We had our own Springwatch moment last week. We visited Malham Cove in Yorkshire to see the peregrine falcons.
A pair had nested on a ledge in the cove, the chicks had hatched and shuffled their way to the front of the ledge to look out for their parents returning with food.
The RSPB have a ‘field station” thee with telescopes set up and trained on the ledge and with the help of the very attentive volunteers you can see the chicks quite clearly.
It was a hot mid-day when we arrived and the parents were not around so the volunteers kindly allowed me to use their models of the birds to give you an idea of what to look for.
The birds will be there for a month or more (but check the website) so have your own Springwatch moment and see the fastest birds in the world.
Clouds are made up from millions of tiny water droplets that float in the air. The sunlight that shines onto them is a mixture of the rainbow colours which makes the light white. This white light shines onto the droplets and they behave like millions of tiny mirrors reflecting the white light in all directions. The reflection of the light makes the clouds appear white.
Pippa gathered some equipment and materials to make a model cloud.
She poured some olive oil into the water. In this model the water represents the air and the oil represents the material (the water droplets) in the cloud.
Pippa stirred up the oil and water. As oil and water do not mix, the oil began to form tiny droplets in the water.
As Pippa stirred the droplets became smaller and smaller until they behaved like the water droplets in a cloud and reflected the white light in the kitchen in all directions.
How do clouds stay up in the air?
The billions of water droplets that make up a cloud are smaller in diameter than a hair on your arm. If you could scoop up part of the cloud shown in the first picture and put it in a box measuring one metre square (or about the size of a kitchen fridge) and measure the weight of all the water droplets in it you would find they weighed about as much as one baked bean. This means they weigh very, very little and any upward movement in the air (such as wind or rising air from the warm ground) will keep them in the air.
Next topic – Clouds 2 – How are clouds made?
Children often ask questions which need a scientific explanation. The memory of the explanations can be extended when an activity is featured. In this series of blogs I have put together some questions that children ask and offered simple explanations which are illustrated by activities that my youngest granddaughter Pippa carried out.
I also include links to other sites to provide further information and details of how to carry out practical work with your children if you wish.
I hope the series will be useful to parents, grandparents and carers for talking about science after school or in the holidays and maybe teachers may find something of interest too.
I am beginning with a series of topics related to the closest thing to us – the air and atmosphere.
Science Around Us 1. Sky colours
Why is the sky blue?
Warning Never look at the Sun in the sky it can damage your eyes!
The colours in the sky come from the rays of light that reach us from the Sun. Sunlight is made up from light of different colours – the colours of the rainbow. Light travels in the form of waves (called electromagnetic waves) and each colour has wave crests that have a certain distance between them. This distance is called the wavelength. Blue light has short wave lengths and red and yellow light have longer wave lengths.
When you look up into the sky you are looking up into the atmosphere. It is made up of molecules of gases, mainly nitrogen and oxygen. As the sunlight shines through the atmosphere the waves of light are scattered and reflected by the molecules of gas. The short waves of the blue light are scattered and reflected the most and this makes the sky blue.
Making a model sky
There is an empty olive oil bottle, a torch, a jug of water, a small churn of milk and a teaspoon. The milk will take the part of the molecules of oxygen and nitrogen. Before she uses the milk she makes sure she makes a fair test. This test will show that is the milk the makes the blue light and not the water.
First she fills the bottle with water, places it on its side and shines the torch into the bottle
Next she adds about a third of a teaspoonful of milk to the bottle and shakes it up then shines her torch again.
Why is the sky less blue near the horizon?
In this picture you can see that the sky has become whiter as you look towards the horizon (the place where the Earth meets the sky).
This change is due to the Sun sinking lower in the sky (It is on the left of this picture) and as it does so its light rays pass through a thicker layer of the air. See the picture here.
As the light passes through more air it is more greatly scattered and the different colours of light mix up to make a whitish light.
What makes a sky red?
Red skies can occur in the direction of the Sun at sunrise and sunset. Again it is partially due to the extra thickness of the air that the light passes through but is mainly caused by dust particles and even salt crystals blown up from the surface of the sea. They scatter the blue light completely,but red light is scattered less so making the sky appear red.
