Earth? Not really? That’s a pity. It looks exciting.

Why do you need a rocket to get to space?

Do you know why you have to blast through the Earth’s atmosphere to get to space and to get back to Earth from space? You would like me to remind you? Fine.

The reason is gravity. Have you ever been on a roundabout in a playground, that round thing you can sit on and push round and round? Do you remember how, the faster it goes round, the harder it is for you to stay on, and if you don’t hold on tight you’ll go flying off? Well, the Earth is spinning fast, about 1600 kilometres an hour (km/h), and gravity is the reason we don’t all go flying off into space.

How much does air weigh?

Gravity is a force, pushing down on us. When we jump or throw things into the air, we have to push against gravity. Gravity makes us heavy, and everything on this earth has a weight, even feathers and dust, which are lighter than air, because air is pretty heavy stuff. Did you know that each of us is carrying 1,000 kilos – a ton – of air above our heads? That’s the weight of a small car. The reason we don’t all collapse from all this pressure is that we have air pressing against us from all directions, balancing out the pressure from above. And we’ve got air inside of us, in our lungs, stomachs and ears, otherwise we’d look like a crushed water bottle.

Gravity is different on different planets. Do you know how much you weigh? Why don’t you ask the internet how much you would weigh on the planets Mars, Neptune or on the moon?

How do hot air balloons work?

By the way, hot air weighs less than cold air, so hot air rises and cold air sinks, and all this air moving in different directions is what creates wind. You can experience this directly in a hot-air balloon. The first time we humans flew up into the air was 235 years ago, when the Montgolfier brothers attached a big basket to an enormous balloon-shaped bag made of silk, and sent hot air into the opening at the bottom of the bag by burning straw and wool under it; when the balloon was full of hot air, it rose into the air with its basket of passengers and sailed for 9 kilometers over Paris. Hot-air balloon technology hasn’t changed much since then, although I’m pretty sure we’ve found a safer way to heat up the air in the balloon.

Why can’t we just take a plane to the moon?

So, why can’t we just fly airplanes into space and straight to the moon? Because airplanes need air to fly, and the higher up you go, the less air there is, and there’s no air at all in space. So, you need a rocket to break through Earth’s gravity, which is very strong and is what keeps the moon, nearly 400,000 kiliometres away, orbiting around the earth, once every 27 days.

However, you can fly more quickly where there is less air, and the higher up you go, the less air there is. There isn’t even enough air for us to breathe properly at the top of Mount Everest, which is nearly 9 kilometres high. Airplanes fly at about 10 kilometres above the earth, at a speed of around 900 km/h, above where most weather is happening, and where the air doesn’t slow them down so much. But it still takes about 20 hours to fly from Europe to Australia. But we’ll soon have “rocket-planes” which will fly at nearly 300 kilometres above the earth, at about 9,000 km/h, where there is so little air that the journey will take just two hours.

The International Space Station flies even higher, at 400 km, at 28,800 km/h. It only takes 90 minutes for the Space Station to go all the way around the earth. Astronauts working and living on the Station see 16 sunrises and sunsets each day.

Why Dr Ryan Stone is lucky to be alive, and has good chances of survival

So, back to the last scene of the movie, Gravity. Dr Ryan Stone has escaped from her space capsule and is swimming in a lake. She – and we – have NO IDEA where she is or what part of the world she’s landed in. We think she’s landed in a lake and not the sea because when she’s underwater, escaping from the capsule and from her heavy spacesuit, we see a frog, and frogs don’t live in salt water. When she swims to the shore, we notice that although there’s no sign of people or buildings around, there are green hills nearby, and there’s a mosquito flying above her head. There’s no wind.

This is very good news for her. Earth is about 70% water, so she had a good chance of landing in water. However, she wouldn’t have survived if she’d landed in the middle of an ocean, or on land, or on the side of the earth where it was winter in some climates, or anywhere on earth with a cold climate. We know she’s somewhere warm. Because of the mosquito.

The film ends with Dr Ryan Stone, dressed only in a vest and pants, without even a watch, walking barefoot towards the nearest hill. Does anyone know where she is? How long will it take her to reach somewhere with people? Will they speak a different language? What will they think of meeting a woman who’s walking around in her underpants?

Where in the world would Dr Ryan Stone not have survived?

We don’t know, but we can eliminate a few possibilities, and one way is by guessing what climate she’s landed in. The world is a great big ball, which takes 365 days to orbit around the sun. The world is also spinning around its axis, an imaginary line between the North and South Poles, once every 24 hours. If you imagine drawing a line around the world cutting it in half with the North Pole at the top and the South Pole at the bottom, you have the imaginary line we call the equator, separating the northern and southern halves, called hemispheres. The equator is the part of the world that spins closest to the sun, and is hottest, whereas the poles are the coldest parts of the world because they are furthest away from the sun. So, we can eliminate the North and South Poles.

How would she know if she was in the northern or southern hemisphere? That is a very good question and the short answer is: with great difficulty. Because the northern and southern hemispheres have symmetrical – mirror-image – climates.

Look at how rainforests and deserts are arranged on our planet

If you look at Earth from space you will see that on land there is a big line of green around the equator, and these are rain forests; around two other imaginary lines parallel to the equator (called parallels) north and south of the equator, you can see grey and brown and these are deserts; then on the parallels closer to the poles, around Europe in the northern hemisphere, and Southern Chile in the southern hemisphere, it gets green again, and then it fades at both ends to icy white at the poles.

So, we can eliminate the desert areas, because she’s landed in water. And she doesn’t seem to be in a rain forest, so we can eliminate the equator. That still leaves us with a lot of the planet that she could have landed on.

Why are there deserts there? I know, it’s strange, isn’t it? The short answer is the wind. I’ll try and tell you the longer answer next time.

