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Playing with Puffins!

The outdoors is one of the best and easiest ways to explore science. The added bonus is that we know that getting connected to nature makes us feel good too! Renée recently spent a week on Skomer Island, a nature reserve off the west coast of Wales. It’s Puffin breeding season right now, a time she’s always wanted to see first-hand. She also wanted to get up close and personal with puffins and she wasn’t disappointed!

Ask your Puffin questions

Join Renée and Puffin scientist Annette Fayet for a live event as part of the Great Science Share. This will be a friendly, informal discussion about Puffins where you can bring all your questions! Register and send in your questions here:

See photos of the beautiful wildlife that Renee and her family encountered on Skomer

Watch Renee’s video diary 

Renée kept a video diary of her time on the island so that you can see what life is like living off-grid on a nature reserve. Here’s Episode 1 of the video diary, while Renée is waiting to get the boat across!

 

Read the Great Science Share Blog 

Renee has also written a blog of her experience for The Great Science Share for schools

 

Here are some of the things Renée spotted, that will feature in her photos and videos:

  1. Puffins EVERYWHERE!
  2. Short-eared Owl
  3. Spoonbill
  4. St. George’s mushroom
  5. Slow worm
  6. Raven stealing a gull egg
  7. Seals
  8. Razorbills
  9. Guillemots
  10. Lots of different Gulls
  11. Buzzards

If you want to get outside and explore the outdoors around you, then take a look at our special offers on Outdoor Curiosity Boxes

Photo credits to Kerry Fisher Instagram: @last_of_the_late_developers

The story of Vaisakhi and why everything is connected

For the Sikh and Hindu community, Vaisakha – the second month of the lunar calendar broadly matches up with April and Vaisakhi (Vah-Sah-key) is the first day of this celebration. Vaisakhi, which falls on the 13th or 14th of April, is when many Sikhs and Hindus will celebrate the beginning of spring, the spring harvest and the role of nature in sustaining the world.

Vaisakhi is a profoundly important day for the 30million Sikhs across the world. It not only celebrates nature, it also marks the creation of the Khalsa in cementing the identity and attributes of the Sikhs! If you don’t know the story – here’s a quick intro.

The formation of the Khalsa

In 1699, 100,000s of people gathered at the Vaisakhi harvest festival where the 10th Sikh Guru called out to those who would stand for what is right. 5 souls stood up Deya (meaning compassion) Singh, Dharam (meaning knowledge) Singh, Himmat (meaning courage) Singh, Mokham (meaning resilience) Singh and Sahib (meaning mastery) Singh and they formed the Khalsa. The Khalsa were the first initiated Sikhs.

They came from different backgrounds and locations and so represented a central tenet of Sikhism that is universality of the human race. It has the concept of “sarbat da bhala” which means “may good come to all.”

Everyone’s talking about Universality

The idea of oneness wasn’t born on that day in 1699. Sikh scriptures date much further back, and discussions of the universe often appear. Sikh scholars had already begun thinking that there was no end to the vastness of the universe, with Guru Nanak (1469-1539) writing “There are earths, beyond earths, beyond earths” and “There are skies above skies and earths below earths.”

This was at a time when most scientists thought the whole universe revolved around the earth (talk about selfish!). At about the same time as Guru Nanak was challenging these ideas, another very famous thinker named Copernicus (1473-1543) also rejected the theory that everything revolved around the earth. Jump forward a few hundred years and we now know the universe is enormous, so much so that scientists in the US have found a light signal from over 15 million light years away!

📷 Greg Rakozy on Unsplash

 

Sikhs also see that everything is connected, so we as humans are all connected to one another and with our surroundings. In this way, god is in everything and can be seen through our relationship with nature. Guru Nanak wrote of god as the universal vibration in that “you are the lake and the swan, you are the lotus flower and the water lily”. We now recognise that you, me, the lake and the lotus flower all come from atoms and particles – though scientists may not describe this so poetically!

So as we head into spring, and the “April showers that bring May flowers”, look up at the skies, the stars (and even those distant stars beyond stars) and marvel at how you are as connected to them as you are to the people and nature that surrounds you!

the-golden-temple-at-night

📷 Mohd Aram on Unsplash

A huge shout-out and thanks to AI/Data Tech expert and dad of three curious girls, Indi Singh for writing this piece and enlightening us all!
A happy Vaisakhi to everyone celebrating! If you want to find out more about Vaisakhi check out this fantastic BBC Bitesize article.
the-golden-temple-at-night

Autism – normal doesn’t matter and never did.

Watching my children grow and develop their own personalities has been an incredible, hilarious and sometimes heart wrenching experience. I like to kid myself that it’s all me, but really, they’re blazing their own trail. Sure I’ve made some genetic contributions and I hope that some of the things I try to teach them stick. But since they were born they have been finding their own way of thinking and doing things. And as far as I can tell, the growing child’s brain is a place of mystery, magnificence and quite often black magic.

What’s normal?

Like all parents (tell me I’m not the only one!) I often find myself thinking “blimey, is that normal?” which gets you thinking…What IS normal? What is actually going on at a genetic and cellular level in a child’s brain when they have an identified disorder, like autism? It’s become clear that there’s an awful lot that we don’t know or understand about autistic spectrum disorders. What causes them, what is happening in the brain and what we can do to help people with autism embrace their way of thinking and looking at the world.

The failed gene quest

Studies have tried to identify a single gene that might cause autism but have failed. A group of scientists in Sweden looked at the occurrence of mutations in the genes of 3,000 children with autism compared to 3,000 children without autism. They found similar mutations in both groups, but none that were only present in the autistic group, and no mutations that were very uncommon. Dr Joseph Buxbaum, of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai (ISMMS) explained that mutations are most likely to account for roughly 60% of the risk of having autism. But of those mutations about half are common mutations.

This study offers support for the idea that autism is caused by a collection of common mutations. If other complex conditions such as cancer give us any clues then it may be a bit like a lottery – and of all the possible mutations, you need a certain number, of a certain combination of mutations to be autistic.

We’re gonna need a bigger dataset

Many researchers are now trying to use the power of big data computing to find patterns in our genes that will help us to diagnose autism more effectively and earlier. Many of the genes that we associate with autism are linked to neuron development, a discovery which could help us to understand more about what’s physically and chemically happening in the brain. We’re also searching for biomarkers and we’re making progress! These biomarkers are proteins or chemicals that are like flashing beacons, illuminating a faulty metabolic pathway.

Mutations rock!

I try to celebrate the uniqueness of my children. Even, or especially when they’re merrily climbing up my very last nerve. It helps me to remember that on a genetic level at least, we all share some of the mutations that lead to neural diversity. Looking at the research, I’m confident we will be better able to diagnose autism in the very near future. And as the world begins to gain a better grasp of what neural diversity is, how many people it affects and the wonderful ways our brains work – the question is could we and should we look at medical treatment? If yes, what form would that treatment or ‘fix’ take?

We’ve come a long way in learning how to embrace the many talents the neural diverse community possess – yet I feel like we’ve barely scratched the surface!

autism-awareness-month

P.S. All our Curiosity Boxes have been designed and curated with sensory learning in mind. Please do check them out!

autism-awareness-month

Create your own Icy Snow Globes

 

Make the most of the chill by doing a wonderful winter science activity that is full of sensory science!

You will need:

  • A teacup (or something waterproof that is dome shaped)
  • Water
  • Lovely things to put in it
  • A seriously chilly night

How to do it

  1. Fill the cup with cold tap water. Poke your finger into the water, how does it feel? You could measure and record the temperature if you have a thermometer.
  2. Find some small objects to put into the water, things like marbles, stones, leaves and flowers work well (although our lavender flowers wouldn’t sink, we still liked the effect). How do your objects feel before you put them in the water? Do they feel different after they have been in the water? Do they look different when they are in the water?
  3. Look for an uncovered, flat surface outside and place your water-filled cup on it, you will need to leave it there overnight. Why do you think the surface needs to be uncovered?
  4. Make a prediction: What do you think will happen to the water and your objects when you leave them out overnight? What changes do you think you will see in the morning?
  5. Rise and shine! Go and have a look at your cup then poke the water, has it changed? What has happened to the water? How does it feel now? Was your prediction correct? You could measure the temperature again and see how different it is!
  6. Caution: this next step will get a bit wet so make sure you do it on a wipeable surface, that is clear of anything that could be damaged by water.
  7. Take a flat plate and put it on top of your cup. Holding the cup and the plate together turn it over so that your cup is sitting face down on top of the plate. Gently lift the cup up, what do you see?  What has happened to the objects in your Icy Snow Globe?

What’s going on?

The temperature is regularly getting below freezing point at the moment and that means that water will freeze! It also means that its the perfect time for a winter science activity! You may have noticed ice on the ground or even had some snow! When the temperature gets below 0 degrees centigrade the molecules in water start to slow down and line up, creating a regular pattern that turns liquid water into a solid, you will know this as ice!  The ice will form from the outside in, where it is closest to the air. This is because the air is colder that the water in the cup. Because there is quite a lot of water in the cup, the bit right in the middle might not have gotten cold enough to freeze. Can you see any bubbles and liquid water trapped inside the icy dome?

Now that you know how to make an icy science snow globe, what else could you do? I think there are so many creative things you could try! Take a look at the little video I made of my icy snow globes with some gem stones in one and nothing in the other on our instagram page Are there other winter science activities using the weird and wonderful properties of water that you could try?

 

A Sciency Festive Q&A

It might be Christmas, but that doesn’t mean the questions stop. In fact, we find that kids are even more curious at this time of year, as they try to wrap their heads around the magic of the festive season. Here are a few of our favourites!

Is Rudolph’s nose really red?

This is no ‘Christmyth’! There’s a species of reindeer that does indeed have a distinct red tinge to their noses. And the believers among us won’t be surprised to learn that you’ll find these gorgeous beasts in certain Arctic regions. Y’know, close to the North Pole? The redness is down to a dense cluster of blood vessels packed into the nose. These vessels can deliver blood there to help manage body temperature and protect the brain in the freezing environment. The more we think about it, why wouldn’t Santa pick a lead reindeer that’s better equipped to handle the freezing cold temperatures?

Why do our fairy lights always come out tangled?

It doesn’t matter what you do, every year your lights emerge from your box of decorations in a knotty mess! It’s not you, and it’s not Gremlins. You’re literally battling the mathematical laws of probability here and the odds are always stacked against you. See, thanks to something called entropy there are many ways for a string of lights to become tangled but only one way for them to remain unravelled. So don’t feel too bad. As a certain fictional starship engineer once said… “Ye cannae change the laws of physics!” Check out this article which explains everything without making your brain hurt.

Which is better? A real tree or a fake tree?

Of course a real tree looks better and smells better, but is it better to buy an artificial tree and save one from being ripped out of the ground? We checked in with the Carbon Trust and the answer is a definite no. The carbon footprint of a real pine is lower than a plastic one, especially if you dispose of it responsibly. Don’t despair if you do have a plastic one though. If you take care of it and use it no less than 10 times, you’ll have evened out the carbon footprint score. Winner! Read more about how you can have a more earth-friendly Christmas here.

