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The Marvellous Science of Space

As we mark Science Week across the UK we thanks both Gemma Fowler and Jane Wilsher for contributing their thoughts on science to this weeks’ Blog.

Beginning with Gemma Fowler, author of City of Rust (published by Chicken House Books) who takes some time to explain to us a little bit more about her the book came into being and some of the fascinating science facts behind it …

I’ve always loved science and technology, in particular anything to do with space. But loving something doesn’t make you good at it and I quickly learnt that I was not destined to be a female Brian Cox (although we do have similar hair). So instead I get to scratch my scientific itch by weaving some brain-busting fact and theory into my wild, fantastical science fiction stories.

The science behind the science fiction is really important and exciting to me. On one level it makes a story more relatable, but on another it gives us the ability to engage readers in some of the issues facing our planet without feeling worthy or dull. That’s the place where I start when coming up with ideas. What issue do I want to tackle? What feels important to write about right now?

For City of Rust, I chose to put my sci fi twist on the Earth's increasing problem with rubbish. But first, as always, I looked to the stars…

I’ve always been interested in space debris, and find it crazy that the majority of the things we’ve blasted up into space since Sputnik launched in 1957 are still up there, floating around above our heads (over 128 million pieces and counting!).

And with more satellites, rovers and space missions launching than ever before, the risk from debris is growing, and it’s not going to go away any time soon. It feels like we’re doing to space what we’ve been doing to Earth for years – polluting it. And that got me thinking…

‘Imagine if we blasted ALL of our rubbish up into space. What would happen then?’

The world of City Of Rust sort of fell out of my head from there – a scorched Earth dominated by recycled megacities where waste is traded under a heavy ceiling of impenetrable rubbish called ‘The Soup’.

Wastefulness and resourcefulness are at the heart of City of Rust. The city of Boxville (the City of Rust alluded to in the title) is made from high towers of rusted shipping containers called containerblocks – it’s hot, dusty and overcrowded. Our protagonists, Railey and Atti, live on their wits, and make money by trading and recycling waste, and by flying homemade drones in the cities famous racing series.

Boxville was inspired by crazy real life ‘slum’ cities such as Kowloon Walled City in Hong Kong (now, thankfully, bulldozed) and the Ponte Tower in South Africa, where residents use their ingenuity to survive and thrive against the odds, and recycling isn’t a choice but a necessity. I wanted Railey and Atti to have this mindset - to be able to think on their feet and make things with their hands out of nothing.

But Boxville is only half the story. Railey and Atti’s journey takes them away from the city, to the Junking clans that mine the rubbish in The Soup from huge recycled Sphereships anchored in the Earth’s mesosphere.

Although I doubt we’ll be seeing any Sphereships or bio-robotic geckos any time soon, this part of the story is where I had fun with creating new technology based on existing science: The harpoons the Junkers use to snare the rubbish out of the Soup are based on a British led project called RemoveDebris which is being trialled in orbit around the Earth right now, and the genetically modified plankton (or ‘Plaskton’) used to generate oxygen on the Junker’s Sphereships are based on Zooplankton, a species on Earth that have evolved to eat the micro plastics in our oceans.

There are nods to retro technology in the book too, found in the references to the piles of junk heaped on the Junkers Sphereships (Hi fi systems, boxy old TV sets, CD’s. Would a young reader even know what a pile of CD’s look like? I asked myself, feeling incredibly old), and the ‘ancient’ indestructible vending machines that line Boxvilles dark alleys.

This mix of science fact and fiction should come together in City of Rust to create a world that feels both alien and familiar– a fun place to hang out and go on an adventure, but with a little food for thought thrown in too.

If you would like to buy a copy of the book please click the cover above.

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Jane Wilsher is the author of What On Earth Books Marvellous Machines (illustrated by Andrés Lozano) and has contributed a Q&A to telling us more about the science in, and behind, her marvellous creation.

Can you tell us a little more about Marvellous Machine?

