HAVE A LAUGH
Comedian and mathematician DARA Ó BRIAIN is diving into the invisible science behind everyday life in his second children’s book, Secret Science: The Amazing World Beyond Your Eyes. He chats to HELEN GLENNY
What motivated you to start writing for children?
I knew that this would be an interesting group to write for because kids are naturally scientists. They ask questions, they’re curious.
The ideal outcome is that when I’m sitting on a park bench feeding ducks in my later years, a woman in a white coat, literally in a lab coat, walks past and says ‘Oh my god! I’m a scientist because I read your books when I was a kid!’ This is obviously a ridiculous leap. Why am I feeding ducks? Why is this woman still wearing her lab coat while walking in the park? There are so many things wrong with this fantasy but the general gist is that hopefully this stuff sticks with people.
What are the challenges of writing for children?
First of all, you’ve got to get stuff right. What you don’t want to do is re-invent the Brontosaurus. I loved the Brontosaurus when I was a kid, didn’t think about it for 15 years. Then I became a kids’ TV presenter, and I said something about the Brontosaurus and my colleague told me nope, there’s no Brontosaurus. It never existed. Someone put the wrong bone with the wrong hip, and we imagined a dinosaur that isn’t there. Actually, there are now suggestions that it might be back, but it’s been in and out at least once. Science moves on, and you don’t want to be promoting halfremembered stuff.
Science has a reputation for being nerdy and boring – how do you tackle that?
Sure, there are parts of science where people are learning things and they won’t understand why it’s important until years later, and of course that’s boring. But doing laps is boring, and playing the football match is fun.
This book is about the invisible things in everyday life: hormones, electrons, bacteria and forces, so we’re covering loads of different stuff. In the first chapter, I say ‘Listen, some of this stuff won’t interest you. So skip it – there’s another bit coming up which will be more your thing’. Then at the end I ask ‘Okay, so which bits did you skip?’ Because if you liked certain bits, you could become a neuroscientist, but if you liked other bits, you might be more into engineering.
Also, I don’t believe the word nerd is an insult any more. It has been co-opted by too many people who don’t deserve it. People say things like ‘I like Avengers; Infinity War, therefore I’m a nerd.’ No! You liked Star Wars? How unique.
I did four years of maths at university. I’m a nerd. You’re not a nerd because you liked Luke Skywalker. That term is a badge of honour, more than anything else.
What’s your favourite fact from the book?
I’m fond of the comparison that a giraffe sleeps for five minutes and a lion sleeps for 18 hours. If ever there’s been a dividend for being a lion it’s that you can sleep for 18 hours, whereas a giraffe grabs sleep for five minutes at a time.
Also, the air doesn’t circulate in a plane. A plane takes in air through the engine and then sweeps the air out through a hole at the back of the plane. So when you fart, the fart doesn’t stay in the plane.
SECRET SCIENCE: THE AMAZING WORLD BEYOND YOUR EYES DARA Ó BRIAIN OUT NOW (£12.99, SCHOLASTIC)