Tag Archives: Random nonsense

On Being Curious

Curiosity is a trait we tend to associate with children (and dead cats). Most of us want our kids to be active learners, to take an interest in the world around them, and to ask questions (to a certain extent, before we get a “BUT WHY” headache and pap them off onto the nearest available parent/grandparent/computer game/tv show/shiny thing).

In adults, the trait of curiosity tends to take a back seat. We often accept answers we are given with little or no questioning, and “that’s just the way it is” can be seen as a satisfactory explanation for all sorts of phenomena. Information is something to be absorbed when required, not explored for the fun of it. After all, grown-ups have enough to worry about (work/family/finances/housing/bills/food/childcare/ holidays/work/repeat) than to take precious time out of their exhausting day to question and wonder about what exactly is going on in the world around them.

Just to illustrate this point, here are some Google image results (Genuine first page of results, and they are better than I could ever have hoped):

"Curious Child"

“Curious Child”

curious adults

“Curious Adult”

I think we should give more time and appreciation to being curious. It is a wonderful trait to have. If you can look at a flowerbed in a park and see not just pretty petals but an ecosystem, the insects and birds that are manipulated by the petals to aid their own pollination, the season in which those particular flowers come into bloom, and the creatures that live in the soil beneath them, your brain will be engaged for longer. When you walk past a Chihuahua (other tiny dogs are available), notice not just how adorable it is, but that this toattie wee pup has evolved directly from wolves, in a line of selectively bred species which only came into existence in the last few thousand years. How long ago did it become its own breed? Which of its traits have been selected for? ARE ITS EYES BIGGER THAN ITS BRAIN??

Since my childhood my mother has always asked me, with varying degrees of exhaustion and sincere marvel, “doesn’t your mind ever stop?” No, it doesn’t, ma’. And I like it that way. I love to learn, and I value knowledge and understanding above many other things. I am never bored because I know I can never know everything, there are always new things to absorb and discover. Even as I write this, I am sitting outside and there is a plane flying overhead. Even though I have studied how aeroplanes fly in a fair amount of detail (mostly as a strategy to get over my fear of flying), I will never take for granted how amazing it is that every day we send thousands of people thousands of feet into the sky in a mechanical rocket-bird and in 99% of cases, nothing goes wrong. How does that happen? What speed does a plane have to be going before it falls out of the sky? I see two planes in the same section of the sky – how far apart are they in reality? How close can planes get before it’s considered a danger?

It’s ok to be curious. I’d argue that it’s better than ok – that it’s part of a recipe for a healthy and happy mind. Being skeptical needn’t mean being pessimistic, and questioning everything needn’t be pedantic. We have so much information at our disposal nowadays that we have forgotten how to figure things out for ourselves. Don’t get me wrong – there’s absolutely nothing wrong with using Wikipedia to answer a burning question – it’s a resource I’d be lost without – but we often forget to ask the question in the first place. We know all the information is accessible, so we take it for granted without actually finding it.

Embrace your inner child. Look at things a little closer, allow yourself to wonder just a little bit deeper. It might make you happier, it might not, but it works for me.

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The science of engagement rings

So I recently got engaged, but JEEZ I don’t want to go on about it, stop with all the questions!

An accurate representation of what happened

An accurate representation of what happened

As I stare at this new (very lovely) band of metal and stones on my finger, I naturally begin to think about the science behind it (shortly followed by the thought that I am lucky that anyone wants to spend their life with me). What makes diamonds and other gemstones so special? And what the hooters is the story behind the rather odd ritual of engagement rings in the first place?! Who cares? I DO!


Before we delve into the hardcore science, let us first take a quick look at the history of the engagement ring. Apparently such rings were used by the ancient Egyptians to symbolise a never-ending cycle of love. Aaww. The significance of the ring finger being the forth finger on the left hand comes from the Ancient Greeks, because they believed that this finger contained a vein which led directly to the heart. The Romans then had to come along and sort of ruin all these romantic images, as the ring for them symbolised ownership of their woman, rather than love.  However, it was not until 1215 that engagement rings as we know them today, used to show loyalty and devotion to one’s lover until the date of marriage, appeared, and this was thanks to Pope Innocent III’s establishment of a waiting period between the promise of marriage and the ceremony itself. But in those days it was only the very rich who could afford such luxuries, and it wasn’t until the end of the 19th century that it became commonplace in the West to offer an engagement ring (before this, wives-to-be were traditionally offered a sewing thimble instead. I don’t want to sound like a diva but I would have been most disappointed with this). And the now-traditional norm of a diamond ring? Well, you can thank a 1930s marketing campaign by a diamond company for that: ever heard of the phrase “Diamonds are forever“? Thanks, DeBeers! More about this LIE later.