>>Chapter 9: How to make a great discovery>>     

<<Chapter 7: Everything is interesting, even the weather<<

Chapter 7. Everything is interesting – even the weather

>>Chapter 8: Where in the world is Dr. Ryan Stone?>>     <<Chapter 6: What makes school hard or great: other people>>

How to make yourself care about stuff you don’t care about

What are you doing in geography at the moment? The weather? Why should you care about seasons and climates and cold fronts and clouds? Good question. Why you should care about the weather, or photosynthesis, or World War II, or any of the other things you study?

I think a great way to start trying to understand something, is to start by asking “Why should I care? Why is this important and worth learning about?” Or even, “How is this interesting?”

A useful question for the internet

Let’s talk about research, which is about the different ways we can find answers to our questions. When I’m trying to find out about something new, trying to find a reason to care, I like to ask the internet for “10 interesting facts about …”. I am looking for a list, a small list of important and, if possible, interesting facts about whatever it is I’m learning.

Let’s try this. Let’s take Portugal, a small, country at the western end of Europe. All I know about Portugal is that it’s a small and not very rich country and a nice place to go on holiday. I ask the internet for “Portugal 10 interesting facts”, and read the first list I find, looking for something interesting.

I discover something surprising and interesting about Portugal

I’m not very interested in the fact that Portugal has one of the oldest universities in Europe, is the oldest country in Europe, is great for surfing or has the oldest bookshop in the world. But, wait, what’s this? “Half of the New World once belonged to Portugal”? The new world was what we called all the continents outside of Europe that Europeans started discovering – and invading – about 600 years ago. It says that in 1494, Portugal had the first global empire in history, and ruled over Africa, Asia and Brazil in South America. What?

We’ve talked about empires before: this is when a population or nation decides that it is so superior compared to everyone else that they should rule the world. There have been a lot of famous empires. I’ve mentioned the empires of Ancient Rome and Nazi Germany, and other empires I remember hearing about when I was at school were the Holy Roman Empire (not the same as the Roman Empire), the Ottoman Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Russian Empire and the British Empire. Why haven’t I heard of the Portuguese Empire?

I discover another interesting fact: why we aren’t all speaking Portuguese today

There is another interesting fact on the list: “In 1755, Lisbon, Portugal’s capital city, was struck by one of the most powerful earthquakes in European history.” Aha! I wonder if this earthquake in Portugal’s capital city is connected with the end of their empire? So, I write “1755 Lisbon earthquake ends Portuguese empire” in my search engine. The titles of the results are things like, “The Earthquake That Brought an Empire to Its Knees”, is one title, and “How One Earthquake Changed the Course of Human History”, is another. So there is a connection.

I have a look at a couple of the articles and discover that, a few hours after suffering the worst earthquake in European history, Lisbon was struck by a tsunami (a gigantic wave caused by an earthquake), and then a terrible fire destroyed whatever survived the earthquake and tsunami. 40,000 people were killed.  I read that the little country of Portugal could have been the richest country in the world today, more powerful than Germany, than the USA, than China, if it’s capital city hadn’t been destroyed 250 years ago.

Think about it …. If Portugal’s capital city hadn’t been destroyed 250 years ago, today we might all be forced to learn Portuguese at school instead of English, Spanish and French.

How do you start an empire?

Now I care. Now I think Portugal’s interesting. One of the questions I have now about Portugal is: how did Portugal become so powerful 500 years ago?

Let’s look at the usual three reasons why countries and states decide they should rule the world and start an empire. A country’s power comes from 3 main things:

A country’s source of power: superior technology

a) The first is Technology. Opportunities to rule the world often come from having invented bigger and better catapults, guns, tanks or bombs. A second way a country can get a big advantage over its neighbours is to be the first to invent something, especially if it’s something to do with transport, like ships that can sail across oceans, hot-air balloons, and airplanes that can fly long-distance. Or invent things that make a lot of money for the country because they own them, like the technology for turning oil into petrol for cars, or like Facebook.

b) The second source of power is ideas and beliefs. Every country that invades other countries to start their empire is sure of one thing: they are better than the countries they are invading. Countries starting empires believe they have the best or most advanced civilisation – a combination of things like technology, history, religion, race and organisation – and this gives them the right – and most even see it as their duty – to dominate less civilised people.

How being organised can help you rule the world

Sometimes ideas give countries an advantage which is like a technological advantage. The Ancient Romans spent a lot of time thinking about how to make their armies invincible, and this meant coming up with ideas for things like how to group and move large numbers of soldiers around, how to make them obedient, how to feed and clothe them, how to keep them alive on the battle field, how to find the best soldiers, how to pay them, etc. Roman organisation helped the Roman Empire keep going for 500 years.

How a belief can be a weapon

Another example of this kind of idea comes from the Japanese in World War II. The Japanese invented Kamikaze fighting. The Japanese taught their soldiers that dying for your country was the greatest honour, whereas losing or surrendering was a dishonour. If the best way of killing as many enemy soldiers as possible was to blow yourself up, taking as many enemy lives as possible, then you should do that, for your country. This idea produced a determined and terrifying army which managed to invade and conquer Korea, large parts of China and all of Southeast Asia during WWII.

The end of this story, which is also about the end of WW II, is that technology defeated the Japanese. In 1945 the Americans and their allies won the race to invent the atomic bomb, still the most powerful weapon ever created. They showed the Japanese how they could destroy an entire city with just one of these bombs, by bombing the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 10 days later the Japanese surrendered, I imagine because they didn’t want the Americans dropping one of these bombs on Tokyo, their capital city. Look what happened to Portugal.

Yes, we still have those bombs, now called nuclear weapons. Let me tell you about the Cold War some time.

How your geography can help you rule the world

c) The third source of power is geography. A country’s natural resources – for example, oil, iron, gold, diamonds – can be their main source of power, if the people of that country can turn them into useful things like money or fuel. It’s not enough to have natural resources: the country needs to be able to use them, and, more importantly, defend them from other countries that want them.

