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Discover the incredible

Discover incredible
secrets of the world
we live in
Welcome to

If you’re curious about the world we live in and everything in it,

you’ve come to the right place! In this sixth volume of How It
Works Book of Amazing Answers to Curious Questions, discover
the elusive explanations behind life’s most intriguing
conundrums. Why do cats have whiskers? Head to the
Environment section to find out. Have you ever wondered how
our hearts beat? Flick to the Science section. Are you interested
in finding out how islands are built? That’s in the Technology
section. With sections dedicated to six themes, including Space,
Transport and History, you are sure to satisfy your hunger for
knowledge within these pages. So if you’ve ever pondered how
long Earth has existed or considered what surgery would have
been like in the Victorian era, join the club and continue reading!

Future Publishing Ltd

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endeavoured to ensure all information is correct at time of print, prices and
way with the companies mentioned herein.

How It Works Book of Amazing Answers to Curious Questions

Volume 6
© 2016 Future Publishing Limited

Part of the

bookazine series
12 How can we save the world? 26 Why are rain clouds grey?
18 What’s inside an Octopus? 26 What are brinicles?
18 What are whiskers? 27 How long can animals live?
19 How is Earth’s 28 How do we predict the weather?
atmosphere structured? 30 Can wasps exist without figs?
20 What are crystal giants? 31 What is the world’s fastest bird?
22 How do you spot a ladybird? 32 How are rocks recycled?
23 What is an avocado?
23 What is fossilised lighting?
33 What causes wind patterns?
34 Bitesize Q&A
24 What is inside a bird’s egg?

No other
organism in Earth’s
history has altered
the environment so 32
much, so quickly

© David Corby, Peter Craven, Siim, Science Photo Library

6 How It Works
40 Can we hack the human body? 59 How do wristwatches tick?
46 How are products tested? 60 How do industrial robots work? 47
47 How do you reclaim land? 62 Can you treasure hunt with GPS?
47 What are LEDs? 62 How do we make money?
48 How do you build an island? 63 How does pet tech work?
50 What are pet trackers? 64 How does new tech fight fires?
51 How is candy floss made?
51 How do binoculars focus?
66 Bitesize Q&A

52 What will classrooms of the

future look like?
54 How do keys open doors?
55 How do food blenders work?
56 What is the tallest bridge in the
58 How are digital images captured?
40 64
72 What is a cosmic catastrophe? 89 What happens when stars die?
76 How fast are you moving? 90 How do gas giants form? 94
76 How are spacecrafts docked? 91 What will Juno help us discover
about Jupiter?
77 What are white holes?
78 What does the Sun look like from 92 What is it like on board the
Dream Chaser?
other planets?
80 What animals have been to space? 93 What is space radiation?
81 How far can we see? 93 How do you wash your hair
in space?
81 What is dinner like in space? 94 Bitesize Q&A
82 What’s it like inside
Spaceport America?
84 How do frozen worlds form?
84 How do we search for
85 What near misses will Earth have?
86 Why do we fly close to the Sun?
©Dreamstime, NASA

88 How did Earth get its core?

89 What are dark nebulae? 80
How It Works 7
106 How do our hearts beat?
108 What is the pH scale? 124
108 What if we ran out of rare
Earth metals?
109 What is the blood-brain barrier?
110 Why do songs get stuck in our
111 What if we cut down all the trees?
112 What is respiration? 118 How do dogs drink?
100 113
What if water didn’t exist?
Do I really look and sound like that?
119 What are enclosed eco-systems?
120 What if gravity was twice as strong?
100 How can we live beyond 100? 114 How are spirits made? 120 What are the colours of blood?
104 What are the laws of 116 How does your brain understand 121 Is there such a thing as perfect
thermodynamics? science? posture?
105 Why do we see faces everywhere? 117 Why does the mind wander? 122 How do hydraulics work?
105 What is plasma? 117 What are the different blood types? 123 How do nuclear power plants work?
118 What if the magnetic field flipped? 124 Bitesize Q&A

130 What are the origins of espionage? 142 What was surgery like in the
136 What was the first colour film? Victorian era?

136 What is medieval siege mining? 144 How do you make a mummy?
137 How was the Washington 146 What is the significance of
Monument built? Fabergé eggs?

138 What is the Tesla coil? 147 How was the Thames tunnel
140 What did it take to become a
knight? 147 What are the world’s tallest
130 141 What jobs were there in the
Middle Ages?
148 Bitesize Q&A

142 146
© Bob Lord, Alamy, Thinkstock

8 How It Works

154 What is the future of driving? 166 Why do leaves on the line
158 How do you refill a service station? affect trains?
166 How do wingsuits work?
159 What are the physics of kitesurfing?
159 What happens in a burnout? 167 How does the Sailrocket 2 work?
160 What is the future of 168 How does the Falkirk
armoured warfare? Wheel work?

162 What is the Sea Hunter? 170 How do trams work?

163 Why do car engines stall? 170 How do you balance on a
163 How do beach cleaning
machines work? 171 What makes up a road?
164 How do gliders stay airborne? 171 How do trains change tracks?
165 What are shipping lanes? 172 Bitesize Q&A
165 How do cat’s eyes work?



© Mercedes, Sean Mack

How It Works 9
12 How can we save the world?
18 What’s inside an octopus?
18 What are whiskers?
19 How is Earth’s atmosphere structured?
20 What are crystal giants?
22 How do you spot a ladybird?
23 What is an avocado?
23 What is fossilised lightning?
24 What is inside a bird’s egg?
26 Why are rain clouds grey?
26 What are brinicles?
27 How long can animals live?
28 How do we predict the weather?
30 Can wasps exist without figs?
31 What is the world’s fastest bird?
32 How are rocks recycled?
33 What causes wind patterns?
34 Bitesize Q&A

10 How It Works
© Getty

How It Works 11

1 trillion 100 kilograms

8 million tons
The number of plastic bags used
each year worldwide
The average amount of food thrown
away every year per person in the UK
– over half of which is perfectly edible!
The number of marine
The amount of plastic waste that mammal deaths
enters the ocean each year caused by plastic
debris each year

How can we
the world?Discover the incredible science and tech
that will protect our planet

The proportion of
90% childhood asthma cases
that are thought to be
Proportion of the triggered by air pollution

world’s seabirds
estimated to have
ingested plastic,
including bags and The number of trees that
bottle tops would be saved by
recycling just a single
run of the Sunday New
© Corbis

York Times

12 How It Works

umans only make up about one ten Ozone preservation
thousandth of the biomass on Earth, but
our impact on the planet is drastically out Can we stop global Halting the use of CFCs,
HCFCs and halon products
of proportion to our numbers. In the last 250 years
we have added over 400 billion tons of carbon to the
warming? preserves the ozone layer
that shields us from the
Sun’s UV rays.
While governments squabble over carbon
atmosphere and approximately half of that has
emissions, innovative technology could
happened since the mid-1980s. No other organism help to slow temperature rises
in Earth’s history has altered the environment so
much so quickly.
It’s not just the amount of pollution we produce
either; humans have invented entirely new kinds
of pollution too. Polythene, Cloud seeding
chlorofluorocarbons, Injecting the atmosphere
with tiny particles for
organophosphates and synthetic water vapour to condense
hormones didn’t exist in the on encourages clouds to
environment until humans created form. Bright clouds help
cool the planet by
them. Other toxins, like heavy metals reflecting more sunlight.
and radioactive isotopes, were only
there in trace amounts until the
industrial age found new ways to refine and
concentrate them. These pollutants are toxic
because they are too new for life to have evolved a
way of dealing with them, which means they don’t
get broken down either. Giant reflectors in orbit
A giant space mirror could lower
A 2007 study found more than 24 synthetic Earth’s temperature by as much
chemicals and pesticides in wild salmon – and as three degrees Celsius.
non-toxic pollutants can be just as harmful.
Fertilisers that run off the land into rivers can cause
such a sudden explosion of algae that waterways Stratospheric aerosol release
are blocked with green slime. When this dies and We could shield Earth by replicating the
effects of big volcanic eruptions, sending
decays, the surge in bacteria depletes the water of aerosols high into the stratosphere.
oxygen and kills off the fish.
But pollution is entirely within our power to
control. In 1952, the Great Smog of London
killed an estimated 12,000 people over
four days, but four years later the Genetically
Clean Air Act was passed and air engineered crops
Nitrous oxide is a greenhouse
quality steadily improved. The gas 296 times more potent
countries that were once the biggest than CO2. GM crops need less Reforestation
fertiliser, which reduces Vegetation is a vast
polluters have also been the first to nitrous oxide emissions. engine for carbon
introduce emissions standards. Just dioxide turnover –
50 years ago, New York City was taking in CO2 (and
other gases) and
plagued by a dense smog responsible for pumping out oxygen.
around 24 deaths per day, but air pollution
legislation and incentives have helped to Iron
drastically improve the city’s air quality. The Big fertilisation
Apple is even working towards achieving the This encourages
algal blooms, which
cleanest air of any major US city by the year 2030. draw CO2 into the
The technological progress that created the upper strata of
pollution can also be harnessed to curb it. Cleaner ocean, and form the
base of the entire Greening deserts
fuels, more efficient engines, better recycling, and food chain. An increase in vegetation allows more
environmental clean-up technologies are all being carbon dioxide to be taken up, and
reduces the amount of heat reflected
developed to slow the rate at which humans are from the ground back into the
poisoning the planet. From huge, garbage-sucking atmosphere.
machines in the ocean to neighbourhood recycling
schemes, there is a way for everyone to help ensure
that Earth’s most polluted century is behind us.
Pump liquid CO2 into rocks
Pump liquid CO2 into deep sea Ocean storage of CO2 would eventually
CO2 could be liquified under pressure from acidify the ocean, so a more feasible
industrial exhaust gas, and pumped into deep idea is to store it in porous rock strata
ocean waters, where it would remain dissolved. underground.

How It Works 13

Ground pollution
The toxic chemicals lurking beneath the surface of our poisoned planet

and pollution isn’t just about the space generates more than 77 million tons of tailings transport them to you, and then collect and
that is taken up by landfill. A city the size worldwide every single year. recycle them again afterwards.
of New York could fit all of its rubbish for Modern farming also requires more than just But there are high-tech pollution solutions as
the next thousand years in a landfill 56 sunshine and rain. In the UK, farmers add an well. Bioremediation uses selected strains of
kilometres long by 56 kilometres wide. That average of 100 kilograms of nitrogen fertiliser to naturally occurring organisms to break down
sounds like a lot, but that’s the waste of just 2.5 every hectare of arable land and grassland each contaminants in the soil. Wood fungi for
per cent of Americans buried in just 0.03 per cent year. Whatever the crops don’t absorb gets example, have been shown to be able to break
of the country’s land area. And that land isn’t washed into the groundwater and ends up in our down the toxins in oil spills and also certain
gone forever – eventually a landfill site will just rivers, going from land to water pollution. chlorine pesticides.
become a grassy hill. The low-tech solutions to land pollution are Heavy metals like cadmium and lead can’t be
The real source of land pollution is all of the the three Rs: reduce, reuse, recycle, and these broken down, but certain plants will take them
other things that don’t end up in landfill. Copper are in decreasing order of effectiveness. up through their roots and store them in their
and aluminium mining generate huge piles of Reducing the amount of cardboard or cabbage leaves or stems. This technique, which is known
powdered rock, called ‘tailings’, left behind after you need to buy in the first place has a much as phytoremediation, uses plants to soak
the metal has been extracted. These tailings are bigger impact than simply recycling all the pollutants from the ground so that they can be
high in toxic heavy metals, such as mercury and leftovers, because it also saves the energy that removed more easily. Chinese brake fern can
cadmium, and aluminium mining alone would have been required to process and even filter out arsenic in this way.

3 4 5


Inside a single-stream recycling plant

The machine that separates your recyclables so you don’t have to

1 Tipping floor
A steady stream of recycling collection vehicles
arrives at the facility, dumping their cargo of
mixed recyclables out onto the tipping floor. Drivers look
4 Star screen sorting
A series of vibrating, rotating shafts, fitted with
offset star-shaped discs, lift large and light
materials like cardboard upwards; smaller items like
out for any oversized objects like car engines that would paper, bottles and cans fall through and continue on the
cause damage to the plant machines. conveyer belt.

2 Loading
Powerful loaders shunt piles of assorted
recyclables into a large hopper, where they are
tumbled over a rotating drum to loosen compacted
5 Medicinal wonder
For a second time, teams of human sorters stand at
intervals along the conveyer belt and look out for
any smaller contaminants that might have snuck into the
materials. They then flow onto a giant conveyer belt, mix, such as personal electronics, trinkets, wallets and
which whisks the jumble into the main facility. pieces of food.

Waste from construction

sites can be recycled at
3 Manual pre-sort
Teams of human sorters pick out non-recyclable
items from the fast-moving stream, including crisp
packets, plastic bags, shoes and nappies, as well as large
6 Star screens round two
A trio of finer-grained star screens sift out different
grades of paper, which are directed towards
dedicated storage units. Glass, metals and plastics fall
specialised plants items like scrap metal that might jam the machines. through the screens again and continue on the conveyer belt.

14 How It Works

What your rubbish could

become From: Plastic drink bottles (PET)
One person’s trash is another
person’s eco-friendly treasure To: Fleece jacket

From: Plastic milk jugs (HDPE) From: Tyres

To: Children’s toys To: Sports and playground surfaces

From: Glass bottles and jars From: Cardboard and paper

To: New bottles and jars To: Newspapers, cards

6 7 8 9 10



7 Glass sorter
As they fall through the star screens, glass
containers get crushed by the rotating stars. The
fragments fall into bins below the screens, and are
10 Optical sorting with IR lasers
A series of vibrating, rotating shafts, fitted
with offset star-shaped discs, lift large and
light materials like cardboard upwards; smaller items
transported offsite to be sorted by colour and ground into like paper, bottles and cans fall through and continue on
coarse sand. the conveyer belt.

8 Steel magnet
The remaining materials pass under a powerful
11 Manual sorting
The remaining plastics are carefully sorted by
© Peter Craven , Illustration by Graham Murdoch

rotating belt magnet, which lifts out tin and steel teams of workers. They also perform a last
cans and drops them into a storage bunker. This usually check, picking out and redirecting any recyclable items
only removes around four per cent of the recyclables that have been missed by the mechanical processes and
passing through the plant. remain on the line.

9 Eddy current separator

Since aluminium isn’t magnetic, it is picked out
using a strong reverse magnet called an eddy
current separator. This uses spinning magnets to induce a
12 Baler
One at a time, the bunkers are opened,
pouring out plastic, cans, metals or paper.
Baling machines compress these into cubic bales ready to
current in the cans, which makes them fly off the belt and be taken to reprocessing plants for recycling. Any leftover
into a bunker. materials at this point go to a landfill site.

How It Works 15

Air pollution Atmospheric

With the potential to cross international The major contributors to
environmental damage
boundaries, air pollution is a truly global problem
Carbon monoxide

ir pollution is the introduction of gases systems, soot scrubbers and catalytic converters.
This gas is produced when
and particles into the atmosphere that Gases that deplete the stratospheric ozone layer fossil fuels burn incompletely,
have harmful effects on living creatures most aggressively have been outlawed and with road vehicles being the
and the built environment. According to the World replaced by safer compounds, and today it’s the predominant source.
Health Organiation, 7 million premature deaths threat of global warming that looms largest. Ozone (O3)
are caused every year by people inhaling polluted There is growing evidence, however, that This is formed when other
air – that’s one in eight deaths worldwide. Once respiratory problems like asthma might actually pollutants react in the
released into the atmosphere, pollutants are be caused by air pollution, not just triggered by it. presence of heat and
sunlight. It triggers lung
impossible to contain and – depending on Some researchers have even made tentative links
irritation and asthma attacks.
prevailing weather patterns – have the potential to between neighbourhood air quality and rates of
affect people who are hundreds or even thousands childhood autism. Nitrogen oxides
of kilometres from the source. As with other forms of pollution, the best way to (NOx)
These form during fossil fuel
Over the last half century, the nature of the protect the environment is to avoid releasing these
combustion and contribute to
problem has altered. In the developed world, toxic elements in the first place. Conserving global warming, smog and
smog-causing emissions of noxious smoke, electricity, driving mindfully, and choosing to ground level ozone formation.
sulphur dioxide and particulates associated with walk, cycle or take public transport are easy
incomplete fuel combustion have been curbed by choices we can all make in order to breathe just a Volatile Organic
technologies like flue-gas desulphurisation little easier.
Compounds (VOCs)
In the presence of pollutants,
these carbon-based
Beijing issued its first ever ‘red chemicals contribute to the
alerts’ for hazardous smog in formation of ground level
December 2015 ozone and smog.

Sulphur dioxide (SO2)

This is produced during
incomplete combustion in
coal-fired power stations and
fireplaces. It contributes to
smog and acid rain.

These include airborne dust,
dirt, soot and smoke. They
10 can cause respiratory
13 problems and environmental
damage, such as acidification
of lakes.

Photocatalysis How CristalACTiV

In some cases, airborne pollutants convert
to harmless materials when they react works
chemically with other atmospheric gases. This clever Depollution
These reactions happen naturally in the coating can be
presence of light, but on a slow timescale. painted on S0 coating
In photocatalysis, the rate of these structures to
N0 x
Under the sun’s UV
light, the titanium
everyday reactions is boosted using a help cleanse the dioxide (TiO2) coating
specific catalyst. surrounding air forms highly reactive
Innovative chemical company Cristal has VOC free radical particles,
pioneered a pollution-busting coating that capable of breaking
can be painted directly onto buildings. down pollutants.
Made from ultra-fine photocatalytic
titanium dioxide (TiO2), it actively draws atmospheric pollutants
pollutants including VOCs, NOx and sulphur Chemical reactions
like VOCs, NOx and SOx Photocatalytic reactions Self-cleaning
dioxides from the surrounding air and come into contact with involving the free radicals
converts them into harmless by-products the depollution coating. surface
convert pollutants to carbon The soiled surface is
that are easily washed away. Best of all, the
© Rex Features

dioxide, water, and harmless washed clean

catalyst itself is not used up in the reaction, compounds that stick to the whenever rain falls, or
so its performance never dips. depollution surface. it is hosed down.

16 How It Works

Ocean pollution
From oil and debris to sewage and toxic chemicals – our seas have it all

ceans cover 71 per cent of our planet’s surface
and contain an estimated 1.5 million species, but North Pacific Distribution
that hasn’t stopped humanity treating the sea as Gyre The plastic flotsam collects in
The interaction of the first ten metres of the water
a giant, watery rubbish bin. the four ocean column and is often invisible to Subtropical
We’re familiar with tragic images of seabirds whose currents causes the naked eye.
water to move in a convergence zone
feathers are clogged with viscous black oil. But The circular action of the
clockwise motion
catastrophic spills from tankers account for just a around an area of 20 currents draws marine
million km2. debris into the gyre and
fraction of oil pollution in the sea; street runoff, vehicle
traps it.
exhausts and industrial waste are all chronic
contributors to the problem.
Indeed, almost all marine pollution stems from
activities on land. Runoff from farms introduces Microplastics
The patches comprise
pesticides and insecticides into the aquatic food chain, millions of tiny, even
as well as an overabundance of nutrients in the form of microscopic, fragments of
different plastic.
fertiliser. This causes populations of algae to spike,
draining the surrounding waters of oxygen and
suffocating other marine life.
Finally, human-made rubbish is ubiquitous
Western and
throughout the world’s oceans, where it is corralled by
Eastern garbage
currents into vast swirling ‘garbage patches’. Many
items, including fishing gear, glass, metal, paper, cloth
patches The Great Pacific
and rubber, can take years, decades, or even centuries to
These debris pools are at
the extremes of the gyre
and cover thousands of
garbage patch
decompose in some cases. square kilometres. How huge swaths of spinning debris have
The worst offenders – plastics – essentially persist gathered between California and Japan
forever, but are broken down under the Sun’s UV rays
into ever smaller pieces. The eventual soup of
‘microplastics’ – invisible to the naked eye – poses a The Ocean Cleanup Array
threat to wildlife that ingests it, and to the entire food The brainchild of 21-year-old Dutch
chain due to the leeching of harmful chemicals. inventor Boyan Slat, the Ocean Booms Natural funnel
Cleanup Array harnesses ocean Floating storm-resistant The barriers are placed
There are no easy solutions, but a burst of new
currents to sweep floating plastic barriers, stretching out in a V-shape around a
technologies may begin to turn the tide. In just 18 debris into a gigantic 100-kilometre over 100 kilometres, are central platform,
months, ‘Mr Trash Wheel’, a filtering water wheel with long collector for recycling. The moored to the sea bed. causing the trapped
its own Twitter account, has removed over 400 tons of innovative system comprises a pair of debris to gradually
floating barriers, held in a V-shape, drift inwards.
rubbish from Inner Harbor in Baltimore, US. Proposals
that skim tiny pieces of plastic flotsam
for open ocean filtration systems include a solar- from the oncoming currents while
powered ‘vacuum boat’ called SeaVax, that its inventors allowing the sea life to pass safely
claim will suck up 22,000 tons of garbage each year. underneath it.
The most common items washed up on beaches The crowdfunded project – now at
the model testing stage – has the The motion
include plastic bottles and cutlery, and coffee cup lids.
potential to remove over 7 million tons
Central platform
The good news is that means we can help by making of the ocean This extracts the
of microplastics from the world’s Ocean currents carry concentrated mass of
simple changes to our lifestyles, like carrying reusable oceans, and its creators claim that a plastic into the barriers, microplastics and stores
water bottles and utensils. single Ocean Cleanup Array could and debris begins to build it for transport to
halve the size of the Great Pacific up behind them. recycling facilities.

Marine debris timeline Garbage Patch in just ten years.

© Thinkstock, Dreamstime, Erwin Zwart/The Ocean Cleanup

How long does common rubbish persist in the ocean?


Cigarette butt Aluminium can Plastic drink bottle Disposable nappy

The most common item found on beach An aluminium oxide coating makes Plastics degrade into tiny pieces, but Nappies are made from multiple layers,
clean-ups, making up 25 per cent of all aluminium cans very resistant to they never fully disappear. Americans including various long-lived plastics like
collected debris. They contain a synthetic dissolving in sea water. Frustratingly, they alone throw away over 35 billion plastic polythene and polyester. They easily
fibre that takes years to break down. are one of the simplest items to recycle. water bottles per year. outlive the child that wears them.

How It Works 17
What’s inside
an octopus?
These curious-looking critters are the all-powerful heroes of the deep
Fifi, one of the
stars at the
Seattle Aquarium

magine a superhero with the ability to smokescreen ability to confuse his enemies. these amazing powers (apart from the rocket
instantly disguise not only his skin to He can also fit through any gap, move in and boosters – the octopus has a powerful siphon
camouflage himself, but also his out of water easily, walk on any substance instead, using water pressure for quick
texture. Imagine that this guy possesses the right way up and upside down, and even getaways). These animals are the aquatic,
powerful rocket boosters to move him in inject a deadly poison that turns his enemies advanced and intelligent cousins of slugs
super-quick time, and that he has a to mush. Incredibly, the octopus boasts all of and snails, in the phylum Mollusca.

Arms and Central brain

Only a third of the
suckers octopus’s neurons are
Eight arms are here. Two thirds are
covered in suckers, distributed in its arms.
backed by
providing superior
grip and dexterity.
Ink gland
Ink is expelled to
confuse predators,
acting as both a
Mantle smokescreen and an
The mantle, or irritant to allow the
‘head’, contains octopus to escape.
all of the
octopus’s organs.
Three hearts
Two hearts pump
blood to the gills, while
Beak a third supplies the rest
Resembling that of of the body.
a parrot, this sharp
beak is used for
crushing and Siphon
immobilising prey. When tentacles will not
move fast enough, the
jet propulsion siphon
speeds octopuses away
from danger.

What are whiskers?

Find out how these specialised hairs help animals
A cat’s whiskers are
roughly equal to the width
of its body, so they help it
decide whether it can fit
through a gap

to sense their surroundings

hiskers are long, thick hairs Whiskers can provide the animal with
that extend a mammal’s details about the position, shape, size
sense of touch beyond the and texture of objects around them, as
surface of their skin. They are connected well as wind or water currents.
directly to the nervous system via Cats use their whiskers to gauge
sensory organs called proprioceptors at distances when making leaps, while
the base of the hair, which send seals use theirs to catch prey by detecting
information about the body’s position the motion of water trails left by fish.
and movement to the brain. When an Many rodent species use a technique
© David Corby, Lazlo Ilyes

animal’s whisker comes into contact called whisking, where they sweep their
with an object or is disturbed by the flow whiskers back and forth to help map
of air or water, the movement stimulates their environment. Research suggests
the proprioceptor, which relays this that whiskers first evolved to help early
sensory information to the brain. mammals navigate in the dark.

18 How It Works

How is Earth’s
atmosphere structured?
The clouds are just 0.1 per cent of the way
up into the sky. Here’s what lies above… Atmospheric layers
Each region of the atmosphere behaves quite

ir pressure decreases exponentially the differently from the ones above and below it
higher you go. But the temperature falls and
then rises in alternating bands. Exosphere
The ground heats the lowest layer of the
600 to 10,000km
Most satellites orbit here.
atmosphere, called the troposphere, so this layer gets Individual air molecules
are separated by
colder the higher up you go. As the air gets colder, the hundreds of kilometres
water vapour precipitates and falls as rain or snow. of vacuum.
When you reach the top of the troposphere at
around eight to 12 kilometres up, the air is almost Thermosphere
completely dry. This is the start of the stratosphere, 85 to 600km
The temperature in this
where the temperature starts rising again as a result layer can reach 1,500
of a large number of ozone molecules absorbing degrees Celsius but the
air is so thin that it
ultraviolet radiation from the Sun. barely carries any heat
Once the ozone thins out, you reach the mesosphere energy at all.
and the temperature falls again, down to as low as -90
degrees Celsius. Mesosphere
Even at altitudes normally considered to be outer 50 to 85km
Temperatures towards
space, there is no hard edge to the atmosphere. The air the top of this layer can
fall to -90 degrees Celsius.
just gets thinner.
The International Space Station (ISS) flies through a
layer just above the mesosphere, known as the
thermosphere, where there is barely any heat energy Ionosphere
due to thin air. 48 to 965km
This overlaps the
The final, outermost layer is the exosphere, where mesosphere, thermosphere
the atmosphere thins so much that it eventually just and exosphere. It is where
ultraviolet radiation ionises
blends into space. air molecules, creating a
layer that reflects radio
waves to Earth.

Where does Ozone layer

space start? 15 to 35km
The ozone molecules absorb
The atmosphere tapers off gradually, so there is no
obvious point where Earth ends and outer space begins. between 97 and 99 per cent of
the ultraviolet light reaching
However, we have come to a consensus based on Earth from the Sun.
science. The higher a plane flies, the less lift it gets from
the thinner air, and the faster it must travel to stay aloft.
In the fifties, physicist Theodore von Kármán calculated
that above 100 kilometres, a plane would have to travel Stratosphere
so fast that it would be in orbit. This altitude is now 12 to 50km
known as the Kármán line, and is the internationally Jet planes can reach this
accepted boundary of space. high. Air pressure drops to
one thousandth of that at
sea level.Earth from the Sun.
© Science Photo Library, NASA

Space Shuttle Endeavour 0 to 12km
against the mesosphere
(blue), stratosphere (white) This is the densest layer of
and troposphere (orange) our atmosphere and is where
all our weather occurs.

How It Works 19
What are
Deep under a Mexican desert
lies a mysterious cave that’s
beautiful but deadly
wo brothers were drilling in the Naica mine in

T Mexico when they uncovered a geological

wonder of the world, hundreds of thousands of
years in the making. The Cueva de los Cristales, or Cave
of Crystals, is a glittering palace covered in some of the
largest crystals anyone has ever seen. Measuring over
11 metres – roughly the length of a bus – they have
thrived in the extreme conditions of the cave.
Temperature is a sweltering 44 degrees Celsius and
up to 100 per cent humidity means the air you breathe
quickly condenses inside your lungs. Geologists hell
bent on exploring the cave and living to tell the tale
had to don specially designed suits, strewn with ice
packs. If they had taken their respirator mask off for
more than ten minutes, they would have fallen
unconscious. However, what proves deadly for
humans are actually the perfect conditions for
growing crystals.
These monstrous structures are made of a soft
mineral called selenite, and formed from groundwater
saturated with calcium sulphate, which was heated by
a magma chamber below. As the magma cooled, the
minerals in the water started to transform into selenite
and steadily built up. The cave’s oldest resident is
600,000 years old – forming at the time when the
ancestors of modern humans first appeared!
The crystals only stopped growing when miners
unintentionally drained the cave in 1985 while they
lowered the water table. But when the mine stops
being profitable, the owners of the Naica mine will
remove the pumps and the cave will flood once more.
The crystals will be lost, but we can take comfort in
knowing there must be more hidden marvels like this.
“We know more about the outer edges of the Solar
System than we do about the first kilometre of the
Earth’s crust,” Professor Iain Stewart told the BBC after
exploring the caves. “We can be sure there will be
discoveries even more spectacular than Naica.”

20 How It Works

© Getty

How It Works 21
How do you
spot a ladybird?
Get to know a handful of the 46 different species in the UK
Coccinellidae is
the scientific
name given to

Two-spotted ladybird Ten-spot ladybird 14-spot ladybird 16-spot ladybird

Along with the seven-spot, this species is This species doesn’t always have ten These spots are more rectangular and This ladybird is a herbivore and prefers
one of the most common in the UK. Its spots, and comes in a range of colours, sometimes fused to form a chequered to eat pollen, fungi and nectar rather
appetite for pests has earned it a making it tricky to identify! Look out for pattern. They can be found in grassland, than aphids. It’s fairly small and hides
reputation as a gardener’s best friend. the tell-tale orange legs. woodland, towns and gardens. away in areas of long, rough grassland.

22-spot ladybird 24-spot ladybird Bryony ladybird Larch ladybird

Unlike other ladybirds, 22-spots eat It stands out because of its wing casings First recorded in Britain in 1997, this Colourful ladybirds are more toxic to
mildew and can be found on low- covered in small, pale hairs, which gives critter was named after the plant it feeds their predators – warning them away,
growing shrubs. You can tell it apart it a matte look. This vegetarian species on, white bryony. As it prefers warmer while Larch ladybirds blend in with the
from 14-spots as its spots don’t join up. can be found in low-growing plants. climates, it has spread to Europe. bark of their favourite conifer trees.

© Alamy, entomart, Gilles San Martin, James Lindsey at Ecology of Commanster, Lmbuga, Olei, Thinkstock
Eyed ladybird Water ladybird Kidney-spot ladybird Orange ladybird
Britain’s largest ladybird is Newly emerged ladybirds are yellow and If you go to the woods today, you could Once a rare variety confined to ancient
unmistakeable due to its black spots with take hours to change colour. This species spy this curious-looking species. It’s a woodland, it has adapted to feed on the
yellow rings. They inhabit needled stays pale in the winter for camouflage carnivore that feasts on tiny creepy fungus growing on sycamore and ash
conifers and eat aphids. and turns red in the summer. crawlies that live on the bark of trees. trees. In winter it hibernates in leaf litter.

Pine ladybird Harlequin ladybird Striped ladybird Cream-streaked ladybird

Easily recognisable for its comma- Originally from Asia, it has become one Sporting stripes rather than spots, this First recorded in Suffolk in the 1930s,
shaped spots and two smaller circular of the most invasive species in the UK, chestnut-coloured beetle has a strong this species rests on conifers, where its
spots on its outer shell, this insect is preying on native ladybirds and causing preference for Scots pine trees and is markings blend in with the rest of
named after one of its favourite trees. the numbers of two-spots to plummet. widely distributed throughout the UK. the surroundings.

22 How It Works

What is an avocado?
Five facts you didn’t know about this popular fruit

1 They’re actually berries

Although their colour makes them look like
vegetables, avocados are actually a fruit. They’re
botanically classed as a single-seeded berry of the Persea
americana tree, native to Mexico and Central America.

2 There are hundreds

of types
One worldwide favourite is the Hass variety. This
delicious avocado was discovered by accident, as Californian
postman Rudolph Hass grew the first tree from an unknown
seedling in 1926.tonsillitis and even cancers.

3 They contain more potassium

than bananas
Avocados are packed with nutrients, with nearly 20
vitamins, minerals and micronutrients in every little green
fruit. They’re also a source of protein and unsaturated fat,
which can help to lower people’s cholesterol.

4 Inca tribes ate them

Archaeological evidence suggests that wild avocados
have been eaten for almost 10,000 years in Mexico!
It’s thought that humans started cultivating avocados around
5,000 years ago, and they were eaten by Inca, Olmec and
Mayan tribes.

5 The stone can grow into a tree

You can grow your own avocado tree using the pit of
the fruit that you just ate. Seeds only take two to six
weeks to germinate, but the trees will take at least five years
to bear fruit.

What is fossilised lightning?

When a lightning bolt hits damp sand, something incredible happens

A sample of ightning lasts for only fractions more than enough energy to make it
fulgurite found in of a second, but when conditions happen naturally.
Arizona, US
are just right, traces of it can be Sand doesn’t normally conduct
preserved for centuries in the form of electricity, but when it is wet it provides
fossils. If a bolt strikes sand, it can form a path for the lightning. Gaps between
a stone tube called a fulgurite. sand grains trap water, and when
Sand is made from ground-up lightning strikes, it passes through the
particles of rocks, minerals, and the liquid. The intense energy release
shells and skeletons of living organisms. produces searing heat, melting the
©Thinkstock; Science Photo Library

The exact composition varies depending grains and leaving behind a glassy cast
on where you are in the world, but one of that traces the outline of the bolt.
the most common components is silica Fulgurites can be made naturally, but
– the key ingredient used to make glass. it’s also possible to encourage their
Glass is made by melting sand at formation artificially by planting a
temperatures in excess of 1,700 degrees conductive metal rod into wet sand,
Celsius, and a lightning strike provides standing back and waiting for a storm!

How It Works 23
What is The egg
Get to grips with egg development, from
ovulating avian to hatching hen Size doesn’t matter
The largest egg in the world is

inside a
laid by one of the biggest
birds: the ostrich. But small
birds can lay large eggs too.
The kiwi’s egg is around 20
per cent of its body weight,
compared to the two per

cent in both an ostrich and
Kiwi egg Chicken egg a chicken.

One ovule (egg yolk) is

released from the hen’s
ovary every 26 hours,
but it will only be
fertilised if the hen has
mated with a rooster.

Unscramble the fascinating Descent

The ovule then
fertilisation process of bird eggs Uterus
travels down the
oviduct and

hether you boil them, scramble them or The developing egg gains layers of
whip them into a prize-winning soufflé, spends around 20 albumin that
hours in the uterus. form the
eggs are one of the most versatile Here, the calcium egg white.
ingredients in the kitchen. But have you ever carbonate shell
hardens and any
wondered about the ones that don’t make it onto the colour pigments
plate? These little capsules happen to be some of the are deposited. Isthmus 2. Three days’
The ovule reaches a incubation
most wondrous things in the natural world! part of the oviduct Blood vessels are present, and
Laid by birds and reptiles, and sporting all shapes called the isthmus, the embryo has a heartbeat.
which is where the After five days, there is
and sizes, each egg has a similar makeup – a brittle shell membranes substantial growth and the
shell protects a gloopy inner of the familiar ‘yolk’ and form around the yolk tiny chick has an eye. The
and white. embryo feeds on nutrients
‘white’. The yolk is released as the chicken ovulates; it from the yolk through the
can then be fertilised, and continues to travel through blood vessels.
the hen’s reproductive tract. The white of the egg is
comprised of various different layers of albumin, Cloaca
The egg is laid. The
structural fibres and membrane, which surround the whole process takes
yolk as it travels through. Finally, the eggs are around 26 hours, and a
chicken can ovulate
‘shelled’ and laid by the hen usually 24 hours later. again after 60 minutes.
The fertilised yolk contains all of the genetic 1. Fertilised egg
The embryo begins to
information needed to create a newborn chick. To develop at one side of the
support the chick’s development, eggs are high in fat yolk – this is held in place
in the centre of the egg
and protein – the more fat in the yolk, the darker the white by a protein cord
colour. Read on to find out about the development called the chalaza.
from fertilised egg to chick.

American supermarket
eggs are often white
Egg aesthetics
Most chicken eggs we eat in the UK are a light-brown colour, but in the
US, white eggs are the norm. The colouring depends on the breed of hen,
and there is little difference between the eggs otherwise. Eggs actually
come in all different colours; the Araucana breed of hen lays muted blue
eggs – this is due to a pigment called oocyanin, which dyes the shell.
There are also breeds that lay cream, pink or olive-green eggs.
Crossbreeding results in hens known as ‘Easter eggers’,
which produce large eggs in all sorts of colours.
Many other bird species lay speckled eggs, though the reason for this
is debated among experts. Many believe that the speckles act as
camouflage to keep developing eggs safe from hungry predators, but this
hasn’t been observed in the wild – in fact, the speckles may even make
them stand out! Recent research suggests the speckles actually show
where extra pigment has been added to support a weak area of shell.

24 How It Works

A ten-day-old domestic
chicken inside an egg
3. Nine to eleven
days’ incubation
The embryo’s neck has
lengthened and its brain is
developing. Claws, legs and
wings begin to show and
lengthen, and there are also
feather follicles forming as
more blood vessels draw
sustenance from the yolk.

4. 14 to 17 days’
The embryo now fully
resembles a chick, down has
covered its body, and days 15
and 16 are spent growing. By
day 17, the egg white is used
up, and the chick starts to get
into hatching position.
Egg tooth

Eggs are advantageously oval-shaped. They are easier for 5. Hatching
birds to lay, fit snugly into a nest, and they roll in a circle. After 20 days, the white and
yolk have been absorbed
Spherical eggs (which and the chick is fully
are laid by owls and formed. It has rotated
woodpeckers) are better within the egg so that it can
at conserving heat. break the shell using its egg
tooth – the hardened end of
its tiny beak.