Want more festive facts? Check out our post on why Santa is the ultimate Curiositeer!

Feeling Festive – For Grownup Curiositeers Only!

As we enter the festive season, it’s clear we’ll be doing a lot of our socialising online this year. Zoom office parties might reduce the chances of high alcohol consumption which is quite a relief for me as I’ve been forced to recognise that age and alcohol equal substantial discomfort. From the dead-of-night heart palpitations to three-day hangovers, overindulgence for over 40’s is just no fun and I don’t even drink that much!

That doesn’t mean I don’t want to enjoy the odd glass of fizz (or 3) but clearly getting older and alcohol don’t mix. But why? As with most of life’s big questions, I turn to science for the answers that might prepare me for the inevitable or perhaps incentivise me to change my ways.

What makes bubbly boozy?

Alcohol obviously! Specifically ethanol, which is a chain of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms strung together like Christmas lights where the last bulb is a combination of one Oxygen and one Hydrogen atom.

The structure of ethanol makes it very easily absorbed through our gut. About 20% is absorbed through our stomach and 80% is absorbed via the rest of our gut, directly into the bloodstream. This means that within minutes of having a drink, the alcohol is speeding its way to every organ in the body.

Once in the bloodstream, alcohol goes to the liver which secretes a cunning enzyme that snips those Christmas lights at just the right positions to turn out every light in the chain. That enzyme is called Alcohol Dehydrogenase (dee-hi-drog-en-ase), and its job is to break down alcohol into manageable pieces that we can easily get rid of.

The Brain strain struggle is real

The problem with Alcohol Dehydrogenase is that we each have a limited supply and it easily becomes overworked. Once that supply is depleted, any remaining alcohol is free to run amok and cause havoc. It creates the most chaos in your brain, every part of it! How? Well, your brain functions are highly organised and finely balanced (a bit like Santa’s delivery system for all those Christmas presents 😃). That’s thanks to the neurotransmitters that make sure the right signal gets to the right place at the right time (just like Santa’s elves).

Alcohol basically disrupts all that organisation and balance, and to make matters worse, increases the power of a neurotransmitter called GABA which causes slurred speech and slower movements. If that’s not bad enough, it also acts on the pituitary gland in the brain, which controls the amount of water in your urine. For every unit of alcohol you ingest, your body forces your kidneys to get rid of a whopping 120ml of water. This causes serious dehydration.

 

Alcohol compensates for these rather alarming effects by increasing our dopamine levels giving us an artificial feel-good-factor (like when we fall in love), hence the merry feeling and potential lowering of inhibitions!

The painful truth

So there’s the sad scientific reality. Booze is bad news. But now I know, what’s going on, I feel way more determined to follow all the advice I’ve read about “sensible” alcohol consumption (and I’m sure you have too), because let’s face it, it’s the right thing to do. Here’s my plan:

  • A well-balanced meal with protein, carbs and fat to keep my gut busy and prevent that sudden shock of alcohol.
  • Taking it slow to give that supply of Alcohol Dehydrogenase a chance to break down more alcohol, leaving you feeling a little more festive in the morning.
  • Match alcohol with water – it won’t completely prevent dehydration but it will definitely help. This is the hardest one, especially if someone’s constantly topping your glass up. You could perhaps try keeping a bottle of sparkling water on hand and mixing white wine with that, for a more virtuous glass of bubbly, or making longer drinks that are big on mixers (there are tons of posh low sugar ones out there now!) and smaller on spirits.

In cheery conclusion… There’s no reason not to enjoy a festive tipple, just take it steady, and your tomorrow self will thank you for it!

And if you’re looking for some science fun for your own virtual office party, check out our Curiosity Boxes for grownups!

feeling-festive-alcohol-cocktail

Style 2

Playing with Puffins!

The outdoors is one of the best and easiest ways to explore science. The added bonus is that we know that getting connected to nature makes us feel good too! Renée recently spent a week on Skomer Island, a nature reserve off the west coast of Wales. It’s Puffin breeding season right now, a time she’s always wanted to see first-hand. She also wanted to get up close and personal with puffins and she wasn’t disappointed!

Ask your Puffin questions

Join Renée and Puffin scientist Annette Fayet for a live event as part of the Great Science Share. This will be a friendly, informal discussion about Puffins where you can bring all your questions! Register and send in your questions here:

See photos of the beautiful wildlife that Renee and her family encountered on Skomer

Watch Renee’s video diary 

Renée kept a video diary of her time on the island so that you can see what life is like living off-grid on a nature reserve. Here’s Episode 1 of the video diary, while Renée is waiting to get the boat across!

 

Read the Great Science Share Blog 

Renee has also written a blog of her experience for The Great Science Share for schools

 

Here are some of the things Renée spotted, that will feature in her photos and videos:

  1. Puffins EVERYWHERE!
  2. Short-eared Owl
  3. Spoonbill
  4. St. George’s mushroom
  5. Slow worm
  6. Raven stealing a gull egg
  7. Seals
  8. Razorbills
  9. Guillemots
  10. Lots of different Gulls
  11. Buzzards

If you want to get outside and explore the outdoors around you, then take a look at our special offers on Outdoor Curiosity Boxes

Photo credits to Kerry Fisher Instagram: @last_of_the_late_developers

The story of Vaisakhi and why everything is connected

For the Sikh and Hindu community, Vaisakha – the second month of the lunar calendar broadly matches up with April and Vaisakhi (Vah-Sah-key) is the first day of this celebration. Vaisakhi, which falls on the 13th or 14th of April, is when many Sikhs and Hindus will celebrate the beginning of spring, the spring harvest and the role of nature in sustaining the world.

Vaisakhi is a profoundly important day for the 30million Sikhs across the world. It not only celebrates nature, it also marks the creation of the Khalsa in cementing the identity and attributes of the Sikhs! If you don’t know the story – here’s a quick intro.

The formation of the Khalsa

In 1699, 100,000s of people gathered at the Vaisakhi harvest festival where the 10th Sikh Guru called out to those who would stand for what is right. 5 souls stood up Deya (meaning compassion) Singh, Dharam (meaning knowledge) Singh, Himmat (meaning courage) Singh, Mokham (meaning resilience) Singh and Sahib (meaning mastery) Singh and they formed the Khalsa. The Khalsa were the first initiated Sikhs.

They came from different backgrounds and locations and so represented a central tenet of Sikhism that is universality of the human race. It has the concept of “sarbat da bhala” which means “may good come to all.”

Everyone’s talking about Universality

The idea of oneness wasn’t born on that day in 1699. Sikh scriptures date much further back, and discussions of the universe often appear. Sikh scholars had already begun thinking that there was no end to the vastness of the universe, with Guru Nanak (1469-1539) writing “There are earths, beyond earths, beyond earths” and “There are skies above skies and earths below earths.”

This was at a time when most scientists thought the whole universe revolved around the earth (talk about selfish!). At about the same time as Guru Nanak was challenging these ideas, another very famous thinker named Copernicus (1473-1543) also rejected the theory that everything revolved around the earth. Jump forward a few hundred years and we now know the universe is enormous, so much so that scientists in the US have found a light signal from over 15 million light years away!

📷 Greg Rakozy on Unsplash

 

Sikhs also see that everything is connected, so we as humans are all connected to one another and with our surroundings. In this way, god is in everything and can be seen through our relationship with nature. Guru Nanak wrote of god as the universal vibration in that “you are the lake and the swan, you are the lotus flower and the water lily”. We now recognise that you, me, the lake and the lotus flower all come from atoms and particles – though scientists may not describe this so poetically!

So as we head into spring, and the “April showers that bring May flowers”, look up at the skies, the stars (and even those distant stars beyond stars) and marvel at how you are as connected to them as you are to the people and nature that surrounds you!

the-golden-temple-at-night

📷 Mohd Aram on Unsplash

A huge shout-out and thanks to AI/Data Tech expert and dad of three curious girls, Indi Singh for writing this piece and enlightening us all!
A happy Vaisakhi to everyone celebrating! If you want to find out more about Vaisakhi check out this fantastic BBC Bitesize article.
the-golden-temple-at-night

Autism – normal doesn’t matter and never did.

Watching my children grow and develop their own personalities has been an incredible, hilarious and sometimes heart wrenching experience. I like to kid myself that it’s all me, but really, they’re blazing their own trail. Sure I’ve made some genetic contributions and I hope that some of the things I try to teach them stick. But since they were born they have been finding their own way of thinking and doing things. And as far as I can tell, the growing child’s brain is a place of mystery, magnificence and quite often black magic.

What’s normal?

Like all parents (tell me I’m not the only one!) I often find myself thinking “blimey, is that normal?” which gets you thinking…What IS normal? What is actually going on at a genetic and cellular level in a child’s brain when they have an identified disorder, like autism? It’s become clear that there’s an awful lot that we don’t know or understand about autistic spectrum disorders. What causes them, what is happening in the brain and what we can do to help people with autism embrace their way of thinking and looking at the world.

The failed gene quest

Studies have tried to identify a single gene that might cause autism but have failed. A group of scientists in Sweden looked at the occurrence of mutations in the genes of 3,000 children with autism compared to 3,000 children without autism. They found similar mutations in both groups, but none that were only present in the autistic group, and no mutations that were very uncommon. Dr Joseph Buxbaum, of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai (ISMMS) explained that mutations are most likely to account for roughly 60% of the risk of having autism. But of those mutations about half are common mutations.

This study offers support for the idea that autism is caused by a collection of common mutations. If other complex conditions such as cancer give us any clues then it may be a bit like a lottery – and of all the possible mutations, you need a certain number, of a certain combination of mutations to be autistic.

We’re gonna need a bigger dataset

Many researchers are now trying to use the power of big data computing to find patterns in our genes that will help us to diagnose autism more effectively and earlier. Many of the genes that we associate with autism are linked to neuron development, a discovery which could help us to understand more about what’s physically and chemically happening in the brain. We’re also searching for biomarkers and we’re making progress! These biomarkers are proteins or chemicals that are like flashing beacons, illuminating a faulty metabolic pathway.

Mutations rock!

I try to celebrate the uniqueness of my children. Even, or especially when they’re merrily climbing up my very last nerve. It helps me to remember that on a genetic level at least, we all share some of the mutations that lead to neural diversity. Looking at the research, I’m confident we will be better able to diagnose autism in the very near future. And as the world begins to gain a better grasp of what neural diversity is, how many people it affects and the wonderful ways our brains work – the question is could we and should we look at medical treatment? If yes, what form would that treatment or ‘fix’ take?

We’ve come a long way in learning how to embrace the many talents the neural diverse community possess – yet I feel like we’ve barely scratched the surface!

autism-awareness-month

P.S. All our Curiosity Boxes have been designed and curated with sensory learning in mind. Please do check them out!

autism-awareness-month

Create your own Icy Snow Globes

 

Make the most of the chill by doing a wonderful winter science activity that is full of sensory science!

