Clouds over Pittwater. Photo by Jon Brock

Clouds

Science is stranger and more beautiful than any children’s fiction


One of my favourite bits about being a dad is, every now and then, just casually blowing my little boy’s mind — with science. Last weekend, for example, we were out for a stroll when he paused, looked up at the sky, and came out with “I wish I had a rocket so I could go and stand on a cloud”. Sensing an opening, I explained that clouds are made of tiny droplets of water that hang in the air, so you wouldn’t ever be able to stand on one. But, when it’s misty, that’s just a cloud that’s really low down on the ground, so it’s actually very easy to stand inside a cloud. That pleased him, as he acknowledged his chances of owning a rocket any time soon were slim at best.

Sometimes I perhaps take it too far. The other night, as I was tucking him up in bed, I found myself pointing out that the blanket he was snuggling into wasn’t actually hot — so how was it keeping him warm? This backfired, as he then insisted on getting up and explaining to his mum the newly acquired concept of insulation.

I’ve been pleasantly surprised how much useful information he picks up from TV programs and DVDs — although sometimes he doesn’t get things entirely right. A couple of weeks ago, after watching an episode of Sid the Science Kid, he was proudly explaining how the digestive system works:

“First you chew it up. Then it goes down, down into your stomach where all the juices break it up into small pieces. Then it goes into a big maze called the intesticles [sic] and it goes round and round [demonstrates]. And then it goes all the way down to your feet — and that’s how you grow!”

He must have watched that episode again because a few days later he was explaining to me quite nicely the science of poo.

What I find really lovely is the look on his face when something suddenly makes sense to him. It completely shatters the idea that science destroys the mystery and wonder of childhood; that understanding the universe and how it works somehow devalues it.

Think of what he’s yet to learn. He’s made of atoms that were created in stars as they died. He’s evolved from an ancestor shared with every living creature on the planet. His own conscious experience arises from billions of neurons, firing electrical impulses in complex harmony. Science is truly stranger and more beautiful than any children’s fiction.

So it was that this morning when he woke up, the sky was blue, but a large white cloud was slowly rolling down the valley. By the time we’d had breakfast, we could barely see the other side of the street. As we stepped out of the front door, he looked at me and grinned as the realisation dawned. He was walking into a cloud.


Jon Brock is a Sydney-based science writer and co-founder of Frankl Open Science. This article originally appeared on the Cracking the Enigma blog.