Seabirds nesting on cliffs

Oval is the most often lay conical eggs –
common shape. they roll in a tight circle
Head rotates
to better avoid edges. upwards

Colour Cramped position

texture Egg white disappears
Disguising eggs from
hunters is key to its
survival. Texture and
colour can tailor an Dark Light Speckled
egg to the bird’s egg egg egg Yolk absorbs
natural habitat. into the body

Emu Osprey
14cm (L), 9cm (W) Malleefowl 6.2cm (L), 4.5cm (W) Northern
7cm (L), 4.5cm (W) Mistle thrush jacana
3cm (L), 2.2cm (W) 3cm (L),
2.3cm (W)

American House wren

1.7cm (L), 1.3cm (W)
Kestrel robin
3.8cm (L), 3cm (L),
© Sol 90 images, Ben Skála

2.8cm (W) 2.1cm (W)
1.4cm (L),
0.8cm (W)

Common loon Blue guillemot Japanese quail Common cuckoo

8.9cm (L), 5.7cm (W) 6.7cm (L), 3.8cm (W) 3cm (L), 2cm (W) 2.2cm (L), 1.6cm (W)

How It Works 25

What are
These so-called ‘ice
fingers of death’ are a
chilling phenomena

ound in both the Arctic and Antarctic
seas, brinicles are formed when
conditions are both calm and very
cold. Usually occurring as winter sets in,
these stalactite-like icy pillars grow
downwards into the water from the sea ice.
As new sea ice forms, water freezes, and

Why are rain salt and other ions are forced out, producing
salty brine. This fluid trickles through
cracks and pores in the ice until it finds its
way out.

clouds grey?
The brine is much denser and colder than
the seawater beneath the sea ice, which is
usually around -1.9 degrees Celsius. As it
hits the seawater, the brine begins to sink
and the water around it freezes instantly. A
The reason why overcast days are so dismal brittle tube – or brinicle – is formed, and
through this more brine trickles and
freezes. Providing that sea conditions are

o understand why clouds can appear grey, scatter the light in all directions. The droplets are
you first need to know why they also small and spread out enough to scatter the entire calm, and no wildlife cruises past to knock
appear white. It’s all to do with the spectrum of light, which means that they will it down, this process can continue until the
reflection of light. Clouds are formed when air and appear white. brinicle reaches the seabed. Then it can
water vapour near the ground warms up and rises. As more water droplets gather and the clouds spread out in a deadly frozen web, killing
As it gets higher, the water vapour condenses, and grow larger, less light is able to penetrate through everything in its path. Scientists have
the droplets join together to form clouds. The more the cloud. What we see from the ground appears reported seeing ‘black pools of death’ near
condensation there is, the more droplets there are grey because less light is being scattered to our brinicle formation, as the descending
and the bigger the clouds become. eyes. As the water droplets within the cloud get frozen brine has encased every nearby
When light from the Sun passes through these larger, this effect is enhanced, which is why clouds organism in ice.
large accumulations of water vapour, the droplets appear much darker just before it rains.

Super-cold brine from the sea

Light and clouds Light from the
ice above kick-starts the
formation of this deathly
How sunlight changes how we see the weather Sun shines into marine icicle
the cloud,
which is formed
as water
Clouds build vapour cools
As more water and condenses.
vapour condenses,
the clouds begin to
grow, becoming
taller and thicker.

Grey clouds The small droplets
© Alamy, Dreamstime

Less light Rainfall that first form a

penetrates thick The grey effect cloud reflect the
clouds, making intensifies as the entire spectrum of
them appear grey clouds grow larger, light, making it
from underneath. just before it rains. look white.

26 How It Works

How long can animals live?


With a new record set, find out how long different species survive on our planet
Grey wolf Cat
Domestic cats typically
1 1 YEARS 8 10 12 15 live for 15 years, or 76 in
Toad ‘cat years’.
The common toad lives for up
Insect to 40 years, but most species Sheep 20
Most insects live for a year or less. live for just five to ten. 25
The mayfly has the shortest animal Toucan
life span, living for just one day!
35 Parrot 30 Horse
Most parrot species have The average life span of a
an average life span of horse is 20 to 25 years,
over 30 years. Cockatoos although this varies
40 and Amazonian parrots depending on the breed.
Rhinoceros can live for up to 75 years.

50 Swan
Hippopotamus Swans can live for up to 50
years, but the dangers of the
Human wild mean that many only
The global average reach seven to 12 years old. 60
life expectancy for
humans is 71 years.
70 Elephant
African elephants live
for 60 to 70 years in the
wild, although their
80 Green sea turtle lifespan typically
halves in captivity.

Blue whale 90
Pearl mussel
The world’s largest animals
One of the longest living invertebrates, these
have an average life span of 80
molluscs can live for over a century, growing 100
to 90 years, while other species
an extra layer on their shell each year.
of whale can live to be 200.
Born when…
Born when…
World War I was underway
Queen Elizabeth II was born
in 1926

150 Giant tortoise
160 The slow metabolism of giant
tortoises means they have an
average life span of over 100
years, with some living to the
ripe old age of 150.
200 Born when…
Abraham Lincoln was
President in the 1860s 220

Greenland shark
It was recently discovered
that Greenland sharks can The oldest vertebrate on Earth
Scientists have discovered that Greenland sharks are the longest-lived vertebrates on
live for 400 years or more,
© Alamy; Thinkstock

due to their incredibly slow Earth. They have a growth rate of one centimetre per year, with an average lifespan of
growth rate of one 390 years. Scientists used radiocarbon dating to work out the date of the proteins at
centimetre per year. the centre of the lenses in the eyes of 28 female sharks. These would have formed
Born when… before the shark was born, revealing that the group ranged from 272 to 512 years old.
Shakespeare died in 1616

How It Works 27

How do we
predict the weather?
Discover the method that Data collection
helps us prepare for the Data from receivers all over
the world is transmitted to a Station
variety of hubs such as the
elements, come rain or shine World Meteorological
Association in Switzerland. Launchable

T sounding
he weather affects us all, every day. From
governing the difference between life and death, to probe
providing a conversation topic to fill awkward
silences at a party, it is an ever-present and ever-changing
part of life. This means that predicting it accurately is a
hugely important task.
In the UK, the Met Office is responsible for weather Radar
monitoring and prediction. Before a forecast can be put Radiosonde
together, measurements from thousands of data recorders Data from the air
across the world are collected and analysed. Every day, Satellites, weather
around 500,000 observations are received, including balloons (carrying
radiosondes) and
atmospheric measurements from land and sea, satellites, aircraft all measure
weather balloons and aircraft. But, this is still not enough various parameters Aircraft
to represent the weather in every location. like temperature and Boat
To fill in the gaps, the data is assimilated. This combines composition of the Buoy
Earth’s atmosphere.
current data with what is expected, to provide the best
estimate of the atmospheric conditions. To produce an Marine
accurate forecast, the data has to be fed into a sounding
supercomputer that creates a numerical model of the probe
atmosphere. The process involves many complex
Land-based data
equations, and the Met Office’s IBM supercomputer can do Instruments on land
more than 1,000 trillion calculations a second, running an measure temperature,
atmospheric model with a million lines of code. atmospheric pressure,
humidity, wind speed and Ship measurements
Forecasters can use this data and techniques such as
direction, cloud cover, Specialised ships, research
nowcasting – using estimates of current weather speed visibility and precipitation. craft and volunteer merchant
and direction – to predict the weather in the hours ahead. vessels take marine
For longer range forecasts, further computer models are measurements and send the
relied upon. data to be analysed.

Meteorological station
Small weather stations take local
readings, with thermometers for
temperature, hygrometers for
humidity and barometers to
measure atmospheric pressure.

Thousands of small
Data from the sea Autonomous Underwater Vehicle
Ships and buoys measure water
weather stations across AUVs can remotely cruise the depths, and
temperature, salinity, density and
the world feed data back send back data regarding ocean temperature,
reflected sunlight, as well as wind
to meteorological hubs salinity and density. The maximum depth
speed and wave data.
reached by the AUV is 2000m.

28 How It Works

This small instrument is attached to a Satellites
helium or hydrogen balloon and takes Geostationary and polar
airborne measurements of pressure, orbiting satellites record data
temperature and humidity. The altitude and produce imagery to show
reached by a radiosonde is 15,000m. forecasters fog coverage, cloud
height and precipitation.

Meteorological aircraft
Data comes from either specialist meteorological
planes, or from the automatic recordings of Jet G-IV
commercial flights. Specialist meteorological G-IV aircraft reach an altitude
aircraft can reach altitudes of 10,000m of 13,000m and drop sounding
probes towards the ground.

Launchable sounding probe

Dropped from an aircraft, this probe can
measure wind velocity, temperature,
humidity and pressure as it falls.

Doppler Radar Parachutes prolong airtime

Radiosonde sends
information to base
Hurricane Hunters
These modified Lockheed P-3 Orion aircraft, Scale: 12km per slide
which are equipped with state-of-the-art
instruments, and a highly sensitive Doppler
radar. The P-3 aircraft reach an altitude of 4,270m. Current

Aerosonde Experimental
This unmanned research craft is model
capable of sampling and recording
weather data swiftly and accurately.
They can reach an altitude of 365m.

Strongest winds Scale: 1.3km

Meteorological centres per slide
All of the data recorded is assimilated in
these centres, as well as being analysed and
distributed for more local predictions.

The future of forecasting

New modelling techniques that
account for changes in humidity,
temperature, wind velocity and
cloud activity could make
Navigation lights forecasting more accurate.


Data transmitter

Solar panel

Weather buoys
Either tethered or free-floating, buoys
© Sol 90, Thinkstock

are furnished with instruments to take

meteorological measurements where Maritime sounding probes Radar station
ships can’t or don’t go. Dropped from aircraft into the sea, these Radar is used in meteorology to measure the
probes are often called ‘dropsondes’ and can intensity with which rain, snow, sleet or hail
sample and transmit data back to base. is falling.

How It Works 29

Can wasps exist Inverted flowers

This whole process is only able to happen
because of the fig’s biology. Although very
commonly described as a single fruit, a fig is

without figs?
technically not a fruit at all. It’s actually a
‘multiple fruit’ where the flowers are inverted.
Male and female flowers develop individually on
the inside of the fig. Slice one open and you will
see many different strands around the outside
that grow towards the centre – these are the all
Explore this curious, co-dependent relationship of the flowers!
The female flowers receive the pollen that is

igs are full of fibre, a great source of the female’s wings off, so she is unable to leave brought into the syconium (the inside of the fig)
vitamins, and packed with nutrients such again, and dies inside the fig soon after. by the fig wasp, and then produce seeds for the
as copper, manganese and potassium. Wasp eggs develop as the fig matures, and the plant, enabling it to reproduce. The male flowers
within the syconium produce pollen, which is
They also contain digested wasp bodies, thanks males hatch first. While still inside the fig, they
then picked up by the female wasp hatchlings as
to an incredible, mutually dependent fertilise the females, dig escape tunnels for the they leave.
relationship between figs and fig wasps, which ladies and then die. The female hatchlings exit
has evolved over millions of years and is vital to through the tunnels, carrying the fig’s pollen.
the survival of both. They then take to the skies and find another fig
Each species of wasp targets a specific species plant to enter and lay eggs in. It’s like the pollen
of fig, and the relationship is based upon the fact is the currency, the fig is the private maternity
that female wasps need a safe place to lay eggs, ward, and the wasp is the paying guest.
and fig trees must be pollinated to reproduce. You may be worrying that all this wasp death
A female fig wasp will enter the fruit and lay means you are munching on dead insect bodies
her eggs inside, depositing pollen from another as you eat a fig, but actually the remains are The inside of a fig isn’t fruity flesh; it’s
fig. The fig is now fertilised and starts to mature. quickly broken down by enzymes within the technically a whole host of flowers!
However, the process of entering the fruit tears fruit. The crunchy bits are just seeds!

The symbiotic cycle

How wasps can make figs flourish, and get a breeding ground in return

1. Wasp enters 8. Repeat

A female wasp, laden with The female wasp,
pollen, enters the inside of 2. Eggs carrying pollen, looks
an unripe fig via an The inside of the fig for another fig plant in
opening called the ostiole. (syconium) contains male which to lay her eggs
and female flowers. The and continue the cycle.
female wasp lays her eggs
3. Larvae here and dies shortly after.
Flowers that contain wasp
larvae form galls. Flowers 7. Escape
that were pollinated Female wasps collect
produce fig seeds. pollen from the
mature male flowers
in the ripe fig, and
leave via the tunnels.

4. Hatching 6. Tunnels
Male wasps are the first The wingless male
to hatch as the fig wasps dig escape
matures. They leave tunnels for females.
their galls and fertilise They then die, and
the females. fig enzymes digest
their remains.
© Getty, Dreamstime

5. Flower maturity
The male flowers within the fig
have matured and produced
pollen by the time the fertilised
female wasps emerge.

30 How It Works

What is the
world’s fastest bird?
Discover why you really don’t want to be a
pigeon in peregrine falcon territory

ound on all of the world’s
continents apart from Antarctica,
3. Preparing
Anatomy of the stoop
the peregrine falcon is one of the A blow-by-blow breakdown of how this
most numerous birds of prey out there. to launch bird dive-bombs its prey
When the stoop is
And there’s a reason for its phenomenal needed, falcons use
success: blistering speed. Pigeons in their large, one-metre
mid-flight can’t escape the claws of this wingspan to gain
more altitude.
plummeting speed demon, which can
exceed over 320 kilometres per hour. 4. Position and fire
Stoops can begin 90–900m above
Known as the stoop, this manoeuvre sees their prey. The falcon aims itself
the falcon climb in altitude before and begins its blistering descent.
dive-bombing like a feathery torpedo.
Peregrine falcons are able to execute
this move thanks to some precise
physical adaptations. A streamlined body
and tapered wings provide unrivalled
velocity and thrust, and a razor-sharp
beak and talons rarely let prey escape. A
special third eyelid protects the bird’s
eyes at high speeds, and tubercles in
their nostrils stick out like small, bony
cones to deflect the rushing air, allowing
7. Recovery
The falcon is
the peregrine to catch its breath. able to close its
Each bird requires around 70 grams of 2. Target acquired nostril pegs in
food per day – about two blackbirds. Occasionally, the falcon order to prevent
will try to chase down its lungs from
However, when a monogamous breeding bursting at their
prey in a level pursuit,
pair has chicks to feed, this dinner quota plucking birds from a fast speeds.
rises steeply. In just three weeks the large flock.
chicks grow to ten times their birth
weight. To support this swift growth, the
peregrine needs to be a successful hunter
to keep the family fed. Here’s how they 5. Maximum velocity
deliver the killer blow. With incredible precision,
the bird tucks in its wings
1. Scanning the and drops vertically through
skies for prey the air, reaching over
The peregrine falcon 320km/h.
prefers wide-open
terrain, where it uses
its keen eyesight to
spot prey.

6. Prey catch
The peregrine slams into
its prey from above, with
clenched feet. It will then
either grab its prey from
Peregrine chicks are the air or let it fall and
known as ‘eyases’. feed on the ground.
© Thinkstock

They depend on
their parents for
about ten weeks

How It Works 31
How are rocks
How the rocks on our planet are weathered,
Eclogite is a
metamorphic rock forged
by the high pressures of
Earth’s upper mantle

worn and transformed countless times

ur planet is covered with different types of rock, from great extreme heat and pressure that compact rock into a metamorphic
mountains to molten magma to grains of sand – and all of form. The planet’s core generates intense heat that melts the lower
these forms are connected by the rock cycle. This model mantle into magma. This magma becomes igneous rock as it cools,
shows how the three main classifications of rock – igneous, either at the Earth’s crust or above the surface when it is ejected in
sedimentary and metamorphic – are able to morph into one another volcanic eruptions.
as different forces act upon them. The rock cycle is a story of rebirth and recycling, where the old
Wind, rain, snow and ice gradually erode mountains and cliffs to provides materials for the new. The cycle takes thousands if not
provide the material that will eventually be compacted to become millions of years, but we can see snapshots of the process: waves
sedimentary rock. The internal structure of our planet itself also crashing against rocks, shifting glaciers and dramatic volcanic
plays an important role. The mantle – a 2,900-kilometre-thick, eruptions all provide glimpses of the processes that govern Earth’s
semi-molten region found beneath the Earth’s crust – provides ever-changing geology.

The rock cycle Weathering and

The forces of nature are constantly erosion
morphing rocks into different forms Weather conditions such as
heat, wind, rain, snow and
ice take their toll on
mountains and cliffs, and
Igneous rock the rocks are slowly eroded,
Igneous, which means ‘born of breaking them into smaller
fire or heat’, is the rock type fragments called sediments.
formed when molten magma These are then carried away
cools enough to become solid. within bodies of water, such
Intrusive igneous rock forms as streams and rivers.
when the magma cools slowly
under the Earth’s surface, and
extrusive igneous rock forms
when the magma cools rapidly
on the surface, such as after a
volcanic eruption.

Sedimentary rock
Rising heat When sediments eventually
The intense heat found below settle, they are deposited in
the surface – sometimes layers that accumulate over
stemming from the planet’s millions of years. The weight
superheated core – can of the layers compresses the
generate temperatures up to sediments at the bottom,
1,300 degrees Celsius, causing squeezing out water and
rock to melt into a molten enabling crystals to form.
form called magma, which These crystals act a bit like
rises towards the cooler cement, gluing the pieces of
surface via convection. rock together.

Plate tectonics
Our planet’s crust is formed
of tectonic plates, which are
Metamorphic rock always moving very slowly.
The combination of intense pressure When these plates collide,
The igneous rock and high temperatures (between 300 mountains are formed and
obsidian forms when and 700 degrees Celsius) doesn’t melt earthquakes are generated,
lava cools so rapidly rocks, but changes their chemical and the friction also results
that atoms are unable structure. They are transformed into in huge amounts of heat and
© Siim

to form crystals dense metamorphic rock. pressure below the surface.

32 How It Works

What causes
The tell-tale spiral of 2011’s hurricane
Katia is whipped up, aided by the
Coriolis effect

wind patterns?
Wind paths, ocean currents and even airplanes are
governed by the same invisible force

inds in our atmosphere do not simply circulate back and forth between the Coriolis force. This explains why cyclones
travel in straight lines due to a high-pressure poles and the low-pressure that form in the Northern Hemisphere spin
phenomena known as the equator. When the rotation of the Earth is anti-clockwise, while in the Southern
Coriolis effect. As the Earth spins on its axis, added into the mix, it causes the air in the Hemisphere they rotate clockwise. The
the motion deflects the air above it. The Northern Hemisphere to be deflected to the opposite is true of high pressure storms, or
planet’s rotation is faster at the equator, right, and air in the Southern Hemisphere to anticyclones, which rotate clockwise in the
because this is where the Earth is widest. the left, away from the equator. As a result, north and anti-clockwise in the south.
This difference in speed causes the winds circulate in cells. The Coriolis effect is so prevalent that it
deflection – for example, if you were to throw It’s this effect that causes the rotational also governs the movement of long-range
a ball from the equator to the North Pole it shapes of large storms that form over oceans. airborne objects such as airplanes and
would appear to curve off-course. If Earth The low pressure of cyclones sucks air into missiles. Pilots have to adjust their flight
didn’t spin like this, air on the planet would the centre, which then deflects thanks to the routes to compensate for the deflection.

Global winds
How Earth’s spin affects the winds,
their direction and function Wind cells
Each hemisphere has three cells,
where air circulates through the
depth of the troposphere.
Jet streams
High-altitude jet streams
flow between cells. They
are strong winds that
move weather systems.

Earth spins
At the equator, the
Earth is spinning at a
speed of 1,670km/h.

The equator
This is the only place on
Earth where the Coriolis
force is not felt.
© Science Photo Library, NASA

Tropical hurricane
A tropical hurricane forms Air movement
near the Caribbean. The As wind circulates in cells, the
Coriolis effect contributes to Coriolis force deflects the air to
the swirling system. form prevailing winds such as
the trade winds.

How It Works 33
Could the Earth
ever run out of
O xygen is continually being produced by
plants and a variety of chemical
processes, so it is very unlikely that we
would ever run out of it. Plants (including
tiny phytoplankton in the ocean) use the
energy from sunlight to convert carbon
dioxide and water into sugars and oxygen, a
process called photosynthesis. This
replenishes the oxygen used up by
respiration or chemical reactions such as
combustion. Even if plants stopped
photosynthesising, we have enough stores
of oxygen in our atmosphere to support
human and animal life for at least a few
hundred years.

© Thinkstock

What are the criteria for

determining a new species?
G enerally scientists consider a species to
be new if it has its own gene pool and
evolutionary lineage. If you think that you’ve
other description. Once you’re reasonably
sure that it’s new, you publish the data in a
peer-reviewed scientific journal so that
discovered a new species, there’s a long others can learn about the species and help
process to go through. verify that it’s new. Naming the species
The first step is to get some specimens to comes last, and there are rules here.
compare against other species that are Depending on what type of species that
closely related. You collect all of the data you’ve discovered, you’ll have to follow
about the species, then comb through the criteria set out by an international
literature about related species to be sure organisation, such as the International
that what you have doesn’t match with any Commission on Zoological Nomenclature.

How do
clouds float?
T he tiny droplets and ice crystals that make
up clouds are incredibly small and light,
meaning that gravity has very little effect on
We have enough
them. For something to fall to the ground, the
Earth’s gravitational pull must be greater than
stores of oxygen in our
the resistance an object encounters as it
moves through the air. Just like particles of
atmosphere to support
dust that float in the air, the droplets’ surface
area is great enough relative to their mass to
human and animal life
keep them afloat. When tiny droplets within a
cloud collide, they merge to form larger drops.
for a least a few
hundred years
34 How It Works

Would polar bears be able to survive in Antarctica?

iscussions have taken place on have been relocated, and found that it’s as space, water and food would be upset,
relocating polar bears to Antarctica usually harmful to the overall ecosystem. and polar bears could introduce new
to aid their survival, due to significant Seals and penguins currently have no diseases to native species, or face
sea-ice loss in the Arctic. However, land predators in Antarctica, but this life-threatening diseases themselves.
although polar bears probably could would change if polar bears were So although polar bears would probably
survive in Antarctica, the disadvantages introduced to their habitat – it could even be able to survive in Antarctica, the move
outweigh the advantages. Scientists have result in their extinction. Throughout the would be counterproductive for both them
studied previous cases where animals food chain, the balance of resources such and other species.

Do underwater snakes
have gills?
W hile some snakes spend time in water, sea snakes live
there permanently. However, instead of gills, they have
a single lung, and must surface to breathe about once an
hour. Valves keep their nostrils, which sit on top of their
snouts, closed the rest of the time. These snakes also absorb
oxygen through their skin, and have small, flattened heads,
and paddle-like tails to aid with swimming. Most species live
© Thinkstock

in warm waters in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Sea snakes

have very potent venom and release small amounts when
biting fish and other prey.

How It Works 35
Why do cats
only meow at
© Dreamstime
Why is gooseberry jam red when C ats only meow at each other as
kittens; adult cats only meow at
humans. That’s because they’ve learned
that we respond to it. Cats meow when
gooseberries are green? they’re hungry, need to go out, want your
attention, or just want to say hello. Older
T he gooseberry is a round, edible berry
with a thin, translucent, hairy skin.
Although green in colour, gooseberry jam is a
cook a gooseberry jam mixture, the
anthocyanins are heated and come into
contact with plant sugars such as pectin, as
cats or cats with mental disorders may
also meow for no apparent reason. In
general, though, they’re meowing to let
shade of orange or red due to a pigment in well as metal ions from cooking instruments. you know something, even if you can’t
the berry called anthocyanin. This pigment is This process is thought to change the acidity always figure it out. Cats do yowl at each
present in many fruits, and can give them and slightly alter the structure of the other – a long, extended form of meow
reddish, yellow or green colours, depending anthocyanins, and the jam changes colour as – during mating or fighting
on the pH, or acidity, of the fruit. When you a result.

Is it true that
elephants never
E lephants do forget, but they have impressive
memories. They have the largest brains of any
land mammal, and some believe that their
intelligence is up there with chimpanzees and
dolphins. Elephants live for decades, and travel in
family groups led by older females. To be
successful, they need to be able to keep track of
friends and enemies, and they need to navigate
long distances over complicated terrain as the
climate changes year after year. African elephants
have been known to lead their families to long
forgotten watering holes in times of drought, to
remember injuries and mistreatment, and to
recognise the clothing of people who have done
them harm.

36 How It Works

© Thinkstock
What is the
powder on moth
B oth moths and butterflies have a
powdery substance on their wings that’s
actually a type of modified hair called a
scale. These scales are probably mostly for
looks, contributing to the pattern and colour
of the wings. However, they may also help
moths to regulate their body temperature –
dark colours absorb light better – or
camouflage them from predators. They may
even help moths to modify airflow as they
fly. Losing some of the powder probably
wouldn’t stop the moth from flying, but it’s
important not to touch the wings; they are
very fragile and can be easily damaged.

Why do we see lightning before It’s important

we hear thunder? not to touch the
wings; they are
W e see lightning first because light
travels faster than sound. Light
travels at about 300,000 kilometres per
instantly to temperatures greater than
25,000 degrees Celsius. As it moves
outward, the hot air compresses the air very fragile and
second, while sound travels at about 0.34 around it and this expansion creates a shock
kilometres per second, depending on air wave, which then becomes a sound wave. can be easily
temperature. The flash of lightning We hear the sound waves as loud booms and
superheats the air around its path almost cracks, or thunder. destroyed
How It Works 37
40 Can we hack the human body?
46 How are products tested?
47 How do you reclaim land?
47 What are LEDs?
48 How do you build an island?
50 What are pet trackers?
51 How is candy floss made?
51 How do binoculars focus?
52 What will classrooms of the future look like?
54 How do keys open doors?
55 How do food blenders work?
56 What is the tallest bridge in the world?
58 How are digital images captured?
59 How do wristwatches tick?
60 How do industrial robots work?
62 Can you treasure hunt with GPS?
62 How do we make money?
63 How does pet tech work?
64 How does new tech fight fires?
66 Bitesize Q&A

38 How It Works

© Shane Lin

Can we
hack the
B DY? Your body is your most versatile tool,
but what if you could improve it?

40 How It Works

e are limited by our biology: prone to Coventry University, claims to be the “world’s Amal Graafstra is based in the US, and is a
illness, doomed to wear out over first cyborg”. In 1998, he had a silicon chip double implantee. He has a Radio Frequency
time, and restricted to the senses and implanted into his arm, which allowed him to Identification (RFID) chip embedded in each
abilities that nature has crafted for us over open doors, turn on lights and activate hand: the left opens his front door and starts his
millions of years of evolution. But not any more. computers without even touching them. In 2002, motorbike, and the right stores data uploaded
Biological techniques are getting cheaper and the system was upgraded to communicate with from his mobile phone. Others have had magnets
more powerful, electronics are getting smaller, his nervous system; 100 electrodes were linked fitted inside their fingers, allowing them to sense
and our understanding of the human body is up to his median nerve. magnetic fields, and some are experimenting
growing. Pacemakers already keep our hearts Through this new implant, he could control a with aesthetic implants, putting silicon shapes
beating, hormonal implants control our fertility, wheelchair, move a bionic arm and, with the and lights beneath their skin. Meanwhile,
and smart glasses augment our vision. We are help of a matched implant fitted into his wife, he researchers are busy developing the next
teetering on the edge of the era of humanity 2.0, was even able to receive nerve impulses from generation of high-tech equipment to upgrade
and some enterprising individuals have already another human being. the body still further.
made the leap to the other side. Professor Warwick’s augmentations were the This article comes with a health warning: we
While much of the technology developed so far product of a biomedical research project, but don’t want you to try this at home. But it’s an
has had a medical application, people are now waiting for these kinds of modifications to hit the exciting glimpse into some of the emerging
choosing to augment their healthy bodies to mainstream is proving too much for some technology that could be used to augment our
extend and enhance their natural abilities. enterprising individuals, and hobbyists are bodies in the future. Let’s dive in to the
Kevin Warwick, a professor of cybernetics at starting to experiment for themselves. sometimes shady world of biohacking.

Professional and amateur
biohackers are exploring different
ways of augmenting our skin

1 Electronic tattoos
Not so much an implant as a
stick-on mod, this high-tech
tattoo from the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology (MIT) can store
information, change colour, and even
control your phone.
Created by the MIT Media Lab and
Microsoft Research, DuoSkin is a step
forward from the micro-devices that fit
in clothes, watches and other
wearables. These tattoos use gold leaf
to conduct electricity against the skin,
performing three main functions:
input, output and communication.
Some of the tattoos work like
buttons or touch pads. Others change
colour using resistors and
The electronic tattoos
temperature-sensitive chemicals, and work as touch sensors,
some contain coils that can be used for change colour, and
wireless communication. receive Wi-Fi signals

2 Fingertip magnets
Tiny neodymium magnets can be coated in
silicon and implanted into the fingertips. They
respond to magnetic fields produced by electrical wires,
whirring fans and other tech. This gives the wearer a ‘sixth
We are
teetering on the
sense’, allowing them to pick up on the shape and strength
of invisible fields in the air.
edge of the era of
humanity 2.0
3 Under-skin lights
Some implants are inserted under the
skin to augment the appearance of
© Alamy, Ryan O’Shea, Thinkstock

the body. The procedure involves cutting and

stitching, and is often performed by tattoo
artists or body piercers. The latest version,
Grindhouse Wetware created by a group in Pittsburgh, even
The implants allow the makes implantable contains LED lights. This isn’t for the faint of
wearer to pick up small lights that glow from heart – anaesthetics require a license, so
magnetic objects under the skin
fitting these is usually done without.

How It Works 41

Buzzing the brain Motor control

If the current is applied over
Visual perception
Visual information is
Transcranial DC stimulation sends the motor cortex, it increases processed at the back of the
excitability of the nerve cells brain, and electrodes placed
electrical signals through the skull here can augment our ability
to enhance performance responsible for movement.
to interpret our surroundings.

The electricity changes the Working memory
activity of the nerve cells in Stimulation of the front of
the brain, making them the brain appears to
more likely to fire. improve short-term memory
and learning.

Current moves
towards the
Gene editing
cathode In 2013, researchers working in gene editing
completing the made a breakthrough. They used a new technique
circuit. Changing to cut the human genome at sites of their
the placement of choosing, opening the floodgates for customising
the electrodes and modifying our genetics.
alters the effect on
The system that they used is called CRISPR. It
brain function.
is adapted from a system found naturally in
Anode bacteria, and is composed of two parts: a Cas9
The anode delivers current
from the device across the enzyme that acts like a pair of molecular scissors,
scalp and into the brain. and a guide molecule that takes the scissors to a
specific section of DNA.
What scientists have done more recently is to
hijack this system. By ‘breaking’ the enzyme
scissors, the CRISPR system no longer cuts the
DNA. Instead, it can be used to switch the genes
Device on and off at will, without changing the DNA
Powered by a simple sequence. At the moment, the technique is still
Wires nine-volt battery, experimental, but in the future it could be used to
A weak current of around the device delivers a repair or alter our genes.
one to two milliamperes is constant current to
delivered to the brain for the scalp.
ten to 30 minutes.

Hacking the brain

With the latest technology we can decipher what the
complex works
like a pair of

brain is thinking, and we can talk back

he human brain is the most complex It is also possible to communicate in the Though still in development, early tests
structure in the known universe, but other direction, sending electrical signals have indicated that this can have positive
ultimately it communicates using into the brain. Retinal implants pick up effects on mood, memory and other brain
electrical signals, and the latest tech can tap light, code it into electrical pulses and functions. The technology is relatively
into these coded messages. deliver them to the optic nerve, and cochlear simple, and some companies are already
Prosthetic limbs can now be controlled by implants do the same with sound in the ears offering the kit to people at home. It’s even
the mind; some use implants attached to the via the cochlear nerve. And, by attaching possible to make one yourself.
surface of the brain, while others use caps to electrodes to the scalp, whole areas of the However, researchers of this technology
detect electrical activity passing across the brain can be tweaked from outside. urge caution. They have admitted that they
scalp. Decoding signals requires a lot of Transcranial direct current stimulation still aren’t exactly sure how it works, and
© Thinkstock

training, and it’s not perfect, but year after uses weak currents that pass through skin that messing with your brain could have
year it is improving. and bone to the underlying brain cells. some very dangerous consequences.

42 How It Works

Exoskeletons and
virtual reality
At the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, Miguel Nicolelis
from Duke University teamed up with
29-year-old Juliano Pinto to showcase exciting
new technology. Pinto is paralysed from the
biology labs
chest down, but with the help of Nicolelis’ We spoke to Tom Hodder, technical director at London
mind-controlled exoskeleton and a cap to pick
up his brainwaves, he was able to stand and Biological Laboratories Ltd to learn more about public
kick the official ball.
The next step in Nicolelis’ research has been
labs and the biohacking movement
focused on retraining the brain to move the legs Interview bio: understanding of the underlying processes
– and this time he’s using VR. After months of at the molecular biological level. I think that
controlling the walking of a virtual avatar with
Tom Hodder studied medicinal chemistry
their minds, eight people with spinal-cord and is a biohacker working on open the biohacking community is orientated
injuries have actually regained some movement hardware at London Biohackspace. towards the sharing of these skills and
and feeling in their own limbs. knowledge in an accessible way. Academic
What is the London Biohackspace? research is published, but research papers
The London Biohackspace is a biolab at the
are not the easiest reading, and the details of
London Hackspace on Hackney Road. The
commercial research are generally not
lab is run by its members, who pay a small
shared unless it’s patented. More recently,
monthly fee. In return they can use the
much of the technology required to perform
facilities for their own experiments and can
these experiments is becoming cheaper and
take advantage of the shared equipment and
more accessible, so it is becoming practical
resources. In general the experiments are
for biohacking groups to do more
some type of microbiology, molecular or
interesting experiments.
synthetic biology, as well as building and
repairing biotech hardware. Where do you see biohacking going
in the future?
Who can get involved? Is the lab I think in the short term, the biohacking
open to anyone? groups are not yet at an equivalent level to
Anyone can join up. Use of the lab is subject
technology and resources to the universities
to a safety induction. There is a weekly
and commercial research institutions.
meet-up on Wednesdays at 7.30pm, which is
However in the next five years, I expect more
Electrodes can pick up neural open to the public.
open biolabs and biomakerspaces to be set
impulses, so paralysed
patients are able to control Why do you think there is such an up and the level of sophistication to increase.
virtual characters with their
brain activity interest in biohacking? I think that biohacking groups will continue
Generally, I think that many important to perform the service of communicating the
problems, such as food, human health, potential of synthetic and molecular biology
sustainable resources (e.g. biofuels) can be to the general public, and hopefully do that
potentially mitigated by greater in an interesting way.

Community labs are popping up all over the

world, providing amateur scientists with
access to biotech equipment
© Thinkstock, Alamy, Ekso Bionics

Exosuits can amplify your natural

movement, while some models can
even be controlled by your mind

How It Works 43
Building future you
A closer look at some of the emerging tech that will allow you to customise your body
elf-improvement is part of human nature, and community of amateur and professional biotechnology the field is opening up, and the possibilities are
technology is bringing unprecedented tinkerers, there is increased interest in augmenting the definitely endless.
possibilities into reach. healthy human body. So, what does the future hold for a customisable you?

How It Works
S Much of the development up until this point has had The first cyborgs already walk among us, fitted with Medical implants could monitor, strengthen, heal or
a medical purpose in mind, including prosthetic limbs magnetic senses, implanted with microchips, and replace our organs. We could potentially add extra
for amputees, exoskeletons for paralysis, organs for talking to technology using their nervous systems. At senses, or improve the ones we already have. And, one
transplant, and light sensors for the blind. However, the moment, many devices are experimental, day, we might be able to tap straight into the internet
with the advent of wearable technology, and a growing sometimes even homemade and unlicensed. However, with our minds.

Custom-build Eye cameras

Retinal implants link
your body light-sensing electronics
Technology of the future will up to the back of the eye,
offer the opportunity to detecting images and
sending the information
tinker with the human body to the brain.
like never before

Smart lenses
Contact lenses fitted with Mind-controlled
micro-electronics prosthetics
monitor vital medical Using a film of electrode
information, and display sensors implanted on to
an augmented reality the brain, wearers will
overlay on your vision. control bionic limbs just
by thinking.

Fingertip magnets
Tiny neodymium magnets
implanted beneath the skin
allow people to lift small
magnetic objects, and sense
invisible magnetic fields.

RFID implants
Radio frequency
identification chips
implanted under the skin
store information, open
doors and communicate
with other technology.
Bionic organs
Replacement organs will
be grown from real
human cells in the lab, or

reconstructed using
synthetic materials
and electronics.
Smart bandages
Wound dressings will be
equipped with sensors to
monitor healing and flag
up the first signs of
infection by turning
fluorescent green.

Robotic exoskeletons
support the wearer’s Electronic tattoos
limbs, using hydraulics Gold-leaf temporary
in place of muscles, and tattoos can be used as
hinges in place of joints. touch sensors, colour-
changing indicators, and
for Wi-Fi communications.
Advanced prosthetics
could give amputees
superhuman abilities,
and the option to switch
between designs to suit
the situation.

Many devices
are experimental,
sometimes even

How It Works
Google is developing a contact This RFID chip shows the coiled The Argus implant’s camera The i-limb hand can be moved by Ekso is able to move legs
lens that senses blood sugar copper antenna that it uses and transmitter signal to the gestures, apps, muscle signals or in response to upper

by analysing tears to communicate optic nerve proximity sensors body movement
© Ekso Bionics, Google, Shutterstock, Thinkstock, Touch Bionics, Illustration by Nicholas Forder

How are
products tested?
The checks put in place to make sure your
gadgets are safe

efore any new product can hit the everyone’s shoved too much washing in the
shelves, it is put through rigorous tests
to ensure it is robust and safe enough to
machine at some point. We make sure that it
wouldn’t cause an issue.”
Three typical
be used by the public. These tests are carried The huge range of products that pass through tests your home
out by professional product testers, who must
determine whether the product complies with
the lab means that life as a product tester is
extremely varied. From smartphones and products must
the international standards set by industry
experts from all over the world.
drones to fridges and ovens, each product has
its own set of tests to pass. “The standards are pass
“These standards are considered state of the fairly generic for a product category, but every
art when it comes to product safety,” says Greg
Childs, product tester in the Consumer Products
and Electrical department at the British
Standards Institution (BSI). “For electrical
products they focus on things like protection
product is slightly different, so the most
challenging bit is applying tests when they’re
not made specifically for the bit of kit that you’re
testing,” he explains. “Plus, attitudes to what
we consider safe change, so the standards are
1 Environmental extremes
Products are often tested in
climatic chambers. These are
rooms where the temperature and
humidity can be carefully controlled, to
against electric shocks and resistance to fire, reviewed and reissued all the time.” ensure the products will function safely
making sure that plastics won’t catch fire As well as determining the safety of the in hot and cold climates.
very easily.” products, the testers must also ensure that
The job of a product tester involves testing
the products in extreme conditions, such as
very hot and cold climates, as well as pushing
them to their usage limits. “We test for faults
they keep themselves safe should a fault be
discovered. “The nature of what we do means
there’s always a possibility that something
might go wrong, because that’s what we’re
2 Predicting mistakes
One test for microwaves involves
sticking a metal spike through a
potato and cooking it to check that it would
be safe if someone did accidentally put metal
that could foreseeably happen in normal use, testing for,” he explains. “It’s important to have
in the device.
and check that if they do happen, the product is the right controls in place, wear the correct

still going to be safe to use,” says Childs. “For safety clothing and know general electrical
things like washing machines, we test the safety. We always make sure we have fire Pushing the limits
product with abnormal loads. I’m sure extinguishers nearby.” High-voltage dielectric strength
testers are used to apply thousands
of volts to a product in order to make sure that
Electrical products are it can withstand a surge to the mains
overloaded with thousands electricity supply.
of volts to check their safety

Cooking metal in the microwave

© Thinkstock

is one of the more bizarre tasks

of a product tester

46 How It Works

How do you reclaim land?