You will need:

  • A teacup (or something waterproof that is dome shaped)
  • Water
  • Lovely things to put in it
  • A seriously chilly night

How to do it

  1. Fill the cup with cold tap water. Poke your finger into the water, how does it feel? You could measure and record the temperature if you have a thermometer.
  2. Find some small objects to put into the water, things like marbles, stones, leaves and flowers work well (although our lavender flowers wouldn’t sink, we still liked the effect). How do your objects feel before you put them in the water? Do they feel different after they have been in the water? Do they look different when they are in the water?
  3. Look for an uncovered, flat surface outside and place your water-filled cup on it, you will need to leave it there overnight. Why do you think the surface needs to be uncovered?
  4. Make a prediction: What do you think will happen to the water and your objects when you leave them out overnight? What changes do you think you will see in the morning?
  5. Rise and shine! Go and have a look at your cup then poke the water, has it changed? What has happened to the water? How does it feel now? Was your prediction correct? You could measure the temperature again and see how different it is!
  6. Caution: this next step will get a bit wet so make sure you do it on a wipeable surface, that is clear of anything that could be damaged by water.
  7. Take a flat plate and put it on top of your cup. Holding the cup and the plate together turn it over so that your cup is sitting face down on top of the plate. Gently lift the cup up, what do you see?  What has happened to the objects in your Icy Snow Globe?

What’s going on?

The temperature is regularly getting below freezing point at the moment and that means that water will freeze! It also means that its the perfect time for a winter science activity! You may have noticed ice on the ground or even had some snow! When the temperature gets below 0 degrees centigrade the molecules in water start to slow down and line up, creating a regular pattern that turns liquid water into a solid, you will know this as ice!  The ice will form from the outside in, where it is closest to the air. This is because the air is colder that the water in the cup. Because there is quite a lot of water in the cup, the bit right in the middle might not have gotten cold enough to freeze. Can you see any bubbles and liquid water trapped inside the icy dome?

Now that you know how to make an icy science snow globe, what else could you do? I think there are so many creative things you could try! Take a look at the little video I made of my icy snow globes with some gem stones in one and nothing in the other on our instagram page Are there other winter science activities using the weird and wonderful properties of water that you could try?

 

A Sciency Festive Q&A

It might be Christmas, but that doesn’t mean the questions stop. In fact, we find that kids are even more curious at this time of year, as they try to wrap their heads around the magic of the festive season. Here are a few of our favourites!

Is Rudolph’s nose really red?

This is no ‘Christmyth’! There’s a species of reindeer that does indeed have a distinct red tinge to their noses. And the believers among us won’t be surprised to learn that you’ll find these gorgeous beasts in certain Arctic regions. Y’know, close to the North Pole? The redness is down to a dense cluster of blood vessels packed into the nose. These vessels can deliver blood there to help manage body temperature and protect the brain in the freezing environment. The more we think about it, why wouldn’t Santa pick a lead reindeer that’s better equipped to handle the freezing cold temperatures?

Why do our fairy lights always come out tangled?

It doesn’t matter what you do, every year your lights emerge from your box of decorations in a knotty mess! It’s not you, and it’s not Gremlins. You’re literally battling the mathematical laws of probability here and the odds are always stacked against you. See, thanks to something called entropy there are many ways for a string of lights to become tangled but only one way for them to remain unravelled. So don’t feel too bad. As a certain fictional starship engineer once said… “Ye cannae change the laws of physics!” Check out this article which explains everything without making your brain hurt.

Which is better? A real tree or a fake tree?

Of course a real tree looks better and smells better, but is it better to buy an artificial tree and save one from being ripped out of the ground? We checked in with the Carbon Trust and the answer is a definite no. The carbon footprint of a real pine is lower than a plastic one, especially if you dispose of it responsibly. Don’t despair if you do have a plastic one though. If you take care of it and use it no less than 10 times, you’ll have evened out the carbon footprint score. Winner! Read more about how you can have a more earth-friendly Christmas here.

Want more festive facts? Check out our post on why Santa is the ultimate Curiositeer!

Feeling Festive – For Grownup Curiositeers Only!

As we enter the festive season, it’s clear we’ll be doing a lot of our socialising online this year. Zoom office parties might reduce the chances of high alcohol consumption which is quite a relief for me as I’ve been forced to recognise that age and alcohol equal substantial discomfort. From the dead-of-night heart palpitations to three-day hangovers, overindulgence for over 40’s is just no fun and I don’t even drink that much!

That doesn’t mean I don’t want to enjoy the odd glass of fizz (or 3) but clearly getting older and alcohol don’t mix. But why? As with most of life’s big questions, I turn to science for the answers that might prepare me for the inevitable or perhaps incentivise me to change my ways.

What makes bubbly boozy?

Alcohol obviously! Specifically ethanol, which is a chain of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms strung together like Christmas lights where the last bulb is a combination of one Oxygen and one Hydrogen atom.

The structure of ethanol makes it very easily absorbed through our gut. About 20% is absorbed through our stomach and 80% is absorbed via the rest of our gut, directly into the bloodstream. This means that within minutes of having a drink, the alcohol is speeding its way to every organ in the body.

Once in the bloodstream, alcohol goes to the liver which secretes a cunning enzyme that snips those Christmas lights at just the right positions to turn out every light in the chain. That enzyme is called Alcohol Dehydrogenase (dee-hi-drog-en-ase), and its job is to break down alcohol into manageable pieces that we can easily get rid of.

The Brain strain struggle is real

The problem with Alcohol Dehydrogenase is that we each have a limited supply and it easily becomes overworked. Once that supply is depleted, any remaining alcohol is free to run amok and cause havoc. It creates the most chaos in your brain, every part of it! How? Well, your brain functions are highly organised and finely balanced (a bit like Santa’s delivery system for all those Christmas presents 😃). That’s thanks to the neurotransmitters that make sure the right signal gets to the right place at the right time (just like Santa’s elves).

Alcohol basically disrupts all that organisation and balance, and to make matters worse, increases the power of a neurotransmitter called GABA which causes slurred speech and slower movements. If that’s not bad enough, it also acts on the pituitary gland in the brain, which controls the amount of water in your urine. For every unit of alcohol you ingest, your body forces your kidneys to get rid of a whopping 120ml of water. This causes serious dehydration.

 

Alcohol compensates for these rather alarming effects by increasing our dopamine levels giving us an artificial feel-good-factor (like when we fall in love), hence the merry feeling and potential lowering of inhibitions!

The painful truth

So there’s the sad scientific reality. Booze is bad news. But now I know, what’s going on, I feel way more determined to follow all the advice I’ve read about “sensible” alcohol consumption (and I’m sure you have too), because let’s face it, it’s the right thing to do. Here’s my plan:

  • A well-balanced meal with protein, carbs and fat to keep my gut busy and prevent that sudden shock of alcohol.
  • Taking it slow to give that supply of Alcohol Dehydrogenase a chance to break down more alcohol, leaving you feeling a little more festive in the morning.
  • Match alcohol with water – it won’t completely prevent dehydration but it will definitely help. This is the hardest one, especially if someone’s constantly topping your glass up. You could perhaps try keeping a bottle of sparkling water on hand and mixing white wine with that, for a more virtuous glass of bubbly, or making longer drinks that are big on mixers (there are tons of posh low sugar ones out there now!) and smaller on spirits.

In cheery conclusion… There’s no reason not to enjoy a festive tipple, just take it steady, and your tomorrow self will thank you for it!

And if you’re looking for some science fun for your own virtual office party, check out our Curiosity Boxes for grownups!

feeling-festive-alcohol-cocktail

Style 3

Playing with Puffins!

The outdoors is one of the best and easiest ways to explore science. The added bonus is that we know that getting connected to nature makes us feel good too! Renée recently spent a week on Skomer Island, a nature reserve off the west coast of Wales. It’s Puffin breeding season right now, a time she’s always wanted to see first-hand. She also wanted to get up close and personal with puffins and she wasn’t disappointed!

Ask your Puffin questions

Join Renée and Puffin scientist Annette Fayet for a live event as part of the Great Science Share. This will be a friendly, informal discussion about Puffins where you can bring all your questions! Register and send in your questions here:

See photos of the beautiful wildlife that Renee and her family encountered on Skomer

Watch Renee’s video diary 

Renée kept a video diary of her time on the island so that you can see what life is like living off-grid on a nature reserve. Here’s Episode 1 of the video diary, while Renée is waiting to get the boat across!

 

Read the Great Science Share Blog 

Renee has also written a blog of her experience for The Great Science Share for schools

 

Here are some of the things Renée spotted, that will feature in her photos and videos:

  1. Puffins EVERYWHERE!
  2. Short-eared Owl
  3. Spoonbill
  4. St. George’s mushroom
  5. Slow worm
  6. Raven stealing a gull egg
  7. Seals
  8. Razorbills
  9. Guillemots
  10. Lots of different Gulls
  11. Buzzards

If you want to get outside and explore the outdoors around you, then take a look at our special offers on Outdoor Curiosity Boxes

Photo credits to Kerry Fisher Instagram: @last_of_the_late_developers

The story of Vaisakhi and why everything is connected

For the Sikh and Hindu community, Vaisakha – the second month of the lunar calendar broadly matches up with April and Vaisakhi (Vah-Sah-key) is the first day of this celebration. Vaisakhi, which falls on the 13th or 14th of April, is when many Sikhs and Hindus will celebrate the beginning of spring, the spring harvest and the role of nature in sustaining the world.

Vaisakhi is a profoundly important day for the 30million Sikhs across the world. It not only celebrates nature, it also marks the creation of the Khalsa in cementing the identity and attributes of the Sikhs! If you don’t know the story – here’s a quick intro.

The formation of the Khalsa

In 1699, 100,000s of people gathered at the Vaisakhi harvest festival where the 10th Sikh Guru called out to those who would stand for what is right. 5 souls stood up Deya (meaning compassion) Singh, Dharam (meaning knowledge) Singh, Himmat (meaning courage) Singh, Mokham (meaning resilience) Singh and Sahib (meaning mastery) Singh and they formed the Khalsa. The Khalsa were the first initiated Sikhs.

They came from different backgrounds and locations and so represented a central tenet of Sikhism that is universality of the human race. It has the concept of “sarbat da bhala” which means “may good come to all.”

Everyone’s talking about Universality

The idea of oneness wasn’t born on that day in 1699. Sikh scriptures date much further back, and discussions of the universe often appear. Sikh scholars had already begun thinking that there was no end to the vastness of the universe, with Guru Nanak (1469-1539) writing “There are earths, beyond earths, beyond earths” and “There are skies above skies and earths below earths.”

This was at a time when most scientists thought the whole universe revolved around the earth (talk about selfish!). At about the same time as Guru Nanak was challenging these ideas, another very famous thinker named Copernicus (1473-1543) also rejected the theory that everything revolved around the earth. Jump forward a few hundred years and we now know the universe is enormous, so much so that scientists in the US have found a light signal from over 15 million light years away!

📷 Greg Rakozy on Unsplash

 

Sikhs also see that everything is connected, so we as humans are all connected to one another and with our surroundings. In this way, god is in everything and can be seen through our relationship with nature. Guru Nanak wrote of god as the universal vibration in that “you are the lake and the swan, you are the lotus flower and the water lily”. We now recognise that you, me, the lake and the lotus flower all come from atoms and particles – though scientists may not describe this so poetically!