Countries that want to build empires look for countries to invade that are technologically weaker than they are and have natural resources that they want, like agricultural land, people, diamonds, and climates where interesting things like cotton, sugar, coffee and tobacco can grow.

If a country discovers a natural resource and can combine it with a new technology this can give it an enormous advantage.

So back to our question, what made Portugal so powerful 500 years ago? Because they had the weather on their side.

A country’s access to wind can help them win

The physical geography of every country is unique, and consists of things like mountains, rivers, lakes, coasts – and winds. To cut a long story short, some parts of the world have very predictable winds, called prevailing winds, that blow in the same place and direction, depending on the time of year. The Portuguese were the first, a little more than 500 years ago to work out that you could sail with one of these winds all the way from Portugal along the coast of western Africa, and from there, powered by another wind, into the Atlantic Ocean towards the Americas, and from there, back to Europe powered by a third wind. The Portuguese called this a “volta do mar” – a “turn of the sea” – and this discovery gave the Portuguese a huge advantage in their exploration of the unknown world, and in building their empire.

Discovering this wind power 500 years ago was as revolutionary for the world as using steam to power trains 300 years later, and the invention of the petrol-powered car 400 years later.

How a triangle of winds made Europeans rich

The European countries which became most involved with Africa and the Americas were Portugal, Spain, France and the UK, and if you look at a map of Europe you can see that these countries all have coasts facing the Atlantic Ocean, and all of these countries benefitted from the “volta do mar” and from these winds, which became known as the Atlantic Triangle – because they formed a triangle between Europe, Africa and the Americas.

Unfortunately for Africa, the Atlantic Triangle allowed these European countries to get rich from the slave trade: first, the Europeans sailed to Africa to capture slaves, then they transported the slaves to the Americas and exchanged them for goods like cotton and sugar, and then they transported these goods back to Europe.

Do you think the weather is more interesting now?

>>Chapter 8: Where in the world is Dr. Ryan Stone?>>     

<<Chapter 6: What makes school hard or great: other people>>

Chapter 6. another reason why school can be hard, or great: other people

>>Chapter 7: Everything is interesting, even the weather>>     <<Chapter 5: Your brain: like the most expensive car in the world<<

How to tell when two people aren’t getting on

Good morning, my young Alien friends. How about some history today? Hmm. What’s going on between you two? My advanced detective skills tell me you are angry with each other. Well, first of all, you’re sitting facing away from each other, your arms are folded, and you’re both scowling. It looks to me like you’ve had a fight. Would you like to tell me what it was about? No? Maybe later? All right, let’s talk about another reason why school can be a great place to be or a very hard place to be. Other people.

Why it’s important for us to learn to get along

We humans and Aliens live for a long time and need other humans and Aliens to stay alive, and to live well. Octopuses, on the other hand, are very intelligent creatures, like us, but they only live for a couple of years and spend most of their lives alone. It takes us humans AGES to grow up and be able to look after ourselves, whereas a baby giraffe can walk and feed itself as soon as it’s born.

Our love-hate feelings for other people

We need a lot of help from older humans, parents, relatives and teachers, who have to feed and clothe us and teach us about life and the world we live in to make sure we survive to adulthood. There are usually other young humans around us, brothers and sisters, schoolmates and friends, who we play with but who we are sometimes in competition with, for the love, attention and resources from the older human guardians we depend on. Sometimes we love these other young humans, and sometimes we hate them. Sometimes the older human guardians aren’t as good at being parents, teachers and guardians as we would like them to be, and it’s hard to love and respect them. Sometimes we hate them as well.

Getting on with people is something we learn to do

So it’s normal to love and hate the people around us, and one of the most important things we have to learn, which is not, unfortunately, a school subject in most schools, is how to have good relationships with the people around us. In other words, we need to learn what we can do so that we spend more time loving people and less time hating them. Learning how to do this is as difficult and complicated as learning about Maths or Shakespeare, and can take a lifetime to learn.

Why getting along with people is generally better than not getting on with them

Learning how to get on with people means we can have people around us who we can play with, learn from, and ask for help when we need it, and we need this when we are young and vulnerable, but we also need these things for the rest of our lives. Knowing how to get help with everyday problems from people we trust and love makes life much easier than trying to do things on our own like understanding maths, going to laser quest, buying clothes and other things we want or need, sorting out a problem we’re having with another person, deciding what to study in high school or university, finding a job, or finding somewhere to live.

It’s important to learn how to get on with other people at school – but it’s not a school subject (although it probably should be)

School is a place where we need to learn how to get on with other people, because we are surrounded by all kinds of different people at school. At school there are rules and daily routines and obligations to learn different subjects, and it all works ok if we’re feeling good, but there are no rules or lessons to help us understand what to do when someone, a teacher, relative, schoolmate or friend, makes us feel bad about ourselves. Religion is supposed to give us rules for how to behave to have good relationships with people, like “forgive people who are nasty to us”, and “don’t think bad thoughts about people” – but they’re usually impossible rules to follow, so we’re always breaking them, which also makes us feel bad.

What can we do when we have problems with people at school?

So how can we start to deal with difficult feelings and situations? Difficult situations we could find ourselves in could be, for example, a teacher we think is boring, or a schoolmate who says something mean to us, or a friend we have an argument with, or a school subject we’re finding difficult. For any difficult situation there are only four possible  types of thing we can do.

  1. Change something about the situation to make it better.
  2. Change something about what we’re doing or saying to make things better.
  3. Accept the situation as something we’re just going to have to live with.
  4. Leave, quit, run away, if the situation is unbearable or dangerous.

Here’s the list of the the only four things you can do in difficult situations, with examples.