Remember the warning – Never look at the Sun it can damage your eyes.
Next Topic – Why are clouds white?
The first cabinets of curiosities in the eighteenth century were not cabinets at all. They were rooms full of cabinets and in East Yorkshire there is a country house that still has its original cabinets of curiosities – rooms packed with curious items from the realms of science. Although many country houses had cabinets of curiosities the cabinets here are the only ones to survive in their country house setting.
The country house is called Burton Constable and is well worth a visit.
Find out more about Burton Constable Hall at http://www.burtonconstable.com
The cabinets of curiosities were built up by William Constable (1721 – 1791)
The curiosities are set out in two rooms.
Large items such as this machine for generating static electricity are set out on tables
while smaller items such as these biological specimens are set out in well lit cabinets
I was surprised to see that William also displayed the apparatus he used in experiments.
His geological specimens were kept in what seemed to be a converted writing desk where the specimens could be taken out and examined on the “desk” top.
Like all scientists of his day William kept up to date with developments by reading the latest published books and writing and receiving letters from other scientists just as we use emails today. Even in a quiet corner of his rooms he still found a place for more curiosities such as the nose of a saw fish propped up against the wall.
A visit to William’s cabinets of curiosities may inspire you to set up some at home at home or at school. The Curiosity Box series at http://www.peterdriley.com/books/curiosity-box/ may help to get you started.
In recent blogs I have been considering the science people remember from their school days and also suggesting that science does not need to be perceived as hard but can be beautiful. In the blog on beauty I used a simple description of beauty as something which can generate pleasure and satisfaction.
I saw this in action when I visited my local primary school to help with their study of mini beasts.
The lesson began by looking at the film What animal is it? which is free to view at http://www.peterdriley.com/books/ways-into-science-series/
This sets mini beasts in context in the animal kingdom.
The children then explored the school grounds to make a mini beast survey. In the survey the mini beasts were identified and counted.
After twenty minutes the children returned to the classroom and discussed the data they had collected.
I pointed out that they had made their survey during the day and asked them how they could find out about the mini beasts that might be active at night?
Followers of Spring Watch suggested setting up cameras but others suggested a much cheaper alternative of setting up traps and I showed them how to make a pit fall trap.
These were set up all over the school grounds.
The following morning the traps were emptied and the mini beasts were identified and counted and added to the data collected the previous day.
The children then wrote up their investigation using the free downloadable Experiment Report sheets from my website at http://www.peterdriley.com/downloads-and-resources/ (scroll down to The Experiment Report sheet and receive it in a zip file).
They completed their mini beast study by using https://nces.ed.gov/nceskids/graphing/classic/ to make bar graphs and pie charts.
You can see by their reports and graphs that the children had found the science activity pleasant and it gave them satisfaction to spend time writing it up and making the graphs and charts. Perhaps science is beautiful after all.
The school has agreed for their work to be displayed in the Science Exhibition Gallery at
If you and your children have done a science activity that is an example of the beauty of science like this one please send it in to firstname.lastname@example.org for display in the Science Exhibition Gallery for every one to see.
In my last blog I talked about visual aids that I had used as a teacher many years ago and how I was bringing them up to date with films with notes.
In fact, the films I have made are to go with my books in the Ways into Science series and the notes, called Stop and Chat, are to extend your children’s interaction with the topic and with you.
Find out more about them at http://www.peterdriley.com/books/ways-into-science-series/
To use the book, film and resources simply follow these few steps.
1. Download the zip file and print off the Stop and Chat sheet. (The zip file also contains a quiz, answer sheet and experiment report sheet that you might like to use with the book).
2. Sit at the computer with your child with their book, and your Stop and Chat sheet and click on the film.
3. You may like to run through the film with your child without the Stop and Chat sheet so both of you can see how the topic is presented.
4. Play the film again but this time stop it at the times shown on the sheet and use the notes to ask your child about the topic or perform an activity. The stop and chat sheet has times at which you should stop the film and just … chat. Try it.