So as we head into spring, and the “April showers that bring May flowers”, look up at the skies, the stars (and even those distant stars beyond stars) and marvel at how you are as connected to them as you are to the people and nature that surrounds you!

the-golden-temple-at-night

📷 Mohd Aram on Unsplash

A huge shout-out and thanks to AI/Data Tech expert and dad of three curious girls, Indi Singh for writing this piece and enlightening us all!
A happy Vaisakhi to everyone celebrating! If you want to find out more about Vaisakhi check out this fantastic BBC Bitesize article.
the-golden-temple-at-night

Autism – normal doesn’t matter and never did.

Watching my children grow and develop their own personalities has been an incredible, hilarious and sometimes heart wrenching experience. I like to kid myself that it’s all me, but really, they’re blazing their own trail. Sure I’ve made some genetic contributions and I hope that some of the things I try to teach them stick. But since they were born they have been finding their own way of thinking and doing things. And as far as I can tell, the growing child’s brain is a place of mystery, magnificence and quite often black magic.

What’s normal?

Like all parents (tell me I’m not the only one!) I often find myself thinking “blimey, is that normal?” which gets you thinking…What IS normal? What is actually going on at a genetic and cellular level in a child’s brain when they have an identified disorder, like autism? It’s become clear that there’s an awful lot that we don’t know or understand about autistic spectrum disorders. What causes them, what is happening in the brain and what we can do to help people with autism embrace their way of thinking and looking at the world.

The failed gene quest

Studies have tried to identify a single gene that might cause autism but have failed. A group of scientists in Sweden looked at the occurrence of mutations in the genes of 3,000 children with autism compared to 3,000 children without autism. They found similar mutations in both groups, but none that were only present in the autistic group, and no mutations that were very uncommon. Dr Joseph Buxbaum, of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai (ISMMS) explained that mutations are most likely to account for roughly 60% of the risk of having autism. But of those mutations about half are common mutations.

This study offers support for the idea that autism is caused by a collection of common mutations. If other complex conditions such as cancer give us any clues then it may be a bit like a lottery – and of all the possible mutations, you need a certain number, of a certain combination of mutations to be autistic.

We’re gonna need a bigger dataset

Many researchers are now trying to use the power of big data computing to find patterns in our genes that will help us to diagnose autism more effectively and earlier. Many of the genes that we associate with autism are linked to neuron development, a discovery which could help us to understand more about what’s physically and chemically happening in the brain. We’re also searching for biomarkers and we’re making progress! These biomarkers are proteins or chemicals that are like flashing beacons, illuminating a faulty metabolic pathway.

Mutations rock!

I try to celebrate the uniqueness of my children. Even, or especially when they’re merrily climbing up my very last nerve. It helps me to remember that on a genetic level at least, we all share some of the mutations that lead to neural diversity. Looking at the research, I’m confident we will be better able to diagnose autism in the very near future. And as the world begins to gain a better grasp of what neural diversity is, how many people it affects and the wonderful ways our brains work – the question is could we and should we look at medical treatment? If yes, what form would that treatment or ‘fix’ take?

We’ve come a long way in learning how to embrace the many talents the neural diverse community possess – yet I feel like we’ve barely scratched the surface!

autism-awareness-month

P.S. All our Curiosity Boxes have been designed and curated with sensory learning in mind. Please do check them out!

autism-awareness-month

Create your own Icy Snow Globes

 

Make the most of the chill by doing a wonderful winter science activity that is full of sensory science!

You will need:

  • A teacup (or something waterproof that is dome shaped)
  • Water
  • Lovely things to put in it
  • A seriously chilly night

How to do it

  1. Fill the cup with cold tap water. Poke your finger into the water, how does it feel? You could measure and record the temperature if you have a thermometer.
  2. Find some small objects to put into the water, things like marbles, stones, leaves and flowers work well (although our lavender flowers wouldn’t sink, we still liked the effect). How do your objects feel before you put them in the water? Do they feel different after they have been in the water? Do they look different when they are in the water?
  3. Look for an uncovered, flat surface outside and place your water-filled cup on it, you will need to leave it there overnight. Why do you think the surface needs to be uncovered?
  4. Make a prediction: What do you think will happen to the water and your objects when you leave them out overnight? What changes do you think you will see in the morning?
  5. Rise and shine! Go and have a look at your cup then poke the water, has it changed? What has happened to the water? How does it feel now? Was your prediction correct? You could measure the temperature again and see how different it is!
  6. Caution: this next step will get a bit wet so make sure you do it on a wipeable surface, that is clear of anything that could be damaged by water.
  7. Take a flat plate and put it on top of your cup. Holding the cup and the plate together turn it over so that your cup is sitting face down on top of the plate. Gently lift the cup up, what do you see?  What has happened to the objects in your Icy Snow Globe?

What’s going on?

The temperature is regularly getting below freezing point at the moment and that means that water will freeze! It also means that its the perfect time for a winter science activity! You may have noticed ice on the ground or even had some snow! When the temperature gets below 0 degrees centigrade the molecules in water start to slow down and line up, creating a regular pattern that turns liquid water into a solid, you will know this as ice!  The ice will form from the outside in, where it is closest to the air. This is because the air is colder that the water in the cup. Because there is quite a lot of water in the cup, the bit right in the middle might not have gotten cold enough to freeze. Can you see any bubbles and liquid water trapped inside the icy dome?

Now that you know how to make an icy science snow globe, what else could you do? I think there are so many creative things you could try! Take a look at the little video I made of my icy snow globes with some gem stones in one and nothing in the other on our instagram page Are there other winter science activities using the weird and wonderful properties of water that you could try?

 

A Sciency Festive Q&A

It might be Christmas, but that doesn’t mean the questions stop. In fact, we find that kids are even more curious at this time of year, as they try to wrap their heads around the magic of the festive season. Here are a few of our favourites!

Is Rudolph’s nose really red?

This is no ‘Christmyth’! There’s a species of reindeer that does indeed have a distinct red tinge to their noses. And the believers among us won’t be surprised to learn that you’ll find these gorgeous beasts in certain Arctic regions. Y’know, close to the North Pole? The redness is down to a dense cluster of blood vessels packed into the nose. These vessels can deliver blood there to help manage body temperature and protect the brain in the freezing environment. The more we think about it, why wouldn’t Santa pick a lead reindeer that’s better equipped to handle the freezing cold temperatures?

Why do our fairy lights always come out tangled?

It doesn’t matter what you do, every year your lights emerge from your box of decorations in a knotty mess! It’s not you, and it’s not Gremlins. You’re literally battling the mathematical laws of probability here and the odds are always stacked against you. See, thanks to something called entropy there are many ways for a string of lights to become tangled but only one way for them to remain unravelled. So don’t feel too bad. As a certain fictional starship engineer once said… “Ye cannae change the laws of physics!” Check out this article which explains everything without making your brain hurt.

Which is better? A real tree or a fake tree?

Of course a real tree looks better and smells better, but is it better to buy an artificial tree and save one from being ripped out of the ground? We checked in with the Carbon Trust and the answer is a definite no. The carbon footprint of a real pine is lower than a plastic one, especially if you dispose of it responsibly. Don’t despair if you do have a plastic one though. If you take care of it and use it no less than 10 times, you’ll have evened out the carbon footprint score. Winner! Read more about how you can have a more earth-friendly Christmas here.

Want more festive facts? Check out our post on why Santa is the ultimate Curiositeer!

Feeling Festive – For Grownup Curiositeers Only!

As we enter the festive season, it’s clear we’ll be doing a lot of our socialising online this year. Zoom office parties might reduce the chances of high alcohol consumption which is quite a relief for me as I’ve been forced to recognise that age and alcohol equal substantial discomfort. From the dead-of-night heart palpitations to three-day hangovers, overindulgence for over 40’s is just no fun and I don’t even drink that much!

That doesn’t mean I don’t want to enjoy the odd glass of fizz (or 3) but clearly getting older and alcohol don’t mix. But why? As with most of life’s big questions, I turn to science for the answers that might prepare me for the inevitable or perhaps incentivise me to change my ways.

What makes bubbly boozy?

Alcohol obviously! Specifically ethanol, which is a chain of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms strung together like Christmas lights where the last bulb is a combination of one Oxygen and one Hydrogen atom.

The structure of ethanol makes it very easily absorbed through our gut. About 20% is absorbed through our stomach and 80% is absorbed via the rest of our gut, directly into the bloodstream. This means that within minutes of having a drink, the alcohol is speeding its way to every organ in the body.

Once in the bloodstream, alcohol goes to the liver which secretes a cunning enzyme that snips those Christmas lights at just the right positions to turn out every light in the chain. That enzyme is called Alcohol Dehydrogenase (dee-hi-drog-en-ase), and its job is to break down alcohol into manageable pieces that we can easily get rid of.

The Brain strain struggle is real

The problem with Alcohol Dehydrogenase is that we each have a limited supply and it easily becomes overworked. Once that supply is depleted, any remaining alcohol is free to run amok and cause havoc. It creates the most chaos in your brain, every part of it! How? Well, your brain functions are highly organised and finely balanced (a bit like Santa’s delivery system for all those Christmas presents 😃). That’s thanks to the neurotransmitters that make sure the right signal gets to the right place at the right time (just like Santa’s elves).

Alcohol basically disrupts all that organisation and balance, and to make matters worse, increases the power of a neurotransmitter called GABA which causes slurred speech and slower movements. If that’s not bad enough, it also acts on the pituitary gland in the brain, which controls the amount of water in your urine. For every unit of alcohol you ingest, your body forces your kidneys to get rid of a whopping 120ml of water. This causes serious dehydration.

 

Alcohol compensates for these rather alarming effects by increasing our dopamine levels giving us an artificial feel-good-factor (like when we fall in love), hence the merry feeling and potential lowering of inhibitions!

The painful truth

So there’s the sad scientific reality. Booze is bad news. But now I know, what’s going on, I feel way more determined to follow all the advice I’ve read about “sensible” alcohol consumption (and I’m sure you have too), because let’s face it, it’s the right thing to do. Here’s my plan:

  • A well-balanced meal with protein, carbs and fat to keep my gut busy and prevent that sudden shock of alcohol.
  • Taking it slow to give that supply of Alcohol Dehydrogenase a chance to break down more alcohol, leaving you feeling a little more festive in the morning.
  • Match alcohol with water – it won’t completely prevent dehydration but it will definitely help. This is the hardest one, especially if someone’s constantly topping your glass up. You could perhaps try keeping a bottle of sparkling water on hand and mixing white wine with that, for a more virtuous glass of bubbly, or making longer drinks that are big on mixers (there are tons of posh low sugar ones out there now!) and smaller on spirits.

In cheery conclusion… There’s no reason not to enjoy a festive tipple, just take it steady, and your tomorrow self will thank you for it!

And if you’re looking for some science fun for your own virtual office party, check out our Curiosity Boxes for grownups!

feeling-festive-alcohol-cocktail

Style 4

Playing with Puffins!