  1. We can try to change the situation we’re in. For example if we have a problem with a boring teacher we can try and find help from other adults or even friends to help us learn the subject, or learn to do our own research. Or if someone is saying mean things to us and making us feel bad about ourselves, we could tell someone we really trust, who will help us feel good about ourselves again.
  2. We can try to change what we are doing. For example, maybe we realise that we get into arguments with our friend when we start teasing each other, and one of us gets hurt feelings. So we need to stop saying certain things which we know will make our friend angry. And maybe tell our friend that when they say certain things to us we’re going to get angry.
  3. Accept the situation we’re in. Maybe, history and geography just aren’t our thing, and we’re good at other subjects, and we’re going to concentrate on doing well in those.
  4. Leave, quit, run away. This is only a solution if there are no other solutions in 1, 2 and 3. For example, if someone’s about to beat us up, then it’s a really good idea, but if the problem is our French class, then it definitely isn’t the best solution.

How can we decide what to do in difficult situations?

It’s not easy. The thing is, before we can decide what to do we have to make sure we have really understood the difficult situation we’re in. For example why is the other person doing what they’re doing? Is there anything we can do to make the situation better? We need to think about the difficult situations we find ourselves in, about how they  make us feel, figure out if there’s anything we can do to solve our problem and work out what the best thing to do is. There’s often more than one thing we can do. These are problems to be solved, just like solving maths equations, or learning French grammar.

The best way to start solving difficult situations and feelings is to ask someone we trust for help, even when feeling bad makes it hard to trust people. Also, we’re more likely to find the help we need if we ask more than one person.

By the way, sometimes teachers, like me, can be people you ask for help.

So would you like to tell me why you’re upset? Maybe I can help.

>>Chapter 7: Everything is interesting, even the weather>>     

<<Chapter 5: Your brain: like the most expensive car in the world<<

Chapter 5. Why your brain is like the most expensive car in the world

>>Chapter 6: What makes school hard or great: other people>>     <<Chapter 4: What’s the point of school anyway?<<

Why is learning so hard?

Hello, my little alien friend. You have tests coming up in Maths, geography and French? And you’re going to fail them all? Ok, today we’re going to talk about learning.

We know that school is supposed to be a privilege, a right and a sacred duty to protect our society from losing all our knowledge again, but why does working in a coal-mine sound more attractive than going to school most mornings?

Well, for one thing, you’ve never worked in a coal-mine, or you wouldn’t wish that, and secondly, sometimes pupils, parents and even teachers forget that studying is work: it’s hard, it takes effort, it’s tiring and it can be really, really boring.

Or, learning can the most fun and interesting thing in the world.

Why your brain is like a very expensive piece of machinery that you don’t know how to use

Let me try and make an analogy. Your brain is a bit like a Ferrari. A Ferrari is a fantastic machine, one of the fastest, most beautiful, and most expensive cars in the world. We are all born with something like a Ferrari in our heads: our brains.

Imagine if someone gave you a Ferrari worth two hundred and fifty thousand euros today. By the way a normal car costs about fifteen thousand euros so a Ferrari costs 16.6 times more than a normal car. You might be happy own such a valuable car, but what would you actually do with it? You don’t have a driving license. You probably don’t even have anywhere to park it, and you can’t just park it on the street: it’ll get stolen or vandalised. You don’t even have anywhere to drive it. You own this incredibly valuable, powerful machine, and until you can legally get a licence to drive it, it’s … useless. If you’re determined to keep it in one piece until you’re 18, it could even cost you a lot of money to keep it safe in a garage somewhere.

Unlike other cars, if you take care of a Ferrari, it becomes more valuable. The same is true of your brain.

Well, your brain is like a Ferrari: an awesome, powerful machine, which you don’t have a manual or driving licence for. Also, you won’t be considered a “qualified driver” until you’re at least eighteen. The qualifications you are supposed to get before you leave school are a bit like a driving license: they tell the world “I’ve got a brain and I know how to use it.” School is like a garage where you can keep your brain safe and in working order, and if you take good care of it, like a Ferrari, it will become more and more valuable, unlike normal cars which become less valuable every year. You can sell a well-kept old-model Ferrari, a vintage Ferrari, for millions and millions of euros.

But you have to take care of it for a long time …

The problem is, we must spend at least 15 years in this garage. 15 years with no guarantee that you’ll find yourself in a school with teachers and classmates who will help you take care of your brain.

It’s wonderful when you get a great teacher who can really explain things and get you excited about a subject, but you can’t count on having great teachers so the best thing you can do is learn to take care of your brain yourself.

Why school can be hard

Let’s talk about why school is hard. Schools here aren’t designed for kids, like you, whose parents work all day every day, all year round, and who don’t have time to help you and supervise you. Or for kids, like you, who’ve come from countries and planets where things are very different. And who, like you, have missed one or two years of school, because you had to learn Italian before you could study anything else. Kids like you often find it hard to keep up at school because you just haven’t learned the same things your Italian classmates have – knowledge of Italian and European languages, history and geography.

There are lots of reasons why you might find school hard, but what usually gets in the way of learning is not enough attention. Attention is your brain’s ability to notice, understand, categorise and organise things. Attention is like time and money: it’s something that you spend, there is never enough of it, and it runs out.

How does attention work?

It’s like, if attention were sweets, every day we wake up with one packet of attention, and we need to make it last all day. Some things make us eat our sweets really quickly, for example, problems with people, like our parents, brothers and sisters, teachers, friends, classmates, make us want to eat the whole packet at once. Also, things like health problems, losing or breaking things, or anything that makes us worried or scared, makes us eat up that attention very fast. When attention runs out, almost everything feels boring, and it takes a super-human effort to do anything. You need plenty of attention for school, for studying and learning, so you’re in trouble if you hardly have any attention left by the time you get to school.

Things you have no attention for and things you have attention for

Let’s try an experiment. Imagine you can do one of two things for the next half hour. You can choose A) half an hour of video-games or B) half an hour of maths homework. Well, of course, you’d choose video-games. How does the idea of doing half an hour of maths homework make you feel? Like the life is being sucked out of you? And how about playing video games? Probably happy and energetic. You see, you have some attention tucked away for video-games, like a squirrel with secret stores of nuts.

