Mark Mason

Childishly scientific

2.30pm, Tuesday, the bookshop of the Natural History Museum. Horrible Science: Blood, Bones and Body Bits is being leafed through by one of its typical readers. In other words he’s 45, six-foot-three and has a full beard.

One of the greatest joys of parenthood is the excuse it gives you to abandon ‘proper’, grown-up science books, and get stuck into those aimed at your child. I’m at the museum with my 3-year-old son, who has just shrieked ecstatically at the huge dinosaur in the main hall, and is now eagerly sizing up a T-rex sticker book. One of his Christmas presents was Big Questions from Little People Answered by Some Very Big People (scientists and writers dealing with kids’ queries). We have delighted in the tale of Wilson Bentley, the first man to realise that no two snowflakes are alike, though were saddened at the tale’s conclusion (1931, another flake-collecting expedition, Bentley catches a chill and dies). Also we can now both regale you with the explanation of why poo is brown. Haemoglobin, essentially: once it’s done carrying oxygen around your body it turns into a chemical called bilirubin, which gets jettisoned as part of your excrement – and bilirubin is brown.

Actually my science reading had been veering this way even before Barney arrived. The older you get the more confidence you have in saying:

‘Hang on, when I was six everything was exciting, everything was “why why why?”, I was a sponge of questions just waiting to soak up answers. Then what we in this country laughably call an education system ignored my queries about why the sky is blue, forced me instead to learn the periodic table by rote, and crushed my impudent curiosity beneath its heel of Proper Learning. Whereas if it had listened, and explained that air molecules reflect the blue part of the light spectrum better than all the other colours, I might actually have learned something.’

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