The outdoors is one of the best and easiest ways to explore science. The added bonus is that we know that getting connected to nature makes us feel good too! Renée recently spent a week on Skomer Island, a nature reserve off the west coast of Wales. It’s Puffin breeding season right now, a time she’s always wanted to see first-hand. She also wanted to get up close and personal with puffins and she wasn’t disappointed!

Ask your Puffin questions

Join Renée and Puffin scientist Annette Fayet for a live event as part of the Great Science Share. This will be a friendly, informal discussion about Puffins where you can bring all your questions! Register and send in your questions here:

See photos of the beautiful wildlife that Renee and her family encountered on Skomer

Watch Renee’s video diary 

Renée kept a video diary of her time on the island so that you can see what life is like living off-grid on a nature reserve. Here’s Episode 1 of the video diary, while Renée is waiting to get the boat across!

 

Read the Great Science Share Blog 

Renee has also written a blog of her experience for The Great Science Share for schools

 

Here are some of the things Renée spotted, that will feature in her photos and videos:

  1. Puffins EVERYWHERE!
  2. Short-eared Owl
  3. Spoonbill
  4. St. George’s mushroom
  5. Slow worm
  6. Raven stealing a gull egg
  7. Seals
  8. Razorbills
  9. Guillemots
  10. Lots of different Gulls
  11. Buzzards

If you want to get outside and explore the outdoors around you, then take a look at our special offers on Outdoor Curiosity Boxes

Photo credits to Kerry Fisher Instagram: @last_of_the_late_developers

the-golden-temple-at-night

The story of Vaisakhi and why everything is connected

For the Sikh and Hindu community, Vaisakha – the second month of the lunar calendar broadly matches up with April and Vaisakhi (Vah-Sah-key) is the first day of this celebration. Vaisakhi, which falls on the 13th or 14th of April, is when many Sikhs and Hindus will celebrate the beginning of spring, the spring harvest and the role of nature in sustaining the world.

Vaisakhi is a profoundly important day for the 30million Sikhs across the world. It not only celebrates nature, it also marks the creation of the Khalsa in cementing the identity and attributes of the Sikhs! If you don’t know the story – here’s a quick intro.

The formation of the Khalsa

In 1699, 100,000s of people gathered at the Vaisakhi harvest festival where the 10th Sikh Guru called out to those who would stand for what is right. 5 souls stood up Deya (meaning compassion) Singh, Dharam (meaning knowledge) Singh, Himmat (meaning courage) Singh, Mokham (meaning resilience) Singh and Sahib (meaning mastery) Singh and they formed the Khalsa. The Khalsa were the first initiated Sikhs.

They came from different backgrounds and locations and so represented a central tenet of Sikhism that is universality of the human race. It has the concept of “sarbat da bhala” which means “may good come to all.”

Everyone’s talking about Universality

The idea of oneness wasn’t born on that day in 1699. Sikh scriptures date much further back, and discussions of the universe often appear. Sikh scholars had already begun thinking that there was no end to the vastness of the universe, with Guru Nanak (1469-1539) writing “There are earths, beyond earths, beyond earths” and “There are skies above skies and earths below earths.”

This was at a time when most scientists thought the whole universe revolved around the earth (talk about selfish!). At about the same time as Guru Nanak was challenging these ideas, another very famous thinker named Copernicus (1473-1543) also rejected the theory that everything revolved around the earth. Jump forward a few hundred years and we now know the universe is enormous, so much so that scientists in the US have found a light signal from over 15 million light years away!

📷 Greg Rakozy on Unsplash

 

Sikhs also see that everything is connected, so we as humans are all connected to one another and with our surroundings. In this way, god is in everything and can be seen through our relationship with nature. Guru Nanak wrote of god as the universal vibration in that “you are the lake and the swan, you are the lotus flower and the water lily”. We now recognise that you, me, the lake and the lotus flower all come from atoms and particles – though scientists may not describe this so poetically!

So as we head into spring, and the “April showers that bring May flowers”, look up at the skies, the stars (and even those distant stars beyond stars) and marvel at how you are as connected to them as you are to the people and nature that surrounds you!

the-golden-temple-at-night

📷 Mohd Aram on Unsplash

A huge shout-out and thanks to AI/Data Tech expert and dad of three curious girls, Indi Singh for writing this piece and enlightening us all!
A happy Vaisakhi to everyone celebrating! If you want to find out more about Vaisakhi check out this fantastic BBC Bitesize article.
autism-awareness-month

Autism – normal doesn’t matter and never did.

Watching my children grow and develop their own personalities has been an incredible, hilarious and sometimes heart wrenching experience. I like to kid myself that it’s all me, but really, they’re blazing their own trail. Sure I’ve made some genetic contributions and I hope that some of the things I try to teach them stick. But since they were born they have been finding their own way of thinking and doing things. And as far as I can tell, the growing child’s brain is a place of mystery, magnificence and quite often black magic.

What’s normal?

Like all parents (tell me I’m not the only one!) I often find myself thinking “blimey, is that normal?” which gets you thinking…What IS normal? What is actually going on at a genetic and cellular level in a child’s brain when they have an identified disorder, like autism? It’s become clear that there’s an awful lot that we don’t know or understand about autistic spectrum disorders. What causes them, what is happening in the brain and what we can do to help people with autism embrace their way of thinking and looking at the world.

The failed gene quest

Studies have tried to identify a single gene that might cause autism but have failed. A group of scientists in Sweden looked at the occurrence of mutations in the genes of 3,000 children with autism compared to 3,000 children without autism. They found similar mutations in both groups, but none that were only present in the autistic group, and no mutations that were very uncommon. Dr Joseph Buxbaum, of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai (ISMMS) explained that mutations are most likely to account for roughly 60% of the risk of having autism. But of those mutations about half are common mutations.

This study offers support for the idea that autism is caused by a collection of common mutations. If other complex conditions such as cancer give us any clues then it may be a bit like a lottery – and of all the possible mutations, you need a certain number, of a certain combination of mutations to be autistic.

We’re gonna need a bigger dataset

Many researchers are now trying to use the power of big data computing to find patterns in our genes that will help us to diagnose autism more effectively and earlier. Many of the genes that we associate with autism are linked to neuron development, a discovery which could help us to understand more about what’s physically and chemically happening in the brain. We’re also searching for biomarkers and we’re making progress! These biomarkers are proteins or chemicals that are like flashing beacons, illuminating a faulty metabolic pathway.

Mutations rock!

I try to celebrate the uniqueness of my children. Even, or especially when they’re merrily climbing up my very last nerve. It helps me to remember that on a genetic level at least, we all share some of the mutations that lead to neural diversity. Looking at the research, I’m confident we will be better able to diagnose autism in the very near future. And as the world begins to gain a better grasp of what neural diversity is, how many people it affects and the wonderful ways our brains work – the question is could we and should we look at medical treatment? If yes, what form would that treatment or ‘fix’ take?

We’ve come a long way in learning how to embrace the many talents the neural diverse community possess – yet I feel like we’ve barely scratched the surface!

autism-awareness-month

P.S. All our Curiosity Boxes have been designed and curated with sensory learning in mind. Please do check them out!

Create your own Icy Snow Globes

 

Make the most of the chill by doing a wonderful winter science activity that is full of sensory science!

You will need:

  • A teacup (or something waterproof that is dome shaped)
  • Water
  • Lovely things to put in it
  • A seriously chilly night

How to do it

  1. Fill the cup with cold tap water. Poke your finger into the water, how does it feel? You could measure and record the temperature if you have a thermometer.
  2. Find some small objects to put into the water, things like marbles, stones, leaves and flowers work well (although our lavender flowers wouldn’t sink, we still liked the effect). How do your objects feel before you put them in the water? Do they feel different after they have been in the water? Do they look different when they are in the water?
  3. Look for an uncovered, flat surface outside and place your water-filled cup on it, you will need to leave it there overnight. Why do you think the surface needs to be uncovered?
  4. Make a prediction: What do you think will happen to the water and your objects when you leave them out overnight? What changes do you think you will see in the morning?
  5. Rise and shine! Go and have a look at your cup then poke the water, has it changed? What has happened to the water? How does it feel now? Was your prediction correct? You could measure the temperature again and see how different it is!
  6. Caution: this next step will get a bit wet so make sure you do it on a wipeable surface, that is clear of anything that could be damaged by water.
  7. Take a flat plate and put it on top of your cup. Holding the cup and the plate together turn it over so that your cup is sitting face down on top of the plate. Gently lift the cup up, what do you see?  What has happened to the objects in your Icy Snow Globe?

What’s going on?

The temperature is regularly getting below freezing point at the moment and that means that water will freeze! It also means that its the perfect time for a winter science activity! You may have noticed ice on the ground or even had some snow! When the temperature gets below 0 degrees centigrade the molecules in water start to slow down and line up, creating a regular pattern that turns liquid water into a solid, you will know this as ice!  The ice will form from the outside in, where it is closest to the air. This is because the air is colder that the water in the cup. Because there is quite a lot of water in the cup, the bit right in the middle might not have gotten cold enough to freeze. Can you see any bubbles and liquid water trapped inside the icy dome?

Now that you know how to make an icy science snow globe, what else could you do? I think there are so many creative things you could try! Take a look at the little video I made of my icy snow globes with some gem stones in one and nothing in the other on our instagram page Are there other winter science activities using the weird and wonderful properties of water that you could try?

 

A Sciency Festive Q&A

It might be Christmas, but that doesn’t mean the questions stop. In fact, we find that kids are even more curious at this time of year, as they try to wrap their heads around the magic of the festive season. Here are a few of our favourites!

Is Rudolph’s nose really red?

This is no ‘Christmyth’! There’s a species of reindeer that does indeed have a distinct red tinge to their noses. And the believers among us won’t be surprised to learn that you’ll find these gorgeous beasts in certain Arctic regions. Y’know, close to the North Pole? The redness is down to a dense cluster of blood vessels packed into the nose. These vessels can deliver blood there to help manage body temperature and protect the brain in the freezing environment. The more we think about it, why wouldn’t Santa pick a lead reindeer that’s better equipped to handle the freezing cold temperatures?

Why do our fairy lights always come out tangled?

It doesn’t matter what you do, every year your lights emerge from your box of decorations in a knotty mess! It’s not you, and it’s not Gremlins. You’re literally battling the mathematical laws of probability here and the odds are always stacked against you. See, thanks to something called entropy there are many ways for a string of lights to become tangled but only one way for them to remain unravelled. So don’t feel too bad. As a certain fictional starship engineer once said… “Ye cannae change the laws of physics!” Check out this article which explains everything without making your brain hurt.

Which is better? A real tree or a fake tree?

Of course a real tree looks better and smells better, but is it better to buy an artificial tree and save one from being ripped out of the ground? We checked in with the Carbon Trust and the answer is a definite no. The carbon footprint of a real pine is lower than a plastic one, especially if you dispose of it responsibly. Don’t despair if you do have a plastic one though. If you take care of it and use it no less than 10 times, you’ll have evened out the carbon footprint score. Winner! Read more about how you can have a more earth-friendly Christmas here.

