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Why Icebergs Float

Why Icebergs Float: Exploring Science in Everyday Life OPEN ACCESS

Andrew Morris
Copyright Date: 2016
Edition: 1
Published by: UCL Press
Pages: 224
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1gxxpgr
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  • Book Info
    Why Icebergs Float
    Book Description:

    From paintings and food to illness and icebergs, science is happening everywhere. Rather than follow the path of a syllabus or textbook, Andrew Morris takes examples from the science we see every day and uses them as entry points to explain a number of fundamental scientific concepts – from understanding colour to the nature of hormones – in ways that anyone can grasp. While each chapter offers a separate story, they are linked together by their fascinating relevance to our daily lives. The topics explored in each chapter are based on hundreds of discussions the author has led with adult science learners over many years – people who came from all walks of life and had no scientific training, but had developed a burning curiosity to understand the world around them. This book encourages us to reflect on our own relationship with science and serves as an important reminder of why we should continue learning as adults.

    eISBN: 978-1-911307-04-4
    Subjects: General Science
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Table of Contents

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  1. Introduction (pp. 1-4)

    This book is not about a particular area of science – genetics, gravity or chemical reactions, for example. It is about ideas that interest ordinary people, drawn from any area of science. The ideas come in response to questions people ask about the world around them. These questions rarely lead neatly into the traditional pattern of school subjects – physics, chemistry and biology – so the scientific material is presented in a quite different way. As there is no formal syllabus, a query about depression, for example, may lead into aspects of biochemistry and neuroscience as well as psychology and pharmacology. A structured...

  2. Sally works in the lively office of a children’s charity in central London. She had been chatting with her colleagues over lunch one day about which foods they liked and disliked. Her own pet hate was mushrooms, something she had always disliked, especially the musty old smell of the things. That evening Sally was due to meet up with her fellow enthusiasts in a science discussion group at a local wine bar. She decided to bring up this topic to see what others in the group felt and to discuss the underlying science together.

    A fascinating exchange of experiences and...

  3. The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam must surely count as one of the most colourful art museums in the world. The eye is assailed from all directions by the richest of tones, often heightened by the juxtaposition of complementary colours. The blue flowers against a yellow background in Van Gogh’s painting Irises is a classic example of this dramatic type of contrast (Fig. 2.1).

    Julie described the excitement of the paintings in a discussion session shortly after returning from a break in the Netherlands. She went on to raise an interesting question. An information display in the gallery had pointed...

  4. ‘My boy came in yesterday with blood dripping from a cut on his knee,’ said Mary, a mother of two, at the start of a discussion one day. Apart from her immediate concern for her poor son, she was struck later by how just how bright the red colour of blood is. She went on to recall being told anecdotally that this was only due to the blood being exposed to the oxygen in the air, not because it was actually bright red inside the body. ‘Is this true?’ she asked. ‘What colour is blood in the body? On the...

  5. The idea of light has fascinated people from time immemorial. In ancient Greece Empedocles likened the eye to a lantern, imagining fire to exist within it. Euclid later introduced the idea of light rays as straight lines that were for him no mere geometrical fiction. It was these rays that actually caused us to see things when they emanated from our eyes and fell on objects. I recall vividly as a child being mystified by what light was and why people seemed to bother even to talk about it. There was the stuff we played around in all day long,...

  6. 5 Models (pp. 50-61)

    ‘Is he actuallyseeingthe particles?’ demanded Julie, reflecting on a spell-binding discussion the group had just had with a particle physicist working with the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Geneva. Being able to discuss a question like this face to face with a researcher is one of the great benefits of visiting a lab in person. Under questioning from Mary the researcher had revealed that what he was ‘seeing’ was in fact a long stream of digits flashing past on a computer screen. By analysing these, he was able to determine the presence or otherwise of a fundamental...

  7. 6 How We See (pp. 62-71)

    It was not the anatomy of the cornea or the workings of the retina that had kicked off discussion of the eye in one group, but a talk Sonya had once heard about optical illusions, given by a scientist from the National Physical Laboratory. With the aid of her mobile phone she had shown the group images from the talk, revealing to everyone’s surprise just how unreliable the eye’s judgement can be.

    In Fig. 6.1, for instance, the shades of grey at A and at B are precisely the same; it takes a second look to convince yourself (Fig. 6.1)....

  8. 7 The Brain (pp. 72-85)

    ‘It’s extraordinary to think that the brain, with all its thoughts and feelings, is driven by chemicals and electricity.’ Helen captured in a sentence what most members of the group had been silently thinking. Yes, it’s fascinating to hear about the latest MRI research and read about the various parts of the brain with their complicated Latin names, but at the fundamental level it’s really hard to imagine our mental experiences happening in this way. Neurons flashing on and off, endorphins flushing through the grey matter: it all seems disconnected from the everyday thoughts and dreams that occupy our minds....

  9. 8 Hormones (pp. 86-98)

    ‘It can feel as though a huge syringe full of heat has been put into you and shoots through your body. It makes you sweat, gives you clammy skin’. So declared Julie in a vivid description of a hot flush, as regularly experienced by women at the menopause, but not so often expressed openly. ‘It seems to alter your body’s control of temperature,’ she added, slanting her comments towards the scientific aspects of the sensation for the benefit of the discussion group. ‘Does your body actually get hotter?’ she continued. ‘Come to think of it, how is its temperature controlled...