You know how there are some things which make you feel like time is flying and you could do them forever? Like listening to music, watching movies, and chatting or playing games with friends,? It feels like some things give you energy and attention, the things that feel like a game, and other things take away your energy and attention, like listening to some teachers or doing homework.

It’s easier to find attention if it feels like playing a game

Well, the trick is to make school and schoolwork feel like a game. Everything that feels like a game involves some of these things:

  1. competitions and battles, winning and losing, moving to the next level and showing off your knowledge and skills
  2. Looking for and finding information, solving puzzles and mysteries, solving a problem alone or with other people
  3. experimenting, daring and risking
  4. pretending, imagining and discovering what happens next,
  5. calculating, evaluating and deciding

So, whatever you’re studying, if you’re doing at least one of these things, it’s a game. And when you find ways of adding more of the game things, you turn it into a more fun game.

Learning things is like doing a jigsaw puzzle

Speaking of games, learning all the different things you study at school – maths, language and literature, history, biology, a second language, geography, physics, philosophy and chemistry – is like slowly, slowly solving a giant jigsaw puzzle. A giant jigsaw puzzle with no picture to guide you. And the picture you’re making is not of kittens and puppies, but of things you’ve never seen before. Hard, but not impossible.

The good news is that your jigsaw puzzle might be less complete than other kids’ puzzles but all the pieces are there for you, you just need to catch up. And there’s plenty of time to catch up, once you’ve learned a few tricks and systems that can help.

How do you start solving a jigsaw puzzle? That’s right, you start lining up the edges and borders, and then you group pieces that look like they might go together and then start trying to fit the pieces together, one at a time. And that’s what you must do with all the information your teachers bombard you with. Remember that it can take a while for the details of the picture you’re building to come together and make sense.

Where do you start? Like with a jigsaw puzzle, start wherever the picture starts to come together. It can be a subject that interests you, something you find easy, or, at least, not as difficult as others. Most of us have a subject we’re good at – or less terrible at than others.

Different types of thinking for different types of game – and school subject

School has already done some of the job of sorting out all the things you need to learn into groups – the different subjects you study. And different subjects, like different types of game, need different types of thinking. Being good at reading and writing needs different thinking from being good at maths and physics, or at history, geography and philosophy, or at biology and chemistry, or at foreign languages, or at visual art and music. I think our brains are capable of all the ways of thinking we need to learn all the subjects, but we tend to prefer one or two ways of thinking which makes some subjects easier for us than others, and that’s where we should start.

All the different subjects we study are all part of the same big picture of the world we live in, how it works and how we live in it. And building up one part of the picture can help you start to make sense of the rest of it.

Making sense of world we live in is a long job, in fact, it never really ends. The good news is that the hardest part of doing a jigsaw, like learning new things, is starting it, and then it gets easier. The more bits you’ve put together, the easier it gets.

>>Chapter 6: What makes school hard or great: other people>>     

<<Chapter 4: What’s the point of school anyway?<<

Chapter 4. What is the point of school anyway?

>>Chapter 5: Your brain, like the most expensive car in the world>>     <<Chapter 3: Fancy words, ruling the world, super-heroes<<

Why do I have to learn about photosynthesis?

Hello, my little Alien friend! How can I be of assistance today? Got any homework or tests to prepare for? Of course, ask away! Actually, that’s a really important question, much more important than tests and homework – why DO you need to learn about useless things like photosynthesis which will never be of any use in your life, in fact, why do you even need to go to school?

Going to school is a right, not a punishment

Well, why do YOU think you have to go to school and learn this stuff? Yes, it’s true, it’s the law in this part of the world. Is it the law where you come from? Until you’re twenty! That explains why you have inter-galactic space travel and we don’t. Here it’s obligatory until you’re sixteen. Anyway, believe it or not, it’s a law to PROTECT the rights of children – not to abuse them, although I can imagine why you think school is like a punishment or prison.

At least when you have a job, you only have one boss, whereas at school you have a lot of different teachers all telling you what to do, and judging you. And, yes, in a job you get paid – even prisoners who work get paid. And you don’t HAVE to have a job and go to work, you say?

When it was a crime not to work

Well, it’s not a crime to NOT have a job NOW, but it was until about 100 years ago. In Great Britain, for example, about 150 years ago, if you didn’t have a job, even if you couldn’t work because you were old or sick, you were sent to a government workhouse, which was very, very similar to a prison, to work in exchange for food, clothing and somewhere to sleep. In different workhouses for men, women, boys and girls, so you’d be separated from your family.

When school didn’t use to be a right for children

And until about 100 years ago here in Europe, unless your family could pay, and most couldn’t, you didn’t go to school. You worked, and you’d probably been working from the age of six. Between 10-16 hours a day. And not sitting at a desk, either. If you were lucky, you worked with your family in your family business, which might have been farming, baking, shoe-making, tailoring, running market stalls, that kind of thing.

If your family was poor, or got into debt, you were probably doing hard, nasty and dangerous work underground in the coal mines, or climbing up inside very tall chimneys and cleaning out the soot with a brush, or working in factories with enormous furnaces and plenty of poisonous fumes, and machinery that would chew you up if you got caught in it. And you worked because it was the difference between eating and starving.

And today, if you are a child in some parts of this world, this is STILL your life. Did you come here because life’s like this for some people on your planet, and your family wanted something better? You’re not sure.

When animals had more rights than children

Well, until 100 years ago in Europe, you might have had a better life if you were born a horse, a cow, a dog or a donkey. Animals were more valuable than children and were fed and treated better. People got much more upset when animals were beaten or killed in work accidents than if children were. In Great Britain, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was created FIFTY YEARS before the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. I KNOW. So, you’re lucy you arrived on this planet now and not 150 years ago.

So, you know, there are worse things than going to school.

What if going to school was a job?