Want more festive facts? Check out our post on why Santa is the ultimate Curiositeer!

feeling-festive-alcohol-cocktail

Feeling Festive – For Grownup Curiositeers Only!

As we enter the festive season, it’s clear we’ll be doing a lot of our socialising online this year. Zoom office parties might reduce the chances of high alcohol consumption which is quite a relief for me as I’ve been forced to recognise that age and alcohol equal substantial discomfort. From the dead-of-night heart palpitations to three-day hangovers, overindulgence for over 40’s is just no fun and I don’t even drink that much!

That doesn’t mean I don’t want to enjoy the odd glass of fizz (or 3) but clearly getting older and alcohol don’t mix. But why? As with most of life’s big questions, I turn to science for the answers that might prepare me for the inevitable or perhaps incentivise me to change my ways.

What makes bubbly boozy?

Alcohol obviously! Specifically ethanol, which is a chain of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms strung together like Christmas lights where the last bulb is a combination of one Oxygen and one Hydrogen atom.

The structure of ethanol makes it very easily absorbed through our gut. About 20% is absorbed through our stomach and 80% is absorbed via the rest of our gut, directly into the bloodstream. This means that within minutes of having a drink, the alcohol is speeding its way to every organ in the body.

Once in the bloodstream, alcohol goes to the liver which secretes a cunning enzyme that snips those Christmas lights at just the right positions to turn out every light in the chain. That enzyme is called Alcohol Dehydrogenase (dee-hi-drog-en-ase), and its job is to break down alcohol into manageable pieces that we can easily get rid of.

The Brain strain struggle is real

The problem with Alcohol Dehydrogenase is that we each have a limited supply and it easily becomes overworked. Once that supply is depleted, any remaining alcohol is free to run amok and cause havoc. It creates the most chaos in your brain, every part of it! How? Well, your brain functions are highly organised and finely balanced (a bit like Santa’s delivery system for all those Christmas presents 😃). That’s thanks to the neurotransmitters that make sure the right signal gets to the right place at the right time (just like Santa’s elves).

Alcohol basically disrupts all that organisation and balance, and to make matters worse, increases the power of a neurotransmitter called GABA which causes slurred speech and slower movements. If that’s not bad enough, it also acts on the pituitary gland in the brain, which controls the amount of water in your urine. For every unit of alcohol you ingest, your body forces your kidneys to get rid of a whopping 120ml of water. This causes serious dehydration.

 

Alcohol compensates for these rather alarming effects by increasing our dopamine levels giving us an artificial feel-good-factor (like when we fall in love), hence the merry feeling and potential lowering of inhibitions!

The painful truth

So there’s the sad scientific reality. Booze is bad news. But now I know, what’s going on, I feel way more determined to follow all the advice I’ve read about “sensible” alcohol consumption (and I’m sure you have too), because let’s face it, it’s the right thing to do. Here’s my plan:

  • A well-balanced meal with protein, carbs and fat to keep my gut busy and prevent that sudden shock of alcohol.
  • Taking it slow to give that supply of Alcohol Dehydrogenase a chance to break down more alcohol, leaving you feeling a little more festive in the morning.
  • Match alcohol with water – it won’t completely prevent dehydration but it will definitely help. This is the hardest one, especially if someone’s constantly topping your glass up. You could perhaps try keeping a bottle of sparkling water on hand and mixing white wine with that, for a more virtuous glass of bubbly, or making longer drinks that are big on mixers (there are tons of posh low sugar ones out there now!) and smaller on spirits.

In cheery conclusion… There’s no reason not to enjoy a festive tipple, just take it steady, and your tomorrow self will thank you for it!

And if you’re looking for some science fun for your own virtual office party, check out our Curiosity Boxes for grownups!

Style 5

Playing with Puffins!

The outdoors is one of the best and easiest ways to explore science. The added bonus is that we know that getting connected to nature makes us feel good too! Renée recently spent a week on Skomer Island, a nature reserve off the west coast of Wales. It’s Puffin breeding season right now, a time she’s always wanted to see first-hand. She also wanted to get up close and personal with puffins and she wasn’t disappointed!

Ask your Puffin questions

Join Renée and Puffin scientist Annette Fayet for a live event as part of the Great Science Share. This will be a friendly, informal discussion about Puffins where you can bring all your questions! Register and send in your questions here:

See photos of the beautiful wildlife that Renee and her family encountered on Skomer

Watch Renee’s video diary 

Renée kept a video diary of her time on the island so that you can see what life is like living off-grid on a nature reserve. Here’s Episode 1 of the video diary, while Renée is waiting to get the boat across!

 

Read the Great Science Share Blog 

Renee has also written a blog of her experience for The Great Science Share for schools

 

Here are some of the things Renée spotted, that will feature in her photos and videos:

  1. Puffins EVERYWHERE!
  2. Short-eared Owl
  3. Spoonbill
  4. St. George’s mushroom
  5. Slow worm
  6. Raven stealing a gull egg
  7. Seals
  8. Razorbills
  9. Guillemots
  10. Lots of different Gulls
  11. Buzzards

If you want to get outside and explore the outdoors around you, then take a look at our special offers on Outdoor Curiosity Boxes

Photo credits to Kerry Fisher Instagram: @last_of_the_late_developers

The story of Vaisakhi and why everything is connected

For the Sikh and Hindu community, Vaisakha – the second month of the lunar calendar broadly matches up with April and Vaisakhi (Vah-Sah-key) is the first day of this celebration. Vaisakhi, which falls on the 13th or 14th of April, is when many Sikhs and Hindus will celebrate the beginning of spring, the spring harvest and the role of nature in sustaining the world.

Vaisakhi is a profoundly important day for the 30million Sikhs across the world. It not only celebrates nature, it also marks the creation of the Khalsa in cementing the identity and attributes of the Sikhs! If you don’t know the story – here’s a quick intro.

The formation of the Khalsa

In 1699, 100,000s of people gathered at the Vaisakhi harvest festival where the 10th Sikh Guru called out to those who would stand for what is right. 5 souls stood up Deya (meaning compassion) Singh, Dharam (meaning knowledge) Singh, Himmat (meaning courage) Singh, Mokham (meaning resilience) Singh and Sahib (meaning mastery) Singh and they formed the Khalsa. The Khalsa were the first initiated Sikhs.

They came from different backgrounds and locations and so represented a central tenet of Sikhism that is universality of the human race. It has the concept of “sarbat da bhala” which means “may good come to all.”

Everyone’s talking about Universality

The idea of oneness wasn’t born on that day in 1699. Sikh scriptures date much further back, and discussions of the universe often appear. Sikh scholars had already begun thinking that there was no end to the vastness of the universe, with Guru Nanak (1469-1539) writing “There are earths, beyond earths, beyond earths” and “There are skies above skies and earths below earths.”

This was at a time when most scientists thought the whole universe revolved around the earth (talk about selfish!). At about the same time as Guru Nanak was challenging these ideas, another very famous thinker named Copernicus (1473-1543) also rejected the theory that everything revolved around the earth. Jump forward a few hundred years and we now know the universe is enormous, so much so that scientists in the US have found a light signal from over 15 million light years away!

📷 Greg Rakozy on Unsplash

 

Sikhs also see that everything is connected, so we as humans are all connected to one another and with our surroundings. In this way, god is in everything and can be seen through our relationship with nature. Guru Nanak wrote of god as the universal vibration in that “you are the lake and the swan, you are the lotus flower and the water lily”. We now recognise that you, me, the lake and the lotus flower all come from atoms and particles – though scientists may not describe this so poetically!

So as we head into spring, and the “April showers that bring May flowers”, look up at the skies, the stars (and even those distant stars beyond stars) and marvel at how you are as connected to them as you are to the people and nature that surrounds you!

the-golden-temple-at-night

📷 Mohd Aram on Unsplash

A huge shout-out and thanks to AI/Data Tech expert and dad of three curious girls, Indi Singh for writing this piece and enlightening us all!
A happy Vaisakhi to everyone celebrating! If you want to find out more about Vaisakhi check out this fantastic BBC Bitesize article.
the-golden-temple-at-night

Autism – normal doesn’t matter and never did.

Watching my children grow and develop their own personalities has been an incredible, hilarious and sometimes heart wrenching experience. I like to kid myself that it’s all me, but really, they’re blazing their own trail. Sure I’ve made some genetic contributions and I hope that some of the things I try to teach them stick. But since they were born they have been finding their own way of thinking and doing things. And as far as I can tell, the growing child’s brain is a place of mystery, magnificence and quite often black magic.

What’s normal?

Like all parents (tell me I’m not the only one!) I often find myself thinking “blimey, is that normal?” which gets you thinking…What IS normal? What is actually going on at a genetic and cellular level in a child’s brain when they have an identified disorder, like autism? It’s become clear that there’s an awful lot that we don’t know or understand about autistic spectrum disorders. What causes them, what is happening in the brain and what we can do to help people with autism embrace their way of thinking and looking at the world.

The failed gene quest

Studies have tried to identify a single gene that might cause autism but have failed. A group of scientists in Sweden looked at the occurrence of mutations in the genes of 3,000 children with autism compared to 3,000 children without autism. They found similar mutations in both groups, but none that were only present in the autistic group, and no mutations that were very uncommon. Dr Joseph Buxbaum, of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai (ISMMS) explained that mutations are most likely to account for roughly 60% of the risk of having autism. But of those mutations about half are common mutations.

This study offers support for the idea that autism is caused by a collection of common mutations. If other complex conditions such as cancer give us any clues then it may be a bit like a lottery – and of all the possible mutations, you need a certain number, of a certain combination of mutations to be autistic.

We’re gonna need a bigger dataset

Many researchers are now trying to use the power of big data computing to find patterns in our genes that will help us to diagnose autism more effectively and earlier. Many of the genes that we associate with autism are linked to neuron development, a discovery which could help us to understand more about what’s physically and chemically happening in the brain. We’re also searching for biomarkers and we’re making progress! These biomarkers are proteins or chemicals that are like flashing beacons, illuminating a faulty metabolic pathway.

Mutations rock!

I try to celebrate the uniqueness of my children. Even, or especially when they’re merrily climbing up my very last nerve. It helps me to remember that on a genetic level at least, we all share some of the mutations that lead to neural diversity. Looking at the research, I’m confident we will be better able to diagnose autism in the very near future. And as the world begins to gain a better grasp of what neural diversity is, how many people it affects and the wonderful ways our brains work – the question is could we and should we look at medical treatment? If yes, what form would that treatment or ‘fix’ take?

We’ve come a long way in learning how to embrace the many talents the neural diverse community possess – yet I feel like we’ve barely scratched the surface!

autism-awareness-month

P.S. All our Curiosity Boxes have been designed and curated with sensory learning in mind. Please do check them out!

autism-awareness-month

Create your own Icy Snow Globes

 

Make the most of the chill by doing a wonderful winter science activity that is full of sensory science!

