Tuesday, July 28, 2009
By Caroline Taggart,
Author of I Used to Know That: Stuff You Forgot From School
You know how it is -- the kids come home from school full of enthusiasm for a new subject, ask you to explain something, and you think, "Oh, yes, I used to know that." When I started to write a book on things you'd forgotten from your schooldays, I realised that I half-knew lots of stuff. I'd heard of phrases and clauses, but did I know the difference between them? I had a vague idea about photosynthesis -- it's to do with how plants grow, isn't it? But doesn't being green come into it somewhere? And then there was the War of 1812 -- what was that all about?
So there are three Top Trivia Questions to start with; I'll answer them and then I'll give you seven more. That way, even if you can't answer the kids' questions, you can quickly change the subject and throw in some knowledge of your own.
1. Language: What's the difference between a clause and a phrase? These are the building blocks of a sentence. The difference is that a clause contains a subject and a verb. It often stands alone as a simple sentence (He loves dogs), but may also be part of a longer sentence (He loves dogs, but he doesn't own one). A phrase is a group of words in a sentence that does not contain a subject and a verb (In the afternoon, he took his mother's dog for a walk).
2. Biology: What is photosynthesis? It is -- as we suspected -- to do with how plants grow. It's the process by which they convert carbon dioxide and water into carbohydrates, using the energy they absorb from light by means of a green pigment called chlorophyll. Chlorophyll is stored mainly in the leaves and is the reason most plants are green. Photosynthesis releases oxygen into the atmosphere, enabling the rest of us to breathe.
3. History: The war of 1812, between the U.S. and Britain, actually lasted nearly three years, from 1812 to 1815. Britain was already at war with France (under Napoleon) and the U.S. sided with the French. American ships, trying to break a blockade that would prevent supplies from reaching France, were being seized by the British, who then coerced American seamen into the Royal Navy. On top of that, the U.S. was disputing British control of territories in Canada; New England's support for Britain complicated the issue further. This war -- the last time the U.S. and Britain fought on opposing sides -- ended in stalemate when the British defeated Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo and subsequently lifted their blockade.
4. Literature: Where does the expression 'It just growed' come from? It's a misquotation from Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-96), a fiercely anti-slavery novel published in 1852, when this was the political hot potato in America. The most famous character is the slave girl Topsy, who didn't know where she came from (i.e. didn't realise that God had made her) and said, 'I s'pect I growed.'
5. Math: who was that Pythagoras guy anyway? He was a Greek mathematician and philosopher who lived in the 6th century BC. His theorem (the word comes from the same root as "theory" but means something that can be proved) states that in a right-angled triangle "the square on the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares on the other two sides." The hypotenuse is the longest side of the triangle, opposite the right angle. This theorem really really matters to mathematicians, because it is fundamental to calculations used in architecture, engineering, astronomy, navigation and the like.
6. Geography: which were the original 13 states of the Union? In alphabetical order: Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Virginia. Delaware was the first to ratify the new constitution and is nicknamed "The First State" to this day.
7. Chemistry: what's the Periodic Table of Elements? It's a way of setting out the names of all the known chemical elements so that the vertical columns contain groups or families with similar properties. It was devised in the 19th century by a Russian chemist called Mendeleev and has been in use ever since. An element, by the way, is a substance that cannot be decomposed into a simpler substance by a chemical process. Groups of elements come together to form compounds. So, for example, a combination of the element hydrogen (H) and the element oxygen (O) can form the compound water (H2O).
8. Physics: what are conduction, convection and radiation? These are the ways in which heat is transferred from one "body" (that is, "thing") to another. Put simply, conduction means that a cool thing -- whether solid, liquid, or gas -- is warmed up by coming into contact with a hot thing. Convection occurs in liquids and gases and is the basis of the principle that hot air rises. A hot liquid or gas is generally less dense than a cool one; as the hot particles rise, cooler ones rush in underneath to take their place. The hot particles, having risen, cool and come down again, and so on. Radiation involves the energy that all objects emit. It is the only one of the three methods that works in a vacuum and is how the sun's rays manage to warm the Earth from so far away.
9. Art: who was Jackson Pollock? He was what is called an Abstract Expressionist and he believed that the act of painting was more important than the finished product. His paintings are therefore highly colourful, often huge, and (like his life) chaotic to the point of frenzy. He died in a motor accident in 1956, aged only 44.
10. Music: why should I care about Johann Sebastian Bach? He was incredibly important in the development of classical music: without him, some say, there might have been no Haydn, no Mozart, and no Beethoven. He wrote mostly organ music, church music, and orchestral music; his most famous works include the Brandenburg Concertos, the St. Matthew Passion, The Well-Tempered Clavier, and Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring. He had many children, including the composers Carl Philip Emmanuel and Johann Christian.
©2009 Caroline Taggart, author of I Used to Know That: Stuff You Forgot From School
Caroline Taggart, author of I Used to Know That: Stuff You Forgot From School, has been an editor of non-fiction books for nearly 30 years and has covered nearly every subject from natural history and business to gardening and astronomy. She has written several books and was the editor of Writer's Market UK 2009.
For more information please visit www.amazon.com.