Does my goldfish know who I am?
philosophers, historians, naturalists, writers and explorers replied, including Sir David Attenborough, Kate Humble, Heston Blumenthal, Bettany Hughes, Jeremy Paxman, Claire Tomalin, Bear Grylls, Sir Martin Rees, Philip Pullman and Miranda Hart. I’ll admit I had a few sleepless nights at the start. How did a girl who got 30 per cent in physics end up asking Professor Brian Cox whether the universe has an edge?
Three years and two books later, I’ve had a fascinating insight into the minds of children. Probably a third of the questions involved animals – cows, crocodiles, penguins and snails figure large. That’s hardly news, but the most touching thing was the empathy in their queries. They worried about chickens getting headaches, elephants getting depressed, what cats dream about and even whether owls get heartburn. Of course, they were obsessed with space, too. Proof that the Brian Cox Effect is alive and well. Though I was amazed at how sanguine they were about the end of the world, wondering how long before the sun burns out and we need to move to another planet.
The answers from experts have been surprising as well. A biologist, Dr Mike Webster, blew my assumptions about goldfish intelligence out of the water, and a Nasa rocket scientist calculated that a cow couldn’t quite propel itself into the stratosphere if you collected a year’s worth of its methane (though it would get three miles up).
Talking of flatulence, you won’t be surprised to hear space isn’t the children’s only obsession: “Do octopuses fart?” “Why can’t we drink wee?” and “Why does sweetcorn come out the same as when I ate it?”
It’s questions like these – and the experts’ quirky answers that go with them – that have encouraged reluctant readers to take the book to bed and children to show their friends. Feedback from parents has been great and I’ve been amazed to discover that in the playground facts are currency, the stranger the better. Meanwhile, in grown-up currency, over £100,000 has been raised for the NSPCC. As for me, it’s been an education. I even know how to answer, “Does my goldfish know who I am?” (Answer on right.)
Does My Goldfish Know Who I Am? by Gemma Elwin Harris (Faber, £12.99) is available from Telegraph Books at £11.99 + £1.35 p&p in aid of NSPCC, nspcc.org.uk. Call 0844 871 1514 or visit books. telegraph.co.uk Does the Universe have an edge? asked by Josh, age 10 Professor Brian Cox, particle physicist, says:
That’s a great question. The answer is thatwedon’t even knowhowbig the Universe is! Wecan only see a small part of our Universe – the part that light has had the time to travel across to reach us during the 13.8billion years since the Big Bang. Anything farther away can’t be seen, simply because the light from these distant places hasn’t reached us yet.
The partwecan see is pretty large, however.
It contains around 350billion large galaxies, each containing anything up to a trillion suns. This part, which isknownas the observable Universe, is just over 90billion light years across.
Butweare sure that the Universe extends far beyond this. Itmayeven be infinitely big, which is impossible to imagine.
Monkeys are very good at living in trees. They have hands and feet with which they can clamber about and pick the leaves and fruit they eat. No other animals, includinghuman beings, can do it better than they do. So there is no need for them to change.
But things could alter. The forests could slowly get smaller so that there is lessroomfor monkeys. Or a particularly good food might appear on the grassy plains beyond the forest edge. Thensomemonkeys might find it worthwhile to leave the forest and live out on the plain. If they did, then over millions of years they would slowly change. They would no longer need to grip branches. Instead they’d run about on the ground.
So their feet wouldbecome flatter, their legs longer, and they would stand upright. That is whatmayhave happened to someapes a very long time ago. As millions of years passed, their bodies altered. Theybecame moreandmorelike us. They were our ancestors.
But as long as monkeys have plenty of food in the forests and the forests themselves are big enough to provide them with homes, they will remain monkeys. What was the first musical instrument? asked by Caitlin, age 9 Tony Robinson, actor, writer and broadcaster, says:
Whenyou’re asked a question, it’s rude not to answer, isn’t it? Well, maybe. But sometimes if it’s a difficult question like this one, the sensible thing is just to ask another question back, like “What’s a musical instrument?” or“Howdo archaeologistsknow whenthey’ve found one?”
Maybewhatwemeanby a musical instrument is something speciallymadeand kept just for making music, and there are certainly 45,000-year-old bits of hollow bone with holes in that look suspiciously like early flutes. Butmaybethey’re not. Perhaps the holes were drilled for a completely different reason. Maybethey were tools or jewellery or children’s toys.
The mostwecan say for certain is that by around 35,000 years ago people were bashing drums, knocking out tunes on their xylophones, and blowing flutes and pipesmadefrom vultures’ wing bones and mammoths’tusks.
Life must have been extremely noisy back then. If you shouted in space would you hear anything? asked by Matt, age 10 Ben Miller, comedian, actor and science writer, says:
I beg your pardon? Only joking. To answer this question properlyweare going to explore somefascinating science.
First, what is sound? The answer is not as simple as you might think. Sound, it turns out, is a sort of pressure wave. It is createdwhenan object vibrates in either a solid, a liquid or a gas.
Of course in space there isn’t any air, let alone water or wood, for the sound waves to travel through. So if you shouted in space, and you weren’t wearing a helmet, your vocal cords wouldn’t have anything tomake pressure waves in, and so wouldn’tmakea normal shouting sound. If you shouted inside your space helmet, you would hear a proper shout, because the sound waves would havesomeair to travel through before they reached your ear. But here’s the weird bit. Other astronauts that happened to be with you wouldn’t hear a thing, because there wouldn’t be any air to carry your shout to them.
Which iswhythey say that in space, no one can hear you scream. Spooky, eh? Fishing for answers: questions on animals
proved very popular Does my goldfish know who I am? Asked by Shauna, age 10 Dr Mike Webster, biologist, says:
Fish aremuchsmarter than people give them credit for. People often talk of goldfish having three-second memories, but actually they can learn all kinds of things, andremember them for quite a long time. I am sure your fish willknowwhenit is feeding time. Myownfish becomevery excitedwhenI open up the lid on their tank and myhand appears.
I’m not sure that your fish would be able toremember what your face looks like, but I wouldn’t be too surprised if it could recognise you in other ways, perhaps by the sound of your footsteps as you walk towards the tank.
Selection © Gemma Elwin Harris 2013
Answers © individual contributors 2013