You will need:

  • A teacup (or something waterproof that is dome shaped)
  • Water
  • Lovely things to put in it
  • A seriously chilly night

How to do it

  1. Fill the cup with cold tap water. Poke your finger into the water, how does it feel? You could measure and record the temperature if you have a thermometer.
  2. Find some small objects to put into the water, things like marbles, stones, leaves and flowers work well (although our lavender flowers wouldn’t sink, we still liked the effect). How do your objects feel before you put them in the water? Do they feel different after they have been in the water? Do they look different when they are in the water?
  3. Look for an uncovered, flat surface outside and place your water-filled cup on it, you will need to leave it there overnight. Why do you think the surface needs to be uncovered?
  4. Make a prediction: What do you think will happen to the water and your objects when you leave them out overnight? What changes do you think you will see in the morning?
  5. Rise and shine! Go and have a look at your cup then poke the water, has it changed? What has happened to the water? How does it feel now? Was your prediction correct? You could measure the temperature again and see how different it is!
  6. Caution: this next step will get a bit wet so make sure you do it on a wipeable surface, that is clear of anything that could be damaged by water.
  7. Take a flat plate and put it on top of your cup. Holding the cup and the plate together turn it over so that your cup is sitting face down on top of the plate. Gently lift the cup up, what do you see?  What has happened to the objects in your Icy Snow Globe?

What’s going on?

The temperature is regularly getting below freezing point at the moment and that means that water will freeze! It also means that its the perfect time for a winter science activity! You may have noticed ice on the ground or even had some snow! When the temperature gets below 0 degrees centigrade the molecules in water start to slow down and line up, creating a regular pattern that turns liquid water into a solid, you will know this as ice!  The ice will form from the outside in, where it is closest to the air. This is because the air is colder that the water in the cup. Because there is quite a lot of water in the cup, the bit right in the middle might not have gotten cold enough to freeze. Can you see any bubbles and liquid water trapped inside the icy dome?

Now that you know how to make an icy science snow globe, what else could you do? I think there are so many creative things you could try! Take a look at the little video I made of my icy snow globes with some gem stones in one and nothing in the other on our instagram page Are there other winter science activities using the weird and wonderful properties of water that you could try?

 

A Sciency Festive Q&A

It might be Christmas, but that doesn’t mean the questions stop. In fact, we find that kids are even more curious at this time of year, as they try to wrap their heads around the magic of the festive season. Here are a few of our favourites!

Is Rudolph’s nose really red?

This is no ‘Christmyth’! There’s a species of reindeer that does indeed have a distinct red tinge to their noses. And the believers among us won’t be surprised to learn that you’ll find these gorgeous beasts in certain Arctic regions. Y’know, close to the North Pole? The redness is down to a dense cluster of blood vessels packed into the nose. These vessels can deliver blood there to help manage body temperature and protect the brain in the freezing environment. The more we think about it, why wouldn’t Santa pick a lead reindeer that’s better equipped to handle the freezing cold temperatures?

Why do our fairy lights always come out tangled?

It doesn’t matter what you do, every year your lights emerge from your box of decorations in a knotty mess! It’s not you, and it’s not Gremlins. You’re literally battling the mathematical laws of probability here and the odds are always stacked against you. See, thanks to something called entropy there are many ways for a string of lights to become tangled but only one way for them to remain unravelled. So don’t feel too bad. As a certain fictional starship engineer once said… “Ye cannae change the laws of physics!” Check out this article which explains everything without making your brain hurt.

Which is better? A real tree or a fake tree?

Of course a real tree looks better and smells better, but is it better to buy an artificial tree and save one from being ripped out of the ground? We checked in with the Carbon Trust and the answer is a definite no. The carbon footprint of a real pine is lower than a plastic one, especially if you dispose of it responsibly. Don’t despair if you do have a plastic one though. If you take care of it and use it no less than 10 times, you’ll have evened out the carbon footprint score. Winner! Read more about how you can have a more earth-friendly Christmas here.

Want more festive facts? Check out our post on why Santa is the ultimate Curiositeer!

Feeling Festive – For Grownup Curiositeers Only!

As we enter the festive season, it’s clear we’ll be doing a lot of our socialising online this year. Zoom office parties might reduce the chances of high alcohol consumption which is quite a relief for me as I’ve been forced to recognise that age and alcohol equal substantial discomfort. From the dead-of-night heart palpitations to three-day hangovers, overindulgence for over 40’s is just no fun and I don’t even drink that much!

That doesn’t mean I don’t want to enjoy the odd glass of fizz (or 3) but clearly getting older and alcohol don’t mix. But why? As with most of life’s big questions, I turn to science for the answers that might prepare me for the inevitable or perhaps incentivise me to change my ways.

What makes bubbly boozy?

Alcohol obviously! Specifically ethanol, which is a chain of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms strung together like Christmas lights where the last bulb is a combination of one Oxygen and one Hydrogen atom.

The structure of ethanol makes it very easily absorbed through our gut. About 20% is absorbed through our stomach and 80% is absorbed via the rest of our gut, directly into the bloodstream. This means that within minutes of having a drink, the alcohol is speeding its way to every organ in the body.

Once in the bloodstream, alcohol goes to the liver which secretes a cunning enzyme that snips those Christmas lights at just the right positions to turn out every light in the chain. That enzyme is called Alcohol Dehydrogenase (dee-hi-drog-en-ase), and its job is to break down alcohol into manageable pieces that we can easily get rid of.

The Brain strain struggle is real

The problem with Alcohol Dehydrogenase is that we each have a limited supply and it easily becomes overworked. Once that supply is depleted, any remaining alcohol is free to run amok and cause havoc. It creates the most chaos in your brain, every part of it! How? Well, your brain functions are highly organised and finely balanced (a bit like Santa’s delivery system for all those Christmas presents 😃). That’s thanks to the neurotransmitters that make sure the right signal gets to the right place at the right time (just like Santa’s elves).

Alcohol basically disrupts all that organisation and balance, and to make matters worse, increases the power of a neurotransmitter called GABA which causes slurred speech and slower movements. If that’s not bad enough, it also acts on the pituitary gland in the brain, which controls the amount of water in your urine. For every unit of alcohol you ingest, your body forces your kidneys to get rid of a whopping 120ml of water. This causes serious dehydration.

 

Alcohol compensates for these rather alarming effects by increasing our dopamine levels giving us an artificial feel-good-factor (like when we fall in love), hence the merry feeling and potential lowering of inhibitions!

The painful truth

So there’s the sad scientific reality. Booze is bad news. But now I know, what’s going on, I feel way more determined to follow all the advice I’ve read about “sensible” alcohol consumption (and I’m sure you have too), because let’s face it, it’s the right thing to do. Here’s my plan:

  • A well-balanced meal with protein, carbs and fat to keep my gut busy and prevent that sudden shock of alcohol.
  • Taking it slow to give that supply of Alcohol Dehydrogenase a chance to break down more alcohol, leaving you feeling a little more festive in the morning.
  • Match alcohol with water – it won’t completely prevent dehydration but it will definitely help. This is the hardest one, especially if someone’s constantly topping your glass up. You could perhaps try keeping a bottle of sparkling water on hand and mixing white wine with that, for a more virtuous glass of bubbly, or making longer drinks that are big on mixers (there are tons of posh low sugar ones out there now!) and smaller on spirits.

In cheery conclusion… There’s no reason not to enjoy a festive tipple, just take it steady, and your tomorrow self will thank you for it!

And if you’re looking for some science fun for your own virtual office party, check out our Curiosity Boxes for grownups!

feeling-festive-alcohol-cocktail

Style 6

Playing with Puffins!

The outdoors is one of the best and easiest ways to explore science. The added bonus is that we know that getting connected to nature makes us feel good too! Renée recently spent a week on Skomer Island, a nature reserve off the west coast of Wales. It’s Puffin breeding season right now, a time she’s always wanted to see first-hand. She also wanted to get up close and personal with puffins and she wasn’t disappointed!

Ask your Puffin questions

Join Renée and Puffin scientist Annette Fayet for a live event as part of the Great Science Share. This will be a friendly, informal discussion about Puffins where you can bring all your questions! Register and send in your questions here:

See photos of the beautiful wildlife that Renee and her family encountered on Skomer

Watch Renee’s video diary 

Renée kept a video diary of her time on the island so that you can see what life is like living off-grid on a nature reserve. Here’s Episode 1 of the video diary, while Renée is waiting to get the boat across!

 

Read the Great Science Share Blog 

Renee has also written a blog of her experience for The Great Science Share for schools

 

Here are some of the things Renée spotted, that will feature in her photos and videos:

  1. Puffins EVERYWHERE!
  2. Short-eared Owl
  3. Spoonbill
  4. St. George’s mushroom
  5. Slow worm
  6. Raven stealing a gull egg
  7. Seals
  8. Razorbills
  9. Guillemots
  10. Lots of different Gulls
  11. Buzzards

If you want to get outside and explore the outdoors around you, then take a look at our special offers on Outdoor Curiosity Boxes

Photo credits to Kerry Fisher Instagram: @last_of_the_late_developers

The story of Vaisakhi and why everything is connected

For the Sikh and Hindu community, Vaisakha – the second month of the lunar calendar broadly matches up with April and Vaisakhi (Vah-Sah-key) is the first day of this celebration. Vaisakhi, which falls on the 13th or 14th of April, is when many Sikhs and Hindus will celebrate the beginning of spring, the spring harvest and the role of nature in sustaining the world.

Vaisakhi is a profoundly important day for the 30million Sikhs across the world. It not only celebrates nature, it also marks the creation of the Khalsa in cementing the identity and attributes of the Sikhs! If you don’t know the story – here’s a quick intro.

The formation of the Khalsa

In 1699, 100,000s of people gathered at the Vaisakhi harvest festival where the 10th Sikh Guru called out to those who would stand for what is right. 5 souls stood up Deya (meaning compassion) Singh, Dharam (meaning knowledge) Singh, Himmat (meaning courage) Singh, Mokham (meaning resilience) Singh and Sahib (meaning mastery) Singh and they formed the Khalsa. The Khalsa were the first initiated Sikhs.

They came from different backgrounds and locations and so represented a central tenet of Sikhism that is universality of the human race. It has the concept of “sarbat da bhala” which means “may good come to all.”

Everyone’s talking about Universality

The idea of oneness wasn’t born on that day in 1699. Sikh scriptures date much further back, and discussions of the universe often appear. Sikh scholars had already begun thinking that there was no end to the vastness of the universe, with Guru Nanak (1469-1539) writing “There are earths, beyond earths, beyond earths” and “There are skies above skies and earths below earths.”

This was at a time when most scientists thought the whole universe revolved around the earth (talk about selfish!). At about the same time as Guru Nanak was challenging these ideas, another very famous thinker named Copernicus (1473-1543) also rejected the theory that everything revolved around the earth. Jump forward a few hundred years and we now know the universe is enormous, so much so that scientists in the US have found a light signal from over 15 million light years away!

📷 Greg Rakozy on Unsplash

 

Sikhs also see that everything is connected, so we as humans are all connected to one another and with our surroundings. In this way, god is in everything and can be seen through our relationship with nature. Guru Nanak wrote of god as the universal vibration in that “you are the lake and the swan, you are the lotus flower and the water lily”. We now recognise that you, me, the lake and the lotus flower all come from atoms and particles – though scientists may not describe this so poetically!