Diamond science

We know that diamonds are strong and shiny, but why? Diamond is a form of carbon, formed at high temperature and pressure, deep below the surface of the earth. The ones we find on the surface of the planet have come to be there due to a violent, deep-seated volcanic eruption, one of which we haven’t seen in recent times. When you look at a diamond, what you are actually looking at is a single crystal, which contains around a million billion billion atoms, perfectly arranged into a perfect pyramidal structure, like the one below.

It is this structure of diamond that accounts for the stone’s remarkable properties, such as its strength and shininess. The electrons in this structure are locked into an extremely stable state, which is what makes diamond such a famously hard and strong material (the word diamond actually comes from the Greek word for “unbreakable”). Diamonds are at the top of the Mohs scale (a scale of mineral hardness, based on the ability of one sample of matter to scratch another mineral), scoring 10/10.

But we do not only admire diamonds for their durability, they look beautiful too. This property is also down to the above crystal structure, which gives the diamond transparency and an unusually high optical dispersion. This means that as light enters the crystal, it is split into its constituent colours, giving it a gleaming rainbow sparkle. 

Sturdy, strong and beautiful they may be, but one thing diamonds are not, is forever (sorry, DeBeers). All diamonds are in fact slowly (very slowly) turning into graphite (the stuff your pencils are made from), a more stable form of carbon. Don’t worry though, this process happens so slowly that our diamonds will still outlive us, by a very long way.

Rubies and Sapphires

Of course, although the diamond is still the dominant gemstone in engagement rings, many people prefer to have a splash of colour in their jewelry, which can often be provided in the form of another precious stone, often rubies and sapphires. Something I did not know before I began studying my own ring is that sapphires and rubies are in fact different coloured versions of the same mineral: Corundum. Corundum is crystalline aluminium oxide and is also extremely strong, appearing just after diamond on the Mohs scale, scoring 9. It is transparent in its natural form, but various impurities can cause it to appear a different colour, which leads to our ruby (the red variety of corundum) and sapphire (variety that encompasses all other colors, although the most popular and valued color of Sapphire is blue). The presence of element chromium is mainly responsible for the ruby-red, whereas blue sapphires exists thanks to the addition of iron and titanium to corundum.

So the next time you admire a shiny piece of jewelry, you may want to just take a second to consider its crystal structure, where the materials stand on the Mohs scale, and what elements make it up. I’m sure that’s exactly what went through Mr Loris’s head as he selected this beauty.

diamond science


Miodownik, Mark (2013) Stuff Matters







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An open letter to all the kids I work with

I am an outreach science communicator. My full-time job is to pack a van full of science shows and exhibits and set off to schools all over Scotland, from the borders to the highlands and islands. I love my job, and one of my favourite aspects of it is interacting with the kids during the exhibit sessions or after a show, who can be anywhere between 5 and 16 years old. We ask teachers to fill out feedback forms in order to justify and secure our funding and to assure we are hitting all the right spots as far as the curriculum is concerned, but for me direct face-to-face interaction with the pupils themselves is the best measure of our impact, and I don’t care if it’s difficult to measure quantitatively or that it does not cut it with the funders. The children and young people I work with are the reason I do the job I do, and this is an open letter to them.

Dear Primary School pupils,

You guys are brilliant. I will never stop envying your energy, enthusiasm and endless curiosity about the world, and I think all adults could learn a lot from you.  You lot are all little scientists already and I hope you continue to enjoy the subject all the way through your lives, even if you don’t want to be a scientist, because it is all of you who will be the doctors, vets, astronauts, and teachers of the future! Thank you for all your questions which always challenge me, make me think and often make me smile (“Why is poo brown?” is a favourite). Never stop asking “why?” and “what if…?”, no matter how crazy it drives your teachers and parents.

Dear High School pupils,

I love talking one-to-one to you guys, not only because I can talk to you like adults and we usually have really good conversations, but also because you are not afraid to tell me the truth and ask really thought-provoking questions that often I do not know the answer to (admittedly I hate that almost all of you tower waaay over me). I’d like to take this opportunity to remind you that you are not stupid. I hear this all the time from you guys, and it is a downright lie. (See also: “I caaaan’t!”, my other pet hate. You can.) You know who you are, the ones who say you enjoy the show or workshop but when I ask you how you feel about science at school, your reply is often “oh I’m not good at it, I’m not that clever!” Anyway, you don’t necessarily need to be uber-intelligent to be good at science (this seems to be a common misconception). The most important thing is to never stop questioning everything around you – remember when you were little and you would ask “why?” constantly? Try to get back into that habit. But now that you’re older, try working the answer out for yourself, either on your own or by carrying out research! You guys literally have a world of knowledge at your fingertips, the internet. You can find out absolutely anything you want to – be your own teacher. I learn from all of you as much as you (hopefully!) learn from me, so thank you for being so receptive and interested in the world around you.


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