“The Royal Society has been intruding on my life in recent years…First my father, then my mother were inducted as Fellows. Last year, my good friend Louie Stowell was shortlisted for the Society’s Young People’s Book Prize for her excellent book The Story of Astronomy and Space. And now I find myself shortlisted for the same award in 2012, for my book See Inside Inventions. Not content with that, I’ve since been invited to the Summer Science Exhibition to talk about inventions. With all that build-up, I had no choice but to say yes!

Alex Frith (right) and Mark Champkins (left) during the ‘See Inside Inventions’ event

Before the talk, I had some time to wander through the exhibition rooms, but found myself kept at a distance by the hordes of excited adults, children and scientists all eagerly asking and answering questions. There was a real sense that everyone there loved the pursuit of knowledge, and what a wonderful thing that was to see. This is, after all, the true meaning of science – it’s not about a particular subject area, it’s about finding out knowledge, and being sure that this knowledge is accurate – at least, until someone comes along with a new theory!

This was especially good news for me because my job is all about general knowledge rather than specific knowledge. I’ve written children’s books on a number of diverse subjects, often under the umbrella of that word ‘science’ – chemistry, physics, dinosaurs, neuroscience, forensics to name a few – but I’m no expert in any of these subjects, and so it is with the topic of inventions. I was dreading an audience of budding engineers who wanted to know how everything works, but instead the room was full of people happy to find out instead how and why certain inventions came about, what kind of people become inventors, and indeed to delve into the question of what it is that makes an invention an invention – something that can apply to food, clothing, art and even ideas as much as to machines.

The highlight for me was the talk from co-presenter Mark Champkins, inventor in residence at the Science Museum. After telling his story, he was challenged to explain the difference between objects he has clearly invented versus objects for which he has provided innovative designs. Either way, we were all impressed by his productivity in both fields! Mark’s website has more details; a visit is recommended for parents and bored schoolchildren alike.

It was also delightful to find lots of children who would rise to the challenge of the ‘which came first?’ quiz that ended the session. Why not take on the challenge yourself? But be warned!  A quick check through Google and Wikipedia will soon make it clear just how hard it is to define when a invention was created, and which individual can rightly lay claim to its invention.

Which came first…

1. The bicycle or the biro?

2. The television or the telephone?

3. The microscope or the microwave oven?

4. The vacuum cleaner or the dishwasher?

5. Batteries or electric lights?

6. Rollerskates or skateboards?

7. The saxophone or the piano?

8. Morse Code or Braille writing?*

And here’s a couple of questions from the audience, clearly inspired by philosophy as much as by science:

 Which came first…

1) Paintings or paints?

2) Rockets or chimneys?

My favourite invention is writing – what’s yours?”

Posted by Alex Frith, Editor, Usborne Publishing

*[Quiz answers: 1. The bicycle; 2. The telephone; 3. The microscope; 4. The dishwasher; 5. Batteries; 6. Rollerskates; 7. The piano; 8. Braille]

Find out more about this year’s Royal Society Young People’s Book Prize on our blog. And don’t forget you can still get involved in the Summer Science Exhibition by taking part in our big experiment.

Comments are closed.