The methods used to create new land from oceans, rivers and lakes

ot to be confused with landfill – the
mounds of rubbish left to decompose
– land fill is reclaimed ground created from
bodies of water. The simplest method of this land
reclamation, and the one used to build Dubai’s
Palm Jumeirah, is called hydraulic fill, which
involves dredging sediment from the seabed and
using hydraulic pumps to fill in new land. This is
the process currently being carried out in the South
China Sea, where large dredger barges are
controversially piling sand onto coral reefs to create
new islets.
However, if the sediment on the surrounding
seabed is contaminated, or if the reclamation area
is too soft to build on, then another method called
deep cement mixing can be used. This involves
injecting cement into the seabed and mixing it with
soil. It then hardens into cement columns, which
provide strong support for the new land. This
method has been used to expand Hong Kong
International Airport, which is already built on an
artificial island, by 650 hectares, making space for a
new runway. If more land is needed for agricultural
Dredging boats sometimes use a purposes, then existing flooded wetlands can be
technique called ‘rainbowing’, where they drained by means of ditches or pipes that run into
spray layers of sand to build up new land
streams or other bodies of water.

What are LEDs?

What is the difference between traditional light
bulbs and LEDs?

raditional light bulbs – known as LEDs are semiconductor devices that
incandescent lamps – have carry electrical current in one direction.
illuminated our homes for over Semiconductors are naturally insulators,
100 years, but now they’re on their way but can be turned into conductors by
out. Inefficient and costly, they work by adding atoms of another element, a
passing electricity through a small process called ‘doping’. When an electric
filament, making it incredibly hot. This charge passes through the
produces light but a large proportion of semiconductor, it activates the flow of
the energy is lost as heat. That’s why electrons across it. This generates
more and more people are choosing to energy, which is released as photons –
switch to light-emitting diode (LED) units of light.
©Thinkstock, Dreamstime

lamps. These cost less to run, as they LED lamps waste little energy as heat,
require less electricity, and the bulbs and as such have the advantage of being
can last up to 25 times longer than much more energy-efficient than their Some LED bulbs are
conventional ones. incandescent counterparts. reported to last for over
50,000 hours of use

How It Works 47

How do you
build an island?
Discover the incredible megastructures that extend a
country’s land mass thanks to some ingenious engineering

onstructing islands is no longer solely the job of The world’s largest example is Palm Jumeirah, the palm
nature, as advances in engineering have resulted in tree-shaped island off the coast of Dubai in the United Arab
several man-made structures popping up all around Emirates. Designed as a way to extend the city’s coastline
the world. From floating islands that are home to single the structure is made from all-natural materials and just
dwellings, to reclaimed land that can support entire five kilometres out to sea. It was built by some of the world’s
communities, creating new terrain is now easier than ever best engineers using 94 million cubic metres of sand and 5.5
and you can get a piece of it, if you have the money. million cubic metres of rock, and can be seen from space.

Palm Jumeirah
How was Dubai’s palm
Precision building island constructed? Transport
GPS was used to ensure the sand connections
would land within one centimetre A monorail connects
of its intended position. the outermost branch
of the palm with
the breakwater.

Constructing the palm

Sand dredged from the bottom of
the Persian Gulf is launched from a
distance in a technique known
as ‘rainbowing’.

Base layers
A bed of sand is covered by a
layer of one-ton stones. On top Breakwater
of that sits two layers of rocks This crescent structure stands
– up to six tons each – put in over three metres above sea
place by cranes. level and protects the island
from the sea and storms.

48 How It Works


Jebel Ali Palm

The Dubai islands Tourist destination

Construction has begun on Several resorts are located along the
two additional palm islands breakwater, including the Atlantis
and an archipelago of small hotel, which is home to the world’s
islands in the shape of a world largest water slide, the Aquaconda.
map off the coast of Dubai.

Palm fronds
16 fronds, with a
maximum length of two
Two openings in the
kilometres, are home to
breakwater allow
luxury villas and have
seawater to circulate
beaches on both sides.
around the island,
preventing stagnation.

Firm foundations
To ensure the island could
withstand earthquakes, the
The trunk sandy foundations were
The island is connected compacted using a technique
to the mainland via a called ‘vibrocompaction’.
highway running along
the four-kilometre
length of its trunk.

Drilling Stable sand

More than 200,000 holes are bored Before the vibrocompaction
12 metres down into the sandy process, there are spaces
foundations using a drilling arm. between the sand particles,
but afterwards they are much
closer together.
Air and water injection Before
More sand is dumped into the
holes and high-pressure water and After
air are also injected.

© Sol 90 images

As the drilling arm is removed it

vibrates to rearrange the sand
particles until they are compacted.

How It Works 49

What are Chips in their shoulder

pet trackers?
How these wearable devices can keep tabs

© Thinkstock
on your furry friends Microchips are always active and
require no effort to maintain

ight now, there are 31 satellites signals from three satellites. It can calculate
Before GPS became more accessible, microchips were the
circling Earth in what is known as how far away each satellite is, but not
best way of locating missing animals. A microchip is no bigger
the Global Positioning System which direction the individual signals than a single grain of rice and is surgically implanted under
(GPS) Constellation, feeding back came from. For example, if one signal is the animal’s skin.
information to millions of GPS devices. calculated to come from 20,000 kilometres It contains two things: a registration number, and the
Whether you’re searching for nearby car away, the receiver could lie anywhere on an phone number of the person registering the animal. Should
parks on your sat nav or tracking down a imaginary sphere with a 20,000-kilometre the pet become lost, a handheld scanner can read the radio
lost pet, the technology works in exactly the radius surrounding that particular satellite. frequency of the chip, and the vet or animal shelter are then
same way. This is why multiple satellites are required able to get in touch with the pet’s owner.
A GPS receiver in your pet tracker locates in GPS; finding where three or more of these These chips don’t use GPS technology, but rather are based
on radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology. This
at least three of these satellites to calculate spheres from different satellites intersect
consists of a small chip and an antenna
exactly where on the planet it is. To do this, enables the receiver to figure out exactly that provides a unique identifier for
the receiver intercepts signals from the where your pet is. The more satellite signals an object, such as a barcode.
satellites and calculates how long it took the tracker can pick up, the more accurate Although they are less
them to arrive. Because the signals always the position will be. high-tech than GPS,
travel at the speed of light, it is possible to As apps and tech become more complex, microchips have several
work out the distances between each of the GPS receivers are able to store more advantages; they don’t
satellites and your furry friend. detailed maps on the devices. So, if your pet require a power source,
The exact position of the receiver can be is wearing a tracking device, you will be there are no moving parts
and a single chip will last
pinpointed via a process called able to locate specific streets, fields or
your pet’s entire lifetime
trilateration. Say your pet’s tracker receives buildings that it walks past, using GPS. (something that can’t be
said of a GPS tracker).
We thought our cat was a lazy
How GPS works old mog, but her GPS tracker
shows she is pretty active
The hardware in the
sky explained

1. The satellite
Each of the satellites
2. Working it out 4. Sending the data
orbiting Earth at an Data can be taken and stored
altitude of 20,000km Each satellite completes a full by a GPS unit at frequent
broadcasts its position and orbit of the Earth every 12 hours, intervals and sent to a data
time at regular intervals. broadcasting a constant network, making a map of
synchronised time signal from your pet’s movements.
an onboard atomic clock.

5. Trilateration
By calculating how far
away your pet is from
3. The GPS multiple satellites, the GPS
receiver tracker can accurately 6. Interpreting
pinpoint its position.
The data broadcast by the location
three or more Using the satellite position
satellites travels at results and accurate map data,
the speed of light and
is picked up by the A the tracker can let you know
exactly where your pet is.
GPS receiver, which
calculates how far
away each satellite is.

50 How It Works

How is Collection bowl

Strands of molten sugar are
flung into the collection bowl,
where they cool.
Spinning force
Centrifugal force
pushes the molten

candy floss
sugar through the
holes in the drum.

Find out how these clever
contraptions spin sugar into Perforated drum
a delicious sweet treat Sugar is placed inside a
metal drum with lots of
tiny holes in the side.

Candy floss
The quickly cooled sugar
sets into fine threads
known as cotton candy or
candy floss.

Heating element
The heating element
reaches 150 degrees
Celsius to break down the Motor
sugar molecules. A motor spins the metal
The strands of candy drum at 60 revolutions
floss are gathered on a per second.

© Thinkstock
stick and served

How do binoculars focus?

How turning a dial makes a blurry view crystal clear

hether you use binoculars for magnifying glass to enlarge this image for
astronomy or bird-watching, you to view. Turning the focusing wheel
being able to focus on what changes the distance between the objective
you’re observing is crucial. To view objects and eyepiece lenses. This helps to adjust
at a range of distances, most binoculars the path of light to create a sharp and
have a central wheel that can be adjusted to focused image.
bring light rays from different distances Some binoculars offer the ability to focus
into focus. each of the two barrels individually. This
Binoculars contain two pairs of convex is called diopter adjustment and helps
lenses: the objective and eyepiece lenses. fine-tune each eyepiece, a useful feature if
The objective lenses pick up light rays from one of your eyes is stronger than the other.
objects in the distance and bend them Alternatively, auto-focusing binoculars are
inwards so they converge to produce a small fi xed by the manufacturer for mid- to The focusing wheel alters the
image within the binoculars. The second long-range viewing, and rely on your eyes’ distance between the binoculars’
set, known as eyepiece lenses, act like a natural ability to change focus. lenses to keep your view sharp

How It Works 51

What will classrooms

of the future look like?
How will tech change learning in the coming years?

3D projections
Interactive holograms will
allow students to walk
around models of planets,
animals and more, studying
them in more detail.
school trips
Students will bring in their
own VR headsets from home
in order to take virtual outings
as a group.

Augmented learning
Glasses with special
over-eye displays will let
students view related,
useful information around a
subject as they learn.

Guided learning
Interactive boards will allow
teachers to pose questions at the
start of the lesson, before students
form into groups to direct their
own learning.

Desks will be a lot more than
surfaces to lean on. Screens built
Online discussions into the table-tops will allow
The online area will be used as a students to work without extra
place to communicate, with computers or hardware.
students and teachers
contributing to discussions about
a day’s lesson for homework.

Digital worksheets
Paper-thin screens will be
commonplace, allowing a single
worksheet to change throughout
the day to display information the
students need.

52 How It Works

Interactive holograms
will allow students to walk
around models of planets,
animals and more

VR lessons
Dedicated booths will allow
students to step away from the
classroom and take trips into
history, space, or the future.

Printing the future

3D printers in the classroom will
allow students to create real, hard
copies of items they are studying
to manipulate and analyse.

Passing notes
Kids won’t write notes to each
other any more – instead, they’ll
send messages through their
smart watches so the teacher
doesn’t see.

The new textbooks

Carrying bulky textbooks
around will be a thing of
the past, with tablets
containing a student’s
entire reading list for the
academic year.

Games will be introduced into the
classroom as a tool for learning,
making the classroom a more
interesting and engaging place Analytic learning
© Illustration by Nicholas Forder

for students. Students will be encouraged to

record their own work, so they
can watch it back later to analyse
their own performance.

How It Works 53

How do keys
open doors?
Unlock the secrets of how these simple
devices keep your possessions safe

hroughout history, numerous lock-and-key which opens the lock. Other keys may fit into the lock, but
combinations have been used to the lack of pin-alignment stops the barrel from turning.
keep rooms and valuables secure. The earliest Not all keys are flat, though. Those that fit into warded
lock comprised of a series of wooden pins that could be locks – used widely during the Middle Ages – are
moved only by a key with a matching profile. Called a cylindrical. Instead of pins, these locks use curved plates,
pin-lock, it formed the basis of today’s pin-tumbler lock or wards, to block incorrect keys from turning. Only
(often called a Yale or radial lock). those with matching ‘notches’ can rotate fully. This
Inside the barrel of a pin-tumbler lock is a series of design led to the first skeleton keys – versions that had
spring-loaded, two-part pins of varying length. When a most of their notches filed down to avoid the wards.
small, flat-sided key is inserted into the barrel, the Many companies are now developing mechanical door
Putting something serrations along its edge push the pins up. If the key is the locks that don’t need physical keys. They can be opened
under lock and key is correct one for the lock, the pins will line up so that the with the sound of your voice or a swipe of your
really all about
bottom half of the pins sit perfectly inside the barrel. This smartphone – although most still allow you to use an
enables the barrel to be turned (or tumbled) with the key, old-fashioned key.

How keys work

Take a look inside a pin-tumbler lock to understand how keys open doors

1 Springs and pins

A series of spring-loaded pins
sit inside every cylindrical
lock barrel. While the total length of
2 If it doesn’t fit…
When a flat-sided key is
inserted into a lock, its
bumpy edge pushes the pins to
3 Line them up
When the correct key is
inserted into the lock, it
pushes the pins up so that the break
4 Open sesame!
Because the pins are in two
parts, this alignment means
that only the red sections sit within
each pin remains the same, the length different heights. When it’s the in the pins (where the red and purple the barrel, which enables the barrel
of the separate sections of the pin wrong key, there is no alignment sections meet) aligns exactly with the to turn, or tumble, opening the lock in
(shown in purple and red) varies. between the red sections of the pins. top of the gold-coloured barrel. the process.

The end of lost keys? Tile tags act like homing

beacons to help you track
A British insurance company estimated that (around 30 metres), using very little power. down missing valuables
the average person spends 3,680 hours – Almost all smartphones have in-built
that’s 153 days – searching for misplaced Bluetooth, so by installing a dedicated app,
items, mainly smartphones and keys. they can wirelessly communicate with your
However, a gadget called Tile can Tiles. If you lose your keys, the app directs
dramatically reduce these wasted hours, you to their location using sound. If you
helping you find your essential items quickly misplace your phone, you
and easily. While it looks like a simple square can ring it by pushing a
of plastic, each Tile contains a Bluetooth button on one of
© Thinkstock, Crisco

tracking device. If you attach it to your your Tiles. It will

valuables, it can transmit its location – in the play a tune even
form of radio waves – over short distances if it’s on silent!

54 How It Works

How do food blenders work?

Turn fruit salad into smoothie with a tornado in a jar
Blender bits
smoothie blender is a compact fluid
dynamics laboratory. Friction at the From chunky to smoothie
surface of the blades accelerates the at the touch of a button Feeder cap
liquid, centrifugal force pushes it outwards, The centre hole lets
you add ingredients
atmospheric pressure creates an air-filled while the blender
vortex in the centre, and turbulence keeps is running.
everything churning and mixing. Within The vortex forces the
seconds, your placid pint of milk and fruit liquid up the sides of
the jar, so a tightly
chunks is transformed into a chaotic, sealed lid is vital.
churning maelstrom.
The vortex in the centre of a blender looks
like a tornado but it acts in quite a different
way. A tornado is powered by a thermal
updraft in its centre that pulls everything
into the middle and flings it up to the sky. In The funnel shape helps
a blender, the spinning blades at the bottom pull the liquid up from
the bottom with no
are constantly pushing the liquid away from stagnant spots.
the middle to the edges of the jar and this
creates a suction that pulls material
downwards in the centre.
The cutting blades do most of the initial
Rotating Seal
The spinning blades drag The blade axle extends
work of chopping up the solid chunks, but the liquid round with through the bottom of
them and centrifugal the jar, so it needs a
once the size of the pieces drops below a force tends to push it out reliable seal to prevent
certain point, the blades can’t hit hard towards the edge and up any leaks.
the sides of the jar. This
enough to slice them up any smaller. pushes the surface up at
Amazingly, the blender uses implosion the edges and down in
the middle.
shock waves to finish the job. The blades are
spinning so fast that they create a vacuum
on their trailing edge. The water caught in
their wake effectively boils, and as the tiny
steam bubbles condense and collapse again, Chopping
Blades Anything solid dropped
they send out a cascade of shock waves that Angling some blades up in at the top is pulled
shatter the food particles even further. and others down creates downwards into the
a larger slicing zone at middle until it hits the
the bottom. blades. The shredded
fragments are flung back
to the top again and
with every circuit, they
are chopped a little
bit finer.

A cog arrangement
connects to the blade Motor
axle and locks the jar The motor is powerful
in place. enough to slice through
tough greens, and a
© Thinkstock; Illustration by Adrian Mann

weight at the bottom

helps keep the blender
steady too.

Don’t forget to put

the lid on!

How It Works 55

What is the tallest

bridge in the world?
How do you build a
permanent crossing
over a vast, windy valley?

he Millau Viaduct in southern France is the
tallest bridge in the world. It stretches over
the vast River Tarn, reaching 2.46
kilometres across a valley. At the deepest part of
the gorge, one mast stands 343 metres above the
ground, which is taller than the Eiffel Tower.
Spanning this gap was no mean feat. Despite
being built at one of the narrowest points of the
valley, the bridge still supports the highest Columns
The cables transfer the load
roadway in Europe, and must contend with strong to seven concrete columns,
wings and fluctuating temperatures. The structure which are anchored to the
flexes, expands and contracts, and it needs to be valley below.
able to take the strain.
Millau Viaduct is an example of a cable-stayed
bridge; it is supported entirely by seven columns
that run from the concrete deck down into the The valley is windy, and
valley below. The load is transferred to these fluctuations in temperature
columns by steel cables, anchored to pylons that cause the bridge to expand
and contract.
stretch up above the road.
It stands so high that clouds form beneath the
structure, giving the illusion that the bridge is
hanging above the gorge.
Split towers
The concrete towers divide
The tall columns of the into two parts below the
bridge are obscured by roadway, flexing ten times
clouds that roll through more than solid columns.
the valley

The bridge has a slight
gradient of three per cent
from north to south, as well
as a subtle curve.

56 How It Works

Tallest point Constructing the masts

The highest mast on The columns of the bridge were
the bridge is taller laid in a gentle curve.
than the Eiffel Tower. Installation
Masts of the deck
Each mast is attached The deck was
to a series of tensioned Cutting the steel installed using a
steel cables. A plasma torch was used to cut hydraulic jack,
the steel for the bridge in with two wedges
record time. designed to
lift and pull
Roadway the roadway.
The roadway is 250m Steel cables
above the ground and Every cable contains
over 2.5km long. 91 smaller cables,
which each have seven
Fastening the
braided strands. cables
Cables link the
Insulating deck to 90m masts,
cover securing the bridge
against winds in
the valley.
PVC shield

Seven braided
steel strands

The deck has four
traffic lanes, and 91 strand
carries 2,000 cars
every day.

The columns are
anchored to the floor of
the valley by four-legged
pylons that are buried
10-15m into the ground.

Lifting the deck

The deck was lifted into
position by a hydraulic jack.

Sliding into position

Rails on the jack slid the deck
into position, inching it forward
by 600mm increments.

Once the deck was properly
positioned, it was lowered
into place.
© Sol 90 images, Thinkstock

The jack was then removed,
allowing the deck to rest on the
columns below.

How It Works 57

How are digital

images captured?
How a camera converts light into photo files on a All you have to do is point
and say “CMOS sensor”!
memory card
ith the simple click of a button, a digital camera through a set of four pixels on the mosaic. The colour
turns light into data. This process starts with intensity at each pixel is averaged with the neighbouring
the image sensor, which is a silicon chip known pixels to recreate the true colours of the image using special
as a CCD or CMOS. When light enters the camera lens, it is algorithms that run through the camera’s Central Storage
focused onto the sensor and dislodges some of the electrons Processing Unit (CPU). Files are initially stored in
fast RAM, and then written
in a tiny area of the silicon (known as a pixel), which creates Each pixel needs some circuitry around it to allow
out to the permanent flash
an electrical charge. The brighter the light in that part of the electrical charges to be amplified and read. The light that RAM storage on the SD card.
image, the stronger the electrical charge that is created at falls on this part of the sensor chip is lost, so some cameras
that spot on the sensor. use a grid of microscopic lenses that funnel more light to
On its own, the sensor is colour-blind. To produce a the centre of the pixels and away from the support circuitry.
colour image, red, green and blue filters are used to detect The basic image data is then further processed to remove
each primary colour of light. There are a few methods of digital noise, correct for shadows cast by the camera lenses,
doing this, but the most simple involves a mosaic of and eliminate the flicker caused by artificial lighting. This
coloured filters laid over the sensor. Each site on the sensor data is then assembled into a format that can be read by
can record the amounts of red, green and blue light passing other computers and written to the SD card as a JPEG file.

Pixels to pictures Analogue-to-

Shed some light on the inner Digital Converter
The analogue voltages are turned
workings of your digital camera into digital data, and the primary
colours are combined to create
the in-between shades.
Image sensor
A grid of CMOS or CCD sensors registers
the light intensity from each mosaic
filter cell and converts it into a voltage.

Mosaic filter L
A grid of coloured filters IGITA
splits the light into the three D
primary colours: green, red
and blue.

The Optical Low-Pass Compression
Filter slightly blurs the Camera software eliminates
image, which helps to repeated data, and colours that
reduce the ‘moiré’ effect the human eye doesn’t see well,
that can occur in images of to shrink the image size.
repetitive patterns. UE
The rolling shutter effect
The signals recorded on a CCD sensor
are sent one row at a time to the
Analogue-to-Digital Converter. This
row-by-row recording of the image is
known as a ‘rolling shutter’, and
although it happens very quickly, a
fast-moving image might still have
Subject changed in the time it takes to scan
Light bounces off the photo from the top to the bottom of the
The rotor blade turned 90
subject and enters the sensor. This is why propellers and
degrees while the camera
© Paul 012

camera lens, where it is helicopter rotor blades often look

captured this scene
focused into an image. strangely bent in digital photos.

58 How It Works

How do
wristwatches tick?
Keep time with the springs and gears of a mechanical watch

efore you could check your wound into a perfectly weighted cog known When each of the cogs turns the next, the
smartphone, and even before quartz as the balance wheel. last one in the chain moves what is known as
batteries, a personal timepiece was a This wheel is able to move back and forth the escape wheel. This wheel has large teeth
valuable commodity. There are two types of because it’s helped by another series of cogs on it, shaped so that it jogs a piece called the
mechanical watch: a hand-wound watch and that transfer energy from the winding pin all pallet fork into motion, which then in turn
an automatic or self-winding watch. the way to the balance wheel. This usually moves the balance wheel. As the balance
Although the starting mechanisms are involves three cogs, and these correspond to wheel swings back, the other side of the
different, the movement inside is essentially the hour, minute and second hands on the pallet fork knocks the balance wheel again,
the same. It all comes from the back and face. When the second hand makes a and so a back-and-forth swing motion
forth motion of the mainspring – this is a complete revolution, the minute hand has continues, ultimately helping the watch to
tightly coiled and precisely measured spring, moved one graduation, and so on. keep perfect time.

Telling the time How individual parts fit together so everything goes like clockwork
Watch jewels Main spring Gears Watch face
When you see a watch that has a Pallet fork This is the part that tells
It needs a wind up every two These facilitate the This is the little T-shaped
phrase like ‘17 jewel’ inscribed on the weeks or so to keep going and transfer of energy from the you the time, yet there’s
fork (with pallet jewels) that
back, this is nothing to do with the provide the constant and winding pin to the balance plenty going on behind
connects the escape wheel
watch face. It may be adorned with accurate ticking movement. wheel, and move the the scenes.
to the balance wheel.
numerous precious stones on the watch’s hands.
front, but this inscription refers to the
gemstones (usually man-made
sapphires or rubies) that are contained
within the watch’s mechanisms.
These jewels are not precious
gemstones and have no monetary
value, but they are incredibly
important for keeping the watch
ticking smoothly, providing highly
polished surfaces to decrease friction
and improve accuracy.
The jewels also increase the life of
the watch. They are usually tiny – just
millimetres in diameter – and come in
different shapes for their specific jobs.
There are two pallet jewels on the
pallet fork that keep the balance wheel
moving back and forth. There are also
cap jewels, hole jewels and impulse
jewels, among many others.

Watch pins Hands Jewels

Here the cap and hole jewels are Not involved in the Attached to gears behind the The precision cut synthetic
© Dreamstime

movement but important watch face, the hands turn in

visible, providing smooth rubies help to keep the
nonetheless, the pins attach perfect unison to show the
movement for the gears gears moving smoothly
the watch to the strap. wearer the time. and accurately.

How It Works 59

How do industrial
robots work?
Inside the factories where no one
Control room
Human technicians write the
code that controls the robots,
and transmit new
gets tired, sick or even paid instructions via Wi-Fi to the
production line.

inety per cent of all the robots in the world live in factories. The availability of
cheap human labour in China and the Far East hasn’t slowed down the march of
machines, and sales of industrial robots are in fact growing
faster in China than anywhere else in the world.
Robots were first put to work in 1961, when General
Motors installed Unimate. This was a 1.8-ton, die-cast
robot arm that dealt with red-hot, metal car door
handles and other parts – dangerous and
unpleasant work for humans. Unimate followed
instructions stored on a magnetic drum (the
forerunner of today’s computer hard disks), and
could be reprogrammed to do other jobs. When
Unimate robots took over the job of welding car Curing
bodies in 1969, the GM plant in Ohio was able to Assembled items can pass
through a final inspection
build 110 cars an hour – twice as fast as any scanner or an oven to cure
factory in the world at that time. paint and glue.
Modern industrial robots have evolved from
using clumsy hydraulic pistons to much more
precise electric motors for each joint. Sensors on
each one detect an LED light shining through a disc Joints welded by robots are
stronger because they are
with slots cut into it. As the slots interrupt the light
more precise and consistent
beam, they send a series of pulses to the robot’s CPU that
tells it precisely how far the arm has moved. Cameras
mounted on the end of each arm use sophisticated image-
processing software that allows them to identify objects, even if they are
upside down or rotated on the conveyor belt, while ultrasound proximity sensors prevent Boxing
the robots from striking obstacles in their path. Specialised boxing robots pack
Even with all this sophistication, industrial robots are so strong and move so quickly finished items into shipping
boxes and seal them.
that it has always been dangerous for humans to share an assembly line with them. But
the latest machines have joints driven by springs, which are tensioned by motors, instead
of motors driving the arm joints directly. This absorbs the force from an accidental knock,
and enables the robot to react in time to avoid an injury.

by example
Most industrial robots need
programmers to write the complex
code that controls their movements,
and reprogramming them can involve
expensive stoppages. Baxter and
Sawyer are a new generation of robots
from Rethink Robotics in Boston, US.
They can be taught what to do by
moving their arms to the right position
and then clicking a button to tell them
‘this is the thing you need to pick up’,
or ‘place the object in this box’. The
face on the display screen allows
humans to tell whether the robots are Sawyer (left) can manipulate objects
A robot
concentrating on learning
a new task, working happily or have
with 0.1mm precision. Baxter (right)
has two arms for heavier loads
assembly line
encountered a problem. Robots handle the most stressful and
repetitive jobs, while humans supervise

60 How It Works

Lifting robots
Crane arms can lift items and
transfer them between
conveyor belts along rails
mounted on the ceiling.

Robot arms can screw items
together, solder circuit
boards, weld joints and
spray paint more precisely Where do industrial
than humans.
robots live?
Number of robots (as of 2015)

America Africa
272,000 4,500

An X-ray or ultrasound
scanner checks each
component for flaws or
damage as it enters the
production line.

Each arm has shoulder,
elbow and wrist joints that
can twist and rotate in a
total of six different axes.

Danger zone
Robots are heavy and Europe
move fast. Humans must 433,000 Asia/Australia
keep clear while the line 914,000
is running, to avoid
getting hit.

© Zen wave, Illustration by Nicholas Forder

A robot stacks the boxes onto
pallets for shipping, with no
worry about back injuries.

How It Works 61

Can you treasure

hunt with GPS?
People are hiding secret stashes, and uploading their locations for others to find

reasure hunts were once reserved for children and pirates, but in
the modern world it has become a technological game. Geocaching
is a global treasure hunt for anyone with access to a GPS device.
GPS works by locking on to three or more satellite signals, and
calculating how long it takes for a signal to arrive from each. Using this
information, it can pinpoint where you – and of course, the treasure – are
located in the world.
The cache varies from location to location, but typically includes a
logbook, hidden inside a waterproof container, along with other little
treasures. If you find the cache, you sign the logbook, and are free to take
the treasure. In return, you are asked to leave something of equal or
greater value.
The first geocache was left in a bucket in Oregon, US, in May of 2000. It
contained books, software, and a childhood favourite – a slingshot. Today,
there are more than 2.5 million caches across the world, ranging from
traditional caches, to intricate puzzles.
There are rules around what to leave behind (nothing illegal or
dangerous), but anyone can play. To join the hunt, sign up for a free account
Geocaches come in all
shapes and sizes, and are at, search for a nearby cache, and input the co-ordinates
often hidden from view into your GPS.

How do we make money?

The process behind the UK’s coins and banknotes

n the United Kingdom, coins are produced at the
Royal Mint factory in Llantrisant, South Wales.
The modern 1p, 2p, 5p and 10p coins are made of
steel and plated with either copper or nickel. 20p and
50p coins, and the middle of the £2 coin, use a more
expensive alloy of copper and nickel all the way
through, while the ‘gold’ of £1 coins and the border of
£2 coins is actually a nickel-brass alloy. The Royal
Mint creates its own metal blanks using machines
that can cut 10,000 blank coins a minute. These are
fitted with a rim and then stamped with 60 tons of
force to print the design on each side.
The paper for banknotes comes from a company
that specialises in high security paper. Cotton fibres
and linen rag are broken down and reformed into
huge rolls of paper with the watermark and metal
security thread already woven through it. The notes The tiny lettering and
© Dreamstime

are then printed using a mixture of colours and UV details make banknotes
much harder to scan
inks and with a printing process that leaves tiny and photocopy
raised ridges of ink.

62 How It Works

How does How the iFetch works

The perfect toy for your pooch

pet tech to play with when you’re away

work? On-demand play

The device powers on
automatically when a
ball is dropped into
the funnel, and goes
How exactly do these into power-saving
mode after launch.
gadgets help to keep our
furry friends entertained?

pproximately 40 per cent of UK
households have pets, and with
more of us leading busy lifestyles, Hours of fun
On a fully charged set
it’s not always possible to give our animal of batteries, the iFetch
pals as much attention as we, and they, can keep throwing
balls for around 30
would like. However, thanks to technology hours – enough to tire
we can now keep an eye on our pets and out even the most
playful of puppies!
make sure they are entertained even when
they’re home alone. From automatic ball
launchers to Wi-Fi treat dispensers, there
are now many gadgets on the market to
help keep our pets happy and healthy.
The growing pet tech market is an
example of the ‘internet of things’, the
development of everyday items that
feature network connectivity. Gadgets that
feature internet access via Wi-Fi or mobile Go long!
The iFetch’s
networks provide owners with the ability shooting distance Launch system
to easily check in on and interact with can be adjusted to Rapidly spinning
three, six or nine wheels within the
their pets via their smartphones. This way, metres, depending iFetch accelerate the
you can remotely keep an eye on Fido and on how much space balls and shoot them
you have. out of the funnel.
give him treats even while you’re busy in
the office.

Shru Petzi GoBone PetChatz Whistle Activity

This egg-like toy helps to keep This camera enables you to This new piece of tech is This interactive system Monitor
your cat active and entertained keep an eye on your pet using simply a treat-filled plastic connects to your home Wi-Fi A fitness tracker for your dog,
all day. Designed to look and act the accompanying bone on wheels that moves network, so you are able to Whistle helps keep track of
like a feline’s prey, it smartphone app. The around to encourage your dog make video calls to your pets your pet’s activity levels and
autonomously darts around, wide-angle lens provides you to play. It provides mental and through the companion app. health. Attaching the small
keeping your kitty on its toes (or with a fantastic view of your physical stimulation as pups The wall unit also dispenses disc to your dog’s collar
paws). You can modify the furry friend, and treats can chase, chew, squeak and eat treats, and a PawCall button enables you to monitor its
Shru’s behaviour by connecting even be launched from the food from it for up to eight on the floor even means that daily activity through the
the gadget to your PC via USB. unit at the touch of a button. hours per charge. your pet can call you! Whistle app on your phone.

How It Works 63

How does new tech fight fires?

The cutting-edge tools helping to battle blazes and save lives

irefighters put their lives at risk every day Enormous, water-carrying aircraft can come by chemical fire retardants that can ultimately
to rescue people from burning buildings to the rescue when widespread and help the re-growth of plants that once grew on
and to stop the spread of raging fires, unpredictable wildfires get out of control, and the scorched terrain.
often with nothing more than a hose and a drones and robots can assist fire crews in city In the future, there may be no need for human
ladder. But the latest developments in firefighting blazes, when visibility may be poor and firefighters at all, as high-tech machines could
technology are helping to make the job much structures are unsafe for humans to enter. tackle dangerous infernos completely unaided,
easier and safer, speeding up rescue missions Even the method of dousing the flames is using blasts of electric current to essentially
and keeping the firefighters out of harm’s way. getting an upgrade, as water is being replaced snuff out the flames in an instant.

The latest developments in
Korean researchers have
developed a drone called the
Fireproof Aerial Robot System
firefighting technology are helping to
that can fly and climb walls to
search for fires in skyscrapers. It is make the job much easier and safer
able to withstand temperatures of
over 1,000 degrees Celsius for
more than one minute, and relays
information to firefighters on the
ground to aid rescue missions. Hydraulic claws
The Heli-Claw drops vast amounts
of shredded wood on scorched
earth to rehabilitate the area.

Thermal imaging cameras

Thick smoke can sometimes
obscure firefighters’ view of the
scene, so thermal imaging cameras
can be used to locate hotspots and
those in need of rescue. These
cameras can be handheld by the
firefighters themselves or mounted
on drones or helicopters to relay
aerial information to ground crews.
Concrete pounder
The Controlled Impact Rescue Tool,
developed by defence contractor
Raytheon, fires blank ammunition
cartridges to drive an impactor. This Fire prediction software
sends shockwaves through concrete Prometheus is a computer
structures and causes them to program developed by the
crumble. It can breach a concrete wall Canadian Interagency Forest Fire
in less than half the time of traditional Centre, which uses climate and
methods, helping firefighters reach ecological data to predict
those trapped inside. wildfires and create simulations
showing how they might spread.
This information can then be
used by firefighting crews to plan
their approach.

London’s Fire Brigade trialled a team of
firefighting robots that can climb stairs,
shoot water and grab things with giant
claws. They are designed to help
extinguish fires involving acetylene gas
cylinders, which can continue to heat up
even after a fire has been extinguished.

64 How It Works

Air tankers
Global SuperTanker Services’
converted Boeing 747-400 is the
largest firefighting aircraft in
the world. It can drop over
74,000 litres of retardant onto a
fire and travel at 965 kilometres
per hour to wherever it is
needed in the world.

Firefighters wear heat-

resistant suits made from
Kevlar-based materials

Erickson’s Aircrane
helicopters can drop over
10,000 litres of water onto
a fire, then refill from a
nearby fresh or saltwater
source in just 30 seconds.
Once the fire has been
extinguished, they can
also drop seeds to
encourage re-vegetation
of the scorched land.

Fire retardants
As well as water, chemical-based fire
retardants can also be used to both
suppress an existing fire and prevent
new fires from starting. One chemical
often used is ammonium phosphate, and
it is sometimes coloured red to show
where it has already been dropped.

Fire shelters
Designed as a last resort in
emergency situations, these
small foldable tents can protect
firefighters from extreme heat

Electric wave blaster and gas inhalation. NASA is

currently working with the US
Department of Agriculture’s
Scientists at Harvard University have developed a
© Illustration by Don Foley

Forest Service to develop highly

device that can shoot beams of electricity at flames efficient and lightweight fire
to snuff them out. When carbon particles in the flame shelters made from spacecraft
become charged, the electric field essentially pushes heat shield material.
the flame away from the unburnt fuel, extinguishing
the fire without the need for lots of water.

How It Works 65
How are medical tablets made?
P harmaceutical companies use machines called tablet presses
to transform powders into tablets. To start, the powdered
material is fed into a hopper and flows through housing into a die
pressure to remove any excess air in the powder, then at higher
pressure to form the tablet.
The size and shape of the dies and punches are different for
that holds a small amount of powder. The die lies between two each medication so that companies can create unique shapes, as
punches that will press the powder into shape. The lower punch well as stamp their brand name into the pills. Once the tablet is
drops down, allowing the granules to fill the space to the exact pressed, the upper punch raises and the lower punch ejects
measurement needed for the type of tablet. the tablet, which goes down a chute to be collected. Each tablet
A scraper then removes any excess powdered material and the press contains numerous individual stations, allowing for the
upper and lower punches then compress together; first at low production of hundreds of thousands of tablets every hour.
Main compression roll
Inside a Scraper
A scraper passes over
Precompression roll
The precompression rollers Compression rollers increase
the force of the punches to fuse
tablet press the die to remove any
excess powder.
push down first to remove any
air in the granules. the tablet together.
The machine that makes
your medication

Feeder Upper punch

This directs the The upper punch
granules for the moves down to
drugs into the die. press the tablet
and up to help
release it.

The lower punch is
Die Weight control Lower punch raised as it passes
This is the area The lower punch can be The lower punch drops to over the ejection
that determines raised or lowered to ensure create space for the cam, and the pill is
the shape and size the correct quantity of granules, and then rises popped out of the die.
of the tablet. material remains in the die. to press the tablet.

How do pedestrian
crossings work?
T he wait for the red man to turn green so you can cross
the street can seem like an eternity. The truth is that
depending on the type of junction, where it’s located, and the
time of day, the button might not be doing anything at all.
In theory, the button is connected to the traffic light at the
intersection of a major road and a minor road. When pressed,
the light on the major road changes from green to red within
around 90 seconds, allowing the pedestrian to cross.
However, sometimes the button is rendered useless; the walk
signal will appear anyway in a prescribed amount of time
because it’s programmed to the signal patterns.
© Thinkstock

A press of the button is required at standalone pedestrian

crossings, and some junctions will vary whether the pattern is
affected by the button or not, depending on the time of day.

