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 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 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<<