Let me ask you a question: if going to school was a job, what would your job be? What are your duties as a school pupil? Learning boring stuff and taking tests – yes, that’s pretty much it. And why do you think the people in this part of the world think this is a good idea? Because they have to give you something to do to keep you out of trouble, like prisoners breaking rocks? Good answer, and I understand why school can feel like that, but I believe there are better reasons.

I think it’s because to live in this part of the world, where nearly everyone has enough food, water, shelter, safety, lighting, heating, healthcare, transport, clothing, furniture, phones, computers and TVs, it takes an enormous number of people all working together doing an enormous number of different things to make all of this possible.

What if we forgot all the things we know about making all the things that make our life comfortable?

Let’s think about electricity, which you need to power lights, fridges, washing-machines, cookers, doorbells, computers and everything with a computer in it, like watches, TVs, smart-phones, cars, central heating, air-conditioning, lifts, the internet and so on. Do you know how to make electricity? No? I’m not surprised, because even the very smart and curious Ancient Greeks didn’t. We’ve only had electricity for about 100 years, and it took 300 years and the thinking of A LOT of different people to figure out how to make the stuff we use to make all the other stuff in our lives work.

Electricity is really complicated. Can you imagine what would happen if we forgot how to do it?

It has happened before

You think that’s a ridiculous idea? Well, the Ancient Greeks and Romans had the technology for things like running water and even central heating in their homes, and had medical knowledge and doctors who could treat you without killing you – and there are parts of the world TODAY where most people live without running water in their homes and can’t get modern medical care.

And then we lived for more than 1000 years AFTER the Ancient Greeks and Romans without any of that, forgetting even basic things like, “WASH YOUR HANDS before you touch a wounded or sick person.” We got the word hygiene from Hygeia, the Ancient Greek goddess of health, who was the daughter of Asclepius, the Ancient Greek god of medicine, and we didn’t re-discover the connection between hygiene and keeping people alive until about 200 years ago.

Cartoon about doctor – leeches, disgusting hands

Our responsibility to learn and remember things

I like to think that the purpose of school is to turn young people into knowledge storage devices, like human USB memory sticks, for at least some of the useful and important things we’ve learned, and forgotten, and learned again over the ages. You know, just in case we destroy civilisation again and everything stops working.

Well, we have a long history of doing exactly that.

Look at history: it just takes just one civilisation, country or population with a talent for destruction that’s greater than everyone else’s, to erase a civilisation, like Attila and his Huns and the Germanic tribes did when they physically destroyed the Ancient Roman Empire, the buildings, the people, the art, the technology, the scientific records. Look around you: the world is full of the ruins of civilisations.

In Europe during the dark ages, before schools existed, a few Christian monks acted like knowledge storage devices by making as many hand-written copies as possible of anything they could find that had survived the destruction of Ancient Rome, and they kept this knowledge safe until people were ready to pay attention to it again, about 500 years ago.

cartoon: today – memory stick, past: monks

Why we can’t just store all our knowledge on the internet

Fifty years ago, during a perioed in history called The Cold War, when we were in a competition – called the arms race –  to see which country could build the biggest number of the largest and most powerful bombs ever invented, we realised that the invention of these nuclear bombs has given us the ability to totally and instantly physically destroy entire countries and populations. With this in mind, we invented the internet to try to make sure that if we do destroy ourselves, our knowledge will survive. However, although you can’t touch the internet, the technology that makes it work is a physical thing, and can also be destroyed. So, we also need to rely on the traditional way of passing knowledge on – through our brains and memories.

Cartoon: All our knowledge is stored on these drives but we’ve forgotten how to make electricity so we can’t turn them on and find out how to make electricity

Three reasons why going to school is a good idea

So, back to your question: why do you have to go to school and learn all of these things? We came up with three answers: one, because, trust me, it’s better than working in a coal mine; two, because after finishing your education, you’ll probably need to get a job – like the vast majority of us, you will need to work for  a living – that contributes in some way to making it possible to continue enjoying the privileges, rights and luxuries we have in this part of the world; and three, It’s your duty to learn stuff and help us preserve important knowledge. Now, does that make you feel more like doing your homework? Maybe?

Further Research

– If you enjoy horror, you can put “doctor middle ages” in your search engine and click on images …

>>Chapter 5: Your brain, like the most expensive car in the world>>     

<<Chapter 3: Fancy words, ruling the world, super-heroes<<

Chapter 2. How to make sense of things that don’t make sense

<< Chapter 1: Photosynthesis, fat & cow pee <<        >>Chapter 3: Fancy words, ruling the world, superheroes>>

When you don’t understand, and aren’t in the mood to understand

inattentiveness2Hello, my Alien friends, how are things? Your science teacher called you a potato in class today? Because you “just sit there like a potato, not interested in anything, not learning anything”? Well, I’m sure that like most teenagers, you have a lot on your mind, and you’ll have far more interesting things to think about than photosynthesis.

Never underestimate potatoes

Perhaps it was a compliment. Well, it could be a compliment because potatoes are very interesting. Potatoes changed the course of human history. We Europeans discovered potatoes in South America about 500 years ago, but we didn’t start eating them until about 200 years ago, at the end of the 1700s. Perhaps when we figured out that they taste Potato 2better and aren’t poisonous if you cook them. Potatoes are easy to grow, and very nutritious – they give us lots of energy. Around 200 years ago, at the beginning of the period in history we call the Industrial Revolution, poor people around Europe suddenly had enough to eat for the first time. The Industrial Revolution was when we finally got around to inventing the things that make our lives comfortable today, like electricity, trains, lightbulbs, central heating, factories, vaccinations,  photography, the telephone, the television, cars and aeroplanes.

How the potato changed the world

Until about 200 years ago, nearly everyone’s job was to grow food. This was a hard and before potatoesrisky job because in a year with bad weather, crops like wheat, fruit and vegetables could fail, and this happened quite frequently. However, potatoes grow underground, unlike crops like wheat or beans, so they’re protected from storms and droughts. So, until people started growing potatoes, they often didn’t have enough to eat.

