Simple Science Can be Fascinating

(Photo by Elaine Ashton)

(Photo by Elaine Ashton)

You hear or read something and go, “Wow, that’s cool, I never knew that.”

When the “new” fact is something basic that everyone else seems to know, it seems even more amazing. For example, I just learned in May that those round white puff-ball plants you’d blow when you were a kid are what yellow dandelions turn into. I always assumed they were a different plant altogether. When I mentioned this, everyone was incredulous. “What? You’re kidding! Everyone knows that!”

Admittedly, most science stuff is more esoteric, and I don’t blame anyone for not knowing, say, that Venus is the nearest planet to us. Still, try your hand at these basics.


How much weight do you instantly gain when you drink an 8-oz glass of water? I’ll bet a lot of people don’t know that when it comes to water, liquid measure is the exact equivalent of weight. Meaning, 16 ounces of water (a pint) weighs 16 ounces (a pound). A liquid ounce weighs an ounce.

Let’s get esoteric. How fast does dust fall? Guess!

Answer: In a still room, like at night when no one’s disturbing the air, dust settles at the rate of an inch an hour.

What’s the most common thing in the universe? There are always more smaller objects than larger ones, more minnows than whales, so think of the least massive particle that continually envelops us. Answer: The neutrino. Created in the core of the Sun, they fly outward in astonishingly thick hordes, passing through everything effortlessly. Six trillion neutrinos fly through your eyes each second.

The heaviest stable particle? Well, at the core of every atom we find protons and (except in common hydrogen) neutrons as well. Neutrons are slightly heavier than protons. Here’s what’s cool. Neutrons are unbelievably stable. You don’t have to insure them. They live forever when they lie within an atomic nucleus. A neutron won’t decay even after 10 billion years. But, weirdly, a neutron that escapes its atom pays a bizarre price for its freedom. Roaming on its own, the average neutron then crumbles and vanishes in 10 1/2 minutes.

Back to the “speed” category. Which insects can you outrun, and which can always catch up to you? (As part of the research for my newest book, Zoom, out next spring, I had to learn such things.)

Mosquitoes most often fly at 2 1/2 miles an hour, so they can’t even keep pace with a jogger. But since this translates into 170 mosquito body-lengths per second, they may seem supersonic.

Bees routinely move at jogger speed of 7 mph. Of all the commonest insects, flies, which look the fastest, are the fastest, at 10 mph. Of these, the horsefly is the champ, as everyone knows who has tried to dodge those creatures from hell. They can fly at 14.8 mph so that only fast sprinters can hope to outrun them. The very quickest insects, however, are the good-guy dragonflies, which have been clocked at an amazing 40 mph. Best of all, they love to eat mosquitoes and have the velocity to catch them effortlessly.

Cool stuff. But I still feel dumb about that dandelion business.