66 How It Works

Why is it called
Bluetooth technology?
D espite the technology being relatively new, the name
Bluetooth actually has medieval origins. It was chosen
by the largely Scandinavian team of engineers that created
the wireless communications technology back in the 1990s,
and is the English translation of the name of a Viking king.
When looking for a name that signified their new
invention’s ability to connect PCs and cellular phones, the
team thought of King Harald Blåtand of Denmark, who was
famous for uniting parts of Denmark and Norway with
non-violent negotiations. The name’s origins are also evident
in the Bluetooth symbol, as it is king Blåtand’s initials
written in Norse runes.

What happens to Snapchat photos after they have been

S napchat claims that photos are
automatically deleted from the servers
once viewed and that the photo on your
found ways to view snaps deleted from their
phones, although new versions and updates
of Snapchat have tried to prevent this.
file will be marked as deleted and disappear
from view, but it’s still there. The file’s data
will remain stored on your device until it is
phone will be deleted too. However, several In general, electronic files aren’t actually overwritten, so images can still be found if
people on the internet have claimed to have erased when you hit the delete button. The you knew where to look.

How It Works 67
How do
batteries work?
A ll batteries rely on chemical reactions
to produce an electric current. Inside
a battery are two electrodes made of
different sorts of metal, named an anode
and a cathode, and an electrolyte, often an
acid. Chemical reactions between the
electrodes and electrolyte create a flow of
electrons from anode to cathode when the
battery is connected – an electric current.
In the process the electrodes and
electrolyte gradually become depleted as
they react with each other. In a non-
rechargeable battery this reaction is
irreversible, and the battery will eventually
stop working. When a rechargeable battery
is charging, an electric current is passed
the opposite way through the battery. This
reverses the chemical reaction and
rejuvenates the electrodes and electrolyte
to a state where they can once again
produce electricity. However, even a
rechargeable battery can only be recharged
a certain number of times before it can no
What happens when files and
longer hold a charge.
photos are deleted off a computer?
When a W hen you delete a file on a computer
you probably think it’s gone forever,
It’s a bit like taking the cover off a book,
but leaving all the pages behind – the book
rechargeable but it’s not. Deleting a file just removes the
label that tells the computer the file is there.
may be gone, but the information is
ultimately still there. The file only really gets
battery is All the data that used to be part of the file
will still be able to be found somewhere on
erased when the computer eventually stores
something new where the old file used to be
charging, an your hard disk. on the disk.

current is How do
passed the auto-flush toilets
opposite way work?
through the W ith an automatic toilet, you’ll
probably spot a small black circle
nearby that looks a bit like a button – it’s an
battery infra-red sensor. This detects body heat,
and is connected to an electronic valve
inside the water tank. The sensor is
triggered when you wave your hand in front
of it or move away from the toilet, and
sends a signal to the valve to empty the
water from the tank. This flushes the toilet
and the tank is then refilled. Electric toilets
© Thinkstock

could be hazardous if the water and

electricity mixed, so most are battery
powered for safety.

68 How It Works

How do hotel key cards work? To create a

T here are many types of key card
systems used around the world, but
their principles are all fundamentally
code when you insert the card, and then
switches on a small motor to unlock the door
to your room. language, you first
very similar. When you check in to a hotel, To change the code for each new guest,
the hotel receptionist uses a machine to the lock is either sent a new code by a need to define its
store a code onto a magnetic strip or network, or the card and lock have the same
computer chip on your key card. preset list of codes. They can then be words and rules
This code matches the one stored by your instructed to use the next one in the
hotel room’s electronic lock, which reads the sequence when required.

How is a
D eep down, computer hardware can only
understand very basic commands
written in machine code. As machine code is
basically just ones and zeros, it’s difficult for
people to understand. Programming
languages allow us to instruct computers
using concepts and words more like human
language, like LOAD and DO, and convert
these to machine code that the computer
can understand. To create a programming
language, you first need to define its words
and rules.
You then need to work out how
instructions in your language relate to
instructions in machine code, a bit like
translating to a foreign language. Next, you
need to create a program called a compiler
or an interpreter, which turns programs
written in your language into machine code
for the computer. It’s a complicated process,
and new programming languages are often
© Getty

written using existing languages to try to

make it easier.

How It Works 69
72 What is a cosmic catastrophe?
76 How fast are you moving?
76 How are spacecrafts docked?
77 What are white holes?
78 What does the Sun look like from other planets?
80 What animals have been to space?
81 How far can we see?
81 What is dinner like in space?
82 What it is like inside Spaceport America?
84 How do frozen worlds form?
84 How do we search for super-Earths?
85 What near misses will Earth have?
86 Why do we fly close to the Sun?
88 How did Earth get its core?
89 What are dark nebulae?
89 What happens when stars die?
90 How do gas giants form?
91 What will Juno help us discover about Jupiter?
92 What is it like on board the Dream Chaser?
93 What is space radiation?
93 How do you wash your hair in space?
94 Bitesize Q&A

70 How It Works

How It Works 71
Flying rocks
Debris from the Moon’s
explosion would batter
Earth and make space
travel impossible.

Chaos on Earth
Without the Moon,
Earth would start
wobbling, oceans would
stagnate and seasons
would last for years.

What is a
Discover some of the most dramatic and destructive events in the universe

What if the Moon exploded?

f the Moon were destroyed by some surface and destroying everything in its path,
hypothetical event, it’s fair to say it and heating the oceans until they start to
probably wouldn’t be good news for us evaporate. The rest, still in orbit around Earth,
– although the method of destruction is would settle down over time into a flattened
important. If the Moon just cracked into ring shape, not unlike Saturn. But it’s likely
several large pieces, they would likely coalesce the remaining debris could make space
together again over time. But if it were blown inaccessible to any humans that are left.
to smithereens, it would create a huge amount Without the Moon, Earth would be devoid of
of debris. its tidal effects, ceasing lunar tides and halting
Over the following few years, some of this the spread of nutrients via the shifting ocean. Humans might go extinct, but
we’d have some picturesque
debris would rain down on Earth, striking our The result would be mass extinction. rings round our planet

72 How It Works

Asteroid oblivion
steroids are the remnants of the
protoplanetary disc that gives birth
to a star and planets. Unable to
merge into larger bodies, they are left to
drift endlessly around systems.
In our own Solar System, this can
cause havoc, not least because each
planet has a gravitational pull that
hurls these hunks of rock and ice
towards them. Early in the Solar
System from 4.1 to 3.8 billion years
ago, during a period known as the
Late Heavy Bombardment, the number
of asteroids was so great that many of the
worlds were pummelled. We can still see
evidence of this period on places like the
Moon today.
It’s not all bad, though. Asteroids are now
believed to have played a role in bringing
What the asteroid giveth, the water to places like Earth, and they may even
asteroid can taketh away have delivered the building blocks of life too.

Hungry How a black hole eats a star

Come too close to a black hole and your end could be nigh

black holes
nside the event horizon of a black hole, gravity is
so intense that nothing – not even light – can
escape. And when a stars wanders too close, the
results can be catastrophic.
On several occasions, astronomers have witnessed
the results of a black hole eating a star. Stars can get
caught in elongated orbits around black holes, and as
they pass near, their material is torn off. The star’s gas
is pulled into an accretion disc around the black hole,
and powerful magnetic fields can fire this material
back out in a jet that approaches the speed of light.
1 Star
A star on an elliptical orbit sweeps
towards a black hole, possibly a
supermassive one at the centre of a galaxy.
2 Material
As the star swings close, its outer
shells of gas are ripped off by the
black hole, and enter its accretion disc.

A computer simulation of a star being

3 Accretion disc
Around a black hole, this accretion
disc can become superheated,
4 Jets
Some of the infalling material is
focused into a powerful, narrow

swallowed by a black hole known as a quasar. Only a dense remnant of beam by the black hole, and is fired back out
the star’s innards remains. into the cosmos.

How It Works 73

When stars explode

arely has the phrase ‘go out causing the white dwarf to explode in
with a bang’ been more apt a brilliant flash of light that can be
than when referring to the over 5 billion times brighter than our
death of a star. These huge explosions own Sun.
can momentarily outshine an entire Stellar explosions can also occur
galaxy, as an immense amount of when a large star dies in what is known
energy is released in just a matter as a Type II or ‘core collapse’ supernova.
of seconds. Giant stars with masses around eight to
Supernovae can occur in two ways. If 15 times that of the Sun eventually run
two stars orbit closely enough in a out of hydrogen to fuse. These stars then
binary system, and one of the stars is a begin fusing heavier elements like
white dwarf, this smaller, denser star helium and carbon, so the core becomes
can siphon off material from its much denser. This eventually triggers
Supernova 1994D, visible here on the lower left, was a
companion. Eventually, this an implosion which rebounds off the
Type Ia explosion that occurred on the outskirts of galaxy
accumulates so much matter that it sets core, blasting the star’s material out NGC 4526, 50 million light years away
off a runaway nuclear chain reaction, into space as a powerful supernova.

Type Ia
A Type Ia supernova occurs
in a binary system where a
Type Ia supernova white dwarf orbits another
star, usually a giant or
How two stars can combine to
another white dwarf.
produce a massive explosion

The white dwarf gradually
becomes more compressed Explosion
as it starts to take material Eventually, if the white dwarf
from its companion. reaches more than 1.4 solar
masses, it can violently explode
as a Type Ia supernova.

Type II supernova Balance

How a massive star can explode Giant stars are kept stable
all by itself by the inward force of
gravity being countered
by the outward pressure
Type II of nuclear fusion.
If a star is eight to 15 Implosion
times as massive as the But when the star runs out of
Sun, it is able to end its life fuel, fusion at the core stops,
in a Type II supernova. and the star implodes.

The shockwave obliterates
the star, and blows its outer
layers into space.

Rebound Remnant
Within a fraction of a After the explosion, all that will
second, the core collapses, be left is an extremely dense,
but it then rebounds and rapidly spinning core. This is
produces a shock wave. known as a neutron star.

74 How It Works

Gamma ray Will the universe tear

itself apart?
bursts There are three dominant theories for how
the universe will end: The Big Crunch, The
Big Freeze, and the Big Rip. The former
Most scientists think the Big Freeze is
the likeliest to happen. But, as we don’t
yet truly understand dark energy, the Big

amma ray bursts (GRBs) are the most
envisions a scenario where gravity causes Rip remains a possibility – and some say
energetic events in the universe. They shine a the universe to contract, until it collapses it could even occur as soon as 50 billion
million trillion times brighter than our Sun, into a singularity – sort of like an opposite years from now.
and are thought to be caused either by massive Big Bang. The Big Freeze scenario, the
one most favoured at the moment, is
supernovae or the merging of two neutron stars. where the universe continues expanding
When they occur, they release more energy in ten but its energy continues to dissipate, to
seconds than the Sun will emit in its lifetime, focused a point in about 100 trillion years or so
where everything is so spread out that the
along two opposite beams that stretch many light universe becomes lifeless.
years into the distance. GRBs have been linked to The most dramatic of the three theories,
ancient mass extinctions on Earth, with increased though, is the Big Rip. This is a scenario
where the acceleration of the universe
levels of carbon-14 isotopes in tree rings possibly continues to get faster and faster, with no
linked to these events. limit. Eventually, the force of dark energy
would become so strong that it would
overcome all the fundamental forces – In the Big Rip scenario, the universe
including gravity and electromagnetism. continues to expand faster until galaxies
The result is that galaxies, stars and and even atoms are torn apart
planets would be literally ripped apart.

How the universe could end

The main theories for the fate of the cosmos

Gamma ray bursts have the Big Crunch Big Freeze Big Rip
potential to end life on Earth This theory suggests the In this theory, everything If the expansion of the universe
universe will one day in the universe spreads out keeps accelerating, everything
collapse in on itself. to nothingness. could be torn apart.

What if the Sun

We wouldn’t know about it for eight minutes, as that’s
how long its light takes to reach us. But the temperature
on Earth would drop to more than a hundred degrees
below freezing in weeks, causing the atmosphere to
freeze and fall to the planet’s surface. This would then
leave us exposed to cosmic radiation.
The core of our planet would retain heat, but it’s
unlikely much life on the surface would survive for long.
Life at the depths of the oceans could theoretically
survive for billions of years without the Sun. Our world
would maintain its momentum and journey the galaxy as
a rogue, lifeless planet.

Without the Sun,

Earth would be
doomed to life as
a rogue planet

Big Bang Expansion Dark energy

All three scenarios relate to The universe is expanding No one yet knows the exact

the expansion of the universe at an accelerating rate, but role that dark energy will
after the Big Bang. we don’t know for how long. play in our fate.

How It Works 75

How fast are you moving?

We may feel like we’re standing still, but in fact we’re flying
through space at incredible speeds
Earth’s orbit The Solar System’s orbit
around the Sun 73km/s per megaparsec
30km/s (one megaparsec = 3.26mn light years)
The Earth turns on its axis
The universe began with the Big Bang, an
once every 24 hours, which
means we’re moving nearly explosion that threw all of the matter in the
half a kilometre every second. universe from a singular point out in every
We don’t feel this motion direction. This outward movement is still
because the planet and happening, propelling us ever further from
everything on it is constantly the centre.
moving at the same speed.

The Milky Way’s motion

Our galaxy is one of a cluster
known collectively as the Local
Group. These galaxies are
moving through space towards a
gravitational anomaly 150 million
light years away, known as the
Earth’s orbit ‘Great Attractor’.
around the Sun
The Sun’s huge gravitational The Solar System’s orbit
pull brings us into an orbit
from nearly 150 million
kilometres away. We move All stars and planets in the Milky
incredibly fast to complete a Way orbit the centre of the galaxy.
full circuit in just 365 days. Our Solar System completes an orbit
in one ‘galactic year’, which is 230
million Earth years.

How are spacecrafts docked?

How astronauts in the Soyuz capsule board the International Space Station

1 Reaching space
It only takes a matter of
minutes to blast into space,
but it can take hours or even days to
2 Transfer into
higher orbit
The ISS orbits the Earth at a
higher altitude, so the Soyuz has to
3 Small corrections
The Hohmann transfer orbit
isn’t always precise, and the
Soyuz has to perform small thruster
4 Overtaking the ISS
As the Soyuz is moving faster,
it overtakes the ISS above it,
then fires its engines again to enter
reach the International Space reach it via an elliptical path called a burns to manoeuvre itself into an orbit another Hohmann transfer orbit that
Station (ISS). Following blast-off, the Hohmann transfer orbit. This features around Earth with a period of 86 brings the spacecraft just in front of
Soyuz capsule enters orbit by firing two engine burns – one to take the minutes – four minutes faster than the the ISS, 400 kilometres above Earth.
its rockets parallel to the Soyuz into the higher orbit and slightly higher ISS, which is moving at Then the Soyuz turns around, fires its

spacecraft’s direction of travel. another engine burn to keep it there. around 28,000 kilometres per hour. engines to slow down, and docks.

76 How It Works

What are white holes?

Is there such a thing as a black hole in reverse?

he universe is full of black holes. These been able to detect though, are white holes. some believe that white holes may be the exit of
cosmic objects form when a massive star, Currently just a theoretical mathematical another type of space hole, the wormhole, while
much bigger than our Sun, collapses in on concept, these space objects are essentially the others have suggested that the Big Bang began as
itself and dies in a spectacular supernova. The opposite of black holes, expelling matter and a white hole, expelling all the of elements of
remains of this star are concentrated into a small light into the universe instead of sucking it in. the universe.
but dense area, known as a singularity, with a One theory about the formation of white holes The fact remains though that, as yet, we have
very strong gravitational pull. In fact, it’s so is that they begin as their darker counterparts. no proof of their existence. Although white holes
strong that everything around it, even light, gets Once a black hole has engulfed as much matter as have the potential to exist according to the theory
sucked in and cannot escape, making black holes it can, it may go into reverse, expelling it all back of general relativity, it’s thought that they would
difficult to detect. What astronomers haven’t yet out again to become a white hole. Alternatively, simply be too unstable to last for very long.

Holes in space
How might black holes and
The dense mass of a dying star’s
white holes work together? core is heavy enough to bend the
fabric of space-time around it.

Down the plug hole

Everything from matter to
light falls towards the
singularity because of the Black hole
dent in space-time. This curvature of space-time is
known as gravity, and in a black
hole it is so strong that nothing
can escape it.
Some believe that a black
hole could possibly form the
entrance to a wormhole.
White hole
At the wormhole’s exit,
matter and light are thrown
back out of a white hole.
Travel through time
The wormhole may form a
tunnel through space-time.
Exit only
Just as nothing can escape
a black hole, nothing can
enter a white hole.

What are wormholes?

Also known as an Einstein-Rosen bridge, a wormhole is a tunnel
that punches through the fabric of space-time, acting as a shortcut
to transport matter across the universe. If you imagine the universe
as a sheet of paper, bending it in half would bring the two ends
closer together. Punching a hole through the paper would then
provide a much quicker route from end to end than simply drawing
a line across the flattened sheet.
Although only predicted by the theory of general relativity, it is
thought that a wormhole would have a black hole at its mouth,
sucking in matter to then transport it through the tunnel and into
the past. A white hole then, could be the tunnel’s exit, throwing the
matter back out into the same universe, or indeed another one we Inside our universe To another universe
don’t yet know about. Theoretically, wormholes could make time A bend in space-time brings A wormhole could act as a
travel possible, but in reality they are likely to be far too small and two locations in our universe portal to a parallel universe
much closer together. we don’t yet know exists.
unstable to transport humans.

How It Works 77

What does the Sun look *Note: 1 AU

Unit) is the

like from other planets? distance from

Earth to the Sun

Find out what it’s like to look up from the surface of another world

n Earth, the position of the Sun relative you on Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus or Neptune), but Mars, the sky is usually red, except at sunset
to our planet makes us the toast of the based on some landers sent there by the Soviet and sunrise, when it appears blue.
Solar System. Located in the habitable Union in the Seventies and Eighties, we know The distance from the Sun also affects the
zone, where the Sun is the right distance to the sky looks kind of orange-red. On Mercury, length of the day on each planet, and how long
make it neither too hot nor too cold, we are which has no atmosphere, the Sun would the Sun hangs in the sky. On Mercury, which
treated to relatively moderate temperatures. shine a brilliant – and scorchingly hot – white. rotates the slowest of the planets owing to the
We also enjoy a brilliant blue sky, as molecules We’re not the only planet with a blue sky, Sun’s gravitational pull, the time between
in our atmosphere scatter more blue light than though. Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, sunrise and sunset is 88 Earth days. At the
any other colour. and maybe even Pluto (we’re including it as a other extreme, Jupiter rotates the fastest, with
Take a trip to the planets Venus and Mercury, ‘classical’ planet here, although it is a dwarf the time between sunrise and sunset being
though, and it’s a different story. On the former, planet) are also likely to have blue skies, but we just under five hours on average. Our sky is
the atmosphere is extremely thick, so you’d be don’t know for sure because we’ve never unique, and looking up from any other world
hard-pressed to see the Sun (and nor would looked up from beneath their atmospheres. On would seem incredibly alien.

Mercury Venus Earth Mars

On Mercury, the closest planet to Venus, at 0.72 AU, is the hottest Earth is in the prodigal habitable From Mars, 1.5 AU away, the Sun
the Sun at 0.39 AU*, the Sun would planet in the Solar System due to its zone of the Solar System, where the would appear two thirds smaller
appear about 2.5 times larger than thick atmosphere. You wouldn’t see distance from the Sun (1 AU) is just than it does on Earth. It receives only
it does on Earth. A day on Mercury the Sun from the surface, but above right for liquid water to exist. As 40 per cent of the light Earth does,
lasts 176 Earth days, so it would be the clouds it would appear a third such, we have a brilliant blue sky which makes the Red Planet quite a
in the sky for a long time. bigger than on Earth. dominated by the Sun in the day. bit dimmer than our own.

78 How It Works

Some exoplanets have more

than one bright sun in their sky
Outside the
Solar System
To date, we’ve found thousands
of planets outside our Solar
System, and some orbit in bizarre
systems that would make their
skies unlike any of our own
planetary neighbours. One
system 250 light years away is
especially unusual. Known as
1SWASP J093010.78+533859.5, it contains five stars, with two pairs in very tight orbits. Any
planets in orbit around any of those stars would put Tatooine from Star Wars to shame.
Another world, Kepler-70b, has one of the closest orbits we know of. It swings around its star
in just 5.76 hours at a distance of only 900,000 kilometres or 0.006 AU, less than three times Pluto
Pluto has an eccentric orbit, and at its most distant, it
further than that at which the Moon orbits the Earth. Its bright, burning star would easily fill a is 49.3 AU away. Although the Sun will appear up to 50
large portion of the sky. And spare a thought for anyone on 2MASS J2126−8140, which takes a times dimmer than on Earth, amazingly it is still 150
million years to orbit its star. From its distant orbit a trillion kilometres away, you’d be hard- to 400 times brighter than a full moon on Earth,
depending on where Pluto is in its orbit.
pressed to see the star at all.

Jupiter Saturn Uranus Neptune

At 5.2 AU on Jupiter, the Sun is a Saturn is 9.5 AU from the Sun. Here, In the outer Solar System, Uranus is From Neptune, 30.1 AU away, the Sun
quarter of the size it is from Earth. the Sun looks just one-tenth as big as 19.2 AU away. From here, the Sun is appears about 30 times smaller than

Jupiter has the largest planetary it does on Earth. Perhaps more one-twentieth the size it is on Earth. it does on Earth. This would make it
atmosphere in the Solar System, so if impressive would be Saturn’s rings, It would be hard to make out the 27 difficult to see its moons (aside from
you could survive beneath it, you visible everywhere except the moons of Uranus from the planet, all Triton), but the Sun would still be by

wouldn’t see anything. equator, where they are edge-on. of which would be very dim. far the brightest object in the sky.

How It Works 79

What animals have

been to space?
Meet the creatures who paved the way for human spaceflight

1 Fruit Flies
On board a captured Nazi V-2 rocket in
1947, these tiny pests made history.
They were the first animals in space, sent to
explore the effects of radiation on organisms.
In 1963, the very first feline was sent into
space by French scientists. The cat,
known as Félicette, had electrodes
implanted in her brain in order to record
They returned to Earth safely by parachute. impulses sent back to Earth.

2 Monkeys
A total of 32 monkeys have flown to
space, beginning with Albert II in 1949.
A decade later, a rhesus and a squirrel monkey
7 Rats
Love them or hate them, we’re
physiologically similar to rodents.
That’s why a team of ‘ratstronauts’ are
became the first to survive the trip, currently being used to study how
experiencing over 30 times the pull of our microgravity affects organisms during long
Earth’s gravity. stays in space.

3 Mice
Even today, mice are ferried to and from
the ISS and are key for studies in
sending humans to Mars. Recently, it
The very first tortoise was launched
into space in 1968 with wine flies and
mealworms. They flew around the
Moon and back to Earth, making them the
was discovered that astro-mice sent to deep
space showed signs of liver damage. first animals to enter deep space. What’s
more, they survived the trip!

4 Dogs
During the 1950s and 1960s, dogs were
used by the USSR to investigate whether
human spaceflight was feasible. The
9 Cockroaches
Cockroaches conceived on board the
International Space Station were found
to grow faster, run quicker and were much
Two chimpanzees, Ham
(pictured) and Enos, were sent
into space during NASA’s
Mercury Program
Soviets chose canines believing they could tougher than those born on Earth. Perhaps it’s
cope with the stress of the experience better time to welcome our new insect overlords.
than other animals.

5 Geckos
Russian scientists sent lizards to space
to study how weightlessness affects
reproduction. When one wriggled free
10 Jellyfish
What do humans and jellyfish
have in common? We both
orientate ourselves according to gravity. NASA
of its identification collar, the geckos were raised thousands of the critters in space to test Miss Baker, a squirrel
filmed playing with the floating object – a rare the effects and found the astro-jellies couldn’t monkey sent to space
behaviour for reptiles. swim in normal gravity back on Earth. by the US, returned alive

Laika: the first animal in orbit

Padding through the streets of Moscow, painted onto the areas where sensors
Laika – a mongrel – was plucked from would be placed to monitor all of her
obscurity to stardom. Soviet scientists bodily functions.
reasoned that since she was capable of There were no plans to retrieve Laika
withstanding extreme cold and hunger as a from space and she died several hours into
stray dog, she would be able to endure a the flight from stress and excessive heat –
rigorous training schedule, which would causes that were kept a secret for 40 years.
prepare her for a trip to space in 1957. Sputnik 2 circled the Earth 2,570 times
Before being confined to the capsule before burning up in the Earth’s
– essentially a metal ball weighing around atmosphere. In 2008, a monument was Laika was selected for the
18 kilograms – Laika’s fur was sponged with erected in Laika’s honour, outside the rigorous astro-training
because she had survived
© Alamy

a weak alcoholic solution and iodine was Moscow facility where she was trained.
tough conditions as a stray

80 How It Works

How far can we see?

Discover the most distant object visible to the naked eye in our night sky

ou might think you need a telescope to explore the universe, but This makes the latter the furthest object you can see, 2.7 million light
find yourself a suitably dark sky, free of light pollution, and even years from Earth. You might be surprised that we can’t see much outside
your naked eye can uncover the wonders of the universe – or, at our galaxy, considering how many stars are in the night sky. But that’s just
least, our own galaxy. a measure of how vast space really is; there are an estimated 100 billion
When looking up at the sky, every star you are seeing is within the stars in our galaxy alone. Other galaxies are simply too far away to appear
Milky Way. The only objects you might be able to spot that are outside it big in the sky, and require large telescopes like Hubble to be explored. In
are the Andromeda Galaxy, the two Magellanic Clouds, and the our galaxy, the furthest star you can see is likely to be V762 Cas, more than
Triangulum Galaxy. 16,000 light years away.

Moon Sun Most distant

385,000 150 visible planet
km million km Uranus
billion km

What is dinner like in space?

The ultimate out-of-this-world dining experience is not as glamorous as it sounds

ritish chef Heston Blumenthal is renowned for his experimental instruments or equipment and could potentially cause serious damage
approach to cooking, but his latest challenge took food science to – not a risk worth taking.
new heights. In collaboration with the UK Space Agency, Eating in space is not always a particularly enjoyable experience, either.
Blumenthal created a selection of dishes for astronaut Tim Peake to enjoy Microgravity causes body fluids to pool around the astronauts’ heads,
on board the International Space Station. which compresses their sinuses. This affects their sense of smell and taste,
NASA has strict regulations dictating what food can go into space and so strong flavours are needed to stop food tasting bland. Another factor
how it must be prepared, so sending restaurant-quality meals into orbit is Blumenthal had to consider was the psychological impact of a six-month
no easy task. Everything must be heated to 140 degrees Celsius for two stint on the ISS. He created some of Peake’s favourite dishes – including
hours to kill off any bacteria that could make the crew ill, while anything space-friendly bacon sandwiches, beef stews and Thai curries – to remind
that creates crumbs is strictly forbidden – they could easily float into him of home.
© UKSA_Tim Peake_Heston Blumenthal, NASA

To stop food floating away, it Prior to launch, Blumenthal

is attached to the table with spent two years developing
Velcro or elastic cables Major Peake’s meals

How It Works 81

What’s it like inside

Spaceport America?
In the town of Truth Or Consequences is Catching a
the world’s first commercial spaceport In the future, it is hoped that Spaceport

paceport America is described as the The structure sinks down into the ground to America will be the top destination for
world’s “first purpose-built commercial maximise energy efficiency, and winds whistle tourists looking to catch a glimpse of the
spaceport”. It is an impressive through to control the temperature inside. Like world from outer space. Virgin Galactic
10,000-square-metre terminal building with a a standard airport, it has hangars and a intends to prep their would-be astronauts
3,657-metre runway, nestled in the remote departure lounge, but it is also fitted out with a with an intense three-day training course
Jornada del Muerto desert basin in New Mexico, control room, space for astronauts to don their on site. Health and safety is a priority, with
US. Its ambitious organisation is on a mission suits, and training facilities for flight emergency response taking the number
“to make space travel as accessible to all as air preparations to be carried out. one spot on their planned training protocol.
travel is today”. The spaceport officially opened in 2011, with Medics will also be on hand, to ensure that
The $200 million facility was designed by Virgin Galactic signing a 20-year agreement as passengers are physically and mentally
UK-based Foster and Partners, and funded by the primary tenants back in 2008. However, it ready for the intense experience of the
New Mexico state taxpayers. It was built to has been a slow start for this ground-breaking space environment. They will be exposed to
mirror the spacecraft that it will one day house, project. Virgin Galactic plans to use the facility g-forces in simulators and light aircraft in
with a curved outline, skylights, and a three- to take passengers into space onboard preparation for the big day. Once the trip is
storey glass front looking out over the taxiway. SpaceShipTwo, but after a tragic fatal accident over, SpaceShipTwo will land on the runway
in 2014, the project is now running several like an airplane, and the passengers will be
years behind schedule. able to celebrate in style back at the
A number of smaller private companies have commercial spaceport.
paid to use the facilities and over 20 launches
have been made, but this is far fewer than
originally expected, and the building is losing
money. Time will tell whether Spaceport
America will achieve its dream of becoming a
bustling hub for commercial space travel. For Virgin Galactic’s WhiteKnightTwo will
The airport’s hangar is known as
now, it seems that while the building is ready, help launch SpaceShipTwo into space
the Gateway to Space building
the spacecraft aren’t quite prepared for take-off.

82 How It Works

Solar power
The amount of daylight Building the
allowed in through the
roof can be controlled. spaceport
British company Foster and
Partners designed Spaceport
America to be energy efficient

Internal vents
Internal vents
Air moves naturally
through the structure,
Local materials helping to keep it cool.
The spaceport was
built to blend in with
its surroundings.

Underground cooling
Part of the structure is
underground, and has been
designed to cool the air as it The structure sinks into
Underfloor heating moves through. the ground to maximise
energy efficiency

Kodiak Launch Complex Spaceports of

Oklahoma Air and Space Port
Mojave Air and Space Port Cecil Field Spaceport

The runway is
almost 4km long
© Jeff Foust, Spaceport America, Illustration by Foster + Partners

California Spaceport
Cape Canaveral

How It Works 83

How do frozen worlds form?

Icy planets exist beyond the Solar System’s snow line
Collisions Planet formation Freezing conditions
Grains of ice, metals Many large clumps collide to form At this distance from the protostar,
and minerals crash into planetesimals. Their increased the ultra-freezing conditions enable
each other to make gravity attracts more of the baby planets to form, which are
larger clumps. surrounding grains and gases. capable of becoming gas giants.

The solar nebula

Planetary systems like our
Within the Solar System form out of a
flattened cloud of gas and
snow line dust around a young star.
Within the snow line
This disc is comprised of
metals and rocks in
mostly hydrogen with
the solar nebula are
traces of helium.
able to condense,
while hydrogen
remains gaseous.

Protostar The snow line

When a star has only just This is the point beyond
Beyond the snow line been born, it’s known as a which temperatures are
Further away from the Sun, protostar because it’s still low enough for volatile
things start to get a lot gathering mass from its compounds, such as
chillier and hydrogen gas parent molecular cloud. water, ammonia,
condenses, as well as metals methane and carbon
and rocks. dioxide, to freeze.

How do we search for super-Earths?

There are rocky planets bigger and more massive than Earth
orbiting stars many light years away, but why do we seek them out?

ver the last decade or so, astronomers have Could they support life? It’s possible – some
discovered that there are rocky planets up super-Earths have been found in the habitable
to ten times more massive than Earth zones of stars, where the temperature would allow
orbiting other stars. They call them ‘super-Earths’, liquid water to exist. The conditions wouldn’t be
although that can be misleading as they may look the same as on Earth, however, as surface gravity
© NASA Ames/JPL-Caltech/Tim Pyle

nothing like our planet at all. They are, however, would be stronger, the geological activity may be
the easiest rocky exoplanets that scientists can different and the atmospheres are often found to be
detect. Their hefty mass means their gravity causes thick, which makes it easier to study the gases
stars to wobble to a greater extent, giving away present. Above all, astronomers are invested in the
An artist’s impression of a super-Earth
their presence, while their large diameter causes a search for super-Earths because we have none in (right) in the habitable zone of a star,
dip in brightness when they are seen transiting our Solar System. That means they are among the compared to Earth (left)
across the face of their star. most alien of planets we have discovered so far.

84 How It Works

What near misses

will Earth have?
Don’t panic! The science behind
sensationalist headlines explained

eadlines of an asteroid Armageddon NASA’s Near-Earth Object Program detects limited observations, which is why the range
may sell papers, but in reality these and tracks asteroids and comets that pose a of distances and flyby dates tend to vary.
space rocks rarely pass within the threat to our planet. The most important part of These relatively inaccurate predictions are
Moon’s orbit. In February, NASA announced the programme is identifying Potentially refined over time as more data is collected by
that the asteroid 2013 TX68 could pass as close Hazardous Asteroids (PHAs), which could NASA’s researchers and technology, ultimately
as 17,000 kilometres, or as far as 14 million impact Earth in the future. These are classified providing better figures to draw from. Several
kilometres from Earth’s surface. It is this huge as asteroids that are over 150 metres wide, on weeks after the announcement, NASA
range of uncertainty that often causes a stir orbits that will bring them within 7.5 million updated their predictions for 2013 TX68, which
among media outlets; when experts appear to kilometres of us. swooped safely past us at a distance of 4
be so unsure, it can seem somewhat unsettling Initial estimates of these PHAs often appear million kilometres. For now, at least, there is
to those of us who don’t really understand it. threatening because they are based on quite nothing for us to worry about.

Potentially Hazardous Asteroids

The space rocks that could come too close for comfort in the next 200 years
137108 1999 AN10
2011 LT17
Diameter: 950m
Diameter: 160m
Flyby date: 7 August 2027
Flyby date:
400 Distance: 390,000km
16 December 2156
Distance: 367,000km
2005 WY55
Diameter: 250m
360 Flyby date: 28 May 2065
Distance: 328,000km
Distance from centre of the Earth (thousands of km)

153814 2001 WN5
Diameter: 500m
Flyby date: 26 June 2028 85640 1998 OX4
Distance: 248,000km Diameter: 210m
Flyby date:
22 January 2148
Distance: 296,000km

2007 YV56 153201 2000 WO107

Diameter: 220m Diameter: 500m
200 Flyby date: Flyby date: 1 December 2140
2 January 2101 Distance: 242,000km
Distance: 236,000km
2011 WL2
Diameter: 420m
Flyby date: 26 October 2087
120 Distance: 190,000km

80 Key
Moon (384,000km)
40 99942 Apophis satellites (35,800km)
Diameter: 400m ISS (6,800km)
Flyby date: 13 April 2029 Earth radius (6,400km)
Distance: 38,000km

2020 2030 2040 2050 2060 2070 2080 2090 2100 2110 2120 2130 2140 2150 2160 2170 2180 2190 2200

How It Works 85

Why do we fly
close to the Sun?
Solar physicist Lucie Green explains the daring
mission to answer big questions about our star

Lucie studies the activity of

our nearest star and how it
affects us on Earth

ver since she first looked at the Sun through a
solar telescope, Lucie Green has been
fascinated with finding out how it works.
Although our closest star has given up many of its
secrets over the years, there is still a great deal left to
discover about the huge ball of plasma that provides
our heat and light. Working at University College
London’s Mullard Space Science Laboratory, and
alongside space agencies such as NASA and the
European Space Agency, Green is involved in some
exciting projects to learn more about our host star.
From studying giant eruptions on its surface to
measuring strong solar winds, she hopes to be able to
answer some of the biggest questions about not just
the Sun, but the entire universe too. We caught up
with her to discuss how she plans to get closer to the
heart of our Solar System than ever before.

Why is it important to study the Sun?

The Sun is the star that we can study in the most detail
because it’s the closest star to us. When we look at the
Sun, we see the whole object. We can see the surface,
the atmosphere, and we can make out certain
features, whereas when you look at the majority of
other stars, they’re just points of light. So the Sun ends
up being a bit like a Rosetta Stone for other stars. We
can develop techniques to understand what’s
happening on the Sun and then apply them across the
universe. Another reason is that solar activity has an
impact on our planet. It drives space weather, which
can have a negative impact on our technology.

86 How It Works

Joining an astronomical
society is a great way to Telescopes in space can create artificial solar
get stargazing advice
eclipses, so you get a crisper view of solar activity
How much do we already know It’s a really ambitious project, a sort of
about how the Sun works? Icarus-like mission to fly close to the Sun
We’ve been observing the Sun with and take close-up pictures. However, as
telescopes for over 400 years, and from well as taking images, the spacecraft will
space since the 1940s, so we have a good sit in the flow of material that constantly
observational description of what the Sun comes out of the Sun, so we can sense it
does. We are now trying to see the physical directly as it washes over it.
processes happening at smaller and That’s going to allow us to answer some of
smaller size scales that we can’t make out the big questions about the Sun. For
with our telescopes. example, the Sun produces a strong wind
Another thing we want to know is how the but we don’t know exactly how it is
solar cycle works. The Sun’s activity follows produced. Solar Orbiter is going to measure
an 11-year cycle where it rises and falls and the wind as it blows over the spacecraft, so
we know that this is driven by an evolution we will be able to work out what it’s made
of the Sun’s magnetic field. However, of, the temperature of it, what magnetic
because it occurs inside the Sun where it is field is in it, the characteristics of it and
very hard to probe, we don’t have a fully then try and understand more information
developed physical understanding of how it about how that wind is formed.
operates as a star.
How will you overcome the
What technology is being used to challenges of getting a spacecraft
try and answer these questions? near to the Sun?
On the ground we have detectors that look The side facing the Sun will heat up to 600
at the Sun in the wavelengths of light that degrees Celsius, and as you can imagine,
make it through the atmosphere, such as you can’t have that heat falling on your
visible light and some parts of the radio instruments. A heat shield has been
spectrum. Then we can also do detections developed that stops that intense radiation
of particles on the Earth as well. For falling on the main part of the spacecraft.
example, a by-product of the fusion process Also, because the orbit of this spacecraft
that powers the Sun is particles called goes close to the Sun then takes it further
out again, its temperature is changing from
Lucie Green’s neutrinos, and you can measure those
hot to cold and back again, so we need to
neutrinos on the ground.
astronomy top tips There’s also a lot that we want to do from create a stable environment behind that
heat shield. Solar Orbiter has solar panels

space, in particular focusing on parts of the
Learn the constellations that will tilt so that you can regulate how
“Start off by familiarising yourself with Sun’s emissions that we can’t detect on the
the night sky. Orion is my favourite Earth. For example, wavelengths of light much light is falling on them as you get
constellation because it’s got everything,
like ultraviolet, X-rays and gamma rays closer to or further away from the Sun.
including star-forming regions and stars that
have been kicked out of the constellation in that don’t make it through the What other big space stories have
the past.” Earth’s atmosphere. you been most excited about
Another benefit of being above the recently?

