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 firstname.lastname@example.org and I will add it to the list.
I am currently developing on-line support materials for each of the books in my Ways into Science series which is aimed at five to seven year olds (Key Stage 1 in the UK and Kindergarten/Grade 1 in the USA).
There is a growing interest in on-line support for educational books. It helps readers develop and use their computer skills at the same time as they develop their skills in reading and using book features such as the contents list, glossary and index.
Over the coming weeks each book in the series will receive its own set of support materials. This comprises a short film with a stop and chat sheet to use with it, a quiz, and an experiment report worksheet to use with activities in the books. All these will be freely available to download from my website.
The first two books to receive on-line support will be Plants and Everyday Materials. The materials will be found on the page dedicated to the Ways Into Science series, and will also be linked to from the Teacher Resources section.
This is an evolving project so I would really love to receive feedback from teachers and home-schoolers about what kinds of materials would most meet your needs in lessons.
So contact me at email@example.com and let me know what kinds of materials you’d like to see.
Back in the 1960s when I was learning science from textbooks, the questions came at the end of the chapter. I found I had to look back into the chapter to try and answer them. Just over ten years later when I wrote my first text book, Life Science, I peppered the questions and activities all over the pages yet it still received ten excellent reviews!
By the time I came to write the Now! science series of books with John Murray in the mid 1990s (which later evolved into the Checkpoint Science books) I had tempered my enthusiasm and set the questions in the margins next to the appropriate text.
I had also thought about how and why we ask questions and in the reference section of our local library (there was no internet then) I discovered Bloom’s Taxonomy of intellectual competencies (I hope you are still with me). I used this as a framework for basing my questions which are still in the books today.
Fast forward to the twenty first century and Bloom’s taxonomy is now used as a basis of assessing how people think, often under the title of critical thinking skills. Recently I have used it in My Moving Up with Science series to help teachers and parents see examples of material which tests these skills (there is a short critical thinking section in the ‘About this book’ feature on the last page).
What are these thinking skills? The best way to find out is to use them so here we go.
(I am illustrating the process with posters which you can download from the website to use with your children.)
Reading so far, I hope you have acquired some knowledge of my thoughts
.. and can understand how I came to use Bloom’s Taxonomy..
.. then apply this knowledge and understanding by searching out the section on the website and analyzing the content…
… before evaluating the posters..
and maybe creating a thinking corner for your children.
This week, can you identify the prickly plant on my windowsill?
I’ll post the answer next Monday.
I thought it might be useful to put together a list of resources for those following news from Pluto today.
NASA’s main New Horizons page has a countdown to the moment the probe whooshes past.
Follow the New Horizons Twitter account for updates.
A few weeks ago ( 28th May blog) I visited Snipe Dale country park and nature reserve in Lincolnshire which has a stone showing that is on the Greenwich meridian.
Sarah has sent in some pictures from a nature reserve she visited. Its co-ordinates, which you can see on Google Maps are 24°0′41″S 31°29′7″E.
It is the Kruger National Park in South Africa and here are Sarah’s first batch of pictures.
Spotted hyena – This is Sarah’s favorite animal it was living in a pipe under the road. The pipes are there to help drain away the water in the rainy seasons.
A monitor lizard scurries away.
Klipspringers live on rocky small rocky hills called kopjes
A blue wilderbeast, zebras and impala search for food.
A southern Yellow-billed hornbill struts along the road.
Hippopotamuses asleep on a river bank.
I took part in my first Skype classroom last week, it was also my first experience with Skype!
The class was for grade 3 students at College View Elementary School, an International Baccalaureate World School in Council Bluffs, Iowa – about four thousand miles away with a time difference of six hours. It really was ‘Taking science education across the world’.
Before the Skype class
I had planned the session with teacher Kirstin Baker previously and the students had navigated my website, formulated questions on a wide range of topics from ‘what is it like to be an author?’ and ‘how do you write books?’ to questions on the Earth and magnetism – a science topic they are doing at the moment.
The students sent me the questions which I collated but included their names so I could address them individually. I also prepared a few simple demonstrations to support their science work.
The skype session
There were two parts to this session. In part one I read out the questions and answered them, sometimes using my books, and presented some simple science demonstrations. Part two was a ‘talk to the author’ session where the students spoke to me individually and we discussed their questions.
The follow up
After my skype visit the students had a period of reflection on the event then sent me their responses to various questions posed by the teachers – there are over a hundred responses here are just a few –
What did you learn about Peter Riley?
“He loves science and writing books about science.”
“He loves to talk. I didn’t think he would like science that much.”
“He talked loud and he was a good person to give us the opportunity to listen to us. That was nice for all us 3 graders and I think he liked it too.”
What did you learn about science?
“Science is really interesting !!!”
“It is cool …. he inspired me to do some science at home tonight.”
“It is a really fascinating thing. I think when I get to high school I will study science.”
“How does this change your thinking?”
“Meeting him really makes me think I can do better so I can get back up in the big score!!!”
“I learned that you can get interested in something and be interested in it for the rest of your life.”
“I never knew a lot about science and he really inspired me to like science more.”
“As a student it has changed my thinking by making me more into science so I will complete my goal in accomplishing and getting my degree for science.”
This friday, 20th March, will see a full solar eclipse that can be seen in the UK. The best place to view it will be in and around the Faroe islands, but Scotland and the north of England should also see at least a partial eclipse.
Do not look directly at the sun, not even during an eclipse. It can severely damage your eyes.
There are several ways to view the eclipse safely, such as with a pinhole projector or special safety glasses. The BBC Stargazing live site describes in detail what you need to do to stay safe.
5 facts about eclipses
Although this is the first solar eclipse in the UK since 1999, there are usually at least 2 and sometimes as many as 5 in the world each year. A total solar eclipse can only happen once every 1-2 years.
The longest amount of time a total eclipse can last for is seven and a half minutes.
Birds fall silent during an eclipse as they think it is night time.
Eclipses happen in cycles. One cycle, known as a Saros is approximately 6585.3211 days long when the sun, moon and Earth return to approximately their same location.
The word eclipse is derived from the ancient Greek noun ἔκλειψις (ékleipsis), which means “the abandonment”, “the downfall”, or “the darkening of a heavenly body”.
Find out more
Find out more information about Space on May 14th when The Earth in Space (Straightforward with Science series) is published. Four days later on the 18th May there is a new moon. At this time it is not shining in the sky so the absence of its light makes it easier to see faint clusters of stars and galaxies.