  10. ‘It’s just unbelievable!’ exclaimed Rosie, giving vent to the unexpressed thoughts of the whole group. Discussion had turned to the precise way in which hormone molecules circulate round through the bloodstream, then dock into a specific cleavage on particular protein molecules on target cells in the body to exert their effects. ‘It’s impossible to imagine that all this activity is going on all the time just to keep you going every minute of every day – let alone when you’re running a marathon or giving birth.’ The concept with which she was grappling was the extraordinary scale and pace of the...

  11. ‘What’s the point of viruses?’ interjected Sally with an edge of exasperation in her voice. These five simple words captured what everyone in the group was thinking. They had just learned that all these pernicious microbes ever do in life is break into some innocent cell, grab hold of its reproductive machinery, commandeer it to replicate themselves and then push off, obliterating their host in the process. This insight into the reproductive cycle of viruses emerged in the midst of a discussion about the causes of disease.

    It had all started after Malcolm and Lucy had been to a talk...

  12. ‘Why do icebergs float mostly below the surface?’ asked Sarah, inspired by a television programme about the frozen north. ‘Surely I’m mostly above it when I float in the sea?’ Maybe Sarah’s body did lie mostly above the briny, maybe not. Apparently it depends on the individual: with more muscle you float lower in the water, with greater lung capacity you float higher.

    Thinking about the iceberg, Sally wondered aloud whether the salt has anything to do with it. ‘I suppose it makes a difference whether you’re in a swimming pool or the sea,’ said Michelle. ‘Anyway, is there any...

  13. ‘Why is the tide so far out at Blackpool?’ asked Terry after a trip to the coastal resort one summer. ‘I went there on a visit to see the sea, but it was so far out you could barely see it.’ Wide beaches are a striking feature of some resorts, frustrating for eager children facing the tedious walk to the water’s edge and potentially dangerous too for beachcombers unaware of the speed of incoming tides. ‘Is it something to do with evaporation in the summer heat?’ Mary queried. ‘What about the polar ice cap melting, is it to do with...

  14. 13 Energy (pp. 137-142)

    ‘OK, but what was therebeforeall the atoms and molecules?’ We were talking about the origins of the universe in a wine bar, as you do. We had been working our way backwards from the universe we know about today, with its stars and planets, meteorites and asteroids, towards its earliest moments, just after the Big Bang. You start thinking about how atoms came into existence in the first place – have they always been there? Then you go back even further. What about the particles that make up atoms – the protons, neutrons and electrons – how did they arise? Continuing...

  15. ‘Where does all the energy go when a cup of tea cools down?’ asked Sonya, inspired by the energy theory outlined in the previous discussion. Her question picked up on the idea of conservation: the idea that energy never actually disappears, but simply shifts from one apparent form to another through some physical process. In the case of a cup of tea, it’s easy to see where the energy comes from when it’s made. Passing electricity through the coil of a kettle or burning gas under a pan on a hob are both ways of releasing energy, which in turn...

  16. 15 Energy for Life (pp. 151-156)

    The mitochondrion had hit the news. What on earth was this unfamiliar part of the body? Was it one of those bits whose name we struggled to memorise for biology exams long ago? Who would have thought that such a remote word would become a public sensation overnight? The cause of this rapid rise to fame was the discovery in 2014 that a healthy embryo could be created for women with a terrible genetic condition if the cells of three people were used rather than the usual two. The lurid headlines played on the emotional consequences of ‘three-parent children’ and...

  17. 16 Electricity (pp. 157-169)

    ‘Why do batteries go flat?’ asked Sonya. This simple question launched an avalanche of further ones and began a long series of discussions about electricity. What’s inside a battery? Why are there three holes in a socket? Why doesn’t electricity leak out? What are volts and amps and watts? What is static electricity? How is electricity made? Little wonder there are so many questions, given the major role electricity plays in almost every aspect of modern life. There is the obvious setting of the household with its various devices and circuits. Then there’s the various types of communications apparatus – radios,...

  18. Are the effects of puberty the same in all cultures? Does hypnosis really work? What’s happening in the brain when people become addicted? Where’s the part of the brain that knows what to do? These questions and many others like them have cropped up in discussion groups over the years. Human behaviour is a constant source of inquiry for people reflecting on their experience of everyday life. It has been a rich area for sociologists studying how we interact in social settings and for psychologists conducting experiments, often at the individual level. The biological processes affecting behaviour are also being...

  19. 18 Animal Culture (pp. 184-190)

    Sonya came to a discussion session one evening filled with thoughts about attachment theory. She was studying part time to qualify as a psychotherapist, and had been learning about experiments carried out with baby monkeys brought up with models of mothers in place of real ones. Some of the ‘mothers’ were made to be warm and cuddly, others cold and hostile. As we might expect, the baby monkey fails to attach to the cold ‘mother’. ‘It seems to reinforce common sense’, as Sonya noted. What’s more, research shows the effects of this non-attachment can be long lasting.

    ‘I have always...

  20. Epilogue (pp. 191-194)

    If you have managed to get this far, congratulations! Not only have you managed to weave your way through dozens of different real-life contexts, but you’ve also had a crack at understanding some of science’s most fundamental concepts. This epilogue is a brief reflection on the book as a whole and some thoughts about how you might take your interest a step further.

    Over the many chapters of this book we’ve seen the immensely varied aspects of life for which science has something to offer. It may be colour in painting and food, signalling through nerves and hormones or behaviour...

Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International
This book is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International.