Mars is the focus for me at the moment. I am
Get kitted out atmosphere is that we get a much clearer
“Buy a pair of binoculars and then view. For example, we have telescopes that working on a European Space Agency
work up to having a telescope. You mission to go to Mars so I’m always keeping
can also get lots of support and share in the create artificial solar eclipses, called
coronagraphs, and they are typically flown an eye on what the rovers are looking at.
excitement of learning about astronomy by
joining a local astronomical society.” in space. Using these coronagraphs you can Then there’s Pluto and the New Horizons
see the ejections that the Sun sends out into mission. The images taken by that

3 Look at the moon

“You can look at the Moon during the
different phases, and spot different
craters. You can really get a feel of the 3D
the Solar System, so you get a crisper view
of one of the forms of solar activity.
spacecraft are absolutely incredible. I
can’t believe there are floating mountains
on Pluto, and vast nitrogen plains. They
are still downloading data from that
What projects are you currently
© Max Alexander

nature of the surface by looking at the

shadows that are cast. I never tire of getting working on? spacecraft, so I can’t wait to see
my binoculars out and looking at One project I’m working on is Solar Orbiter. more results.

How It Works 87

How did Earth

Geologists believe that molten iron
was drawn through channels to
the Earth’s centre
get its core?
Intense heat and immense pressure formed Earth’s iron centre

e know that the formation of the lower mantle, the iron sank slowly as gravity percolated through the solid mantle towards
Earth’s layers was a long and pulled it towards the centre. the centre. The temperature of the core is
complex process, but scientists However, a more recent model suggests about 5,200 degrees Celsius – much higher
have been puzzled as to how the inner core that the core formed later, when the entire than the melting point of iron. Yet the iron is
became a solid ball of iron. Initially, experts mantle was solid rock. Intense pressure at so dense and under such extreme pressure
thought that the core began to form early in about 1,000 kilometres below the crust was that it is crystallised into a solid. The core
the process, when the upper mantle was still strong enough to force the molten iron out of continues to grow by about a millimetre a
molten rock. Droplets of iron fell into the hot silicate rock. Small blobs of the metal joined year, as the Earth cools and parts of the
magma ocean and once it reached the solid together to form channels, and then liquid outer core crystallise.

Our planet’s formation Liquid outer core Solid and

The pale blue dot started out as a molten mantle
molten ball of rock and metal

Solid crust
1. Proto-Earth
The Earth’s formation from
planetesimals and bits of
rock generated so much
heat that it was essentially
a ball of melted metal and
molten rock.

inner core

The inner-inner core

Since the core is 5,000 kilometres below the surface, we have to rely on earthquake activity to
study it. That entails analysing the waves that travel from an earthquake’s epicentre and pass
through the planet. S-waves travel through solids but not liquids, while P-waves travel through
both, but change speed and direction.
By looking at where and when the waves arrive on the surface, we refine our understanding of the
planet’s make-up, similar to how doctors use ultrasound. That’s how geologists have determined
that the centre of the Earth actually has two parts: an outer-inner core and an inner-inner core.
© Boaworm, Z22

Geologists study seismic activity The iron crystals at the innermost part are aligned east to west, while the crystals in the outer-
after an earthquake to learn more inner core are aligned north to south. Something big must have happened to cause the inner-inner
about the Earth’s interior core’s crystals to be oriented differently, but we’re yet to unravel the mystery.

88 How It Works

What are A dark nebula called

Lupus 4 obstructs light
from distant stars

dark nebulae?
The giant interstellar clouds that give birth to stars

ave you ever looked up at the of the Milky Way. Together, these
night sky to see a patch of nebulae weigh more than 1 million
blackness surrounded by a sea times the mass of our Sun, and span
of luminous stars? Instead of empty hundreds of light years. And in this
space you may have found a dark region of space, new stars are
nebula, a gargantuan cloud of dust that constantly being born.
could swallow our entire Solar System. Turbulence within the cloud causes
The specks of dust in the clouds are ‘knots’ of matter to form, which have
formed mainly of dirty graphite, ices enough mass to start collapsing under
and carbon-based ‘goo’. These their own gravity. As the ball of dust
components absorb and diffract light, contracts, and its density increases, the
blocking and obscuring our view of the temperature rises, and the core starts to
stars that lay beyond. rotate. This dense, hot core is a
The Great Rift is a collection of dark protostar, which will develop into a star
nebulae that actually splits up our view over hundreds of thousands of years.

What happens when stars die?

Massive stars live fast, die young, and go out with an almighty bang

1 Red
When a star with
the mass of ten Suns or
2 Core collapse
The core becomes
so big that it
collapses under its own
3 Neutron core
The implosion
ultimately causes
the core to shrink. The
4 Supernova
The shockwave is
outward, ripping the star
5 Supernova
The ejected
material blasts through
more runs out of hydrogen gravity. This creates a incredibly dense neutron apart in an incredibly bright space. A vast nebula is left in
fuel, it starts to fuse shockwave that compresses core is roughly the mass of explosion. At this time, the supernova’s wake, and
heavier elements. The core and heats the star’s outer our Sun, but packed into a supernovas can even the former core then
gains mass and the outer layers, creating a big and small sphere just a few outshine the galaxies they compacts to become a
layers expand. bright flash. kilometres across. are in. neutron star.

How It Works 89

How do gas
Gas giants like Jupiter are made
mostly from hydrogen and helium

giants form?
There are two competing theories to explain the
birth of planets like Jupiter and Saturn
Cosmic cannibalism Born from pebbles
Cosmic debris Planetary
The process begins as pebbles
the dust and gas left A more recent idea
over when stars form suggests that gas
flatten out into a disc giants form from icy
shape, and over time ‘pebbles’. These
the particles inside clumps start small, at
start to collide. As just the width of a
they bump into each ruler, but as they
other, rocky flecks sweep through the
stick together. gas cloud they grow.

Core formation Gathering dust

As the clumps of rocky The pebbles orbit
debris get larger, their through the dust
gravitational pull gets cloud surrounding the
stronger, and they young star, gathering
begin to attract more material rapidly as
and more debris from they go. Small
the surrounding gas particles cling to the
cloud. Clumps merge, surface of the newly
and then planets start forming planets,
to form. adding more bulk.

Picking up gas Carving a path

The rocky planets As the gas giants grow
closest to the star are in size, they carve out
battered by stellar paths in the disc.
winds, which blow Instead of forming
light gases away, but from a series of
those further away collisions, this theory
are shielded. They suggests that gas
accumulate excess giants hoover up
gas, steadily growing particles in the disc as
in size. they orbit.

Destroying the The aftermath

competition This process happens
The gas giants in the quickly, over a few
outer part of the star million years. Once
system swallow up the gas giants have
their smaller cleared the way, rocky
neighbours. Collisions planets can start to
between planets can form closer to the
tilt their orbits, and parent star, which
can throw smaller produces the planets’

ones out into space. heat and light.

90 How It Works

What will Juno help us

discover about Jupiter?
The secrets of the king of the Solar System are about to come
under the scrutiny of a bold new mission

ASA’s Juno spacecraft has been composition tell us about the materials that
racing towards Jupiter at 97,000
kilometres per hour since leaving
went into its creation? Does the atmosphere
contain water, and what lurks beneath the
How to build a
Earth in 2011. It arrived on 4 July 2016, and had
travelled more than 2.8 billion kilometres,
cloud tops? Juno will attempt to unravel these
mysteries, while also going where no other
giant planet
Our Sun formed 4.5 billion years ago
setting the record for the most distance a spacecraft has gone before by flying close from a giant, collapsing cloud of gas and
solar-powered probe has ever flown. over the poles of Jupiter. Here, it will be able to dust. The leftovers of this gas and dust
Jupiter is the largest planet in the Solar observe the dazzling northern and southern formed a spinning disc around the baby
System, spanning 143,000 kilometres across lights and learn how they are created by the Sun and had soon formed a number of
planets, moons, comets and asteroids,
and weighing in at 318 times more than Earth. planet’s magnetic field. Incidentally, that’s
too. Scientists, however, don’t know
It’s a gas giant, which means it’s mostly made what inspired Juno’s name: JUpiter Near- much more detail than this and that’s
of hydrogen and helium gas, and its polar Orbiter. what Juno has been sent to find out.
appearance is famous for the stripes of The spacecraft will have two years to The secret to the birth of the Solar
creamy white, orange and brown. The biggest unlock secrets of the giant planet before it System lies deep beneath the churning
clouds of Jupiter’s atmosphere, within
cloud pattern is the Great Red Spot, a huge runs out of fuel and is sent hurtling into its planetary core. One scenario about
anticyclonic storm that’s big enough to fit our Jupiter itself. This is to avoid crashing into how it formed is that originally Jupiter
entire planet inside! Jupiter’s moon Europa, where it could was a giant rocky planet ten times more
What lies deep within Jupiter’s core is still a contaminate any alien life that may inhabit massive than Earth, which formed from
a swarm of icy ‘planetesimals’ – objects
mystery, however. What does its gaseous the moon’s underground ocean.
formed from dust, rock and other
materials – that came together under
gravitation to create a planet. This was
The Juno then able to sweep up large amounts of
spacecraft Solar panels
There are three solar panels,
gas left over from the birth of the Sun to
become the biggest gas giant in the
Take a tour of the large enough to generate enough Solar System.
probe’s scientific kit power while operating at such a An alternative theory is that Jupiter
great distance from the Sun. never had a rocky core and instead
condensed out of gas like the Sun did.
Gravity science By carefully measuring Jupiter’s
Microwave This will use radio waves to magnetic and gravitational fields, Juno
radiometer measure the distribution of mass
will be able to assess whether it has the
Using microwaves, this inside Jupiter and help find out if
it has a rocky core. remnants of a rocky core or not and
instrument will probe
Jupiter’s atmosphere and
determine which scenario is correct. If
search for water vapour. Jupiter does have a rocky core, then it
means that the planetesimal theory is
likely, and planetesimals can then be
used to explain the formation of other
JunoCam planets, including our own.
Images will be
captured using this
visible-light camera. It
will only operate for
Magnetometer seven orbits before
Jupiter has the biggest, most radiation causes
powerful magnetic field of all the Ultraviolet irreparable damage.
planets and the magnetometer
will provide maps and imager
measurements of it. Jupiter’s brilliant
aurorae shine in
ultraviolet instead of
visible light like on
Earth, and this
© NASA/JPL-Caltech, NASA

instrument will be
Jovian Energetic particle able to see them.
Detector Instrument (JEDI) If we could cut Jupiter in half,
Jupiter’s magnetic field traps lots of would we find a vaporised rocky
high-energy charged particles that core deep underneath the gas?
JEDI will be able to measure.

How It Works 91

What is it like
on board the
Dream Chaser?
With the Space Shuttle in retirement, NASA is looking to
Compared to the giant
Space Shuttles, Dream
Chaser is modest in size

the next generation of space planes Spacecraft design

Mark Sirangelo,
ierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser is a engines are so powerful that, when docked
smaller, more adaptable version of the with the ISS, Dream Chaser can raise the Space head of Sierra
Space Shuttle and will spend much of its Station’s altitude, useful for avoiding pieces of Nevada
time going on trips to resupply the space debris. Corporation
International Space Station (ISS). Unlike the Dream Chaser is a fairly modest spacecraft in Space Systems,
Space Shuttle, Dream Chaser can fly terms of size; its wingspan is seven metres, tells us more
autonomously, without a human pilot. Crewed compared to the 23.8-metre wingspan of the “Dream Chaser is a pilot-automated space
versions will also be developed, capable of Space Shuttle. It will be capable of carrying plane that has many similarities to the Space
carrying seven astronauts plus cargo. over five tons of cargo into space before Shuttle. It is smaller in terms of overall size – it
doesn’t have the huge cargo compartment
Once in space, it will be powered by twin returning to Earth hours later, landing like an that the Shuttle did – but it has a similar sized
hybrid rocket engines, which use two airplane on a runway. Expected to first launch pressurised crew compartment.
propellants – one solid, the other gaseous or sometime in 2018-2019, there will be two This means that it can still take up the same
number of astronauts (seven) and the same
liquid. These are mixed together and tend to be versions; the Dream Chaser Cargo System amount of protected cargo in the pressure hold
less explosive than purely solid rocket fuel sports folding wings to allow it to fit into the as the Shuttle.
when they fail. In the case of the Dream Chaser, cargo fairing rockets such as the Ariane 5, It’s a highly reusable vehicle and, presuming
that there’s a mission and rocket, we can
the solid propellant is a rubbery material while the crewed Dream Chaser Space System launch each Dream Chaser vehicle potentially
called ‘hydroxyl-terminated polybutadiene’, will launch on an Atlas V rocket to carry five times a year. We’re planning on having
while the gas propellant is nitrous oxide. Its astronauts to the ISS. a fleet so that we can fly one while we’re
getting the next one ready to fly again. We are
expecting our first orbital flight to be in 2018
What dreams are made of Wing profile
but we’re probably not going to have any crew
on board to begin with.”
Introducing one of the most sophisticated space vehicles ever built Dream Chaser’s
streamlined shape
Seven-strong crew Airlock with upswept wings
Although Dream Chaser is capable of The docking hatch allows astronauts keeps g-forces to
flying autonomously, it can also carry a or cargo to be transferred from below 1.5 for the
crew of up to seven astronauts. Dream Chaser to the ISS. entire flight.

© Sierra Nevada Corporation

Hybrid rockets
The hybrid rocket
Cargo carrier Landing wheels system uses non-toxic
Over five tons of cargo for resupplying Dream Chaser’s landing gear propellants for the
the ISS can be crammed into Dream allows it to touch down on a first time in the
Chaser’s hold. runway just like an airplane. history of space flight.

92 How It Works

What is space radiation?

The universe is crammed with high-energy particles and electromagnetic waves

Galactic cosmic radiation Trapped radiation Solar energetic particles

Distant supernova explosions are thought Earth’s magnetic field can trap charged These high-energy particles are released
to be the source of these high-energy ions. particles from the solar wind. They become by the Sun during periods of intense
They travel across the galaxy at close to the confined to the Van Allen belts, two activity known as solar particle events.
speed of light, and can easily pass through doughnut-shaped magnetic rings encircling Although these events are hard to predict,
the walls of a spaceship. With current the planet. This type of radiation does not astronauts and vulnerable equipment can
technology at least, they cannot be pose a threat unless astronauts travel be protected from this form of radiation
shielded against. through the magnetic field. using shielding materials.

How do you wash

your hair in space?
Microgravity makes hair care on the ISS pretty tricky

f you can’t stand the thought of not hygiene routines become a little more
having a shower for months on end, challenging. During her time on the
then look away now. This is one of International Space Station back in 2013,
the prices that astronauts on the astronaut Karen Nyberg demonstrated
International Space Station have to pay the elaborate process in a video for
for the chance to live in Earth orbit. viewers back on Earth. First, warm water
If you’ve ever seen the way water from a sealed pouch is squirted onto the
behaves in microgravity, then you can scalp and quickly caught by a comb that’s
probably imagine that completing a task run through the hair to ensure that no
as simple as giving your roots a good water floats away. A no-rinse shampoo is
scrub can be difficult. Rather than falling then rubbed in using a towel, followed by
straight down as it does on Earth, water a small amount of water to rinse out any
in microgravity scatters into watery residue. The same towel is used to dry the
A sealed bag of warm water, no-rinse

blobs. Rogue droplets and hair strands hair, taking care to catch any loose shampoo, a comb and a towel are
can create safety hazards, so personal strands that escape in the process. required to wash your hair in space

How It Works 93
An apparent solar
day varies in length
throughout the year by
about 16 minutes either
side of 24 hours

How far can we send a spacecraft
before we lose contact with it?
H ow far a space probe can go before
communication becomes impossible is
limited only by the radio technology that we
incredibly weak signals, which are then
amplified back to us.
Advances in this technology have allowed
have and will develop. us to receive transmissions far longer than
Voyager 1, launched in 1977, is currently expected, and newer spacecraft with more
over 20 billion kilometres away, but we are powerful transmitters could in theory extend
still able to exchange information with it this range even further. We will lose contact
using radio signals. On Earth, huge antennae with Voyager when it runs out of energy in
pointed towards the spacecraft pick up its around 2025.

Why is a day Can two planets share

24 hours long? the same orbit?
O ur 24-hour day is derived from
solar time: the time it takes for the
Sun to reach the same position on the P lanets can share an orbit, as
exemplified by two distant planets in
local meridian (as measured by a the KOI-730 system spotted by the Kepler
sundial, for example). An apparent solar Space Telescope. This type of configuration
day varies in length throughout the year is rare since a shared orbit will usually lead
by about 16 minutes either side of 24 to one planet being flung outwards, or the
hours, due to our planet’s elliptical orbit two colliding.
and tilted axis. However, the average The only exception is if the larger planet
day length is equal to 24 hours, which is sits in a ‘sweet spot’, 120 degrees in front of
what we base our clocks on. This is or behind the smaller planet. These
slightly longer than the time it takes for locations are called Lagrangian points,
the Earth to complete a full rotation where the gravitational forces exerted by
around its axis: 23 hours, 56 minutes the other planet and the star cancel each
and 4.09 seconds. other out, creating a new and relatively
stable system.

94 How It Works

How do we know
what stars are
made of?
A strophysicists learn what stars are made of by
studying the light they emit. Light reaching Earth
from a star can be analysed using a spectrometer,
which separates it out into a spectrum of its
constituent colours. However, the spectrum is not a
continuous sequence – certain colours of light are
absent. This is because elements within the star
absorb specific wavelengths. Sodium, for example,
absorbs yellow light strongly. By seeing which
wavelengths are missing, scientists can deduce which
elements make up the star.

Black lines in the

Sun’s spectrum
give away our
star’s chemical

©Luc Viatour

Light reaching Earth

Why is the Moon slowly moving from a star can be
away from us? analysed using a
spectrometer, which
T he ocean tides are causing the
Moon to gradually drift away from
Earth. The Moon’s gravitational pull on
But as the Earth rotates, the bulge
moves forward in relation to the Moon.
As a result, the Earth’s rotation slows,
separates it out
our planet’s water creates a slight bulge
on the ocean surface on the side of the
giving a little bit of energy to the Moon,
making it orbit slightly further away.
into a spectrum of its
Earth that is closest. This bulge in turn
exerts a gravitational pull on the Moon.
Each year, the Moon edges about 3.78
centimetres further away.
constituent colours

How It Works 95
Has all the water on Earth
been here since the planet
first formed?
M ost of the water that we see on Earth today was not
around when our planet formed; it was transported onto
Earth by comets and asteroids. When the Solar System formed
4.6 billion years ago, water molecules would undoubtedly have
been present in the swirling dust and rocks that accreted to form
planets. But without an atmosphere, any water on Earth’s surface
would have vaporised under the high temperature conditions and
escaped into space. However, over the next 700 million
years, our planet was pummelled with comets and
asteroids. These contained ice,
which melted into liquid
water once they reached
Earth’s surface.

When was the
first element
W e have known about elements
like gold and silver since ancient
times, but the first element to be
identified scientifically was phosphorus
in 1649. It was discovered by German
alchemist Hennig Brand.

When the Solar

Why doesn’t our O ur moon does have a
name: it is called ‘Moon’
System formed 4.6
as it was the first moon
billion years ago,
Moon have a name? discovered – all others are
named after it.
water molecules
The word derives from the
Old English term ‘mona’ and
was initially used just for our
would undoubtedly
Moon. The term later came
to describe other planets’
have been present
natural satellites in the 17th
century, after Galileo
in the swirling
famously first observed
Jupiter’s moons in 1610.
dust and rocks
The Moon has other names
in other languages: ‘Selene’
that accreted to
form planets

in Greek or ‘Luna’ in Latin.

96 How It Works

Is it possible for a solid to

move at light speed?
E instein’s theory of relativity states that it’s impossible for an
object with mass to travel at the speed of light. Accelerating an
object requires energy, and as the speed increases, the amount of
energy required to speed it up any further increases. Getting it to
the speed of light would require an infinite amount of energy, which
is impossible. This is due to the relationship between mass and
energy. The faster an object moves (i.e. the more energy it has), the
greater its mass.
Despite this, some things can travel at 99 per cent or more of the
speed of light. Inside man-made particle accelerators, particles
typically travel at speeds just a few metres per second shy of the
speed of light.

How It Works 97
100 How can we live beyond 100?
104 What are the laws of thermodynamics?
105 Why do we see faces everywhere?
105 What is plasma?
106 How do our hearts beat?
108 What is the pH scale?
108 What if we ran out of rare Earth metals?
109 What is the blood-brain barrier?
110 Why do songs get stuck in our heads?
111 What if we cut down all the trees?
112 What is respiration?
113 What if water didn’t exist?
113 Do I really look and sound like that?
114 How are spirits made?
116 How does your brain understand science?
117 Why does the mind wander?
117 What are the different blood types?
118 What if the magnetic field flipped?
118 How do dogs drink?
119 What are enclosed eco-systems?
120 What if gravity was twice as strong?
120 What are the colours of blood?
121 Is there such a thing as perfect posture?
122 How do hydraulics work?
123 How do nuclear power plants work?
124 Bitesize Q&A

98 How It Works

How It Works
© Colin/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0
How can we
live beyond
1 ?
Anti-ageing researchers are getting ready to push the limits of human life

100 How It Works


e are born, we live, we age and we die. humble laboratory mouse. The worms generally understanding ageing. We realised when the
This is the natural cycle of human live for just two or three weeks, while the mice doors opened in 1999 that ageing was the biggest
existence, yet some people live longer have an upper lifespan of around three years, risk factor behind all of the disease that we care
than others. The world record holder for the and both have a lot of genes that are quite similar about,” he explains.
longest human life is Jeanne Louise Calment of to our own. Using these models, researchers have “I think the exciting thing that we have
France, who lived to a magnificent 122 years and identified several possible candidates, including learned over the past decade is that it’s really
164 days. But what is the secret to a long life? stem cells, calorie restriction, and even some possible to slow ageing in a mouse, or even in
Human beings are complex, and we live for a drugs, that could hold off the ageing process. primates. The challenge now is to take that
very long time, making studies of the process of Scientists across the world have been trying to knowledge and apply it to humans. We’re not just
ageing a serious challenge. Most of the research find the answers for decades, and after years of talking about lifespan, what we really want to do
and experiments to date has therefore been careful research, there is now a wealth of is to extend healthspan: the period of time that
carried out on animals. Two of the favourite knowledge just waiting to be tested in people. We you’re disease-free and functional. The field has
species for these kinds of studies are spoke to Brian Kennedy, CEO of the Buck Institute amassed a whole load of candidates to slow
Caenorhabditis elegans, a tiny worm about the for Research on Aging: “We’re a non-profit ageing, and the challenge now is to figure out
size of this comma, and Mus musculus, the medical research institute that’s focused on how to test them.”

Why do What makes us age?

we age? There are several different factors thought to contribute to the ageing process
There is no easy answer to this
question. As with almost everything
else in biology, it is a combination of
genetics and environment. One of the
most well-established theories about
1 Calories
This is one of the most established
areas of research. In mice, rats and
even primates, limiting food intake to the
4 Inflammation
Chronic inflammation is found in many
age-related diseases, even when there is
no infection to fight, but the relationship with aging
why we age is that it is an accident of minimum requirement extends lifespan. is unclear.

evolution. Charles Darwin’s famous
theory explains that the ‘fittest’ or
best-adapted animals will reproduce,
passing on their genes to the next
generation. To get this chance, they
need to be able to survive through
2 Damage
Over time, our DNA starts to
accumulate mistakes. This is due to
damage from the environment as well as
errors made whenour cells divide.
The ends of our chromosomes are capped
with stretches of protective DNA called
telomeres. Every time a cell divides, part of this cap
is lost.
their early years, find a mate, and
help their young to make it to
adulthood. Over the course of our
lifetimes, our bodies take damage
and start to deteriorate, but after
reproduction, it doesn’t matter so
3 Stem cells
Stem cells can reproduce to replace
cells that are damaged or worn out. As
we age, they become less able to function,
6 Glycation
Molecules called ‘advanced glycation end
products’, or AGEs, form in our bodies over the
course of our lives. They have been implicated in
much how long animals live. There is slowing the rate of repair. several age-related diseases.
therefore much less pressure to
evolve genes that extend life and
reverse the damage. In fact, it might
even be better in evolutionary terms
to live fast and die young, if it means
that you have a better chance of
passing on your genes.

Do we have an age limit?

n 2010, an estimated eight per cent 80
Changing life
of the world’s population were
over the age of 65. By 2050, this is
expectancy 80
expected to rise to 16 per cent – that’s 60
Average lifespan has changed
around 1.5 billion people. But despite
50 dramatically over the years
this seemingly phenomenal increase
in human lifespan, there has actually 40
been little change in the upper limit of 30- 40
human age over the last 2,000 years.
30 35 35 45
© Getty, Thinkstock, Dreamstime

Some people were living into their

seventies back then, too. Brian
Kennedy says: “Median life expectancy Prehistoric Classical Medieval Victorian Today
Some prehistoric antiquity Surviving During this time, Life expectancy
has been going up at a pretty high rate. humans lived into Some Ancient childhood and three in ten babies varies across the
But that’s median life expectancy. The old age, but the Greeks and Romans childbirth were died before they world, and is highest
question of whether we can extend the majority of people lived into their 70s both major reached their in the more
maximum is still a bit open.” died young. and beyond. challenges then. first birthday. developed countries.

How It Works 101

How do we slow down
our body clocks? The latest research aims to
Telomere theory Chromosome
Most cells in the human body have 23 put the brakes on ageing
Are the little protective caps pairs of chromosomes. These X-shaped
on the ends of our DNA the
secret to ageing?
structures carry our genetic code,
stored on long strands of DNA.
and extend healthy years
of life

lmost all of our cells have 23 pairs of
Telomerase rebuilds
lost telomeres by Telomerase chromosomes. Each chromosome contains a
inserting fresh DNA Some cells have an enzyme long molecule of DNA, wound around a series
letters, known called telomerase, which is
as nucleotides. of proteins to form an X-shape, and the ends are
able to repair the damage
to the telomeres. DNA replication capped with structures known as telomeres. These
Every time a cell have been a focus for anti-ageing researchers for
replicates, it must
make copies of all of many years because every time a cell divides, they
its chromosomes so get a little bit shorter. Eventually, the telomere is so
that there is one small that the cell can no longer go on dividing.
complete set for
each daughter cell. As Professor Kennedy explains, “If you take cells
out of the body and grow them in the test tube, it was
found out many years ago that eventually they stop
growing. People have thought for 50 years now that
Telomer this may be a component of ageing.” Telomers can be
The ends of the chromosomes
are capped with stretches of lengthened again by an enzyme called telomerase,
DNA that don’t contain any which is found in some stem cells. However, in most
genes. The letters of genetic adult cells, telomerase is switched off. Without it,
code, TTAGGG, are repeated
Shortening telomeres over and over again. telomeres gradually get shorter as we get older, and
As a result of the way DNA is
our cells start to shut down. Some of these older cells
copied, a small amount of Repaired telomere
each telomere is lost every This ability to repair die, while others just stop dividing and become
time a cell divides. telomeres is switched off in ‘senescent’, which literally means ‘to grow old’.
most adult human cells. Cell division
Cells divide for growth Researchers at the Buck Institute are very
and repair, making interested in senescence. “One of our investigators,
two daughter cells Judy Campisi, has been developing strategies to get
each with their own
set of chromosomes. rid of senescent cells in the body,” he continues. “The
problem has always been that there aren’t that many
senescent cells in the body, even in older people. It
might be five per cent of the tissue, ten per cent of the
tissue.” So the argument was always, ‘How can that
have that big of an effect if it’s only a small proportion
of the tissue?’ What Judy has found is that these
senescent cells secrete factors that have bad effects
on the cells in their environment.”
Dr Campisi focused first on investigating the
process in mice, and has developed a way to kill the
senescent cells using genetic engineering. “When
you do that, the animals stay healthy longer,”
Kennedy explains. Dr Campisi is now working on
finding a drug that can produce the same results. But
the aim isn’t necessarily to extend life. These
senescent cells could be contributing to age-related
Senescence diseases, and that’s the real focus for the researchers.
Cell death The second option for cells “Our goal is to keep people healthy and functional
If the telomeres get too short, there are with short telomeres is
two options for the cell. The first is that senescence. They stop longer. They will probably live longer too, but it’s
they can die in a controlled process dividing and start behaving really about healthspan more than lifespan”.
called apoptosis. unlike other cells.

102 How It Works


Anti-ageing pills
In some cases, airborne pollutants convert to harmless
materials when they react chemically with other
atmospheric gases. These reactions happen naturally in
the presence of light, but on a slow timescale. In
photocatalysis, the rate of these everyday reactions is
boosted using a catalyst.
Innovative chemical company Cristal has pioneered a
pollution-busting coating that can be painted directly onto
buildings. Made from ultra-fine photocatalytic titanium
dioxide (TiO2), it actively draws pollutants including VOCs,
NOx and sulphur dioxides from the surrounding air and
converts them into harmless by-products that are easily Human studies are needed to find
washed away. Best of all, the catalyst itself is not used up out whether these drugs really
in the reaction, so its performance never dips. can slow ageing

The future of
At the moment, most anti-ageing research
is focused on extending human healthspan
by staving off disease. But we are in the
midst of a scientific revolution, and there is
no telling what will be available
hundreds of years from now. Already,
scientists can build bionic limbs that
respond to the wearer’s thoughts,
they’re learning the incredible
potential of stem cells, and they
can 3D print structures for
transplanting into the body. In
the future, some hope that it
will be possible to go beyond
biology, using these kinds of
advances to become
‘transhuman’ – living longer,
and ultimately cheating
death completely.
The ideas for
transhumanism are limitless,
and range from augmented
body parts, through to
genetic modification and
cloning, all the way up to
downloading your thoughts
onto a memory stick and
living forever as a machine.
Unfortunately – or
fortunately, depending on
how you look at it – this
future is still a long way off. © Dreamstime, Getty, Thinkstock, Illustration by Adrian Mann

Elixir of youth Genetic Cloning Upgrading organs Replacing limbs Downloading your
Drugs may one day be engineering How about living again as Some advanced 3D Bionic limbs have the brain
able to slow the ageing Editing the youthfulness an identical version of printing techniques potential to be stronger Will it ever be possible to
process, and help to avoid genes in our genome yourself? Cloning could eventually lead and ultimately more replicate the most
diseases like Alzheimer’s could change the way technology could make to custom-made durable than the complex structure in the
or Parkinson’s. that humans age. copies of you or your cells. organ replacements. real things. known universe?

How It Works 103

What are the laws of
The physics of how energy flows explained

The four laws

Zeroth law of First law of Second law of Third law of
thermodynamics thermodynamics thermodynamics thermodynamics
If two objects with the same temperature Energy cannot be created As energy transforms, it It is not possible to get the temperature
are touching, there is no net flow of or destroyed, it can only becomes less concentrated of a substance down to absolute zero
energy from one object to the other. be transformed. and therefore less useful. (0 degrees Kelvin/-273.15ºC).

Heat energy
The first and second law
Some of the fuel’s
Inefficient system See the laws of thermodynamics in action in this simple example
The less concentrated
energy is converted energy cannot be reused,
into heat energy, so when the fuel runs out,

which spills out of the flow of energy stops.
the car’s exhaust.

The first law
The amount of kinetic energy and heat
energy created is equal to the amount of
energy stored in the fuel.

The second law

Although no energy has Concentrated energy Kinetic energy
been lost, it has become Fuels such as gasoline store
In the car’s engine, some of
less concentrated as it highly concentrated
the fuel’s energy is converted
has spread out into potential energy in their
into kinetic energy, which
the surroundings. chemical bonds.
spins the wheels.

nergy is what makes everything happens in every energy change, and are key form of energy will need to be added to keep
happen, from getting out of bed to to understanding the world around us. a machine running.
launching a rocket. For these things to The first law of thermodynamics states The ‘zeroth’ law defines the notion of
occur, there needs to be an energy change – that energy is always conserved, so the temperature, while the third law states that
energy must be converted from one form to amount put into a system is the same as the a substance cannot reach absolute zero
another. For example, chemical energy from amount that comes out. However, while the (-273.15 degrees Celsius), as its atoms would
your food is converted into kinetic energy amount of energy remains the same, its have no kinetic energy, which is impossible.
when you move, along with thermal energy, usefulness decreases as it changes form. The laws of thermodynamics explain the
or heat. This is the second law of thermodynamics, relationship between all types of energy.
Thermodynamics is the branch of physics and it’s the reason why there’s no such thing These principles are used to understand how
concerned with the relationship between as a 100 per cent efficient machine. In other all machines work, from human bodies to
heat and energy. Its four laws govern what words, energy can’t be recycled and some steam engines.

104 How It Works


Why do we Seeing faces

Your brain should automatically spot
the faces in these pictures

see faces
Ever seen a face on your toast
in the morning?

rom religious figures on slices of
toast to aliens on Mars, faces pop
up in the strangest of places. The
phenomenon is known as pareidolia,
and happens thanks to a part of the
brain called the fusiform face area,
which is specially adapted to detect
faces. If we see something that even
vaguely resembles a human visage, it
lights up. Researchers at the University
of Toronto found that this rapid
processing occurs in the prefrontal
cortex (which handles what we expect
to see) and the posterior visual cortex
(which processes what we actually
see). When people believe that they
should see a face, their brain will do
the rest.

What is plasma?
Discover the highly energised matter that powers
life on Earth

e’re all familiar with solids, During a lightning storm, for example,
liquids and gases, which are plasma is responsible for the beams of
three fundamental states of light we see flashing down from the sky.
matter. But although it’s not as well The massive current moving through the
known, there’s actually a fourth state air energises atoms and turns them into
©NASA, User:Colin/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

that’s more common than all of the plasma particles, which bump into each
others – plasma. This state occurs when other and release light. We also see
atoms of gas are packed with energy, plasma every time we look at the Sun.
transforming them into separate The high temperatures are constantly
positively and negatively charged converting the Sun’s fuel – hydrogen and
particles. Unlike gas, plasma is a great helium atoms – into positively charged
conductor of electricity and can respond ions and negatively charged electrons,
to magnetic forces. It may sound strange, making our local star the most A plasma ball produces beams of
light that are formed in a similar
but we actually see these energetic concentrated body of plasma in the
way to lightning bolts
particles every day here on Earth. Solar System.

How It Works 105

How do our hearts beat?
How one of your hardest-working muscles keeps your blood pumping

our heart began to beat when you The pumping action of the heart is
were a four-week-old foetus in the coordinated by muscular contractions that
womb. Over the course of the average are generated by electrical currents. These
lifetime, it will beat over 2 billion times. currents regularly trigger cardiac
The heart is composed of four chambers contractions known as systole. The upper
separated into two sides. The right side chambers, or atria, which receive blood
receives deoxygenated blood from the body, arriving at the heart, contract first. This
and pumps it towards the lungs, where it forces blood to the lower, more muscular
picks up oxygen from the air you breathe. chambers, known as ventricles, which then
The oxygenated blood returns to the left contract to push blood out to the body.
side of the heart, where it is sent through Following a brief stage where the heart The heart consists of
four chambers,
the circulatory system, delivering oxygen tissue relaxes, known as diastole, the cycle
separated into two sides
and nutrients around the body. begins again.

The cardiac cycle Atrial systole Blood enters the ventricles

A single heartbeat is a series of The atria contract, The blood moves down into the
organised steps that maximise Left atrium decreasing in volume ventricular chamber due to a
blood-pumping efficiency Oxygenated blood arrives from the and squeezing blood difference in pressure.
lungs via the pulmonary vein and through to the ventricles.
flows into this chamber.

Right atrium
blood from the rest
of the body enters Diastole Ventricular septum
the chamber via The cardiac muscle cells are A thick, muscular wall
the superior and relaxed, allowing blood to separates the two ventricular
inferior vena cava. enter the ventricles freely. chambers of the heart.

106 How It Works


Fight or flight
A heartbeat begins at the sinoatrial node, a bundle of
specialised cells in the right atrium. This acts as a
natural pacemaker by generating an electrical
current that moves throughout the heart, causing
it to contract. When you are at rest, this happens
between 60 to 100 times per minute on
average. Under stressful situations however,
such as an encounter with a predator, your
brain will automatically trigger a ‘fight or
flight’ response.
This results in the release of adrenaline and
noradrenaline hormones that change the
conductance of the sinoatrial node, increasing
heart rate, and so providing the body with more
Adrenaline and noradrenaline secretion
available nutrients to either fight for survival or
is governed by the hypothalamus
run for the hills.

Over the course of the average

Closure of cuspid valves
The valves snap shut to prevent the lifetime, the heart will beat over 2
blood flowing back into the atria.
billion times
Blood enters the atria
Circulated blood returns to the Ventricular systole
atrium to begin a new cycle. The ventricles contract,
increasing pressure as
the volume of the
chambers decreases.

Atrial diastole
The electrical
© Blausen gallery 2014, Alamy, Thinkstock

current moves past

the atria and the Thick muscle tissue
muscles relax. The more muscular tissue of
the ventricles allows blood to
be pumped at a higher
pressure than the atria. Semi-lunar valves open
The pressure in the chambers
forces blood through the valves
and into the aorta and
pulmonary artery.