When people started growing potatoes, more food meant more babies, which meant more workers to work in the new factories, which produced things like newspapers, weapons and cotton fabric for clothes. More babies also meant more soldiers, to fight in huge, new world wars. You just never know what effect innovations like potatoes will have on our lives.

Some tricks to make school easier: big ideas

Ok, your teacher calling you a potato probably wasn’t a compliment. School can be a tough place. What can we do to make school better for you? I mean, you have to go to school five days a week. That’s a long time to NOT be having a good time. What if you could learn a few tricks to make school easier?

There are a few big ideas that will help you make sense of the world you’ve landed in, which we’ll be looking at. A big idea is something that will help you make sense of things all your life, and can be anything: a good question, like “Who cares about photosynthesis?”, or a study tip, like looking at simple information for kids on the internet, or knowing about a period of great change in history, like the Industrial Revolution.

Learn to learn, because you’ll have to do it your whole life

daydreamingFor example, a way to understand the point of whatever scientific discovery you’re studying, is to ask, “What difference did it make?” “What was the world like before and after it?” I don’t know about you, but when I’m learning about something, I can’t just learn a list of facts. I need it to make sense to me.

Well, of course I still have to learn things. There are loads of things I don’t know, even at my age. Including things I should have learned at school, but was too busy paying attention to more interesting things.

What difference did photosynthesis make?

So, what difference did photosynthesis make to the world? Well, when I was finding out about potatoes, I asked the internet “How many more people are there on earth now, compared to 200 years ago?” This was when people started eating potatoes. It turns out there are 7 TIMES more people on earth now than there were at the beginning of the 1800’s. At the end of the 1700s there were a billion people on the earth and now there are over seven billion!!!

population increase5But then I clicked on images and found some graphs that showed that the earth’s population started growing very, very fast only about fifty years ago, and it has been growing very fast ever since. So, I asked the internet a few more questions and found out that although Mr. Ingenhousz, the scientist who discovered photosynthesis, worked out about 200 years ago that plants need sunlight to grow and produce oxygen, we didn’t figure out how to turn this discovery into ways of growing more food more quickly until the middle of the last century. By the way, it’s normal for it to take centuries to turn a scientific discovery into something useful.

You don’t get how this is going to help you learn about the vascular system of plants, about xylem and phloem?

Comparing things we don’t understand with things we do understand

Ok, let’s see if we can understand photosynthesis and plant anatomy by comparing this with something similar but that’s easier to understand. Comparing things, or finding analogies, is another big idea, by the way. Let’s look at how our human and alien bodies work.

Our hearts pump blood around our bodies through blood vessels, a lot of little tubes. Actually, our homes use a similar system. In our homes, we have pipes and wires that bring stuff to our houses, like water, gas and electricity, and pipes that take what we don’t want out of the house, like everything that goes into our toilet, or down the plug-hole when we wash things.

How we transport useful stuff to where we need it

vascular gingerbread manSo, we, like plants and houses, have systems for transporting useful stuff to where we need it in our bodies. We have blood and blood vessels, which are our vascular system. Our vascular system carries the nutrients, the things we need for our bodies to grow that we get from food, from our digestive system, to where we need it in our bodies for energy or energy-storage, or to our waste-disposal system, where we turn it into solid and liquid emissions and get rid of them. Our vascular system also moves the oxygen we breathe into our lungs around our bodies, which we need for our cells to turn the sugars and fats we get from our food into energy.

Humans and aliens have vascular systems. Houses and buildings have things like vascular systems, it’s called plumbing for everything to do with liquids, and wiring for electrical systems.

Plants pump stuff around themselves through pipes as well

Anyway, plants have vascular systems too: one set of tubes called xylem, like straws that suck up water and minerals from the roots to the leaves, where photosynthesis happens. And phloem, another set of tubes to move the nutrients produced by photosynthesis, like glucose and proteins to the growing parts of the plant, where it makes new leaves and other things like flowers or potatoes or strawberries. See? Sometimes if you compare new things with familiar things they become simple.

Normal vs. fancy words

Why do they have to use such complicated words, that you’ll never remember or use? Good question. When we speak there are two kinds of words we can use: normal, everyday words and fancy words, like photosynthesis, vascular system, xylem and phloem. We use these words to talk about ideas from biology, geography, history, literature – and all the other school subjects. Most of the fancy words we use, in Europe at least, are from two dead languages: Latin, which we haven’t spoken for at least 500 years, and Ancient Greek, which we haven’t spoken for almost 1,000 years.

Why? Well, people spoke these languages in Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome which are two very important historical periods on Earth, at least if you’re European, and these are two more big ideas that will help you make sense of this world. We’ll be talking about Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome a lot.

Right, your antennae are starting to droop – you need to go and recharge your batteries – time to go and put some fuel in your bodies.

>>Chapter 3: Fancy words, ruling the world, superheroes>>

<< Chapter 1: Photosynthesis, fat & cow pee <<   


Chapter 3. Today we’re talking about where fancy words come from, ruling the word, and super-heroes

>>Chapter 4: What’s the point of school anyway>>     <<Chapter 2: Making sense of stuff that doesn’t make sense<<

french vs photosynthesisYou are always studying foreign lanugages

Hello, my little Alien friend. And how are you today? Bad? Because you had French? Well, remember how last time I said I’d tell you about a couple of the big ideas that will help you make sense of this world? Ancient Greece, and Ancient Rome are where fancy words like xylem and phloem come from.  You know, every time you learn something new, like about photosynthesis, it’s like learning a new language. And you already speak at least two, right?

Why is it two thousand and something?

Right. So what year is it? Right, and it’s we are in the 2000’s because it’s just over 2000 years after Jesus Christ was born. Have you heard of Jesus Christ? Christianity? Religion? Not really? I’ll have to ask your parents what kind of religions or philosophies – beliefs and ideas – you have on your planet.