Marvellous Machines really is a marvellous book. It shows and explains how the nuts and bolts of machines work. It encourages children to make sense of science and engineering by looking inside machines with a magic lens. Kids can look under the bonnet of a car, inside a kettle and even deep inside the space station.

What makes the book different from other non-fiction books out there?

Today, many non-fiction books are interactive, including lift-the-flap titles on how things work. But Marvellous Machines is something special. The magic lens adds gizmo-appeal. Children wave the lens over the pictures and try to spot all the things in a Find it box feature. Children discover for themselves how machines work. It’s hands-on and great fun, very much a play-and-learn book.

Can you explain how children can use the magic lens and how it illuminates the content of the book.

The magic lens can be used in all kinds of ways.

I’ve found that when kids first look at the book, often they dive in quickly and search for all the secret elements in the pictures at once. There’s instant satisfaction seeing inside a machine – all those nuts and bolts and wires. Then the children go back and look in detail to make sense of how the inside and outside connect, how the machine really works.

Then there are more layers of fun. The ‘Find It’ feature encourages children to identify different numbered parts of the machine. Often facts are hidden on the secret layer. Children concentrate and search for the evidence on both the outside and inside of the machine. Understanding how a machine works – and often the mechanical sequence - becomes exciting and hands-on.

How were the machines chosen and why?

The editor, consultant and I worked together to choose machines that are familiar and unfamiliar, big and small, simple and complicated. Plus, importantly we wanted to show different kinds of mechanics and forces at work.

The book has an invisible structure that moves from very familiar machines used at home to involved complicated machines used far away. To start, there’s a spread on familiar kitchen machines, such as a toaster, then the book looks at machines you might see out and about, such as a bike and car, then to less familiar machines, such as an MRI scanner, then eventually to a huge sophisticated machine, the space station, which is far away in space.

It was great to include the printing press because it brings to life how the actual physical book the child is holding and reading was printed.

What makes machines such a great way into science for children

Children are surrounded by machines – simple ones, such as a pencil sharpener, to complicated ones, such as a mobile phone. Machines have gizmo appeal – kids enjoy pressing buttons, working the controls and seeing what happens next. And machines do such a variety of things and often make things change. And importantly the insides of machines are not only fascinating to discover, all those wires and pipes, but there’s plenty of science happening, too. The opening spread looks at the different forces at play that makes all kinds of machines work.

What do you like about writing non-fiction versus fiction?

Often, to make a non-fiction book, it’s like working on an exacting puzzle so it’s rewarding when everything fits together. I enjoy working with the editor, designer and illustrator to make the words and the pictures connect. It’s a real team effort.

How did you research the book and did you uncover any fun facts that you didn't previously know?

I really enjoy researching. First, I gather as much information as I can, then give myself time to think things through. I also look at the curriculum, other titles on the same subject area, then discuss with the editor what is best to include and what to leave out.

For the detail on the page, because I’m not a scientist or an engineer, I study the mechanics in depth so that I fully understand how something works. I hope this helps me to explain complicated ideas in a clear way for children. And, of course, the consultant has an invaluable role. He looks at all the facts and text to make sure everything is spot on.

In terms of fun facts, I find it amazing that a car is powered by lots of explosions – pistons move and squeeze petrol and air to help make thousands of tiny explosions, again and again. These explosions help move the car forwards.

Are the questions in the book ones that you wanted answers to as much as they are questions you think the children would like answers to?

It’s a mixture. There are questions included that children ask. My nephew is exactly the right age for this book and I asked for his advice. One of his questions was about how long it takes a rocket to reach space – between 9 - 11 minutes, by the way. Some questions have answers that I hope children will find fascinating. I find it amazing that there are usually 10,000 planes flying in the air at any one time. And there are questions that I hope make a good launchpad into describing a topic, such as the one about a mobile phone, ‘How does your voice travel through thin air?’ Also, of course, I hope that all the questions appeal to children.

Thank you to Chicken House Books, What On Earth Books, both authors and Laura Smythe for helping to put this Science Week Blog together.


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