How It Works 107

What is the pH scale? What if we
What do the terms acidic, neutral and alkaline mean?
ran out of
he pH of a solution is a measure of and for every step down in the pH scale,

rare earth
how acidic or alkaline it is on a the concentration of these extra ions
scale in which 0 is the most acidic, increases. Solutions of pH 6 have ten times
7 is neutral, and 14 is the most alkaline, but the concentration of hydrogen ions as
what are we measuring? Let’s start in the
middle. Pure water has the chemical
formula H2O, and is made from two
solutions of pH 7. Solutions of pH 5 have ten
times as many again, and so on.
Alkaline solutions have extra hydroxide
bonded ions: hydrogen and hydroxide. The ions. The concentration increases tenfold 17 rare earth elements
ions are in pairs, one hydrogen bonded to
one hydroxide, and the pH is neutral.
with every step up on the pH scale. If you
add an acid to an alkali, the extra ions can
are key ingredients
Acids have extra hydrogen ions that do come together to form water, bringing the in technology
not have hydroxide ions to pair up with, pH back towards neutral.

he rare earth metals behave quite
unlike other elements in the
Everyday pH Find out where everyday substances sit on the pH scale periodic table, and they have
found their way into smartphones, wind
turbines and MRI scanners, to name a few.
Battery acid Acidic
They are much more abundant than
Stomach acid precious metals like gold, but they are
difficult to mine, and we are already
running out of good spots to dig. They are
bound up with radioactive materials, and
Lemon juice extracting them is expensive, dangerous,
Fizzy drinks and damaging to the environment.
Without these elements, the modern
world could fall apart. Before we run out of
rare earth metals, we are likely to start
Acid rain running out of other vital elements too.
Antimony and lead (used for batteries),
Clean rain
indium, copper and gold (used in electrical
components), and zinc (used to prevent
corrosion) are starting to run low.
Sprouts The most obvious solution is to cut back,
Blood to find alternatives, and to recycle the
Neutral metals that we have already extracted, but
there is a fourth option that has sparked
the attention of some intrepid explorers:
Sea water
searching in space. NASA, along with
private companies like Planetary
Baking powder
Resources, have set their sights on
© Rob Lavinsky/

near-Earth asteroids, rich in useful

elements. If we really did manage to burn
Antacid tablets
through all of Earth’s supplies, space
Soap mining could be a way to keep our
technologies going.



Alkaline Drain cleaner

108 How It Works


What is the blood-brain barrier?

This biological wall keeps your brain safe and secure

our brain is arguably your most
important organ, and it is vital that it Blood vessels Protecting
isn’t affected by wayward chemicals
or aggressive infections. To keep your nerve
The blood carries vital
nutrients, but it can also
transport substances that
a closer
cells safe, your body builds a biological wall might harm the brain. look at the
called the blood-brain barrier. barrier that
Blood vessels are the highway of the The blood-brain barrier shields your
human body, carrying nutrients and oxygen helps to maintain the brain cells
delicate chemical balance
to tissues, and taking away waste products, that keeps the brain
but unfortunately, they can also transport functioning normally.
harmful chemicals and infections. In most
parts of the body, chemicals are able to freely
cross through the walls of the blood vessels,
leaking between the cells and out into the
tissues, but thankfully this does not occur in
These support cells are Leakage
the brain. named for their star-like The barrier isn’t able to
To prevent unwanted contaminants from shape, and have long feet keep everything out.
that release chemicals to Water, fat-soluble
entering, the cells lining the blood vessels are help maintain the barrier. molecules and some gases
closely knitted together by structures called are able to pass across.
‘tight junctions’. Web-like strands pin the
membrane of one cell to the membrane of the
next, forming a seal that prevents any leakage
through the cracks.
Wrapped around these cells are pericytes,
which are cells that have the ability to Transporter
contract like muscle, controlling the amount Specialised Pericyte
transporters in the These cells are able to
of blood that passes through the vessels. Just surface of the contract, helping to
outside the pericytes, a third cell type, the blood-vessel cells carry regulate the amount of
important molecules, blood moving through the
astrocytes, send out long feet that produce capillaries in the brain.
such as glucose, across
chemicals to help maintain the barrier. the barrier.
Some large molecules, like hormones, do
need to get in and out of the brain, and there
are areas where the barrier is weaker to allow
these to pass through. One such region,
called the ‘area postrema’, is particularly Tight junction
The cells lining the blood
important for sensing toxins. It is also known vessels are closely knitted
as the ‘vomiting centre’, and you can probably together, preventing
molecules from creeping
guess what happens when that is activated. Endothelial cell through the gaps.
These cells form the
blood-vessel walls,
wrapping around to make
the hollow tubes that carry
blood to and from the brain.

Crossing the barrier

If nothing could cross the blood-brain barrier, your brain cells would quickly die. In fact, water
and some gases pass through easily, and the cells are able to take up important molecules,
such as sugars, and pass them across. Molecules that dissolve in fat can also slip through,
© Science Photo Library, Phototake

allowing chemicals like nicotine and alcohol to easily pass into the brain. There is a problem,
though. Most medicines are too big or too highly charged to cross over, and if a patient has a
neurological condition like depression or dementia, treating the brain directly is a real
challenge. Researchers are working on ways to breach the barrier, including delivering
treatments directly into the fluid around the brain, disrupting the barrier by making the
blood vessels leaky, and even designing Trojan horse molecules to sneak treatments across.

How It Works 109

Why do 2

get stuck
in our
Ever end up singing
one song all day?

his irritating phenomenon has
many names in the scientific
literature: imagined music,
3 1 Doing an anagram
Studies performed at Western
Washington University showed that
anagrams could provide some relief from
earworms. Puzzles that aren’t too
involuntary musical imagery, involuntary challenging proved more successful than
music trying very complicated tasks.
semantic memories, intrusive songs, or
slightly disconcertingly, ‘earworms’.
Hearing a song played on a loop inside
your own brain is very common; the
2 Chewing some gum
Researchers at the University of
Reading tried giving chewing gum
to volunteers after they had listened to
majority of people have experienced it,
catchy songs. Movement of the jaw is
and for many it is at least a weekly thought to interfere with short-term
occurrence. Playing music, listening to
songs and singing can make it happen
ANOTHER SONG memory and the ability to imagine sounds
in your head.
more often, and although people most
often mention it when it becomes an
irritation, it is not always unpleasant.
Earworms fall into the same category
3 Replacing the song
In studies performed in Finland and
England, a small percentage of
participants reported using ‘cure’ songs to
as spontaneous recollections of memories relieve the frustration of an earworm; by
listening to well-liked classics, they
and mind wandering, and seem to be
distracted themselves from the unwanted
intrusive thoughts that are beyond our song in their head.

conscious control. Trying to get to the
bottom of the science behind them is shuffle repeat Solving a sudoku
challenging, because researchers have to Western Washington University
researchers reasoned that
rely on the subjective reports of study performing complex non-verbal tasks could
participants, often through diaries and also help to keep earworms away. Easy
surveys that track the occurrence of sudokus were most effective, while
earworms, and the effectiveness of challenging puzzles prompted the mind
to wander.
different strategies to try and make them
go away.
One of the most popular ways to deal
with an earworm seems to be just to leave 4
it alone; enjoy the song, if you can, and
allow the thought to pass. If that fails,
distraction is another very popular
coping strategy, or some people even
resort to engaging with the tune,
listening to it in real life to get out of the
loop inside their head.
There is a major problem to overcome;
the more you focus on whether your
attempts to get rid of the song have been
successful, the more your brain is likely to
go back to looping the song. This idea is
explored by psychologist Daniel Wegner.
He points out that by monitoring whether
or not you have managed to successfully
get rid of a thought, you might just trigger
it to start up again.

110 How It Works


What if we cut
down all the trees?
Losing Earth’s forests would change the face of the planet forever

very second, an acre of the Amazon
rainforest disappears. Forests are
described as the ‘lungs of the
The state of the Amazon Biodiversity
Ten per cent of known
Earth’s largest tropical rainforest is under serious threat species are housed
Earth’, and are vital for removing carbon
within the Amazon
from the air and cleaning up our soil.
Basin, and more have
Plants and trees take carbon dioxide yet to be discovered.
Carbon release
and turn it into biological molecules, Each year, around 0.5
locking it away in their trunks, leaves and billion tonnes of
stems. Trees act as huge umbrellas and carbon are released as
help water to trickle slowly to the forest the forest is destroyed. Deforestation
Over the last 50 years,
floor, and they also regulate the nearly 20 per cent of the
temperature and humidity in the Amazon’s canopy has
environment beneath their leaves. disappeared.
The environmental effects of losing our
forests would be cataclysmic. Tonnes of
carbon would be released into the
atmosphere, contributing to the
greenhouse effect. During a downpour,
water would run straight off the soil,
causing rivers and lakes to swell and Runoff protection
The Amazon receives
burst their banks. Areas of bare earth up to 3,000mm of rain
would experience droughts, and soil each year. The trees
erosion would make growing crops help to slow its journey
into rivers and streams.
impossible. The air would become
dangerous to breathe without a gas mask.
Our forests are home to half of all
Earth’s species and 80 per cent of all its Climate control
insects. Without trees, there would be no The tree cover helps to keep
temperature and humidity
home to animals that are forest dwellers, stable, supporting trillions
paper, wood or charcoal. The foods we upon trillions of animals.
harvest from trees would be gone too. Vast swaths of the
Amazon rainforest are

© Alamy
The Amazon lost every year

by numbers
This forest is one of the most

astonishing places on the planet

% 90-140
1 Acres of
per second
billion billion
Of Earth’s oxygen
produced here

Metric tonnes of carbon

are stored in the forest

Trees remain in
the rainforest

40,000 Species of plant

Call the
Amazon home

How It Works 111

What is
Discover the science behind every breath you take

ll the cells in our body need oxygen to Oxygen’s journey into our cells starts with bloodstream because some of it gets used up.
survive, which we get from the air that breathing, which is controlled by a part of Similarly, air contains less than 0.05 per cent
we breathe. the brain called the respiratory centre. It carbon dioxide, but there’s more in the blood.
Cells use oxygen to generate energy from sends signals to the intercostal muscles and This means oxygen passes from the alveoli
food and produce carbon dioxide as a waste the diaphragm, telling them to contract, into the blood – through the process of
product. Too much carbon dioxide is harmful expanding the lungs and pulling air down diffusion – while carbon dioxide moves the
and makes the blood acidic, so we need to get the windpipe and into the branching tubes of other way. The laws of thermodynamics
rid of it. The process of getting oxygen from the the lungs. Each tube ends in balloon-like sacs explain the relationship between all types of
air into our bodies and breathing out called alveoli, which are surrounded by tiny energy. These principles are used to
unwanted carbon dioxide in return is known blood vessels. Inhaled air is 21 per cent understand how all machines work, from
as respiration. oxygen but there’s a lower level in the human bodies to steam engines.

Breathe in, breathe out

From air to blood – how oxygen gets into the body

Trachea Gas exchange

Oxygen moves from the air
(windpipe) in the alveoli into red blood
Lined with sturdy cells. Carbon dioxide goes
rings of cartilage, the the other way.
trachea is the ‘inlet’
pipe for air coming
into the lungs.

Tube network
The lungs are made up of
lots of branching tubes,
called bronchioles.

Thin walls
Alveoli The walls of the alveoli and
Each bronchiole ends in blood capillaries are just one
balloon-like sacs called cell thick, so gases only have
alveoli, where oxygen and to move short distances.
carbon dioxide move in
and out of the blood.

Huge surface area

It is estimated that the total
Two types of
surface area inside the
lungs is around 70 square
metres. That’s almost half We need to respire so that our cells can
a tennis court.
generate energy and power every
function in the body. To avoid there being
a lapse, there are two types of respiration.
Aerobic respiration requires oxygen,
producing carbon dioxide and water as
waste products. A ‘back-up’ process
called anaerobic respiration happens
when oxygen isn’t available, but it creates
a chemical called lactic acid. If lactic acid
builds up in cells and tissues it can be
toxic, and causes a burning feeling in our
muscles during and after intense
exercise. As a result, we can’t rely on
anaerobic respiration for too long.

112 How It Works


What if water didn’t exist?

Is life even possible without Earth’s most abundant liquid?

ll life as we know it needs However, just because we need water
water to survive. Organisms doesn’t mean that there aren’t
need to take in materials from alternatives. Some other liquids have
their environment; they need to grow, the potential to support life too, albeit
to react and to reproduce. To do these life that is quite different to what we
things, large, complex chemicals need are used to. One of the prime
to come close enough together for them candidates is ammonia. There is lots of
to be able to react, and, for this to it, it is good at dissolving organic
happen, you need something for the molecules, and it can also dissolve
molecules to dissolve in. On Earth, metals. It evaporates at a lower
water is the answer. There’s lots of it, it temperature than water, but if the
can dissolve a variety of different pressure is high enough, it will become
chemicals, and it remains liquid over a more stable.
wide temperature range. Take it away, Another option is hydrogen fluoride.
and everything would die. It stays liquid over a wide temperature
There are some crafty organisms range, and can absorb considerable

©Thinkstock; Dreamstime
that can survive for months, years, or energy before it increases in
Tardigrades can survive in even decades by drying themselves out temperature. At this stage, it’s
extreme environments, and slowing their metabolisms, but if impossible to know if life could evolve
and can go months
without water
the water never returned, they would in liquids other than water, but there is
eventually succumb to dehydration. definitely a chance.

Do I really look and

We are so used to seeing our
mirror image that a photograph
can look really strange

sound like that?

The science behind how we look and sound

W How we hear
hen you look in a mirror,
the reflected image you see The sound of your own voice
of yourself means you see is all in your head
yourself back to front. If faces were Auditory canal
Eardrum External sounds,
symmetrical this would not matter, but Changes in air such as a recording
pressure cause the of your voice, enter
because there are asymmetries, you eardrum to vibrate. the ear as pressure
mentally store a backwards image of waves in the air.
what you look like, and when you see
your image the right way round, it can Facial bones
Vibrations made by the voice
look strange. box also travel through the
The sound of your voice can be bones and soft tissue of the
head and neck.
strange too. When you speak, you’re
picking up the vibrations in the air
and also detecting vibrations inside Sensory hairs
The vibrations in the fluid
your head. As you make sounds with are detected by tiny hairs,
your vocal cords and tongue, the soft which trigger nerve
signals to the brain.
tissues in your head and neck vibrate,
and so do the bones in your face. These
vibrations make your voice sound The vibrations of the
Lower pitch eardrum are transmitted
lower. When you hear your recorded The internal vibrations into fluid inside a coiled
voice, you don’t get these undertones. make our voices sound structure called the cochlea.
lower inside our own heads.

How It Works 113

How are spirits made?
People have been distilling alcohol using the same
basic principles for more than 1,000 years

How It Works
easts consume sugar, breaking it down into temperature than water, a property which allows the Different spirits are also treated differently during
ethanol (alcohol) and carbon dioxide in a process two liquids to be separated. the distillation process. Vodka is distilled over and over
Y called fermentation. People have been taking In a distillery, a low percentage alcoholic mixture is again, passing through several columns to produce the
advantage of this trick to produce alcoholic drinks heated until the alcohol starts evaporating. The vapour purest alcohol possible, before being watered down to
since prehistory, but there is a limit to how strong wine is then siphoned away before being cooled and reach a drinkable concentration. Gin goes through a
and beer can get before the yeasts start to die. Although collected. As the alcohol evaporates first, some of the similar process, but it is flavoured with secret mixtures
the yeasts produce the alcohol, it is still toxic to them in water is left behind. However, there’s more to spirits of juniper berries and other botanicals. Spirits such as
large enough quantities. Making stronger alcoholic than just alcohol. The yeast is used to break down rum and whisky are left to age in barrels, often for
drinks requires a bit more human intervention, and complex products like wheat, barley, sugar cane, fruit, years at a time. While the process is fairly simple, the
this is done by the process of distillation, which potatoes or honey, so the condensed liquid is far from exact way that spirits are made has a dramatic impact
involves separating one liquid from a mixture of pure. The extra compounds are known as congeners, on the final flavour, and each distillery has its own
liquids. Alcohol boils and condenses at a lower and they help to give each spirit its unique taste. secret recipes and techniques.

The distillery
Making spirits is easy, but making good
spirits is both an art and a science

A mixture of water, yeast
1 and a source of sugar
such as grain or potato are mixed
together and allowed to ferment
for around a week.

When the mixture is
2 roughly ten per cent
alcohol, it is ready for the next
stage. It is moved into the pot,
which is surrounded by a double
wall filled with steam.

Alcohol has a lower
3 boiling point than water,
at around 78°C. Both
alcohol and water must be turned
to gases for the next phase.

The evaporated alcohol and
4 water move through the
distillation column,
passing over cool copper plates. As
the temperature drops, water Although the yeasts produce the
condenses first, leaving the alcohol
to move up and out of the column. alcohol, it is still toxic to them
Impurities, called
5 congeners, exit the
column first, followed

by the alcohol-enriched
vapour. Many distilleries pass 1
the vapour through several
columns to purify the spirit as
much as possible.

The congeners contain
important flavour
6 molecules, so some
may be blended back in to
produce the final drink. Pure
water is also added to bring 3 9
the alcohol content back down
to legal levels.
Some spirits spend 6 8
7 months or even years
developing rich flavours 4
inside wooden barrels.
Steeping 2
Spirits can be flavoured
with spices, berries or
botanical extracts,
producing distinctive flavours.
Spirits can be distilled
repeatedly to increase
9their purity. However, they must
then be watered down.

Once the spirit has 10
10 been distilled,
flavoured and aged, it is ready to
be bottled and sold.

Know your spirits Different techniques are used to produce the distinctive flavours of whisky, gin and rum

Whisky tastes It’s all in the grain Tonic was intended Gin gets its flavour Rum is a by-product White rum is cleaned
like wood Flavour molecules are to stop malaria from berries of sugar production with charcoal
This dark spirit is aged in introduced even before Tonic water contains Juniper berries are added Sugar refining produces This removes not only
barrels for years, and fermentation. Peat fires an antimalarial to every bottle of gin. very sticky the colourful compounds,
picks up flavour molecules used to dry the barley called quinine. Gin Other popular molasses. Making but also some of
found in produce that was added to flavours include rum was a good the natural and
the wood medicinal whisky make this coriander, citrus way to get rid distinctive
of the smell that we all taste much peel and of this sugary dark rum

How It Works
barrel. love so much. better. angelica. substance. flavour.


How does your brain
understand science?
Research reveals how your brain adapts to interpret complex ideas

W How you learn

hile humanity has progressed
leaps and bounds over the
millennia, our brains have more
Which areas of your brain do you use to make sense of science?
or less stayed the same. But how do our Periodicity Energy flow
prehistoric minds – that are wired for survival When thinking about periodic The parts activated when
concepts such as wavelength sensing radiated energy, such
above all else – process the technologically and frequency, the areas of the as sunlight, are also used to
advanced concepts of modern science? brain involved in processing consider concepts of energy
rhythm – such as when you tap flow, such as current.
To find out, a team of scientists from along to music – light up.
Carnegie Mellon University in the US analysed
brain scans of physics and engineering
students. Their neural activity was monitored
using functional magnetic resonance imaging
(fMRI), while they were asked to think about a
series of 30 physics principles. A computer
programme then created a map showing the
active areas of the brain for each topic.
The results showed that the brain adapts
itself to help us make sense of abstract ideas.
We use parts of the brain associated with
everyday activities to relate scientific
principles to the real world. Concepts linked
with causal motion (such as gravity) involved
visualisation, while those linked to energy
flow (such as heat transfer) used the same
areas of the brain as sensing warmth. When
pondering periodical concepts (such as sound
waves), the areas associated with rhythm and
music lit up. Principles associated with
equations (such as velocity) activated the
areas of the brain used for calculations. Cause and effect Equations
Understanding concepts like Principles represented with
By understanding how we learn and gravity uses areas of the brain algebra or equations, like velocity
visualise various ideas, this research could involved with the visualisation and acceleration, tend to activate
of causal motion. For example, the same areas of the brain
help teachers find more effective ways of it may help to picture an apple associated with understanding
helping their students learn. falling from a tree. quantities and language.

Inside your mind

Functional magnetic resonance imaging indicates the type of tissue being scanned.
(fMRI) techniques enable neuroscientists to Sensors located all around the scanner
examine which areas of the brain are involved detect this energy and build a 3D picture of
in specific processes. In a standard MRI the body. Functional MRI employs the same
scanner, a strong magnetic field forces the principle, but is specifically used to detect
nuclei of water atoms in a person’s body to changes in blood flow through the brain.
align. When the magnetic field is switched Deoxygenated blood responds differently
off, the atoms return to their normal, random to oxygenated blood in a magnetic field,
alignment, releasing energy in the process. As allowing researchers to see which areas of
© Thinkstock

different parts of the body contain different the brain use more oxygen (and so are more
amounts of water, the energy released active) when carrying out particular tasks.

116 How It Works


Why does the

mind wander?
Do we just get distracted or do our
minds naturally wander?

he ‘default mode’ for the brain leans towards
introspection and daydreaming, but with a bit of effort
we can switch to ‘focus mode’ and perform complex
tasks. However, if these tasks are repetitive, the mind can start
to wander and we can make mistakes. The technical term for
these momentary lapses is ‘maladaptive brain activity changes’,
but colloquially, they are known as ‘brain farts’.
Researchers at the University of New Mexico discovered that
you can spot these ‘brain farts’ coming a good 30 seconds before
people make an error by using functional magnetic resonance
Magnetic resonance imaging imaging (fMRI), which monitors the blood flow to different parts
can be used to light up the
active parts of the brain of the brain.

What are the different Antigen

Red blood cells have
molecules on their surface
called antigens. Our immune

blood types?
systems recognise our own
antigens, but will attack cells
with different ones.

If transfusions don’t match, the immune Type A antigen

Type A The immune system of
system will attack the incoming cells someone with type A
blood will ignore type
A antigens.

The immune system makes
antibodies that can bind to
the antigens it doesn’t
Type B recognise, and help to
Neither antigen eliminate them.
Anti-A antibody
Type B blood contains Red blood cells in type
anti-A antibodies. If O blood have neither
any A antigens are in antigen, so the blood
the blood, anti-A contains both anti-A
antibodies will bind to and anti-B antibodies.
them and trigger an These will trigger an
immune response. immune response to A
or B antigens.

Type O

Type AB
Type A and B
© Thinkstock, Thomas Schultz

antigens Universal donor

People with type AB blood
Anyone can have a
have both A and B antigens
type O transfusion, but Anti-A and
on their red blood cells.
Their immune systems
people with this blood anti-B
won’t react to either type
type can’t receive any antibodies
of the others.
of antigen.

How It Works 117

What if the
field flipped?
The consequences of
compasses pointing south Dogs use their tongues like
scoops to draw water up

arth’s magnetic field shields us from from the surface
solar winds, but north isn’t always
north. In recent history, the magnetic
poles have switched four or five times every
million years. It hasn’t happened in modern
history, so it’s hard to know what to expect.
How do dogs drink?
During a flip, the magnetic field weakens Our clever canine companions use fluid dynamics
and breaks up. This would leave Earth to quench a thirst
vulnerable to the effects of solar storms,
potentially disrupting communications. It
could also confuse animals that use
magnetic fields to navigate. However, there
would be a silver lining. The magnetic field
is responsible for the northern and southern
lights, and as the poles switched, auroras
would become visible across the globe.

1 Cheeks
Dogs are unable to form a
proper seal with their
cheeks, so they can’t suck up
2 Scoop
Using the tip of
their tongue like a
ladle, dogs scoop up water
3 Mucky pup
Their tongues don’t
actually work very
well as a scoop. Most of the
water to drink like we do. towards their mouth. water falls off as it’s retracted.
Earth’s magnetic field
deflects solar winds

4 Rapid
retraction 5 Water
6 Snap shut
Before gravity 7 Swallow
As the dog
© NASA, Thinkstock

Withdrawing the This quick, causes the scoops up a

As the poles switch, upward motion creates water column to fresh batch of water, the
auroras might become tongue creates a
visible across the globe considerable amount of inertia, so the water collapse, the dog previous lot is forced to
acceleration, as much as continues to rise closes its mouth the back of its mouth to
five times that of gravity. against gravity. around it. be swallowed.

118 How It Works


What are enclosed eco-systems?

Having everything you need to survive, all in one small sphere

magine if you lived in an enclosed big world is very like this little one, and we organic matter decomposes and releases
sphere with all the resources you need are very like the shrimp...[but] unlike them, nutrients back into the system.
to survive and where the only outside we are able to change our The shrimp breathe oxygen and exhale
input is sunlight. This is how the three environment.” If you think about it, carbon dioxide, and the carbon dioxide is
shrimp that arrived in a package from the EcoSphere is very much like our own absorbed by algae to produce oxygen. For the
EcoSphere Associates, Inc – a company that world – everything we need for life is EcoSphere to survive, the cycling of energy,
builds tiny enclosed ecosystems – not only contained on our planet, with only sunlight oxygen, carbon dioxide and nutrients must
survive, but thrive. The small glass globe is coming from beyond. The Earth and the be carefully balanced, and the shrimp must
filled with seawater, algae, microbes, a shrimp’s globe are both enclosed ecosystems not eat algae faster than it can regrow. Too
tree-like gorgonian and gravel. where sunlight is turned into energy little sunlight, or using resources faster than
After receiving a similar globe of shrimp, through photosynthesis, where oxygen and they are replenished, could spell disaster for
the famous scientist Carl Sagan said, “Our carbon dioxide are recycled and where dead both Earth and the shrimp’s world.

How the EcoSphere Sunlight

The only input from
works outside the ecosystem is
energy from sunlight.
With a little sunlight, the shrimp
can feed themselves LIVING SHRIMP

Shrimp Food & oxygen Living

The shrimp living in
the ecosystem are environment
then able to breathe The gravel and the
in the oxygen gorgonian are locations
produced by the for microbes to hook onto,
algae, and breathe where the shrimp then
out carbon dioxide go to feed.
that the algae then
uses, and so on. CO2 & organic waste

As long as you keep
the ecosystem
somewhere that it can
receive sunlight, you
don’t need to do
anything else – the
ecosystem is then able
to look after itself.

The seawater inside
the ecosystem is filled
with algae, which use
Carbon recycling energy from the Sun
The algae feed off to photosynthesise.
inorganic and dead
material, and use
carbon dioxide in ALGAE
the water to
produce oxygen as a
waste product. MICROORGANISMS
CO2 & organic nutrients
How It Works 119
What if gravity Large animals, like elephants,
would find high gravity
environments extremely

was twice as
Find out if your body could cope
under the strain

f gravity had always been stronger, our bodies
would have been under pressure to adapt. We
might be smaller, with thicker bones and
stronger muscles. But we evolved with Earth’s gravity
as it is, and if it suddenly doubled, we’d be in trouble.
Our hearts would struggle to pump against the
downward pull, and our bones, muscles and joints
would experience serious strain.

What are the colours of blood?

Animals have evolved some colourful methods of getting oxygen around their bodies
Red Green Blue Purple
Humans and most Marine worms Octupuses, squid Marine worms
other vertebrates and leeches and spiders and brachiopods
Humans and other vertebrates Certain species of marine worms Octupuses, squid, crustaceans, Some species of marine worms
have red blood thanks to a and leeches have a molecule spiders and some molluscs have and brachiopods have blood
protein called haemoglobin. Iron called chlorocruorin in their blue blood because it contains a that contains a protein called
atoms in this molecule bind to blood. Although this protein is protein called haemocyanin. haemerythrin. This gives it a
the oxygen we breathe in order to very similar in structure to Unlike haemoglobin (which is purple hue when oxygenated.
carry it around the body. This haemoglobin, it makes their bound to red blood cells) Similar to haemocyanin,
reaction changes the blood green rather than red. haemocyanin flows freely in the haemerythrin is colourless in
haemoglobin’s structure so it Some animals’ blood contains vessels, and contains copper the absence of oxygen. While
absorbs and reflects light a mixture of both chlorocruorin atoms rather than iron. Although this protein contains iron
differently; oxygenated blood and haemoglobin, so to the the oxygenated form of this blood atoms, compared to
appears bright red while naked eye it would appear to be is a shade of blue, it is actually haemoglobin it isn’t suited to
deoxygenated blood is darker. closer to the colour red. colourless when deoxygenated. binding with oxygen molecules.
© Lycaon, Science Photo Library

120 How It Works


Is there such a thing as

perfect posture?
How slouching affects more than just your spine

hances are most of you reading this aren’t and ankles. This correct positioning may take
Whether standing or
sitting or standing properly. Students and some practice, but as you retrain your muscles it sitting, maintaining good
office workers know only too well how becomes second nature. posture is important for
your health
easy it is to slip into a slouch while spending all In addition to putting stress on your bones and
day working at a desk. This prolonged poor muscles, bad posture affects how efficiently we
posture puts stress on the neck, shoulders and breathe. Hunching the shoulders restricts the Sit-stand desks
spine, contributing to problems such as postural amount by which the ribcage can expand, With research highlighting the
hunchback and spinal misalignment. reducing lung capacity by as much as 30 per cent. negative health effects of sedentary
Good posture ensures that you can stand, sit or Poor posture has also been linked to lifestyles, sit-stand desks like the
VARIDESK are becoming more popular.
lie down in positions that put the least strain on neurological issues and heart disease. These adjustable platforms make it
your body’s muscles and ligaments. A quick way A surprising side effect of posture is that it can easy to alternate between sitting and
to check your posture is to make sure your change how people think. A study by Ohio State standing throughout the day, to avoid
staying fixed in the same position
earlobes are aligned over the middle of your University in the US found that people who sat up for hours at a time. Find out more at
shoulders, your shoulders are in line with your straight exhibited a more confident and positive
hips, and your hips are directly above your knees outlook than those who slumped over.

Seated posture
How sitting up straight protects your spine Strain
Bad posture works
against the natural
Natural curve curvature of your
Good posture helps spine, putting stress
maintain your spine’s on the muscles.
natural shape, a gentle
S-shaped curve.

Avoid resting your weight Hunching over
on your forearms or Spending hours hunched
elbows, as this can strain over a desk can tighten
your shoulders and your chest and weaken
upper back. your upper back.

Balanced weight Lower body

Make sure your weight is Crossing your legs forces
distributed evenly across your pelvis and spine out
your hips to avoid leaning of alignment.
to one side.

Breaking bad habits

Most of us are guilty of these common posture mistakes, but luckily they can be corrected
The solution
Practise makes
perfect! Consciously
correcting your
Slouching ‘Donald Duck’ Jutting chin Standing on one leg posture will help
Reclining with no lower posture Poking your chin out when Leaning on one leg, rather improve it over time.
back support can feel Frequently wearing high viewing a screen is a than having your weight Strengthening your
comfortable as it requires heels or being pregnant can by-product of poor posture. evenly distributed core with exercises
less muscular effort, but pitch your weight forward, Hunched shoulders angle between both of them, like back extensions
over time this puts pressure so your upper body leans the neck and head down, puts extra pressure on one and planks will also
© Thinkstock

on some muscles while forward of your hips and so the chin is lifted to keep side of your lower back help re-train
weakening others. your bottom sticks out. looking forward. and hips. weakened muscles.

How It Works 121

How do
hydraulics work? Hydraulics are used
to perform heavy
The science behind using liquid power to do heavy lifting industrial work

ydraulics is the system of using
liquids to produce power.
Liquids can’t easily be
Inside hydraulics
compressed, so pushing on them How do hydraulic systems generate so much force?
transmits pressure through them. The
pressure is evenly transferred through
the liquid, so a small push can be used to Force = pressure x
create a large force elsewhere. This can cross-sectional area
be used to move pistons, which in turn Long distance
It takes little force to
can be used to perform work, such as
move the narrow piston
lifting with a crane or braking a car. Master piston a long distance.
Gases can be squashed, pushing the The narrow piston is
Slave piston
molecules closer together to fit into a pushed a long distance
The wide piston is
smaller space, but liquids are hard to into the fluid.
pushed up a short
compress, as the molecules are close distance by the fluid.
already. Particles bump around as they
move, generating pressure. Push on a
liquid, and pressure is increased.
In a container with two cylinders and Short distance
two pistons, connected by a fluid, when The wide piston only moves
you push down on a piston in the first a short distance, but applies
much more force than the
cylinder, it will push a piston up in the
narrow one.
second. The pressure is equal to the force
applied, divided by the cross-sectional
area of the piston.
Put a bigger piston at the other end of Incompressible
the container, and the pressure can be fluid
The fluid inside the
used to generate a larger force. You can
system is hard to
see why if you rearrange the equation – compress. Pushing
force is equal to pressure multiplied by on it increases
cross-sectional area. If the area of the the pressure.
second piston goes up, so does the force
that is generated.
Using a small piston to compress a fluid
requires little force, but generates a lot of
pressure. This pressure can be used to
move a larger piston with greater force.
Even pressure
The pressure spreads
evenly throughout the
fluid, transmitting from
one piston to the other.

Pascal’s principle
Blaise Pascal was a French container, and to the walls. This is known
mathematician in the 17th century, and as Pascal’s principle.
responsible for our understanding of His work also included understanding
pressure and hydraulics. He explained atmospheric pressure. So important were
that when you push on fluid in a closed his discoveries that the standard unit for
container, the pressure is transmitted pressure was named the Pascal (Pa).
In 1797, Joseph Bramah
equally in all directions. A pressure Pascal was a polymath, and also
© Thinkstock

invented the first hydraulic

engine, used to pump beer up change at one side of the container is worked on the founding principles of
from the cellar of a tavern transmitted to all other parts of the probability with Pierre de Fermat.

122 How It Works


How do nuclear
power plants work? Sizewell B is the only nuclear
How do we generate electricity by splitting atoms? power plant in the UK to use a
pressurised water reactor

he power of nuclear fission was first fully Like most other means of generating have concerns about nuclear power due to
realised during World War Two with the electricity, nuclear power plants use heat energy the radioactive waste that is produced and
invention of the devastating atomic bomb. to produce steam that spins turbines. This is a the potential for devastating accidents – such
It was only after the war, when the world had very similar process to burning fossil fuels, as the disasters at Chernobyl in 1986 and
witnessed this incredible release of energy, that currently our main method of producing Fukushima in 2011.
attentions were turned to harnessing nuclear electricity, but it generates only a fraction of the Modern designs of these plants, however, have
reactions as a power source. greenhouse gas emissions. safety measures in place that ultimately limit
Today, nuclear energy is used to power all The fuel used in nuclear power plants is an exposure of radioactive particles to external
manner of things from submarines to space unstable form of uranium, which releases heat materials. New techniques to recycle the
probes. Even our own homes are partly energy when the atom is split in two. In a radioactive waste are also being developed,
nuclear-powered, as roughly 20 per cent of controlled environment like those found in which is leading some top scientists to now
electricity in the UK and the US is provided by power plants, this heat can be harvested for consider nuclear fission as one of the greenest
nuclear stations. efficient energy production. Many people still methods of generating electricity.

How a nuclear Turbine

Generators transform the
power plant works The steam produced by
the heat of the reaction
kinetic energy of the spinning
turbines into electricity.
How do we turn nuclear energy into electricity? spins a turbine.

Cooling tower
Reactor Excess heat is
This is where the uranium atoms are split. released as clean
The reaction produces thermal energy water vapour.
that heats a coolant (typically water) in
the steam generator.

Free neutrons split

Fission explained uranium atoms to
release more neutrons
An atom is comprised of a nucleus, the nucleus to divide and form two as well as heat energy
formed of neutrons and protons, with separate atoms, releasing energy and
electrons orbiting around it. When atoms more neutrons in the process. These
© Thinkstock, Shutterstock

are split into two or more pieces, we refer neutrons then collide with other
to it as fission. uranium atoms and the result is a chain
In nuclear fission, the nuclei of reaction – neutrons and energy are
uranium atoms are split when they continuously released until the fuel
collide with a free neutron. This causes source is exhausted.

How It Works 123

What happens
in your brain
when you
feel bored?
T he science of boredom hasn’t been
fully explored, but it is an active area of
research. It is linked to attention, and
according to researchers at York University
in Toronto, Canada, boredom comes down
to not being able to engage. When you feel
bored, you want something to catch your
attention, but it either doesn’t or can’t. In
response, you either start to switch off, or
you can begin to get agitated. Boredom is
reportedly common in people with chronic
attention problems, and in thrill seekers.

Is it true that singing to plants help
them grow?
N ot much research has been done on the
relationship between music and plant
tends to grow hardier in windy conditions,
and the vibrations imitate this. In the most

growth, although the theory has been recent experiments, plants that were played
around since the 1850s. music or spoken to did grow better than the
Some researchers believe that sound – if control plants left in silence.
you think of it merely as vibrations – is a However, it’s probably more important to
form of environmental stimulus that can provide a plant with light, water and soil
affect the plant. For instance, perhaps it than this week’s Top 40.

What is
Why are song white noise?
lyrics so easy J ust like white light contains all the
colours of the spectrum, white noise is
made up of all the different frequencies

to remember? the human ear can hear. It’s like listening

to all of them at once, at the same level.

Because of this, white noise is a very
ur brains seem to be wired to
constant sound that can mask others.
remember song lyrics better than facts,
Some people who can’t sleep at night use
or even what we had for dinner. When you
the static between FM radio stations,
remember the lyrics to a song, you’re also
which sounds like white noise, to mask
remembering the music and the voices, so
sounds that might keep them awake.
there are several associations for your brain
to access. If you hear the song over and over,
repetition also helps you to retain it. It’s a
form of practice.
The patterns in songs, such as the beat or
rhyming lyrics, also help our brains retain

them. Finally, if you like the song, your brain

will work harder to remember it because of
the emotional connection.

124 How It Works


Why does your Is it possible

face turn red when to learn a
you’re angry? language while
A nger can trigger the fight-or-flight
response – an in-built biological
you’re asleep?
reaction that prepares your body to
stand up to a threat, or to run away.
The body is flooded with two
M aybe! There is evidence to suggest
that non-rapid eye movement sleep
is an important time for memory
chemical messengers: adrenaline consolidation; patterns learnt during the
and noradrenaline. They make the day are reactivated and strengthened at
heart beat faster, open small airways night. In 2014, researchers from
in the lungs, and increase the rate and Switzerland published results of a study
depth of breathing. They also trigger the that tested whether playing words during
release of sugar into the blood, and this crucial sleep period could help to
increase the delivery of oxygen to your trigger these reactivation patterns,
muscles and brain. A common side effect of assisting with learning. They took 68
this is flushing. Adrenaline can cause the healthy volunteers and taught them 120
blood vessels in the face to get wider, pairs of words, one in their native
increasing blood flow to the skin. language, and the other in a language that
they did not know. They were then split
into groups, with some of them being
played the word pairs again as they slept
What is the that night, and others sleeping in silence.
When they woke up, the group who had

wavelength been replayed the words in their sleep

were much better at translating them.

of black and Unfortunately though, this method only

seems to work to consolidate memories.

white light? You can’t press play on a language tape,

fall asleep and wake up fluent – you must
do the groundwork while you’re awake.


n terms of the electromagnetic

spectrum, black isn’t a colour; it’s the
absence of visible light. The term ‘black
light’ usually refers to a type of lamp that

Why do operates in or near the ultraviolet (UV)

range. The lamps have a violet filter that

block out visible light and let the UV light
through. We can’t see this type of light,
which is why we call it black. White isn’t a
people feel colour either, instead it’s the combination
of all of the colours in the visible light ©Dreamstime

much heavier? spectrum. The wavelengths are between

400 and 700 nanometres, ranging from

W hen a person’s muscles are totally

relaxed, their weight is distributed
unevenly over a wider area. A conscious
red to violet.
There is evidence to
person will usually tense their muscles suggest that non-rapid
when lifted, keeping limbs in or putting
their arms around the neck of the person eye movement sleep is
carrying them. This makes the carrier’s job
easier, as the centre of mass is focused an important time
centrally. An unconscious person is limp,
allowing their arms and legs to swing for memory
around and causing their centre of mass to
shift. A fireman’s lift allows the carrier to consolidation
grip the unconscious person better and
manage their weight distribution.