So as we head into spring, and the “April showers that bring May flowers”, look up at the skies, the stars (and even those distant stars beyond stars) and marvel at how you are as connected to them as you are to the people and nature that surrounds you!

the-golden-temple-at-night

📷 Mohd Aram on Unsplash

A huge shout-out and thanks to AI/Data Tech expert and dad of three curious girls, Indi Singh for writing this piece and enlightening us all!
A happy Vaisakhi to everyone celebrating! If you want to find out more about Vaisakhi check out this fantastic BBC Bitesize article.
the-golden-temple-at-night

Autism – normal doesn’t matter and never did.

Watching my children grow and develop their own personalities has been an incredible, hilarious and sometimes heart wrenching experience. I like to kid myself that it’s all me, but really, they’re blazing their own trail. Sure I’ve made some genetic contributions and I hope that some of the things I try to teach them stick. But since they were born they have been finding their own way of thinking and doing things. And as far as I can tell, the growing child’s brain is a place of mystery, magnificence and quite often black magic.

What’s normal?

Like all parents (tell me I’m not the only one!) I often find myself thinking “blimey, is that normal?” which gets you thinking…What IS normal? What is actually going on at a genetic and cellular level in a child’s brain when they have an identified disorder, like autism? It’s become clear that there’s an awful lot that we don’t know or understand about autistic spectrum disorders. What causes them, what is happening in the brain and what we can do to help people with autism embrace their way of thinking and looking at the world.

The failed gene quest

Studies have tried to identify a single gene that might cause autism but have failed. A group of scientists in Sweden looked at the occurrence of mutations in the genes of 3,000 children with autism compared to 3,000 children without autism. They found similar mutations in both groups, but none that were only present in the autistic group, and no mutations that were very uncommon. Dr Joseph Buxbaum, of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai (ISMMS) explained that mutations are most likely to account for roughly 60% of the risk of having autism. But of those mutations about half are common mutations.

This study offers support for the idea that autism is caused by a collection of common mutations. If other complex conditions such as cancer give us any clues then it may be a bit like a lottery – and of all the possible mutations, you need a certain number, of a certain combination of mutations to be autistic.

We’re gonna need a bigger dataset

Many researchers are now trying to use the power of big data computing to find patterns in our genes that will help us to diagnose autism more effectively and earlier. Many of the genes that we associate with autism are linked to neuron development, a discovery which could help us to understand more about what’s physically and chemically happening in the brain. We’re also searching for biomarkers and we’re making progress! These biomarkers are proteins or chemicals that are like flashing beacons, illuminating a faulty metabolic pathway.

Mutations rock!

I try to celebrate the uniqueness of my children. Even, or especially when they’re merrily climbing up my very last nerve. It helps me to remember that on a genetic level at least, we all share some of the mutations that lead to neural diversity. Looking at the research, I’m confident we will be better able to diagnose autism in the very near future. And as the world begins to gain a better grasp of what neural diversity is, how many people it affects and the wonderful ways our brains work – the question is could we and should we look at medical treatment? If yes, what form would that treatment or ‘fix’ take?

We’ve come a long way in learning how to embrace the many talents the neural diverse community possess – yet I feel like we’ve barely scratched the surface!

autism-awareness-month

P.S. All our Curiosity Boxes have been designed and curated with sensory learning in mind. Please do check them out!

autism-awareness-month

Create your own Icy Snow Globes

 

Make the most of the chill by doing a wonderful winter science activity that is full of sensory science!

You will need:

  • A teacup (or something waterproof that is dome shaped)
  • Water
  • Lovely things to put in it
  • A seriously chilly night

How to do it

  1. Fill the cup with cold tap water. Poke your finger into the water, how does it feel? You could measure and record the temperature if you have a thermometer.
  2. Find some small objects to put into the water, things like marbles, stones, leaves and flowers work well (although our lavender flowers wouldn’t sink, we still liked the effect). How do your objects feel before you put them in the water? Do they feel different after they have been in the water? Do they look different when they are in the water?
  3. Look for an uncovered, flat surface outside and place your water-filled cup on it, you will need to leave it there overnight. Why do you think the surface needs to be uncovered?
  4. Make a prediction: What do you think will happen to the water and your objects when you leave them out overnight? What changes do you think you will see in the morning?
  5. Rise and shine! Go and have a look at your cup then poke the water, has it changed? What has happened to the water? How does it feel now? Was your prediction correct? You could measure the temperature again and see how different it is!
  6. Caution: this next step will get a bit wet so make sure you do it on a wipeable surface, that is clear of anything that could be damaged by water.
  7. Take a flat plate and put it on top of your cup. Holding the cup and the plate together turn it over so that your cup is sitting face down on top of the plate. Gently lift the cup up, what do you see?  What has happened to the objects in your Icy Snow Globe?

What’s going on?

The temperature is regularly getting below freezing point at the moment and that means that water will freeze! It also means that its the perfect time for a winter science activity! You may have noticed ice on the ground or even had some snow! When the temperature gets below 0 degrees centigrade the molecules in water start to slow down and line up, creating a regular pattern that turns liquid water into a solid, you will know this as ice!  The ice will form from the outside in, where it is closest to the air. This is because the air is colder that the water in the cup. Because there is quite a lot of water in the cup, the bit right in the middle might not have gotten cold enough to freeze. Can you see any bubbles and liquid water trapped inside the icy dome?

Now that you know how to make an icy science snow globe, what else could you do? I think there are so many creative things you could try! Take a look at the little video I made of my icy snow globes with some gem stones in one and nothing in the other on our instagram page Are there other winter science activities using the weird and wonderful properties of water that you could try?

 

A Sciency Festive Q&A

It might be Christmas, but that doesn’t mean the questions stop. In fact, we find that kids are even more curious at this time of year, as they try to wrap their heads around the magic of the festive season. Here are a few of our favourites!

Is Rudolph’s nose really red?

This is no ‘Christmyth’! There’s a species of reindeer that does indeed have a distinct red tinge to their noses. And the believers among us won’t be surprised to learn that you’ll find these gorgeous beasts in certain Arctic regions. Y’know, close to the North Pole? The redness is down to a dense cluster of blood vessels packed into the nose. These vessels can deliver blood there to help manage body temperature and protect the brain in the freezing environment. The more we think about it, why wouldn’t Santa pick a lead reindeer that’s better equipped to handle the freezing cold temperatures?

Why do our fairy lights always come out tangled?

It doesn’t matter what you do, every year your lights emerge from your box of decorations in a knotty mess! It’s not you, and it’s not Gremlins. You’re literally battling the mathematical laws of probability here and the odds are always stacked against you. See, thanks to something called entropy there are many ways for a string of lights to become tangled but only one way for them to remain unravelled. So don’t feel too bad. As a certain fictional starship engineer once said… “Ye cannae change the laws of physics!” Check out this article which explains everything without making your brain hurt.

Which is better? A real tree or a fake tree?

Of course a real tree looks better and smells better, but is it better to buy an artificial tree and save one from being ripped out of the ground? We checked in with the Carbon Trust and the answer is a definite no. The carbon footprint of a real pine is lower than a plastic one, especially if you dispose of it responsibly. Don’t despair if you do have a plastic one though. If you take care of it and use it no less than 10 times, you’ll have evened out the carbon footprint score. Winner! Read more about how you can have a more earth-friendly Christmas here.

Want more festive facts? Check out our post on why Santa is the ultimate Curiositeer!

Feeling Festive – For Grownup Curiositeers Only!

As we enter the festive season, it’s clear we’ll be doing a lot of our socialising online this year. Zoom office parties might reduce the chances of high alcohol consumption which is quite a relief for me as I’ve been forced to recognise that age and alcohol equal substantial discomfort. From the dead-of-night heart palpitations to three-day hangovers, overindulgence for over 40’s is just no fun and I don’t even drink that much!

That doesn’t mean I don’t want to enjoy the odd glass of fizz (or 3) but clearly getting older and alcohol don’t mix. But why? As with most of life’s big questions, I turn to science for the answers that might prepare me for the inevitable or perhaps incentivise me to change my ways.

What makes bubbly boozy?

Alcohol obviously! Specifically ethanol, which is a chain of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms strung together like Christmas lights where the last bulb is a combination of one Oxygen and one Hydrogen atom.

The structure of ethanol makes it very easily absorbed through our gut. About 20% is absorbed through our stomach and 80% is absorbed via the rest of our gut, directly into the bloodstream. This means that within minutes of having a drink, the alcohol is speeding its way to every organ in the body.

Once in the bloodstream, alcohol goes to the liver which secretes a cunning enzyme that snips those Christmas lights at just the right positions to turn out every light in the chain. That enzyme is called Alcohol Dehydrogenase (dee-hi-drog-en-ase), and its job is to break down alcohol into manageable pieces that we can easily get rid of.

The Brain strain struggle is real

The problem with Alcohol Dehydrogenase is that we each have a limited supply and it easily becomes overworked. Once that supply is depleted, any remaining alcohol is free to run amok and cause havoc. It creates the most chaos in your brain, every part of it! How? Well, your brain functions are highly organised and finely balanced (a bit like Santa’s delivery system for all those Christmas presents 😃). That’s thanks to the neurotransmitters that make sure the right signal gets to the right place at the right time (just like Santa’s elves).

Alcohol basically disrupts all that organisation and balance, and to make matters worse, increases the power of a neurotransmitter called GABA which causes slurred speech and slower movements. If that’s not bad enough, it also acts on the pituitary gland in the brain, which controls the amount of water in your urine. For every unit of alcohol you ingest, your body forces your kidneys to get rid of a whopping 120ml of water. This causes serious dehydration.

 

Alcohol compensates for these rather alarming effects by increasing our dopamine levels giving us an artificial feel-good-factor (like when we fall in love), hence the merry feeling and potential lowering of inhibitions!

The painful truth

So there’s the sad scientific reality. Booze is bad news. But now I know, what’s going on, I feel way more determined to follow all the advice I’ve read about “sensible” alcohol consumption (and I’m sure you have too), because let’s face it, it’s the right thing to do. Here’s my plan:

  • A well-balanced meal with protein, carbs and fat to keep my gut busy and prevent that sudden shock of alcohol.
  • Taking it slow to give that supply of Alcohol Dehydrogenase a chance to break down more alcohol, leaving you feeling a little more festive in the morning.
  • Match alcohol with water – it won’t completely prevent dehydration but it will definitely help. This is the hardest one, especially if someone’s constantly topping your glass up. You could perhaps try keeping a bottle of sparkling water on hand and mixing white wine with that, for a more virtuous glass of bubbly, or making longer drinks that are big on mixers (there are tons of posh low sugar ones out there now!) and smaller on spirits.

In cheery conclusion… There’s no reason not to enjoy a festive tipple, just take it steady, and your tomorrow self will thank you for it!

And if you’re looking for some science fun for your own virtual office party, check out our Curiosity Boxes for grownups!

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