‘Why, Dad, why?’ is one of the most commonly used phrases in our home.
Mainly, it is used to challenge the hour of bedtime or the need to consume a particular brassica. But often it is used to inquire about the workings of the world around us, be it why only adults are allowed to drink beer or why wheels are round or why Dad finds it very difficult to boil an egg to soldier-dipping perfection when he can rustle up a 30-ingredient curry in no time at all. You know, sciencey stuff.
These are the kinds of questions I used to ask my own father. And these are the kinds of questions I now answer in the way he used to answer me: ‘Ask your teachers – that’s what they’re paid for.’
But every now and again, an opportunity arises where all kinds of questions can all be answered all at once in one place.
That place is the Royal Institute of Great Britain, in London’s Albermarle Street, about five minutes’ walk from Green Park and The Ritz hotel.
Now this isn’t normally the kind of place I like to hang around in at a weekend. Normally, I drag the kids along to a farmers’ market or for a lemonade in my local pub. At a push, I’ll take them to a bowling alley or for a game of football.
It’s not that I’m a Luddite – it’s just that I’ve tried to take my two little boys to the various – and magnificent – museums that London has to offer but the queues and the crowds have made the experiences so stressful that I’d rather stay home in front of the Discovery Channel.
But the opportunity to do something very meaningful, very educational and very stress-free arose on Saturday when both my sons were invited to a birthday party at the RIGB (their classmates’ Mum works there).
The RI opened its doors to youngsters for a family fun day with lots of enthusiastic volunteers showing the kids how to keep a ping-pong ball floating in a stream of air, how to a control a Wii with just the movements of your head, how to perform a trick shot in Pool, how to bounce a ball through a wooden box. And most fun of all – for my kids and their mates, at least – how to ride up and down in the organisation’s glass elevator about 101 times.
To be honest, it was us parents who got the most out of it. On the day we went, the theme was sport and health, so we competed with each other to do a long jump without a run-up (I came third); we got our cholesterol, body fat and blood sugars measured (mine were all fine – which means I still won’t have to visit my GP, as I haven’t done for the past 10 years); and we hung around the very civilised cafeteria area, chitting and chatting while the kids ran around being very excited.
The RI is most famous for its Christmas lectures, started in the 19th Century by Michael Faraday, a British chemist and physicist who contributed significantly to the study of electromagnetism and electrochemistry – that’s me, posing next to his statue in the RI lobby.
I looked back on their archives and found one given by Dr Mark Miodownik, a materials scientist from King’s College London, called ‘Size Matters’.
Yes, yes, fellas, we all know it doesn’t REALLY matter, but here’s a flavour of some of the fascinating science Dr Miodownik revealed:
Why elephants can’t dance:
Although they’re one of the biggest and most charismatic animals on Earth, elephants can’t dance because of their low area to volume ratio. Their legs are big and heavy to support
their weight, but this impairs their ability to jump, change direction and dance, like an elegant ballerina.
How hamsters can sky dive:
The size of an animal determines its likelihood of surviving a fall from an aeroplane or a tall building. Smaller animals hit the ground with a proportionally lower force. That’s why, whilst falling out of an aeroplane is fatal for humans, hamsters live and spiders don’t even feel the impact.
Why chocolate tastes so melt-in-the mouth good:
Chocolate melts in your mouth thanks to the crystal structure of the cocoa butter that is used to make it. The crystal structure is created when molecules fit together and build to make up the cocoa butter fat. Getting this crystal structure right is the trick and it’s not easy – there are six different crystal structures and only one works for chocoholics.
Why ants are so strong:
An ant can lift 100 times its own body weight compared to an Olympic weightlifter, who can only lift double their own weight on a good day. This is because, being so light, ants only use a small amount of their muscles to hold themselves up, leaving the rest of their strength for lifting. So, as things get bigger they get proportionally weaker.
Can we build a lift to the moon?
Until now there has not been a material strong enough to withstand the huge gravitational forces that dominate as you start to move up into space. But recently we discovered super strong materials, which make steel look as soft as butter by comparison, and which could indeed make it possible to build an elevator to the moon.
See, I told you it was fascinating! Perhaps not as fascinating for my lads as the Tube ride there and back (‘Dad, why’s it called a Tube?’ ‘Dad, why is that man picking his nose and wiping it on the seat?’ ‘Dad, why is it so HOT in here?’ ‘Dad, can we get off now, I feel sick?’) but still a good day out on a rainy Saturday afternoon in summer, nonetheless.