How It Works 125

Can humans
sense magnetic
What makes fields?
green tea good T here is no conclusive evidence that
suggests humans can perceive

Who invented for you? magnetic fields. However, many animal

species do have this ability, which is

Zorbing? G reen tea is sometimes labelled as a

‘superfood’, but this is nothing more
than a marketing term. The claims that this
known as magnetoreception. The
mechanism behind this ‘sixth sense’

I n 1970s France, an architect called Gilles remained a mystery until relatively

popular beverage can prevent cancer, aid recently, when researchers found that
Ebersolt was probably the first to create a
weight loss or slow Alzheimer’s disease have several species,possess proteins called
giant inflatable plastic ball for people to get
not been proven, but green tea does contain cryptochromes in their eyes. These
inside and roll around, which he named the
vitamins and minerals that are an important appear to help them navigate, possibly
‘Ballule’. However, Zorbing as we know it
part of a healthy diet; it provides B vitamins, by ‘seeing’ magnetic fields as light or
today was created in 1994 in New Zealand
manganese, potassium, magnesium and dark areas as the proteins align along
by Dwane van der Sluis and Andrew Akers.
antioxidants called catechins. According to magnetic field lines.
At the time they were trying to develop
the British Dietetic Association, the evidence Humans also have cryptochromes in
inflatable shoes for walking on water. When
that green tea is a miracle food their retinas. However, numerous studies
this failed they came up with the idea for a
is poor, but it is safe to drink in moderation. have attempted to test our perceptions
new fun activity using a giant sphere. They
called this the Zorb and then spread Zorbing to magnetic fields, and none have proven
across the world. that we have any ability to do so.

Does chicken What does

soup actually chlorine do to
help a cold? our eyes?
M others have long prescribed
chicken soup for a cold. While
C hlorine is used as a disinfectant in pools
(between 0.5 and 1.5 milligrams per
litre), and in tap water (less than 0.5
eating it can’t cure you, there’s some
science to show that chicken soup is
helpful when you’re ill. The hot liquid
Does drinking milligrams per litre). In tests on healthy
volunteers, researchers at Ryogoku Eye
Clinic in Japan found that 0.5 milligrams per
eases congestion and keeps you
hydrated, and also contains nutrients alcohol through litre was enough to cause some damage to
the cells found in the thin, transparent layer
with anti-inflammatory properties. In one
study, chicken soup kept a type of white a straw get you covering the front of the eye. However,
getting red, itchy eyes after swimming
blood cell called neutrophils from
migrating, which may help reduce cold
symptoms. Other nutrients, like Vitamins
drunk quicker? cannot solely be blamed on chlorine; when
the chemical mixes with urine, sweat, oils

T he notion that you get drunk faster if and cosmetics, it can produce substances
C, D and E, can also influence immune that are much more irritating.
cells and chemicals. you drink through a straw is based on
two ideas: first, that you drink faster through
a straw than if you were sipping your drink,
and second, that by sucking you create a
vacuum, which encourages the alcohol to
turn to vapour, making it easier to absorb. It
is true that inhaling alcohol vapour gets
people drunk very quickly. However, the
amount of vapour created by drinking with a

straw is tiny, and as long as you drink at the

same speed, there should be no difference in
how quickly you get drunk.

126 How It Works


Does music
sound any
different at high
How do antiseptics work? A lthough atmospheric pressure and
density influence the speed of sound,

A ntiseptics prevent infection by stopping

the growth of bacteria, fungi and other
microorganisms. Unlike antibiotics, antivirals
microorganisms and disrupting their
function, but different chemicals have
different effects.
the two effects essentially cancel each
other out. At colder temperatures, the
molecules in the air carry less kinetic
and antifungals, these chemicals are only For example, some cause cells to leak or energy, making sound waves travel more
used outside the body, on the skin. burst open, others interfere with the slowly. At -1 degrees Celsius for instance,
Disinfectants are similar, but are used mainly production of essential molecules, and some sound travels at 330 metres per second,
on hard surfaces like counter tops. Most prevent microbial cells respiring, grinding compared to 344 metres per second at 21
antiseptics work by getting inside their biology to a halt. degrees Celsius.
However, the affect this has on the
frequency of sound waves – and therefore
their pitch – is so small that music would

How do we not sound any different.

measure the
gases being
S atellites measure greenhouse gases
in the atmosphere, while on Earth
scientists collect air samples from all
over the world. Water vapour and How high can a
Why do balloons clouds make up the majority of
greenhouse gases, with carbon dioxide
and other gases comprising about 25
helium balloon
hold so much per cent. Current samples are then
compared with previous ones, including
static? those from air bubbles that were
trapped in ice many thousands of years A balloon is pushed upwards by the
difference in pressure between the

B alloons retain a static electric charge

due to the insulating properties of
rubber. This material has a high electron
ago. From this we’ve determined that
the atmosphere contains nearly twice
gas inside and the atmosphere. In theory,
it should rise to the point where the
atmospheric pressure matches that of the
the amount of carbon dioxide (the main
affinity relative to hair, so when you rub a greenhouse gas) as there was in helium – so up to the mesosphere (which
balloon against your head, electrons easily 700,000 BCE. With the Industrial starts around 48 kilometres up) but
come off your hair and build up on the Revolution, we began to burn fossil probably not beyond. The problem is that
surface of the balloon, and it acquires a fuels at ever increasing rates, leading in practice, the same pressure differential
negative static charge. to huge jumps in greenhouse gas that causes balloons to rise also causes
Rubber is an electrical insulator, so emissions. In 1750, the atmosphere had them to expand, and then to burst. Using
electrons cannot move through it easily. The a carbon dioxide concentration of the lightest, stretchiest material they

air around the balloons is also an insulator, about 280 parts per million. By 2000, it could find, a Japanese team reached a
so the negative charge remains on the was nearly 400 parts per million. height of 53 kilometres in 2002, hitting
balloon’s surface. the bottom of the mesosphere.

How It Works 127

130 What are the origins of espionage?
136 What was the first colour film?
136 What is medieval siege mining?
137 How was the Washington Monument built?
138 What is the Tesla coil?
140 What did it take to become a knight?
141 What jobs were available in the Middle Ages?
142 What was surgery like in the Victorian era?
144 How do you make a mummy?
146 What is the significance of Fabergé eggs?
147 How was the Thames tunnel built?
147 What are the world’s tallest statues?
148 Bitesize Q&A

128 How It Works


© Dada

How It Works 129

What are the
ESPIONAGE? The secrets of espionage through the ages

he principle of gathering confidential information has networks in an effort to stay one step ahead of the enemy. Some
proved invaluable for rulers, empires and governments estimate that deciphering the Nazi’s ‘uncrackable’ Enigma machines
throughout history. Covertly collecting information about (used to encode messages) helped shorten World War Two by several
enemies, and even allies, provided nations with the opportunity for years, saving countless lives.
military, political or economic gain. During the Cold War, with the threat of nuclear war between the
Espionage is the gathering of secret information, and the methods US and Soviet Union looming, strategic intelligence was vital and
used changed dramatically as technology developed. In Ancient influenced tactics on both sides. Spies disguised gadgets as everyday
Rome, letters could be intercepted en route to their intended objects to help gather information, from coat button cameras to
recipient. In an attempt to prevent this, Julius Caesar invented one of microphones hidden in shoe heels.
the earliest-known ciphers – a code used to disguise messages – to Counterintelligence operations continue to be incredibly
stop enemy spies reading his secret military communications. important to this day. Security services across the world work to
In the 20th century, espionage was particularly important during protect their citizens against threats to national interests,
the two world wars, as nations established huge intelligence conducting counter-terrorism operations and tackling cyber crime.

130 How It Works


Ancient espionage Hydraulic semaphore

How did the Ancient Greeks send secret
military messages between cities?
How intelligence was gathered
by ancient civilisations
4. Lower the torch

n the first cities of Ancient Mesopotamia
The sender lowered their
and Ancient Egypt, spying was an torch when the water level
effective way for kings and pharaohs to had dropped to display
the required message on
monitor the population, as well as to discover their column.
enemy weaknesses.
The Ancient Egyptians used court spies to 5. Decode the message
When they saw the sender’s
root out disloyal subjects, and they were also signal lower, the receiver
among the first to develop poisons for stopped the flow of water
from their vessel and read
sabotage or assassinations. the intended message on
With no spy gadgets at their disposal, the column.

eavesdropping on conversations, intercepting

communications and scouting enemy 2. Signal fire
The sender lit his
movements were the key methods used to torch and opened the
gather useful intelligence. Resourceful drain on the water
vessel at the same
techniques were developed to ensure written time, allowing the
messages remained secret, including codes message column to
start sinking.
and trick inks.
The Ancient Greeks excelled at espionage
and subterfuge. The legendary tale of the
Trojan horse became a symbol of their
cunning and deceptive military tactics. They
developed efficient methods of
communicating important messages
between cities, including a fire signal system
known as hydraulic semaphore.
Another tactic used by the Greeks to
prevent communications being intercepted
was carving important messages into wood
and then covering it in wax. The wooden
board would then be sent to an ally who
would melt the wax to read the message. A 1. Water vessel
Each messenger had an
3. Joining in
more gruesome method was writing on the The receiver also lit their
identical column floating in torch and opened the drain
outside of an inflated animal bladder, before a container of water. The on their vessel, so the two
deflating it and packing it into a flask. The column was divided into message columns were
segments that each falling simultaneously.
document could then be transported signified a different,
anywhere unnoticed until it was opened, pre-determined message.

inflated and read.

Julius Caesar’s speculatores The Mongol

spy network
The Roman Republic was a fragmented,
unruly place and keeping hold of power
was never easy. Many rulers hired United under leader Genghis Khan, the
bodyguards for protection, but Julius Mongols were one of the most feared military
Caesar saw the value of secret forces of the 12th and 13th centuries as they
© Science Photo Library, Thinkstock

surveillance and used spies called rampaged across Asia. However, this mighty
‘speculatores’ to gather intelligence of army would not have been as successful had
potential revolts. This reconnaissance it not been for an extensive intelligence
network helped Caesar keep abreast of network. Genghis Khan gathered information
goings on both domestically and from trade merchants, who had an in-depth
internationally. Some sources suggest knowledge of the areas he wished to conquer. Spies’ information gave the
that Caesar was aware of the Roman Not even Caesar’s speculatores This intelligence allowed the Mongols to Mongols an advantage when
Senate-led plot to assassinate him. could prevent his assassination pinpoint weaknesses in enemy territories. conquering new lands

How It Works 131


Elizabethan espionage
The final Tudor monarch created
a secret service network that
helped keep her on the throne

s a Protestant queen with no heirs, Elizabeth
I’s reign was threatened by those who would
have preferred the Catholic Mary Queen of
Scots. With the threat of assassination, the Queen set
up a network of spies to protect her against dissidents
and uncover foreign plots. Head of Elizabeth’s secret
service was Sir Francis Walsingham, a Protestant
lawyer. Those hired as spies were among the greatest
minds in the land; scholars, scientists and linguists
were all tasked with protecting the vulnerable
monarchy from danger.
Technological advancements also aided the
intelligence network. Invisible ink made from milk or
lemon juice was first utilised in this period, allowing
secret messages to be revealed by warming the paper
over a candle. Cryptography became more advanced,
and the spy network needed to be able to both write
and decipher different codes.
A series of plots to overthrow or assassinate the
Queen were uncovered during her reign. The
intelligence gathered by Elizabeth’s secret service
most likely saved her life on more than one occasion.
For example, after her imprisonment, Mary Queen of
Scots maintained contact with the outside world by
sending coded messages to her allies hidden in
barrels of beer. Little did she know that the barrels
were being smuggled by a double agent acting on
behalf of Walsingham, who deciphered her messages
and proved that Mary was involved in a plot to kill Agents in Elizabeth’s spy network
gathered information about the
Elizabeth. Those involved, Mary included, were Spanish Armada’s preparations
quickly caught, tried and executed for treason.

At the head of the Elizabethan spy network was
the secretary of state, Sir Francis Walsingham.
With threats coming from Catholic Spain, devout
Protestant Walsingham built up a network of
spies all over Europe – including prison
informants and double agents – each of whom
had the aim of gathering intelligence about the
activities of Catholics, as well as political and
© Look and Learn, UK National Archives

economic information.
To ensure his agents were as effective as
possible, Walsingham established a spy school to
train new recruits. His network proved invaluable
to national security after foiling several plots
Mary sent secret messages to against the Queen, as well as providing
her allies using these cipher intelligence about the Spanish Armada leading up
Walsingham was provided with symbols, but Walsingam’s
£2,000 a year to carry out his work spies decoded them to the attempted invasion in 1588.

132 How It Works


World War spies

How inventive spying strategies were used
to try and win both global conflicts

orld War One may be When World War Two began, espionage
remembered primarily for trench was still an instrumental part of warfare.
warfare, but behind the lines, Germany’s military intelligence
spies were performing a vital role. One of the organisation, the Abwehr, was particularly On the front face of the Enigma
machine was an electronic plugboard
most successful spy networks during the war effective during the occupation of the that could be used to swap pairs of
letters, for an extra level of encryption
was code-named ‘La Dame Blanche’. With Netherlands. The group captured 52 Allied
over 1,000 members, the organisation worked agents and 350 resistance fighters, some as different letters. The receiver would need to
for the British, conducting reconnaissance soon as they parachuted in. Still under the know the exact settings used by the sender
missions in German-occupied Belgium, illusion that they were supplying their in order to decode the original message on
spying on trains, roads and airfields. Dutch allies, the British unwittingly their own machine. The settings were
The development of aircraft in the 20th provided the Germans with 570 boxes of frequently changed, and a typical army-
century meant that aerial reconnaissance weapons and ammunition. issue Enigma machine could have over 150
was a large part of war. Both German and Most famously, the Nazi’s Enigma million trillion different settings, so
French planes took photos from above to machines were used to ensure their army’s cracking the code was considered
examine troop movements. By acquiring messages remained secure. To send a signal, impossible. A team of British
secret documents and intercepting radio an operator typed in their message and then mathematicians eventually managed to
messages, the Germans knew what moves scrambled it using a series of rotors, which decipher the Engima, which helped to
the Russians would make. would reproduce the message as a jumble of shorten the war by roughly two years.

The Enigma machine World War spies

What made the messages sent by the Nazi’s Wiring The shady double agents that provided
encryption device so difficult to decode? The contacts for each intelligence to the opposition
rotor were connected,
but the wires between Howard Burnham
them were scrambled.
Burnham was an
intelligence officer for
the French government
in World War One and
often hid his spying
equipment in his
wooden leg.

Mata Hari
A Dutch dancer,
Hari spied for the
Guides Germans before
Numbers or letters on Contacts
A wire ran from each being caught by
this ring were used as
guide points to apply key of the keyboard the French and sent
the required settings. to one of these 26 to the firing squad
contacts on the rotor. in 1917.

Virginia Hall
Hall was a US spy during
World War Two who
provided support,
information and training
for resistance fighters
and the Allies in
occupied France.

Takeo Yoshikawa
Living in Hawaii during
World War Two,
Japanese spy Yoshikawa
© Bob Lord, Wapcaplet

Substitution provided intelligence to

The scrambled wiring Number of rotors Settings his country ahead of the
changed the input The more rotors the machine The rotors could be moved
surprise attack on Pearl
and output letters contained, the greater the manually to change the
between the rotors. number of possible settings. machine’s settings. Harbour in 1941.

How It Works 133


Cold War
After the Second World War,
a new era of spying emerged
during a bitter rivalry

decades-long power struggle between
the US and the USSR began after the
collapse of the Third Reich. The
nations held opposing ideologies – capitalism
versus communism – and had a mutual
distrust of one another’s intentions. Tensions
rose as both powers entered into an arms race
and the threat of a devastating nuclear war
The SR-71 Blackbird spy plane could
grew. Espionage was one of the primary accelerate to supersonic speeds to
outfly an incoming missile
methods used to try and break the deadlock.
Each of the two superpowers was determined
to gain the upper hand, so spies were sent all
over the world to gather intelligence about
their enemy.
One of the most infamous spy networks equipment
behind the Iron Curtain was the Ministry for Listen in on enemy secrets using
these crafty pieces of kit
State Security, commonly known as the Stasi.
Operating in East Berlin, the organisation
used brutal methods to monitor the activities
of the East German capital’s citizens. Stasi
soldiers would shoot citizens who strayed out
of line or tried to make a break for the West.
After World War Two, the US set up Project
Shamrock and Project Minaret, which were Tree bug
espionage exercises to help monitor all of the Bugging equipment can
be stashed in artificial
telegraph information entering and leaving tree trunks to listen in
the country.
Poison frames on nearby Soviet
If you’re caught, eating the communication signals.
Despite this, there were a number of spies hidden cyanide pellet in your
glasses will stop you revealing
operating in the US for the Soviets, gathering secrets if you’re tortured.
information on nuclear weapons, military
movements and new technologies.
Aerial reconnaissance continued to play a Shoe transmitter
huge part in intelligence operations during With a bug hidden in your shoe
heel, you can secretly record
this time. The CIA located Soviet ballistic conversations with targets.
missiles using spy satellites under the Corona
Program. After a CIA pilot was shot down
while flying over the USSR in a U-2 spy plane
in 1960, the US realised that continuing to use
these aircraft was too risky.
In response, the record-breaking SR-71
Blackbird was constructed. The Blackbird
could travel at more than three times the
speed of sound, and reach altitudes high
© U.S Air Force

enough to avoid radar detection. The

reconnaissance jet even had special radar-
absorbing black paint.

134 How It Works


How to be a Cold War spy The ‘Illegals

Have you got what it takes to go undercover in search of Soviet secrets?
In 2010, ten Russian
agents were arrested in
the US. Upon
interrogation by the FBI,
it was revealed that they
had been active in the
US for years as sleeper
agents, spies who
Anna Chapman was
weren’t always active arrested after an FBI
but resided in the US if operation exposed
ever needed for duty. her as a sleeper agent
Known as ‘Illegals’,
some of the spies posed as American citizens with
fake names and backgrounds, and had normal jobs.
They had been instructed to make contact with
academics to obtain secret intelligence that they

1 2
could report back to Russia. All ten of the spies
CIA training The life of a spy were charged with conspiracy to act as an agent of
Only the most successful recruits are To avoid arousing suspicion, you must a foreign government, and were released into
selected to be agents. An intensive create a believable persona and back- Russian custody as part of a prisoner exchange.
course including both physical and mental story. The finest agents appear to live completely
tasks will show who’s capable of being a spy. ordinary lives.

How intelligence agencies
operate in the internet age

ost of us share our lives with friends
and family on social media, but this
data creates problems if you want to
be a spy. Intelligence agencies are struggling to
operate effectively in a time where false
identities and back stories are hard to create.

3 Data collection
Your main objective is to determine the
Soviets’ intentions towards the US. The
intelligence you gather could give your country a
4 Decryption skills
The best spies have a talent for code-
breaking. Soviet intelligence agents
encrypt their messages so you will have to
Most people will leave traces of their real lives
online, and facial recognition software can
potentially use these traces to link an
huge advantage. decipher them to reveal any secret plans. undercover agent to their true identity.
To try and combat this, the UK’s Secret
Intelligence Service (SIS, or MI6) are planning to
hire nearly 1,000 new staff by 2020. In a
statement, SIS chief Alex Younger explained:
“The information revolution fundamentally
changes our operating environment. In five
years’ time there will be two sorts of intelligence
services – those that understand this fact and
have prospered as a result, and those that don’t
and haven’t.”

5 Break morale
6 Avoid capture at all costs
© Tagishsimon

With your spy persona, you have the If you’re caught, it’s all over. Espionage is
ability to spread rumours behind a serious offence during the Cold War, Vauxhall Cross in London
enemy lines. Create fake news stories to cause carrying the penalty of a very long prison has been the SIS’s
headquarters since 1994
unrest among citizens or the leadership. sentence or execution.

How It Works 135


What was the first

colour film?
How a little-known Edwardian
photographer became the first
The three-colour
person to create a colour picture
How the Lee-Turner process

he first moving colour pictures were created full-colour films
created by a London-based
photographer named Edward Turner Filter wheel
in 1902. Known as the Lee-Turner process A rotating wheel
ensured each frame
(after Turner and his financial backer was shown through
Frederick Lee), it involved filming consecutive the appropriate filter.
frames of black-and-white 38-millimetre film
through three colour filters: blue, green and
red. A lens combined each of the three filters’
images on the screen to create a single,
full-colour projection.
Despite his breakthrough, the timing
and positioning of the filters had to be so
precise that the results were often blurry.
Turner died in 1903, aged just 29, but his work
was adapted by George Albert Smith, who
used just two filters, red and green, for more
reliable results. Smith called his two-colour
system Kinemacolor. Timing issues
Over a century later, Turner’s ground- Synchronising
breaking footage has been restored for the Combining the images the speed of the film with
Three frames at a time were the rotation of the filter
first time using digital technology and is projected and superimposed wheel was difficult, so
now on display at the National Media Museum through the lenses. images were often blurry.
in Bradford, England.

What is medieval siege mining?

If a castle proved resistant to attack, every good commander Solid defence
knew he could literally undermine its defences Defenders would hurl boiling tar, water
and rocks, as well as shoot arrows down
onto the attacking force.
The ‘cat’

n Medieval warfare Wooden props A strong wooden structure, known
there were many ways As the tunnel grew longer and as a ‘cat’, would shield the miners
to bring a fortress deeper, the miners would prop from attack while they began Detection
up the roof with wooden beams digging under the walls. The defenders used buckets
crashing to its knees. of water to detect mining –
to prevent it collapsing.
Battering rams, trebuchets, the surface would ripple
ladders, or simply starving from the vibrations of any
the garrison into submission nearby digging.
were all perfect tools and
tactics for winning a siege.
If none of these usual
methods worked, however, If an attacking and a
the attacking force could dig Collapsing the tunnel defensive tunnel met,
Once the attackers reached underneath
© Getty, National Media Museum

under the walls themselves, bloody hand-to hand

the tower or wall, the wooden props combat would begin.
and destroy them from would be set on fire to collapse the tunnel
beneath. With a huge hole in and bring down the defences above.
the castle’s defences, the
attackers were able to swarm Countermining
in and overwhelm the If they could detect an enemy tunnel, the
defenders would begin digging their own
unfortunate defenders. to intercept and stop the attackers.

136 How It Works


How was the Washington

Monument built?
Inside the US capital’s iconic marble obelisk that commemorates Aluminium tip
the achievements of the nation’s first president At the top of the
monument is an
aluminium cap,

tanding tall above the US capital city, the originally intended to
serve as a lightning rod.
Washington Monument is a constant
reminder of the legacy of founding father
Inside the Washington
George Washington. As the first president of the Monument
United States, he is one of the most important Take a tour of one of the US capital’s
figures in the nation’s history. most iconic structures
The 169-metre-high monument was Steam-powered lift
In 1888, a steam-powered
designed by Robert Mills in the shape of an lift was installed that
Ancient Egyptian obelisk. It started out as a could take visitors to the
private project that was financed by the observation deck in 12
Construction minutes. The first electric
Washington National Monument Society, with lift was added in 1901, and
In the later phases of
Mills contributing the chosen design. A crowd construction, a has been updated several
of around 20,000 Americans gathered to watch steam-powered lift times since.
carried stones up the
as the first cornerstone was laid on 4 July 1848. iron scaffold that the
However, the project soon ran into issues. In masons worked from.
1854, the society was declared bankrupt, and a Iron staircase
Inside the tower is an
year later Mills died. Construction was halted 897-step, 50-flight
throughout the US Civil War and was only Marble sources spiral staircase that
Stone from three takes about 20 minutes
restarted in 1876. The US Congress took control different quarries was to ascend.
over construction and things ran much more used throughout
construction, leaving a
smoothly. The monument was finally visible divide in the
completed in 1884 and eventually opened to the marble shades.
public four years later.

The monument
stands south of
the White House Dimensions
and west of the Ten times as tall as it is
Capitol Building wide, the monument’s
height was reduced to Foundations
169m from the original Concrete was added to
Commemorative the monument’s
planned size of 182m.
stones foundations part way
Lining the stairwell, through construction,
there are 193 stones that as the original material
were presented by used was too weak.
© Diliff , Illustration by Adrian Mann
cities and people
around the world.

How It Works 137


In this double-exposure
photograph, Tesla appears to sit in
his Colorado Springs laboratory
while a Tesla coil sends sparks
through the air

138 How It Works


What is the Tesla coil?

How one of history’s greatest inventors produced a spectacular light show

fter inventing the ground-breaking
alternating current (AC) motor in 1887 – the
device that is used to power many of the
electrical gadgets that we use in the modern day
– Nikola Tesla set his sights on a different and more
challenging dream: a world without wires.
He envisioned a series of giant transmission
towers that could provide the entire globe with an
endless supply of wireless electricity, and his first
step towards achieving this dream was the Tesla
coil. This revolutionary device was capable of
producing high voltage, high frequency AC
electricity that could be sent through the air.
The Tesla coil consisted of two main parts: a flat
primary coil and a taller secondary coil, both made
of thick copper wire. When switched on, a
transformer connected to the mains power supply
converted the low voltage power into high voltage
power, stepping it up to thousands of volts. It was
stored in a capacitor, just like a modern battery, and
when it was fully charged, it was sent flowing
through the primary coil.
This created a strong magnetic field, which
generated an electric current in the secondary coil
through electromagnetic induction. Energy quickly
flowed back and forth between the two coils
several hundred times per second, building up
charge in an additional capacitor attached to the
secondary coil. Eventually, the charge in this
capacitor became so great that it escaped, sending
sparks flying through the air and illuminating light
bulbs that were several metres away.
After wowing onlookers with this spectacular
light show, Tesla began to build a 57-metre tall
tower that could wirelessly transmit energy across
great distances using this technique. However,
construction was soon abandoned when he failed
to secure enough funding for the project. Although
he fell short of achieving his dream of a wireless
world, variations of his Tesla coil are still used in
radios and televisions to this day. © Alamy

The Magnifying Transmitter tower was designed by Nikola Tesla was a Serbian-American
Tesla to deliver wireless electricity around the world physicist, inventor, engineer and futurist

How It Works 139


What did it take to

become a knight?
The intensive training required to achieve
knighthood in the Middle Ages

nights were mounted armoured warriors of the Medieval era. Their place in
society was below lords and above peasants and they would earn a living by
protecting the realm from attack. In return, the nobility would grant land to
the knights but the wealthy barons would only hire those who were skilled in combat. A
boy’s education could take over ten years as they progressed from page to squire to
mounted warrior. The apprenticeship may have begun on a wooden horse in a manor
house, but it many cases it finished on a stallion in the heat of battle.

The road to knighthood

From page to knight, training was an arduous yet rewarding journey

1 Starting out
Although it was technically possible for
any boy to become a knight, those born
into nobility had a distinct advantage. Training
2 A young page
The journey to knighthood began as a
page. At the age of seven, a boy was sent
away to a noble household to serve a knight.
3 Horsemanship
One of the most important skills a
trainee knight needed to master was
riding a horse. Pages practised on wooden
was expensive, and they would also need to be Here, he would be taught chivalry – the qualities horses until they became squires at the age of
kitted out with weapons and a horse. Because of expected from a knight, including courage and 14. As well as riding, the squires would also
this, in most cases only the very rich could honour – and other physical skills such as help take care of the horses and clean the
afford to become knights. archery and swordsmanship. knight’s armour.

4 First taste of battle

There’s no better training than
experiencing battle first-hand. A
military force in the Middle Ages needed every
5 The making of a knight
Further battles would provide more
opportunities for squires to strengthen
their fighting skills. Now a relative veteran, they
6 Arise, Sir Knight!
If a squire had proven himself to be
skilled and brave on the battlefield, he
would be given his knighthood at the age of 21.
© Thinkstock

man it could muster and knights that graced the could gain experience in different situations During the ‘dubbing’ ceremony, he would kneel
battlefield often had squires. All the techniques such as mounted attacks, siege warfare and before another knight, a king or a lord, and be
and skills learnt in training led to this. close-quarters combat. tapped on the shoulder with a sword.

140 How It Works


What jobs were there

in the Middle Ages? In the Medieval era,
you could be a
From catching rats in sewers to juggling for the king, professional rat
discover the strange careers that were available

he job opportunities open to you in the products made by skilled workers all economic welfare of their members, much
medieval times largely depended on over the world. like today’s trade unions. Most professions
your social class. Those with status All roles were important, as they ensured had a guild, from merchants and weavers to
were typically nobles, members of the clergy everyone had the goods and services they blacksmiths and candlemakers. Members
or employed by the royal court, while the needed to go about their lives, but the would set prices and standards for their
peasants, or those without status, worked as lower-class workers were often exploited. As trade; thusly, anyone seeking employment
craftsmen or labourers. In between were the a result, the guild system was established. could pay to join and be trained in the
merchants, who became wealthy by trading Guilds were organisations that promoted the represented craft.

Herbalist Squire Court jester

Using practical herbal Promoted from the Employed by the royal
remedies derived from position of page boy at 14, court to entertain the
plants and other a squire was the servant king, a jester would
natural sources, these to a knight, and often juggle, tell jokes,
so-called ‘wise accompanied him perform tricks, and
women’ could treat a into battle. In return, generally clown
wide range of he would be taught around to improve
medical conditions. the code of chivalry, his master’s mood.
Providing a lifeline the rules of heraldry, In return, he was
for those who could bravery, paid well and given
not afford the services horsemanship, a place to live, and
of a trained physician, swordsmanship, and enjoyed certain
their knowledge of folk other athletic skills, privileges, including
medicine was then before being promoted being able to make
passed down through to knighthood at the age fun of nobles and get
the generations. of 21. away it.

Blacksmith Rat catcher Herald

Every village had its Rats were a big problem With so many knights
own blacksmith, in medieval Europe, scattered across
who would make spreading diseases Europe, each with
everything from and eating crops. their own coat of
weapons and tools Accompanied by a arms, it was the
to door knobs and small dog or cat to job of a herald to
jewellery. Using sniff out the keep track of
charcoal as fuel, vermin, and them all. This
they would heat various traps and also helped them
iron until it poisons to capture in their other
became or kill them, rat main duty:
malleable, then catchers would conducting and
hammer it into walk the streets and announcing the
various shapes on a sewers, risking participants of
heavy block known as contracting the plague jousting
an anvil. to earn a living. tournaments.

Scribe Barber Spinster

As there were no Offering much more than In order for wool to be
printing presses in a haircut, medieval woven, it first had to be
medieval times, barbers would often turned into yarn.
scribes would copy perform medical Typically this role
out text in order to procedures too. was held by women,
create additional Known as barber but male ‘spinners’
copies of books. This surgeons, they would did also exist. They
role was often extract teeth, would first twist the
afforded to monks, amputate limbs and fibres between their
because they had carry out bloodletting, thumb and
been taught to read the practice of forefinger, then
and write, and was draining the blood to attach them to a
hard work, illustrated ‘cure’ illnesses. With no drop-spindle, the
© Thinkstock

by the complaints they anaesthetic or training, weight of which would

would often write in the and only basic tools, it was stretch the fibres into
manuscript margins. often very messy. yarn as they spun.

How It Works 141


What was surgery like

in the Victorian era?
Being a surgeon or patient in the late 1800s was
not for the faint-hearted

he Victorian era has been romanticised for its
advancements in science and medicine, but Audience
with that came no anaesthetic, poor sanitation Operations would be
watched by students and
and surgeons who didn’t even need a qualification to peers. The surgeon would
operate. The risk of infection or bleeding to death was often play to his crowd.
so high that surgery was limited to amputations. If you
broke a limb, it would have to come off. The surgeon
would often perform the procedure in a packed
operating theatre, full of students and peers. Rusty
saws and knives were the norm, as was the blood-
encrusted apron that made the surgeon look more like
a butcher than a man of medicine. He would slice
through flesh and bone in 30 seconds flat. The faster
the better, to prevent the patient from fleeing mid-way Building
through, or worse, dying from shock. Operations once took
place on wards, but
Anaesthesia and painkillers weren’t in use until the the screams of the
latter half of the 19th century, and even then they were patients were so
distressing that
very rudimentary. Alcohol was always an option, to get
specialist theatres
the patient drunk enough to numb the pain. were built.
Chloroform and ether were also used as early
anaesthetics, but both were dangerously potent, and
ether was also highly flammable – rather hazardous
for use in theatres that were lit by naked flames.
One of the major advances in surgery was in 1867,
when Joseph Lister pioneered aseptic techniques and
began to sterilise wounds, operating theatres and
instruments using carbolic acid. He even
experimented with hand washing, which had
previously only been performed after an operation. Table
This lowered infection, and Lister eventually became Inside the Patients would lie on a wooden
table, restrained by two men
known as the ‘father of antiseptic surgery’. operating theatre called dressers. Grooves in the
surface helped to trap the blood.
A step-by-step guide Take your seat and wait for the surgeon to
put on a performance no one will forget
to amputation

1 Prep the patient

Patients were laid on an 2 Tighten the tourniquet
To stem the flow of blood, 3 Make the first incision
Surgeons would use large 4 Make the second incision
This process was then repeated
operating table, and warned to tourniquets were placed above knives, often with curved on the other side of the limb. It was
keep very still, often without any the incision. These were made of blades. The first incision would called the ‘tour de maitre’, or ‘turn
anaesthetic or painkillers. The canvas straps that were tightened slice through the flesh and of the master’, and it had to be
slightest movement could botch using a screw attached to brass muscles that were around the performed very quickly for the
the operation and result in death. plates on either side. bone in a circular motion. patient’s sake.

142 How It Works


Apron Joseph Lister used a carbolic acid

Surgeons would Lights spray – which he saw used to treat
operate in frock coats, Many operations and sewers – to sterilise operations
and wore their bloody amputations were
aprons with pride. performed by the dim,
flickering light of
candles and gas lamps.

Wash basin
Blissfully unaware of bacteria,
surgeons wouldn’t bother
washing their hands before
operating. After all, they would
only be getting dirty again.
A surgeon’s tool kit included
instruments, designed to make
amputations quicker.

Detached limbs were tossed into
a box of sawdust, which soaked
up the blood and gore.

5 Saw the bone

Using the amputation saw, 6 Stitch it up
Once the limb was free, the
7 Bandage it up
The stump would be dressed 8 Apply final touches
Once the procedure was
the surgeon would cut completely surgeon would stitch up the main in bandages. This had to be done finished, the patient would be
through the bone. The detached artery and smaller blood vessels. carefully, because bandages that taken away for recovery. Some 25
limb would then be dropped into When the blood eventually were either too loose or too tight per cent of amputees would not
a bucket of sawdust in order to stopped flowing, he would begin could cause issues with the survive, as poor sanitation often
absorb the blood. to stitch up the wound. healing process. led to deadly infections.

How It Works 143


How do you make a mummy?

The embalming process was long and gruesome, but the Ancient
Egyptians believed it was necessary for the soul to survive

he key to eternal life wasn’t just preserving the
soul. Ancient Egyptians believed it had to return to
its body regularly in order to survive, so that too
A beginner’s
would need to be kept intact. They also believed that the
deceased must resemble the living as much as possible
Follow these easy Purification
in order for the spirit to recognise its physical home. steps to create a Before embalming can
Initially, this was achieved by burying the dead in the begin, the body is purified
mummy that will using water from the Nile
desert, where the hot sand would dehydrate bodies and last for eternity and palm wine.
delay decomposition. But over time, the Egyptians
developed an artificial method of preservation that
would enable their remains to last for millennia. This
was called mummification. Step one
The first mummies date back to 2600 BCE, but it wasn’t
until around 1550 BCE that the most effective and Washing the body
well-known method of mummification was developed. Washing the body
This involved removing the deceased’s internal organs, symbolises a rebirth, as
the deceased passes into
dehydrating the flesh, and then wrapping the entire the next life.
body in linen bandages. The process took around 70 days
and was extremely costly, so only the very rich could
afford it. Poorer families were treated with another
method of embalmment, which involved liquidising the
organs with cedar tree oil and draining them out
through the rectum, before placing the body in a salty
substance called natron that would help to dry it out.
Because of the climate, embalmment was carried out
as soon as possible after death. First the body was taken Removing the organs
An incision is made in the
to an ‘ibu’, or ‘place of purification’ – usually a tent close left side of the body, and the
to the Nile. Here it would be ‘purified’ using water and lungs, liver, intestines and
palm oil, representing the deceased’s rebirth, and stomach are removed.

helping to keep them smelling sweet for longer. Then the

body was taken to the ‘per nefer’, another tent where the
embalmment would take place. Only priests were
qualified to carry out this procedure, with the chief
embalmer known as the ‘hery seshta’. This man Hooking out the brain
The brain is not thought to be
represented Anubis, the god of embalming and the dead, important, and is hooked or
and often wore a jackal mask to show his importance. drained out through the nose
The hery seshta was responsible for wrapping the body and discarded.
and performing religious rites over the deceased – an
element of the embalmment process just as vital as the
physical preservation of the body. Thanks to the
ingenuity of the Ancient Egyptians, we can now gaze
upon the faces of men, women and children almost
exactly as they were 3,000 years ago.

Keeping the heart

The heart is left inside, as it is
Step two believed to be the centre of
intelligence, and needed in
the afterlife.
Cats were worshipped by the
Ancient Egyptians, so they
were also mummified at death

144 How It Works


Step five
Linen bandages are Maat
used to wrap up the As the goddess of truth and
entire body. Liquid justice, Maat’s role was to
resin is used as glue. determine if a soul was fit for
the afterlife.

Step four

Oiling up
Oils are rubbed all over
in order to help the
skin to stay elastic.

Saying a prayer
A priest recites prayers
and spells over the
deceased to help ward
off evil spirits.

Dry stuffing
The body is washed and the
natron scooped out. It is then
stuffed with sawdust, spices
Storing and linen.
The organs are washed and
then packed in natron before
being placed in canopic jars.

