Why does your hair stand on end when you rub a balloon and hold it above your head? Unfortunately, the end of a nice meal at Zizzi in Gunwharf Quays in Portsmouth was not the time or place for OMB to take in the answer to this question after having had the phenomenon demonstrated by our heroic waiter (after he had already gone on a step ladder to retrieve a toddler’s helium birthday balloon from the ceiling and then chased all the way to the car park to return a scarf another diner had left at their table).
The right time and place turned out to be the newly opened Cambridge Science Centre which OMB and I visited at the weekend. The centre on Jesus Lane is small but packed with a large number of interactive exhibits each demonstrating and explaining an everyday phenomenon in a way which is engaging for children as young as 5. The mainly volunteer staff are attentive, enthusiastic and knowledgeable. As it is so new everything worked, unlike places like Eureka in Halifax, where many of the exhibits are rather tired and tatty not to mention, in the case of the computerised ones, running off antiquated PCs (being bang up to date, the computer exhibit, a screen showing wave patterns of sounds picked up by a microphone, ran on a Raspberry Pi) .
When we visited, on a cold and rainy typical February afternoon, the centre was full but not so crowded that there was a wait to get onto any of the dozen or so exhibits. Physics was always my favourite school subject so it was nice that most of the exhibits focused on physical phenomena, from optics (lenses, UV and Infra Red, colour addition and subtraction, microscopes and cameras) to sound (the microphone and oscilloscope, a demonstration of how the voicebox works) and electromagnetism (magnets, motors and dynamos), along with some mechanics (gears, a wind tunnel to test out paper versions of tree seeds you could make yourself and a self-supporting arch of wooden blocks). Attempts to make science “relevant” often end up being a bit undemanding and unenlightening by focusing on the bangs and smells of chemistry experiments without any explanation of the underlying process, or by just showing lots of flora and fauna with the only science being about how climate change is bad and we ought to try to recycle more and try not to kill off endangered species. Perhaps because it is located in one of the scientific capitals of the world (a fair proportion of the phenomena explored in the exhibits were discovered or explained first by scientists working within a mile of the centre) the centre was unafraid of being less populist and making the most “difficult” of the school sciences its centrepiece.
We didn’t get time to see the DNA exhibit (another Cambridge discovery) but that was probably a little beyond OMB at 6 anyway. However, when the time comes I’m tempted to recreate the simple home lab experiment to extract DNA from saliva demonstrated by Professor Brian Cox in the first episode of his Wonders of Life series. Initially watching that series I had got annoyed by it being scheduled so late in the evening, but then as he rapidly went on to concepts normally looked at first at A Level I realised it was probably not going to be as child-friendly as something by David Attenborough.
What both the Wonders of Life and the Cambridge Science Centre do well is to follow Einstein in making things as simple as possible, but no simpler. You can’t do a physicist’s view of life without talking about energy, charge, entropy and thermodynamics. However, when you have some nice robust things to play and experiment with, you can let even young children get a feel for how the components interact even without needing detailed explanations. Another benefit of the hands on approach is that it avoids the need to get bogged down with the “why” because the what and the how are so interesting and immediate. I think that may be part of the difficulty many have with science and maths – we want to know why something is the way it is but those deep questions are difficult to answer in science without properly understanding what and how they are. This compares to say, learning a language, where, although it may be an interesting question for a linguistic historian, few will object to their French teacher telling them that “le” is the masculine article by asking why that is.
OMB adjusts an infrared camera to see “colours of light that our eyes can’t see”.
Is it better to be a big cog in a small machine or a small one in a big machine?
As we came to the end of our visit to the centre, one of the staff did a demonstration about static electricity. So we did learn after all about how a balloon can make your hair stand on end, as well as how it could be used to make semolina jump up and down off a sheet of paper or to pull a drinks can along without touching it. Here’s a photo of OMB volunteering to use a static electricity generator to make a load of foil pie cases (hey, he’s from Yorkshire) jump off one by one.
How? Well, you’ll just have to go and visit and see for yourself!