Sunday, May 20, 2012


Around our place these days it’s all about the facts.
Our kids are obsessed by them.
“Bring me facts or bring me death!” they yell, banging their fist on a desk and slurping coffee.
This sounds great for the offspring of a journalist (yes, we often deal in facts) and a doctor (facts designed to scare the crap out of you). And it usually is. I’m learning more these days than I ever did at school, thanks to some “weird but true” books which arrived recently.
This is a beautiful part of being a parent to a six and a five-year-old. On one hand we’re supposed to know stuff, like how to complete a tax assessment, untangle a ball of string, or lose thousands of dollars on the stock exchange. But what’s more fun? Learning all that, or that dolphins sleep with one eye open?
There are some stunning facts out there, all being delivered with the gusto of a child who thinks they’re the most amazing things ever.
There are short, smack-you-in-the-face facts: Crocodiles can lay 80 eggs!
Facts that need more explaining: Bolivia has two capitals!
Facts that can frighten: If you dive to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, you’ll be squashed like a bug!
Facts you just can’t believe: A blue whale is almost as loud as a jet engine, but a five-centimetre pistol shrimp is louder than a blue whale!
There are ewy facts: Sweat smells because it mixes with bacteria that live on our skin. What's more, the average person performs 14 farts a day!
There are gooey facts: Nose hairs trap dirt and dust, then mucus forms around it and that’s what snot is!
And there are more complex facts: “Hair, which is protein, goes curly when sulfur atoms form a disulfide bond which bends the protein. The more sulfur a person has, the curlier their hair will be.”
I hate these ones, for they are inevitably followed by one or more questions. “Daddy, what’s sulfur? And what’s a disulfide bond? And what’s protein?” These are the only occasions in this family you’ll hear the words: “Just wait til your mother gets home!” The best I can offer is that there must be sulfur in bread crusts.
Sometimes I’m the one asking the questions, like “What the hell is a tarsier?” or "Instead of trying to turn that broccoli into a diamond, could you just eat it please?"

A tarsier, yesterday. They can't move their
eyes, you know! If they're not endangered,
then they probably should be.

Tiger Father home hints: Save money on
those cash-burning diamonds by taking a
piece of broccoli like the one above and
turning it into this ...

It's true. It happens! Anything made
of carbon can be turned into a diamond.
In this case, simply take your broccoli,
put it between two diamonds, expose it
to extremely high pressure at 2000 degrees
Celsius (3,632 degrees Fahrenheit), and
take cover in case of an explosion.
TIP: Before you start, prepare a special
laboratory worth millions of dollars!

The other fact about diamonds is that on the planet
Neptune, it rains them! Yes, it showers girls' best friends!
When I discovered this (I mean, when I discovered
it in a book), it was the most gobsmacking thing I'd
ever heard. I gushed the fact to a nerdy doctor friend
 of my wife's when I met him for coffee soon afterwards,
and as if this was the most mundane news of the day he
responded that there must be lots of carbon in Neptune's
atmosphere. "Well, yeah, obviously mate," I said.
Without word of a lie, the very next day I noticed
a racehorse running by the name of Diamond Rain.
I bet on it, and it finished third-last. Fact!

The trouble is, like earthquakes, there’s no predicting it. A fact can hit you at any time. I’m rushing to get the girls dressed for school and bang - “DADDY! ANTS DON’T SLEEP!”
I’m cleaning the chocolate from Evie’s mouth before mum gets home and it’s “Daddy did you know there’s a hotel that looks like a dog?”
I tuck Lani in and whisper ‘Goodnight’ and it’s “Daddy – a great white shark weighs the same as 15 gorillas!”
“OK, goodnight.”
“A French woman lived til she was 122!”
“Good …”
“And a clam lived til it was 405!”
“… NIGHT!”
Last night I was at the end of my tether. “EVIE! If you don’t finish you’re dinner by the time I count to - “
NOW LISTEN … Really?”
It’s hard to recover from a non-sequitur like that.

This is one of those so-called "facts" I struggle to believe.
Here is a beach.

And here is the universe. Pointy-headed boffins in white
coats all insist there are more stars than grains of sand on
the whole earth. But just look at the beach! There must be
hundreds of grains of sand on it. And that's just the ones
on top that we can see. And it's only one beach.
Yesterday, my wife smugly said the theory was easy to
believe because we're talking about something, in the case
of the universe, which is infinite. But I countered by asking
what if the earth's grains of sand came to infinity plus one?
I know that stumped her, because she left the conversation
then and there!   

I’m a little bit scared, to be honest. What if the brain really is like an attic full of boxes, and when one box goes in another gets pushed out? There are boxes in my attic my wife would rather I threw out. Not the ones containing ex girlfriends. More like the one holding cricket statistics, or the one with the names of all the winners of the Melbourne Cup, Australia’s biggest horse race. But you can’t choose which boxes are tossed. What if tomorrow I learn that a hurricane weighs as much as 160 million rhinos, but forget how to ride a bike? Or I might forget the date of my wife’s birthday? At least now our kids have given me an excuse.
Their little heads are so filled with wonder. As I’ve mentioned before, we don’t feel we need other little pieces of wonder not so easily explained by science – like the Easter Bunny – to fill our children with awe.
My wife had it half this way as a child. She once asked her mother what a rainbow was and was told it was a staircase to heaven. Her more scientific father overheard and barked “WHAT?!” He then made her sit through a lengthy spiel involving the colour spectrum and light refraction. Well, she was three after all.
My dad had some interesting facts for me. I once asked where the dirt track behind our house led. For years afterwards I believed it went all the way to Sydney, 600km away. I also believed that if you gulped beer you would simply blow up. Now I too am a parent, I can put these facts down to the fact my dad just couldn’t be bother … err, has a cheeky sense of fun.
What’s more, a strict adherence to the truth can get boring too. Like my dad, I have some facts I stick to with our daughters. My wife rolls her eyes, but I will keep aloft the torch that says warts come from touching toads. I also like to remind my girls each night that if they don’t eat their vegetables they will, as night follows day, get scurvy. If they sit too close to the TV, their eyes will go square. Kissing boys will of course lead to myriad unspeakable horrors.
We actually have a double whammy going at home in that a series of joke books have arrived lately alongside the fact books. It’s like watching the news read by Don Rickles.
Let’s not list the jokes, for they suck. But to give you an idea of our house at present, try:
Knock knock.
Who’s there?
Interrupting geek.
Interrupting ge …

Fact: Dogs can get worms by licking their paws
after walking amongst worm eggs. Fact: Dogs
can avoid this by wearing shoes, however they
must first have a special kind of owner. I snapped
this stylish mutt in Beijing last week.

Some facts, yesterday. If you took all the facts announced
in our home last week and laid them end to end they would
stretch 12,500 kilometres! Or, to use the only truly globally
recognised measuring system, that's 125,000 football fields. 

PS: Yes, the facts listed above are all true. Recommended reading: National Geographic Kids “Ultimate Weird But True”. And “The Big Book of Why”, by Time for Kids.

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