Step three

Salting the insides

The body is stuffed with natron
– a type of salt – which will
absorb any moisture.
© Dada, Illustration by Nicholas Forder

Anubis Leaving to dry

The jackal god, Next, the body is completely
Anubis, was guardian covered in natron and left to
of cemeteries and the dry out for 40 days. This mummy, on display in the Louvre,
god of embalming. is that of a man who lived in the
Ptolemaic period (305-30 BCE)

How It Works 145

What is the significance
of Fabergé eggs?
The fabulous history behind an incredibly lavish tradition

beautiful example of 19th century of not one, but a whole team of talented As political unrest escalated, Fabergé eggs
Russian art, Fabergé eggs delighted craftsmen. One of the most expensive was were seen as a symbol of Romanov
the ruling Romanovs for over three the diamond snowflake-encrusted 1913 wastefulness. After the Bolshevik takeover,
decades. Created by jeweller Peter Carl Winter Egg; at a value of 24,600 roubles in many of the eggs were confiscated and the
Fabergé, they were given as gifts between 1913 it would cost an eye-watering £2.36 Fabergé family fled Russia. Just 43 Imperial
members of the royal family. As time wore million today. Easter eggs survive today and are owned by
on, it became an ever-more extravagant The eggs were designed around a different collectors, museums and monarchs. The
tradition that symbolised royal excesses in theme each year, but they all had an British Royal Family own three of them,
the years leading up to the Russian immaculately designed exterior with an including the Mosaic Egg, which is decorated
Revolution. Some 50 of these Imperial Easter intricate surprise lying inside. These ranged with a mesh of tiny gems, diamonds and
eggs were created, and each one could take from mechanical swans to ivory elephants, pearls, and contains a miniature portrait of
up to a year to create. They were the project and some were even powered by clockwork. Tsar Nicholas II’s children.

The first egg

In 1885 Russian Tsar Alexander III needed a present for his wife, Empress Marie
Fedorovna. He decided on a jewel-encrusted egg – and began a royal family tradition in
the process. Known as the Hen Egg, this first gift appeared relatively simple from the
outside, but opened to reveal a golden chicken, which contained a tiny ruby egg pendant
and a miniature diamond crown. The Empress was thrilled with her gift and Peter Carl
The Hen Egg was the most Fabergé was given complete control of all future eggs’ designs, with the only
basic of the Fabergé eggs on
the outside, but contained prerequisite being that a surprise was hidden within the shell. They continued to be

hidden surprises popular gifts under both Alexander and his son Nicholas II.
© Alamy

146 How It Works


How was the Support

Thames tunnel built?

A key innovation of the shield was
supporting the unlined ground to
reduce the risk of collapse.

Finished in 1843, Marc Brunel’s sub-aqueous tunnel Hard labour

was the first of its kind Starting at Rotherhithe
on the south bank of
the Thames, the
workers had to dig
Oil lamps through sand, gravel,
Lighting was provided by oil quicksand and clay.
lamps. This was dangerous Flooding was a
as it could ignite the constant threat.
methane gas present in the
underground chamber.
Slow and steady
Three rows of 12
miners dug away at
the rock, excavating
ten centimetres at a
time. Once all 36 men
were ready, the
tunnelling shield was
jacked forward.

© Thinkstock, Dreamstime
Air quality Recycling Tunnelling shield
Sewage water often Excavated clay was Sturdy structure No one had ever tunnelled under
leaked into the transported above As the miners moved forwards, bricklayers a river before. Brunel invented a
unventilated tunnel, ground, baked into built up the tunnel behind them. They used a rectangular cast iron frame,
making Brunel and bricks and used to new type of strong, quick-setting cement that called a tunnelling shield, to
his workers ill. line the tunnel. made the tunnel watertight. protect the miners as they dug.

What are the Spring Temple

world’s tallest statues?

Buddha, China

Rounding up some of the most gigantic figures ever built Setkyar
155m Buddha,
Ushiku Burma
Daibutsu, 130m
Guanyin of the Japan
Emperors Yan South Sea of
Peter the and Huang, China Sanya, China
Great, Russia 106m 108m

Statue of 98m
Liberty, US
Height (metres)

The Motherland
Calls, Russia

Christ the

Statue and location

How It Works 147

How were
hieroglyphics finally
H ieroglyphics proved difficult to work out, despite
hundreds of years worth of attempts. The Rosetta
Stone, discovered in the city of Rashid (Rosetta), Egypt,
in 1799, provided final clues. The stone’s text was in two
languages but three scripts: Greek, hieroglyphic and

© Thinkstock
demotic (a cursive hieroglyphic-based script that came
after hieroglyphics). Scholar Jean-François Champollion
spent years studying others’ works and ancient Egyptian
writings, as well as the Rosetta Stone. He could read
Greek and Coptic, the final form of Ancient Egyptian
script that used the Greek alphabet and seven demotic
What is the Holy
letters. Champollion decoded hieroglyphics by figuring
out how the demotic signs were used in Coptic, then Grail?
tracing them to their meaning in hieroglyphics. He he Holy Grail is a Christian legend
published his findings in 1822, but it took further study expressed in Western European
for scholars to confidently read hieroglyphics. literature and art. The Grail itself is
considered the most sacred Christian
relic, most commonly said to be the cup
from which Jesus drank at the last
© Dreamstime

supper, and in which Joseph of

Arimathea collected Jesus’s blood at the
crucifixion. Joseph of Arimathea is said
to have then taken the cup to England,
where it was hidden for hundreds of
years. The knights of King Arthur made
it their principal quest to find the cup
because, according to the legend, it had
special powers.

Why do British monarchs have What happened

two birthdays? to the Venus de
Milo’s arms?
I n true British style, the reason for a British The tradition dates back to the 18th

monarch having two birthdays is due to century when the annual summer military ost scholars believe the arms of
the weather. To mark the occasion, official cavalcade became a celebration of King this Ancient Greek sculpture were
celebrations are held on a Saturday in late George II, as well as the armed forces – but already missing when it was found, but
May or June, as the weather is likely to be his birthday was at the end of the year in some believe they were broken off in a
sunny. This is because birthday celebrations chilly November. Since then, the official fight in 1820. Venus is also missing her
involve lots of outdoor activities, such as the birthday of a monarch has been held during left foot, headband and metal jewellery.
Trooping the Colour military parade. the summer.

148 How It Works


Where does the

saying ‘throw
down the gauntlet’
come from?
T o a Medieval knight a gauntlet was a sort
of armoured glove worn to protect the
hands from injury as part of their suit of
armour. Violence was often used to settle
disagreements in the Middle Ages, and one
knight could challenge another to fight a duel
by taking off his gauntlet and throwing it to the
floor in front of his rival. ‘Throwing down the
gauntlet’ was both an insult and a challenge. A
knight would risk dishonour and humiliation if
he refused to accept such a challenge, or ‘take
up the gauntlet’, another saying which is still
with us today.

Throwing down
the gauntlet
was both an
insult and
a challenge

When did the

white flag become
associated with
S urrendering with the white flag is at least as
old as China’s Han Dynasty, dating back to 25
to roughly 225 CE. However, it probably began
even earlier. Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus
also wrote about them in 109 CE, referencing
white-flag use in a battle that took place about 40
years earlier.
White fabric was probably used because it was
the easiest colour of material to obtain, and it also
stood out against the landscape and the other
more colourful flags on the battlefield.
© Thinkstock

Today using a white flag as a symbol of

ceasefire, surrender or negotiation is part of the
Geneva Convention.

How It Works 149


© Dreamstime
Why are
American soldiers
called GIs?

© Thinkstock
T he reason behind this name is not
totally clear, but the most widely

Why did civilisations stop believed theory dates back to the beginning
of the 20th century, when the letters ‘GI’

building city walls? were stamped on military trash cans and

buckets to show they were made of
galvanised iron. The theory goes that it was

D efensive walls were built as a

barrier and a lookout point. They were
useful for thousands of years, but as
However, although most settlements are
not hidden behind walls today, people have
not stopped building them. Patrolled border
then used to refer to all things related to the
army in World War I, but the meaning of the
letters changed to ‘government issue’ or
weaponry improved, and as people took to fences control the flow of people between ‘general issue’. By the time World War II
the air, it became easier to breach these countries, walls are used to mark out gated occurred, soldiers were referring to
defences. Populations also expanded, and it communities, and in regions of conflict they themselves as GIs. US toy company Hasbro
became less practical to keep everyone are erected as barriers to separate the two created the popular GI Joe doll in 1964, and
enclosed inside a physical barrier. opposing sides. the nickname has stuck ever since.

Why did the

Egyptians build
the Great Sphinx?

150 How It Works


How did the bald

eagle become
America’s national
S oon after the Declaration of Independence was
signed on 4 July 1776, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas
Jefferson and John Adams were tasked with designing
an official seal for the new nation. Years later, after
disapproval of the designs by the Continental
Congress, Secretary of Congress Charles Thomson
combined the best elements of the designs he’d seen.
The eagle had initially been introduced by lawyer
William Barton. Thomson decided to make it a
prominent feature and turned it into an American bald

© Therightclicks
eagle, a symbol of strength and native to the US. The
design was adopted by Congress on 20 June 1782 and
the bald eagle soon became America’s national bird
and a symbol recognised worldwide..

Why aren’t pterodactyls classed as dinosaurs?

I t seems that we have oversimplified the
naming conventions for prehistoric
creatures. ‘Pterodacytl’ is the informal name
among dinosaurs from the Triassic to the
Cretaceous period but weren’t actually
classified as dinosaurs.
characteristics which ultimately separated
them. Modern birds are likely to be
descended from small, feathered, land-based
for winged reptiles, properly known as The two groups have a shared common dinosaurs, not pterosaurs – or pterodactyls,
pterosaurs. These flying creatures lived ancestor, but diverged to evolve unique for that matter.

© Dreamstime

How It Works 151

154 What is the future of driving?
158 How do you refill a service station?
159 What are the physics of kitesurfing?
159 What happens in a burnout?
160What is the future of armoured warfare?
162 What is the Sea Hunter?
163Why do car engines stall?
163 How do beach cleaning machines work?
164 How do gliders stay airborne?
165 What are shipping lanes?
165 How do cat’s eyes work?
166 Why do leaves on the line affect trains?
166 How do wingsuits work?
167 How does the Sailrocket 2 work?
168 How does the Falkirk Wheel work?
170 How do trams work?
170 How do you balance on a unicycle?
171 What makes up a road?
171 How do trains change tracks?
172 Bitesize Q&A

152 How It Works


How It Works 153


Discover what cutting-edge tech will transform the cars of tomorrow

Virtual Advanced interface

reality S
imply getting from A to B is no
longer enough in the automotive
industry. In an effort to make
app and advise you to set off earlier the
next time that you drive to work.
In Mercedes-Benz’s F 015 concept, the
Why VR tech is moving onto arduous long journeys and stressful classic dashboard is entirely replaced
factory floors and into showrooms morning commutes more bearable, cars with a smart screen that constantly
will become media hubs. monitors where your eyes are looking

omorrow’s driving experience starts in
the dealership. Showrooms themselves Audi’s next-gen virtual dashboard is and tracks your hand gestures. In this
will look different, as rows of cars one such concept that will transform the system, you will just have to look at the
parked side by side are replaced with empty driving experience. This system displays setting you want to adjust, such as the
stages for customers to explore the latest models important information, such as 3D maps, radio volume or air conditioning
through virtual reality (VR). Clients will be traffic information and hazard alerts, in temperature, then move your hand to
given high-resolution VR headsets, such as an the driver’s field of view on an ultra-thin, change it.
Oculus Rift or HTC Vive, to provide an immersive high-resolution OLED display. This Volvo is partnering with Ericsson to
3D and 360-degree view of their prospective new multifunctional display is supplemented take in-car entertainment to the next
car. While this might sound futuristic, British by two touchscreen displays on the car’s level. Future Volvo models will come
tech company ZeroLight is already developing centre console, which features controls complete with both autonomous
this system in partnership with Audi to provide such as the media systems and air technology and high-bandwidth
a virtual showroom that offers customers the conditioning. One aim of this system is streaming capabilities, meaning the
chance to explore cars as if they were actually that it will be able to learn the driver’s driver will be able to relax with their
there in the room. Both the interior and exterior habits and use this information to favourite films or TV shows as the car
design can be changed, so clients can see which improve their journeys in the future. For handles the driving. It will even be smart
configurations they prefer and what optional example, if traffic starts to build up on enough to take a slightly longer route to
extras might look like. They can even delve your usual route to work, the system will your destination if the episode you’re
under the bonnet and see the inner workings of alert you via a companion smartphone watching hasn’t quite finished.
the engine.
VR will also give companies the chance to
demonstrate vehicles that are yet to be released,
so customers can explore upcoming models in
greater detail than simply browsing a website.
Before cars hit the virtual showroom,
manufacturers can use VR to design better and
safer vehicles. At Ford’s Immersion Lab in Drivers can give commands with intuitive Volvo’s concept allows drivers to sit back and relax
Michigan, US, VR plays an integral role in the gestures in Mercedes-Benz’s F 015 concept with their favourite shows while the car drives itself
production process. By developing highly
detailed virtual models, Ford can evaluate
different configurations and designs early on,
without having to build physical prototypes.
This saves money and allows engineers more
creative freedom to explore new design options.
Some manufacturers are also using VR to
improve safety. Before BMW even build the first
example of a new model, it will already have
been crash tested at least 100 times in all kinds
of virtual situations.
© Mercedes-Benz, Audi, Daimler, Volvo

Drivers can give commands with

intuitive gestures in Mercedes-
Automotive manufacturer Audi and Benz’s F 015 concept
tech company ZeroLight are
pioneering virtual showrooms

How It Works 155


Intelligent Future tech

on the roads
autos In the coming years, inner-city
driving will become a whole
new experience
From data gathering to
self-driving, how will cars of Augmented head-up displays
the future use information? will also be used in cars to alert
drivers to potential hazards

nspired by swarm behaviour seen in
birds, fish and insects, Audi is developing
swarm intelligence systems to improve its
autonomous technologies. In nature, groups of
animals can appear to move as one, and that’s Enhanced awareness
Improved radar and camera
precisely the principle that Audi wants to systems will make driving safer by
transfer to cars on the road to help reduce alerting drivers to objects in their
Augmented reality blind spots, and helping them see
traffic. By using mobile networks, Audi cars Mechanics and technicians will around corners at blind junctions.
will be able to stay interconnected, gathering don augmented-reality glasses to
make repairs and fix engine issues
and sharing traffic information with the help
more effectively.
of a SIM card (e-SIM) that is permanently
embedded in the car. The e-SIM connects the
vehicle to a cloud database, which provides
information about what lies on the road ahead.
Using this information, the car can advise the
driver on alternative routes that will
successfully avoid congestion or hazards on
the road. Swarm intelligence systems are still
a work in progress, but Audi has successfully
demonstrated the principle with small-scale Pedestrian crossing
Laser projection systems
demonstration models.
can shine a zebra crossing
While many companies are developing onto the road to let
self-driving cars, this technology must be pedestrians cross safely.
thoroughly tested before drivers will be
willing to let go of the steering wheel. Volvo’s
Drive Me project, due to start next year in
Gothenburg, Sweden, will be the world’s first
large-scale, long-term autonomous car trial. A
fleet of 100 Volvo XC90s will put the company’s
most advanced autopilot technologies to the
test in the real world.

Mercedes-Benz’s F 015 concept

Audi’s 1:8 scale models has laser projectors and LED
demonstrate the swarm screens for other road users
intelligence system in action and pedestrians

156 How It Works


Driverless trials
Autonomous cars will become
more and more common on the VR showroom
roads as driverless technology Customers will be able to
is extensively tested. browse different models
and configurations Future showrooms
through virtual reality. will allow customers to experience
different vehicles in the virtual world

Crowdsourced data
Information about road-
surface damage, such as
potholes, could be shared Swarm intelligence
with maintenance teams to
prioritise repairs.
services will alert drivers
to upcoming traffic or
hazards and advise how to
avoid them.
The date by which all new cars will
be fully driverless, according to
some predictions

Lives saved every 10
years if driverless cars
were used worldwide

2.4mn km
The distance Google’s testing fleet
of cars have self-driven so far
Pothole detection
Sensors will enable cars to

detect potholes or other road-
surface damage. Jaguar Land
Remote control Rover’s concept adjusts
When faced with narrow
suspension accordingly for
spaces, drivers will be
passenger comfort.
able to get out of the car

and tell it to park itself via
a smartphone app.
Drivers can remotely instruct
their cars to perform tasks,
like locking the doors or
turning the heater on, via
connected apps The total time the average British
commuter spends stuck in traffic
during their working life

The number

of crashes
per million
km driven
by humans

© Volvo, Audi, Daimler, BMW, Illustration by Nicholas Forder

The number of
The levels of autonomous driving crashes per million
km driven by
What technology needs to be tested before we trust our cars to take full control? autonomous cars

Level 0
No autonomy:
The driver is fully
in control of the
Level 1

the car has

stability control
Level 2
Semi-autonomous: Unlinked assistance
systems are used, such
as pilot assist and
Level 3
At this level the
car can take full
control for a
Level 4
The car can make some
of its own decisions,
such as changing
Level 5
Full autonomy: no
steering wheel or
controls and no need
How much Jaguar Land Rover saved
between 2008-2010 by using VR
car at all times. and cruise control. braking cooperation. period of time. routes to avoid traffic. for human input. systems in car development

How It Works 157


How do you From crude oil

to petrol

refill a service
Crude oil is changed into petrol and other products at
a refinery. The oil is pumped through a distillation
tower, where hot furnaces break it down into vapours
and liquids. This separates components of the oil into
‘fractions’, according to their different weights and
boiling points.

Lighter fractions rise to the tozp of the tower before
they condense into liquids, while heavier – and less
profitable – fractions condense towards the bottom.
Petrol is one of the lighter fractions, but heavy fractions
can also be processed into petrol to increase the yield.
Under the forecourt lie vast chambers filled with Technicians blend various fractions to make the
different types of fuels. These products are then stored
fuel. Here’s how it gets there in tank farms near the refinery, and carried in pipelines
to additional tanks.

hen your vehicle runs out of After removing the covers, the driver
fuel, you fill up the tank at a uses a metal pole called a dipstick to
service station. But what do check fuel levels in each unit. Then he
the stations do when they’re running on attaches two hoses: one to vent fuel
empty? It all begins at the oil refinery, vapour and one to dispense fuel from the
where petrol and diesel are produced. truck to the unit, and monitors the valves 2
These products travel along pipes to and gauges on the tank until the units are
terminals, where fuel tanker trucks load full. After disconnecting the hoses, he
up and distribute it to service stations all uses the dipstick again to check levels
over the country. before replacing the covers.
To refill a service station, the driver USTs are equipped with systems that
removes the manhole cover that conceals automatically monitor the volume of fuel
the vast underground storage units (USTs) they contain. Changes in temperature can 4
where these flammable, dangerous alter the amount, and some petrol is lost
liquids are kept. A station might have as through the release of vapours as we
many as five USTs – holding up to 75,000 pump it into our cars. Station operators
litres each – and these are joined to the combine this data with sales projections 5
inlet pipe to which tankers connect. to work out when it’s time for a refill.

Underground storage tanks Tanker

Petrol is refilled by tankers through one pipe and
pumped into cars through another Tankers refill underground
storage units by running a
hose from the tank to the
inlet pipe.

Another pipe feeds
petrol to the pump.
Vent and Petrol
inlet pipe Petrol is a blend of light hydrocarbons, and
While the units can also be produced by ‘cracking’ heavier
Lip are refilled, petrol
fractions or ‘reforming’ naphtha.
A lip inside the vapour is vented
manhole keeps water
from getting into the
petrol tank.
into the tank to
avoid its release
into the air.
2 Kerosene
Slightly heavier fractions are converted into
kerosene and other petroleum products, such
as heating oil.

Underground tank
3 Diesel oil
Middleweight fractions are refined into diesel
fuels, which are less prone to explosion.
The tank is made of
double-wall glass, reinforced
plastic or double-wall
anti-corrosive steel.
4 Cracking
Heavier fractions are converted into chemicals,
lubricating oil, and petrol through cracking.

Stations have tanks with
diesel and different grades
of petrol.
5 Heavy fractions
The heaviest fractions not reformed into petrol
become industrial fuel and bitumen, a material
used in roofing.

158 How It Works


What are the physics Interacting forces

Lift is generated by the kite
deflecting air down, while

of kitesurfing?
air particles colliding with
the kite create drag.

Staying above the water is all about balancing forces

Angle of attack
The amount of lift generated
can be changed by altering
the angle of the kite.

Brake lines Power lines

Pulling on the lines in the These lines are attached
middle of the kite tips it, to the edges of the kite,
dumping air and reducing and are used to control its
speed quickly. shape and angle.

Control bar
The control bar is attached to
the kite by four lines, and a
chest harness helps to
distribute the load evenly.
Changing speed
Pulling on the power
lines increases lift and
Board therefore velocity, while
The bigger the board, the
extending your arms
better it floats, helping
will decrease it.
beginners to stay above water
even if the kite drops.

What happens in a burnout?

This showy car manoeuvre has its origins in drag racing

rivers execute a burnout by tyres to as high as 200 degrees Celsius.
spinning their car’s wheels This causes chemicals in the tread to
while keeping the vehicle vaporise, while any moisture around
stationary. In a rear-wheel drive car the tyres converts to steam.
with an automatic transmission, this Burnouts are illegal on the street, but
means holding down the brake while they are so popular that there are even
pressing on the gas, then allowing the contests that measure the length of the
wheels to reach 5,000 RPM before streaks of rubber left on the pavement.
releasing the brake. Burnouts in a They also serve an important function
manual transmission car are trickier, as in drag racing, as they heat the tyres to
the driver must release the clutch and the optimum temperature for racing,
Burnouts are an impressive quickly move that foot to the brake, remove any foreign matter from the
sight, as well as a great way to

quickly ruin your tyre tread while pressing the other foot on the gas. wheels, and create better traction at the
While the wheels spin, friction heats the starting line.

How It Works 159


What is the future

of armoured warfare?
The tank continues to evolve thanks to advancing technology

rinding and blasting their way through tanks by pointing a shoulder-held weapon Unlike the heavy monsters that
enemy defences, tanks became icons of toward the vehicle, firing the projectile, and lumbered over No Man’s Land and
warfare in the 20th century. Tomorrow quickly retiring to safety. spouted fire and flame, the tank of
may be a different story. Some analysts see the Meanwhile, technological innovation has tomorrow will be a revolutionary combat
armoured titans as past their golden age, given tanks a renewed competitive edge in system. Stealth technology will veil against
while others regard them as battlefield fighting insurgents in narrow streets or taking radar and thermal imaging, while unmanned
powerhouses, evolving and adapting. on enemy armour in the expanse of the desert. drone tanks will power forward without risk to
Technology continues to influence the tank Powerful weapons and a variety of specialised their operators.
and the other weapons designed to counter it. ammunition make any target vulnerable to Articulated robotic systems like the Cheetah,
An armed Apache helicopter laden with tank fire, while composite armour protects currently being evaluated by the US
Hellfire missiles can lock onto its target and tanks like never before. Certain Department of Defense, are in
blow an enemy tank to pieces in seconds. countermeasures can jam and confuse any development. Cutting-edge technology will
Pilotless aerial drones can do the same. Even incoming ‘smart’ weapons that might be keep the tank powering ahead at the forefront
with technology aside, soldiers can destroy thrown their way. of warfare for years to come.

BAE Terrier Command and Cameras provide Terrier
The ‘Swiss Army The upgrades and engineering steering
crewmen with 360-degree
vision both during the day and

knife’ vehicle behind the British Army’s best

combat vehicle yet
The interior of the
Terrier includes visual
positioning and
at night with thermal imaging.

BAE Systems has unveiled the Terrier – a systems status displays.

The vehicle is steered
combat vehicle that looks more like a Airmobile with a joystick.
Transformer than a tank. Likened to a The 30-ton Terrier
armoured vehicle is air
Swiss Army knife, it can probe for buried transportable by C-17
explosives, withstand waves of up to two Globemaster III or
metres and smash through solid Airbus A400M aircraft.

concrete. This is the mechanised

monster of the future.
A double-skinned floor guards against
mines and the steel hull protects the
two-man crew from small arm fires and
shell splinters. The Terrier can also be
operated by remote control up to 1,000
metres away, and can be transported by
colossal military transport aircraft. This is
despite weighing around 30 tons – more
than six African elephants.
It’s equipped with a bucket
attachment that displaces obstacles and
lifts heavy material, an excavator arm for
moving earth, and a ripper designed to
break up road surfaces and cut off the
enemy. The Terrier also boasts electric
smoke grenade launchers that give
360-degree coverage, and a general-
purpose machine gun for defence.

Active defence
Remote control Amphibian The Terrier features armour
The Terrier may be The Terrier can protection and mounts nuclear,
controlled remotely traverse deep water biological, and chemical weapons
from a distance of and withstand waves defences, smoke dischargers, and
one kilometre. over two metres high. a machine gun.

160 How It Works


Multi-role arm Earth mover

The excavator arm, or The Terrier’s front loader can
bucket, is capable of lift several tons of material
carrying building and displace earth to dig
materials, digging and emplacements.
removing debris.

PL-01 stealth tank uses BAE Systems’

Adaptiv tech; plates can be heated or
cooled to make infrared silhouettes

Stealth tanks
First introduced with naval warships,
stealth technology has the potential to
revitalise the next generation of
armoured vehicles. The Polish Research
and Development Center for
Mechanical Appliances and the UK’s
BAE Systems are partnering to develop
the PL-01 armoured fighting vehicle.
The PL-01 tank mounts a 105mm or
120mm main gun and is operated by a
three-man crew. Its stealth technology
includes an exterior of temperature-
controlled ‘wafers’ that reduce the
vehicle’s infrared signature. The wafers
also function as pixels, allowing the
tank to mimic its surroundings in an
Road ripper innovative camouflage scheme. This
The excavator arm features
ripper and rock hammer means it could totally transform its
equipment that render roads appearance by matching the
impassable, by smashing temperature of its surroundings and
through rock and concrete.
displaying preprogrammed images on

the wafers.

The benefits of hybrid tanks

The average soldier requires about 80 litres of fuel per day for
transportation and movement of supporting material. Fuel efficiency is a
key element in future military contingency planning, and the hybrid tank is
one viable solution. After years of development, BAE Systems and Northrop
Grumman have revealed their Ground Combat Vehicle (GCV), which
operates with a hybrid electric drive, providing up to 20 per cent greater
fuel efficiency than earlier armoured vehicles. The GCV carries a crew of
three and a squad of nine combat-loaded infantrymen protected by a core
Mine clearing steel hull. Its significant weight, however, remains a challenge.
The Python rocket-
propelled explosive
system is effective in
clearing mines and
improvised explosive
devices up ahead.


ECONOMY EASE EFFICIENT Hybrid tanks can Varied armour NOISE
Hybrid technology Hybrid tanks have Using a hybrid reach top speeds packages and Hybrid tank
could save millions fewer mechanical electric engine of 69km/h and reinforced floors powertrains are
of litres of fuel parts, which can reduce can accelerate protect the quieter, which is
during lengthy can significantly fuel costs by from 0 to personnel inside advantageous
ground reduce their as much as 32km/h in just from explosives and during stealth
deployments. operational costs. 20 per cent. eight seconds. small arms fire. operations.

How It Works 161


ACTUV was christened Sea Hunter in April

Ocean giant 2016 before beginning a two-year trial
Patrolling the sea The Sea Hunter is 40
metres long and weighs
What tech powers the Sea Hunter 140 tons, much larger than
and keeps it afloat? most unmanned ships.

Fuel range
Powered by two diesel
engines, the ship can
remain at sea for up to
three months before
running out of fuel.

Trimaran design
Composite hull The ship features a main
The hull features a foam core hull with two smaller
with a lightweight, fibreglass floats on either side to
skin to aid buoyancy. keep it balanced.

What is the Sea Hunter?

Meet the US Navy’s new drone ship: a submarine tracker
that doesn’t need a single person on board Detecting subs
To identify submarines lurking beneath the ocean

ubmarines are one of the main threats is the Sea Hunter, a 140-ton vessel with a surface, the Sea Hunter uses sonar mounted on
to the world’s navies. Hidden beneath range only limited by the amount of fuel it its hull. This system emits pulses
the ocean surface, they are able to fire can carry. The ship is steered by computers of sound waves that travel through the water, and
missiles and torpedoes that can cause using radar navigation – the method of when they hit an object, such as a submarine,
catastrophic damage. To combat this sending and receiving radio signals to detect they bounce back towards the ship. By measuring
problem, US defence company Leidos has the proximity of nearby objects – but is also the time it takes for the sound waves to return to
built a new type of ship capable of tracking constantly monitored by a human on land, the ship, the distance between the ship and the
down even the stealthiest of submarines. It who can take control remotely if necessary. sub can be calculated. The Sea Hunter’s sonar
has been developed for Defense Advanced At the moment, the Sea Hunter can only system has been developed by defence
Research Projects Agency (DARPA) as part of track submarines, as it is illegal for an contractor Raytheon, and can be configured to
its ACTUV program and will eventually be unmanned vessel to carry weapons. detect underwater mines as well as submarines.
handed over to the US Navy. However, it was designed to be versatile, and
ACTUV stands for Anti-Submarine Warfare its operations could be extended to detecting
(ASW) Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel, as underwater mines in the future. It is
the program is set to feature a fleet of currently undergoing two years of testing in
autonomous ships that can navigate the seas San Diego, California, before being unleashed
without a crew on board. The first to be built on the open ocean alone. The Sea Hunter
uses sonar to locate
enemy submarines
Experimental vessels on the ocean floor

The strange ships pushing the boundaries of maritime design

Sea Shadow Sea Fighter Sea Slice
An unusual shape and The US Navy’s aluminium Designed to sail close to
special hull coating made catamaran was designed the shore, this combat
this Lockheed Martin to test a variety of ship’s four small hulls
vessel almost technologies, including sit below the surface to
undetectable by sonar and a multi-purpose ramp avoid causing waves that

radar, but it was never for launching and could slow it down or
launched beyond testing. recovering vehicles. knock it off course.

162 How It Works


Why do How do beach cleaning

car engines machines work?
stall? The best way to sort the litter from the sand

obody wants to relax or play on a The teeth travel around a conveyor-belt
How a small slip-up polluted beach, so resorts and beach system and deposit the debris in a bucket – or
owners use beach-cleaning hopper – for emptying later. Meanwhile, any
can cause the engine machines to keep them pristine. They’re residual sand escapes through the
to cut out usually towed by tractors or quad bikes, perforations in the conveyor, so it can fall back
although private beach owners often use onto the beach.

ven when a car is idling at traffic
lights, its engine is still working
smaller models that are pushed along. Another type of beach cleaner, the sifter,
hard. The crankshaft will be turning Inside the machine is a mouldboard, which works best for cleansing fine, dry sand of
between 600 and 1,000 times every minute levels the sand to create an even surface to materials such as tar and oil. It passes
(that’s 600 to 1,000 RPM), just to keep the work on. Then, rows and rows of stainless- everything through a series of filters, dropping
engine running. If the RPM drops below steel teeth rake the beach every second, the clean sand back onto the beach, ready for
this for any reason, and the engine stops,
the car is said to have stalled.
scooping up refuse as small as a cigarette butt. sunbathing and building sandcastles.
Cars often stall when the clutch is
engaged too quickly when setting off from a
stop. The clutch is made of two metal plates,
which connect the engine to the wheels.
Raking it in This raking beach cleaner
quickly clears the sand of
any rubbish
When you push the clutch pedal down, you
Beach-cleaning machines move at
high speed to pick up waste and
disconnect these plates so that the engine pollution, leaving only sand behind
can keep turning while the wheels stop,
allowing you to stand still in traffic, for
instance. If you release the clutch pedal and
connect the plates when the RPM is too low, Hopper
The hopper stores
the engine will suddenly have a huge load
all of the collected
placed on it that will stop it from moving, waste. Once full, it
causing the RPM to drop and the engine to lifts up to empty Conveyor belt
out into a skip. The conveyor belt
cut out. Instead, as you set off you need to inside the beach
bring the clutch up slowly, while increasing cleaner carries debris
the RPM with the accelerator. This allows through the machine,
the force of the motor to increase in while sand sifts
through to the bottom.
proportion with the load being placed on it,
and the car will get going smoothly. Mouldboard
This smooths the sand
ahead of the machine
for even cleaning, and
scoops up partially
submerged rubbish.

Cars mostly stall due to driver Tines Large raking beach
error, but it can also be The rake’s hundreds of cleaners can pick up
© Thinkstock

caused by a mechanical or steel tines are offset to everything, from the

electrical failure scoop every bit of debris tiniest shard of glass to
into the machine. a big beverage can.

How It Works 163


How do gliders
stay airborne? The glide ratio for some
commercial gliders can be
as high as 60
These engine-free vehicles have more in common
with paper planes than you might expect…

n its basic form, a glider is an aircraft with heavy-duty road vehicle. Once the glider gets
no engine, so they fly differently from up to speed, the wings come into their own,
powered aircraft due to the forces involved. and the aircraft can take off. Alternatively,
When flying, a powered aircraft has four forces hang-glider pilots can run and jump off a hill or
acting on it: lift, drag, weight (related to cliff to start their flight.
gravity) and thrust. Without an engine, gliders Really, the process of gliding is a very, very
have no thrust, so they need to find other ways slow fall towards the ground. The speed of that
to generate speed. Key to this are a glider’s descent is defined by its glide ratio, which tells
wings – because they are so long, they generate you how far a glider can fly versus how much its
huge amounts of lift, more than enough to help altitude will drop. Hang-gliders have a glide
counteract the effect of gravity. ratio of around 15, which means that they can
The glider needs some help to get into the air, fly forward for 15 kilometres for every one
though. There are two common ways to launch: kilometre of lost height. Commercial gliders,
either by towing it behind a powered plane as it sometimes called sailplanes, descend much
takes off, before releasing it at altitude, or by more slowly than hang-gliders – in fact, their
rapidly winching along by a cable attached to a glide ratios can be as high as 60.

Cloud markers
Riding the thermals Glider pilots can often spot a
thermal by the presence of
Pilots can keep gliders in the air for longer
cumulus clouds. These form
by making use of rising warm air where the moisture in the
rising air has condensed.

Up, up and away!

Rising air provides the glider
with lift, allowing them to
increase their altitude.

Hot air rises

Air is rarely the same
temperature everywhere.
Thermals are columns of
warm, rising air, caused by
sunlight heating the ground.

Gliding down Staying up Urban heat island

Outside of a thermal, the The acceleration during Urban areas tend to radiate
glider will begin to descend descent allows the glider to more heat than rural areas,
once more. As the glider falls, generate the lift needed to so gliders can hit another
it starts to accelerate. support its weight. thermal and rise again.
© Thinkstock

164 How It Works


1. Dover Strait The busiest

5 Florida Straits This is the busiest
seaway in the world,
shipping lanes
This waterway
serving over 500
provides access to the
ships per day.
Gulf of Mexico for US
cargo and oil tankers.

2 Panama Canal
This 77-kilometre long
canal, with locks at each
end, connects the Atlantic
and Pacific Oceans.
4 Strait of Magellan 3 Strait of Hormuz
This strait allows ships One third of all the world’s
rounding South America oil transported by sea
to avoid the treacherous passes through this strait.
waters of Cape Horn.

What are shipping lanes?

90 per cent of the world’s goods are transported by sea, so how is the traffic managed?

t is estimated that in 2007, retail giant In the English Channel there is a winds across the oceans. Although modern
Walmart imported an average of one contraflow system, which means that ships cargo ships use engines, today’s sea lanes
shipping container to the US from China travelling south use the English side of the mostly follow the same routes because rough
every minute. That year alone, over 4,500 channel and northbound traffic uses the seas can still cause expensive delays. Close
ships carried 18 million shipping containers French side. This is enforced by the Dover to the shore, shipping lanes are routed to
between the world’s ports. These ships are Strait TSS, a radar-controlled traffic ensure there is enough depth of water for the
all concerned with reaching their separation scheme operated by the huge cargo vessels. Smaller, more
destination in the shortest time and with the International Maritime Organisation. manoeuvrable boats normally keep out of
lowest fuel costs, so certain routes can get Sea lanes began with the trade routes used shipping lanes to reduce the risk of collision
extremely crowded. by sailing ships that exploited the prevailing with these commercial leviathans.

How do cat’s eyes work?

Discover exactly how these reflective patches mark
out a driver’s route in the dark

nvented by Yorkshireman Percy Shaw, end coated with an aluminium mirror. As
‘cat’s eyes’ are reflective markers the light from a vehicle’s headlamps enters
found on roads across the world. Their the front of the glass beads, it bends
name was inspired by the eerie glow given slightly, reflects off the mirrors, and
off by the eyes of cats and other nocturnal bounces back into the driver’s eyes.
hunters when a light is shone on them. In Cat’s eyes are ultra-durable too. The
cats, this reflectivity is due to a layer of mirrored beads are set into a tough rubber
silvery-green tissue at the back of their eyes dome, which is surrounded by a ring of cast
– as well as reflecting light, it helps cats to iron. If a vehicle drives directly over it, the
see in the dark. rubber dome briefly sinks into the road, but
To reproduce this effect, cat’s eye road bounces back unscathed. Cat’s eyes can be
© B.S Halpern

Cat’s eyes are the

markers use two tiny studs, made from produced in any colour – white, yellow and simplest, power-free way
lozenge-shaped glass beads that have one green are the most common. to mark roads in the dark

How It Works 165


Why do leaves
on the line
affect trains?
There is a legitimate reason
behind all of those delays

n the UK, a mature tree has between 10 and 50,000
leaves, poised to fall on railway tracks every autumn
and cause delays and frustration for commuters.
That’s because when trains flatten the foliage, they leave
behind a slimy muck, which is similar to Teflon – the
non-stick coating on saucepans. To avoid wheelspin,
train drivers have to brake early and accelerate gently,
and this safety precaution leads to delays.
To help combat this problem, modern trains are fitted
with wheel slip protection, which operates just like
automatic braking systems on road vehicles. The system
monitors the rotation of each axle, and if one happens to
be spinning faster than the other, the brake is then
released until the speed equalises, then the brake is
reapplied to the wheels.
Trains can also spray ultra-fine sand ahead of the
wheels to help aid traction, or a fleet of Railhead
Treatment Trains can do the same thing on a larger scale.
They spray high-powered jets of water along the tracks to
clear them, then apply an adhesive paste – a mixture of
sand and aluminium called ‘sandite’ – on the lines to Wheelspin is a
improve grip. These trains run during off-peak hours to common problem
get the tracks cleared for the busiest commuting times. caused by leave on tracks

In the UK, skydivers must

complete 500 jumps before
they can fly with a wingsuit
How do
wingsuits work?
Fly like a bird with a soaring suit and a little bit of science

fter leaping out of a plane, sky