5. You may find that the notes suggest activities which you can do with your children and they can write them up on the report sheet downloaded from the zip file to keep a record of their developing science knowledge in a science file.
Please have a go and let me know how you got on by writing to email@example.com
When I began teaching over forty-five years ago visual aids for science were in their infancy. Some of the laboratories I did my teaching practice in had posters on the walls that were tinged with yellow and brown and had probably been in use for another forty years before!
Here is a link to some of the kinds of posters I used when I began teaching. Older readers may also remember them.
It wasn’t long after, as we moved into the seventies, that educational suppliers began producing more colourful and lively ones – a tradition that continues to the present day. Here is an example produced by Chris, the illustrator of the website, for my series of scientific method posters.
You may download them all free at
Back in the day biological specimens were contained in glass jars filled with formalin. In one laboratory I taught in there was a python’s head staring out from a jar on a shelf by the chalkboard. Today these pickled specimens are replaced by plastic models such as this one.
In those early days, without computers and powerpoint presentations, the department was equipped with a slide projector and screen. Educational suppliers were producing slides on themes such a plants or invertebrates and providing notes that you could read out. I found them very useful. Here is a sample of two slides and notes I have prepared to show you how it worked. You might like to look at the picture and read out the notes as I used to do, to get the idea of how the slide show was presented.
Notes – Grass plants have wind pollinated flowers. When the flowers are ready to release their pollen, structures called stamens hang out of the flowers. On the end of each stamen is a swelling called an anther in which the pollen grains are made. These anthers open and release the pollen into the air.
Notes – Plants that use insects for pollination produce flowers with brightly coloured petals, which also produce a scent. At the base of the petals are structures called nectaries. They make nectar, a sugary liquid, which insects use for food. The petals may have lines on them called honey guides which direct the insect to the centre of the flower where the nectaries are. As the insects make their journey they brush against the stamens in the centre of the flower and pick up pollen from the anthers.
I used many of these slide sets then began making my own collection of slides and writing my own notes then recording them onto a cassette recorder (remember them?). These slide sets and cassettes became widely used in the department when biology was being taught.
A couple of years ago I looked back on those days and decided to bring the whole process up to date with short films and teaching notes. You can see one of them on the home page of my website.
Click on the film and have a look.
Click on the link to the Stop and Chat to see my teaching notes.
In the next blog I will explain how the films and Stop and Chat notes can be used together either at home or in class to stimulate discussion and science activities with your children.
Just to return to the slide shows of the past. At the moment I am working on a project with one of my granddaughters, bringing this process up to date with a short powerpoint presentation about the nature around her home. I hope to post this as a blog nearer the end of summer.
Perhaps you might like to make one with your children or grandchildren or class and send it in for the science exhibition gallery to firstname.lastname@example.org
In my last blog I asked people about what they remembered of science from high school. The majority of responses were about the Bunsen burner but others featured apparatus in general, gas taps, eye and heart dissections, hydrogen pops and the smell of the laboratory. One person said burning magnesium ribbon and then shouted out “Wow” as she remembered it – a response not unlike seeing something beautiful.
This made me think – should we not try and think about science as being beautiful? Perhaps if we did, we may appreciate the world around us more and also the way scientists work in order to make discoveries and create technologies on which most of our lives depend.
If we left school with more ‘magnesium ribbon moments’ perhaps we may associate science and beauty more closely. But what is beauty?
If you look through dictionaries and books on philosophy there are many definitions and ideas to choose from but in the end you may decide to synthesize your own. For my purpose of linking science and beauty to help rekindle people’s interest in science I have settled for an idea that – something beautiful – excites the senses in such a way (for example by the shape and colour of an object or the stages in a process such as a lighting strike or a carefully designed experiment) that it brings pleasure which may be expressed in awe and wonder and an understanding of how everything in our world is linked together in some way.
So how is a magnesium ribbon burning, beautiful, according to my idea?