What’s a religion?

seven virtuesWell, a religion is like a list of rules about how you should live your life, and beliefs about how the world works. Religions have Gods, sometimes just one, and sometimes quite a lot of them, who a lot of people believe are invisible, all-powerful beings who created the world and who control everything.

A lot of people believe that if you pray to God, or to the Gods – ask them for things – they might listen to you. Yes, a bit like invisible superheroes. No, there’s no scientific proof that gods exist either, but people want to believe in them anyway. Well … beliefs are important. Sometimes they help us. Sometimes they make amazing things happen. Sometimes they cause A LOT of problems.

Who is that guy?

Who is that guyYou’ve seen pictures at school of a man on a cross right? That’s Jesus Christ, whose ideas, which include the idea that that he was the son of God, started a religion called Christianity. The part of the world we’re in, Europe, has mostly Christians, but there are five or six other important religions in this part of the world. And a lot of them have different calendars.  Religion is more or less important depending on the country you live in. Here in Italy it’s pretty important.

Want to rule the world? Then build an empire.

So, our calendar is based on when Jesus Christ was born, just over 2000 years ago. And Jesus Christ was born during the Roman Empire, coliseumin Ancient Rome. Today, Rome is the capital city of Italy. Let’s just do an internet search for “Rome ancient monuments”, click on images – look, all of these buildings were built in Ancient Rome, around 2000 years ago, and you can still see them today.

And you can see buildings like this all over Southern Europe, and in England and parts of Germany, and in parts of our neighbouring continents, Asia and Africa, because the Ancient Romans how to build and empiredecided just over 2000 years ago, that they were so advanced, and had such good ideas, and lived so much better than everyone else, that they should rule the world. With this in mind they went into lots of parts of the world, with their armies, and told the people there that they were part of the Roman Empire. Some people were quite happy about this, and welcomed Roman ideas, culture and technology. Others disagreed with the Romans, and usually it didn’t end well for them. And that’s what an empire is. There have been a lot of empires in history. What are you studying in history at the moment? The Second World War? That’s all about the Germans deciding they should rule the world and start an empire.

ruler 3In European history, a hundred years is a millimetre long

Can you get your ruler out? There are 30 centimetres on your ruler. Let’s imagine 10 cm represents a thousand years, and 10 cm is when Jesus was born, so today, 2017, we are just after where it says 30, right? OK, the Ancient Greek civilisation – a period of discovery, advanced learning and ideas – started about 500 years before Jesus was born, “before Christ” – BC – so show me where that is on the ruler. Good. And it ended about 150 years AD, which is Latin for “after Christ”, at 11.5 cm.  And the Roman Empire started 27 years BC, and it ended about 500 years AD, at 15 cm.

Can you see all that space between the end of the Roman Empire and where we are now? The time before the end of the Roman Empire was our “smart time” and the time from then until about 500 years ago, which lasted around 1000 years, was a period the British call the Dark Ages.

history graphHistorical times when we are smart

Smart times in history are when we humans have good ideas and invent things. Unfortunately, a lot of inventions come from wanting better weapons to fight each other with, but while we’re inventing better swords, guns and bombs, we also invent things that help feed us, cure diseases, help us share information, organise ourselves and entertain ourselves.

Historical times when we believe anything we are told to believe

GalileoThe Dark Ages is when we stop trying to think like a scientist and looking for answers which we can prove are true. Instead we make up reasons for things, like, “because God says so,” or, “the sun, like all the other planets, must move round the Earth because, obviously, Man is at the centre of the universe.” 400 years ago, the scientist Galileo proved that the Earth orbits – goes round – the sun, and not the other way round, but the Christian leaders who made all the important decisions at the time refused to accept it, and Galileo must have been a great guy, because they didn’t kill him, which they normally would, they just imprisoned him.

So, we humans have been around for a long time, but we don’t necessarily get smarter the longer we stay around on this planet. We have times when we’re really smart, and then times when we become afraid of new ideas.

Important Ancient Greek thinkers

hippocrates2In Ancient Greece, the Ancient Greeks were really smart. They had philosophers, great thinkers, scientists and artists like Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, Hippocrates, Homer, Archimedes, Euclid, Pythagoras, who came up with important ideas for maths, engineering, medicine, politics, art, and other things – which we then forgot about for 1000 years. Today we still use their ideas all the time. So next time you hear a name like Pythagoras or Euclid in a maths lesson, for example, remember that they came up with their ideas around 2,3000 years ago in Ancient Greece, and we lost their ideas for a very long time.

Superheroes in Ancient Greece

The other things the Ancient Greeks had were lots of gods, who really were like super-heroes, and in some cases, super-villains. The Ancient Greeks told such great stories about their gods, that the Ancient Romans decided to have the same gods, but with different, Latin names. We still tell the stories of the Ancient Greek Gods today, because they’re so midas3amazing. Today we use the names of the Gods all over the place.

Midas, a company you see around which sells spare parts for cars, is named after an Ancient Greek King whose super-power was to turn everything he touched into gold. Which sounds great, except when he accidentally turned his daughter into gold. That really upset him, and when he asked the Gods to take back their super-power, they gave him donkey ears instead.

So this is why we use fancy Ancient Greek and Latin words

So when we make scientific discoveries, we need words to describe the new things we’ve found which are often things like other things, but not quite the same. So we often use words from Ancient Greek and Latin. So xylem is from the Ancient Greek for “wood”, because it’s hard, and helps plants grow upwards, and phloem is from the Ancient Greek for “bark”, like the skin of a tree, because it’s more like skin.

Why is phloem like skin? Skin is like a flexible, elastic bag that holds everything together and protects the rest of our body from cold, heat, and injury. I imagine the phloem does something similar for plants.

Ok. You ask great questions, and it’s important to be curious, but, I don’t have time for any more questions today!

>>Chapter 4: What’s the point of school anyway>>

<<Chapter 2: Making sense of stuff that doesn’t make sense<<