Does my gold­fish know who I am?

The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - - Front Page -

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

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