The stages in the process I think bring pleasure. First the grey ribbon is put in the Bunsen flame and for a moment nothing happens then the ribbon bursts into flame, secondly the flame becomes a brilliant white and strongly illuminates everything around it. If the words of the science teacher are remembered, further pleasure may be gained by the thought of magnesium atoms in the ribbon joining with oxygen atoms in the air and in this process such a large amount of energy is released as light.
Once school is left behind, science may recede into the memory for most people and is only jolted into the consciousness when someone like me asks about it.
However you may find that the idea of beauty in science is closer to your thoughts than you think.
Here is a common occurrence in city parks that almost everyone will have noticed.
We are attracted to the beauty of the scene by the colours and shapes we see but if we stir further memories of school science we may appreciate the processes taking place. Here are some memories that may return as you look at the picture –
the plant has grown so successfully using photosynthesis to generate the food it needs that it has now produced flowers to allow it to reproduce.
The flowers produce pollen for use in this process but the pollen must be transferred to other flowers for reproduction to take place.
These flowers have opted for using insects to transfer their pollen so they attract them with bright colours, scents and the promise of flying fuel – nectar.
The insect visits the flower, uncoils its hosepipe –like mouth into the flower and sucks up nectar while at the same time the hairs on its body pick up pollen to take away.
Remembering our school science can enhance the beauty of a scene such as this, I think. To look at the science and beauty idea in more detail I strongly recommend this link which explains the it much better than I can:
You may like to follow up this video by considering science and beauty at…
…then look around you for further examples or look at the pictures in our Natural History Gallery at
So why should we consider that science can be beautiful. First, I think it is a worthwhile activity for any adult but secondly it can be particularly useful to parents and grandparents as they help the younger members of the family learn about science both at school and in homework activities.
“What is the first thing you remember when you think of science at high school?”
I asked this question of about thirty people ranging in age from 20 to 97 years old. Why did I ask the question? Having spent all my working life either teaching or writing about science I wondered what memories people took away from school laboratories from all the experiences and information they received there.
I thought it might be interesting for science teachers down the ages to see what was a lasting memory of their science lessons. Here is the list starting with the most frequent response but most of the others were only mentioned once.
All the different sorts of apparatus.
The cabinets full of different apparatus.
Making hydrogen pop and oxygen rekindle a glowing splint.
The smell of rotten eggs.
Seeing how a battery as made and then making one at home using vinegar.
Using disclosing tablets to stain plaque on your teeth.
The word Amoeba.
Magdeburg hemispheres to demonstrate air pressure.
All the experiments.
A Wimshurst machine – an electrostatic generator.
A tape recorder (from a 1950’s student).
The Van de Graaff generator.
Magnesium ribbon burning (the early 2000 student cried wow as she remembered it flaring up).
The word mnemonic for the elements in the second period of the periodic table – Little Bertha Bought Cotton Nightgowns Off Fair Nell. The elements are lithium, beryllium, boron, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, fluorine, neon.
But what did the 97 year old say who was a student in the nineteen thirties? In a firm voice he said “Water is H2O!”
And what of my lasting memory of High School science – the separation of sand and salt!
If you have a memory you would like to share, send it to me at my e mail address email@example.com and I will add it to the list.
Ingleborough is made from limestone and for over a hundred thousand years the water passing down through the rock has created the cave and many features such as stalactites and stalagmites which “grow” down from the ceiling and up from the cave floor respectively.
Water flows through the cave and makes a stream. As it flows over some rocks it forms structures known as flowstones.
I was not alone in my journey but in the company of some of the younger members of the family who also thoroughly enjoyed their time underground.
You may like to compare this cave with the Postojna Cave in Slovenia in our Natural World photo gallery which Tez visited some time ago.
In this link you can also see how to “grow” your own stalactites and stalagmites by reading pages 10 and 11 in The Real Scientist: Stuff : Materials and how they change.
In the same book on page 9 there is an activity which shows you how to make your own caves, potholes and gorges in a mountain made of sugar lumps!
Here are some children investigating how sugar lump mountains erode by putting tea spoons of water (rain) on them.