Parents, relax! Let them eat cake | Sunday Observer

Parents, relax! Let them eat cake

28 November, 2021

After the 2010 ‘Flash Crash’ — a frenzied half-hour in which billions of dollars were wiped off the U.S. stock market by computer algorithms going into meltdown — regulators tried to piece together what had happened.

But they were defeated: the banks’ computers had bought and sold stocks tens of thousands of times a second — yet the records only showed the time of each transaction to the nearest whole second. It was impossible to tell who’d sold what to whom in which order.

This is why there is now a black cable running beneath the streets of London. It starts at the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington, South-West of the capital.

The laboratory is the UK’s ‘Master Timekeeper’, and it ‘sells’ the correct time to the country’s banks. By paying for access to the cable, the banks receive the correct time, accurate to the nearest millionth of a second. It’s the perfect example of how ‘nerdy’ science — the sort that measures things in ridiculously tiny intervals — can actually have a role to play in normal life.

Dr Adam Rutherford and Dr Hannah Fry are past masters at this sort of thing, as you’ll know if you’ve ever heard their Radio 4 series The Curious Cases Of Rutherford & Fry. Now their brand of popular cleverness is available in book form.

It touches on just about every area of life. The next time you play peekaboo with a baby under six months old, reflect on the fact that the infant literally thinks you’ve disappeared. Until that age we have no concept of ‘object permanence’. Many animals never develop it — this is why some birds can be calmed by having a cover placed over their cage: they believe whatever was annoying them has ceased to exist.

And when that baby gets older and has friends round for a party, don’t bother trying to keep them off the sugary food.

There is no evidence to suggest it makes children behave badly: ‘The best data we have suggests children just go nuts at parties, whatever they eat.’ In fact, when kids get sugar-free food at a party, but the parents are told it contains sugar, the parents rate the kids’ behaviour as worse.

At the other end of the scale, Rutherford and Fry investigate the planets, including our own: Eratosthenes, an ancient Greek, used the lengths of different shadows to work out the Earth’s circumference (his answer was 40,000 kilometres — the accepted answer today is 40,075km).

Then there are astronauts, whose eyeballs become elongated in space, meaning they need glasses for their first few months back on Earth.

Elsewhere, the book tackles what are known as the ‘four Fs of evolution — Feeding, Fighting, Fleeing and Reproduction’. Barnacles really don’t like to move once they’ve settled. This can cause problems with mating, so to help on that score the male barnacle has a penis up to eight times its own body length.

Rutherford is a keen film fan, which prompts some interesting diversions. We learn, for example, that when Dave Prowse, the actor who played Darth Vader, filmed the ‘Luke, I am your father’ scene in The Empire Strikes Back, he was told to say ‘Obi-Wan is your father’, thereby keeping the secret from the cast and crew.

It was only when James Earl Jones dubbed the character’s voice that the proper line was inserted.

But who needs science fiction when science fact is so intriguing?

Like the fact that dogs have such great senses of smell because, unlike humans, they separate their air for breathing from their air for sniffing.

Mind you, dogs’ success does depend on proper training. In one recent conflict, dogs were taught to discover illegal cash being smuggled across borders. Time and again in training they sniffed out the dosh — but time and again at real checkpoints they failed.

Eventually, military bosses realised their error. In training, the animal handlers had been carrying cash wrapped in plastic. The army hadn’t trained the dogs to smell banknotes at all. They’d trained them to smell cling film.