By Siouxsie Wiles 27/08/2015 15

In preparation for Queenstown Research Week, Auckland University’s Prof Peter Shepherd asked primary school kids what questions they would ask a scientist.

One class at Shotover Primary School sent us this list:

Edit: A group of 10-11 year olds from Wakatipu High have added to the list (Q29-48)

  1. How does the sky stay up?
  2. How does food get made?
  3. How is electricity made?
  4. How does electricity run through wires?
  5. Is science chemistry?
  6. How do solar panels work?
  7. How are satellites made?
  8. How are materials made?
  9. How do batteries get made?
  10. How does the wind make windmills go for electricity?
  11. How come there is gravity on earth but not in space?
  12. How does snow form?
  13. Are there other planets like earth?
  14. How do the clouds stay in the sky?
  15. How big is the sun?
  16. How do the rings on Saturn stay up?
  17. How do the planets stay in the sky?
  18. How cold is it on Pluto?
  19. How does electricity work?
  20. Why can’t we breathe under water?
  21. How does stuff stick together?
  22. How do potions work?
  23. How do magnets get made?
  24. How many people are in the world?
  25. How many planets are in our solar system?
  26. How many solar systems are there?
  27. How does the brain work?
  28. What are planets made of?
  29. If you were to travel at nearly the speed of light would you see colours differently?
  30. Do plants have feelings?
  31. How does gravity actually work?
  32. How do our minds manage to create dreams without our awareness/consciousness?
  33. How did cells evolve?
  34. What happens to matter when it is sucked into a black hole?
  35. Is sugar considered a drug?
  36. What makes us human?
  37. How long would it take for humans to evolve the ability to say… breathe underwater or fly? could this be achieved over millions of years if we put people in enviroments where they must adapt? (The fact its incredibly unethical aside)
  38. Why do some children despise brussel sprouts and similar green vegetables? Is it because of their upbringing, childhood or something else? Also, why don’t adults demonstrate these vegetable habits as much as their children?
  39. Why have humans evolved to be weaker if it would be beneficial for us to be stronger?
  40. Why is water’s boiling point affected by air pressure?
  41. What are thermometers made of and how do they work?
  42. Why is the human brain so susceptible to dehabilitating diseases?
  43. Due to society and technology, what parts of human evolution have been halted and which parts have been accelerated?
  44. How come things can be solid if they are made up of atoms that have a lot of space between them?
  45. What is the difference between Zero G and Zero Gravity
  46. What are the areas of science we should be getting into?
  47. Why is the sky blue?
  48. Does the Universe have an edge and if so what is beyond it?

So come on scientists, let’s see if we can crowdsource some answers for the kids at Shotover Primary! Pick a question and leave your (simple & succinct..) answer in the comments section so we can send it back to them. Please also leave your name and what kind of scientist you are.

Thanks for helping!

15 Responses to “What would you ask a scientist?!”

  • 24. There are about 7.3 billion (7,300,000,000) people in the world. We don’t know very accurately because not all countries count people carefully like New Zealand does.

  • 14. Clouds are made up of water droplets as small as a tiny speck of dust. That means they fall very, very slowly and even very weak air currents can hold them up. Most clouds are held up by rising air: slowly rising for thin flat clouds and rapidly rising for puffy clouds. The air might be rising because the land underneath is hot, or in order to get over a mountain, or because two masses or air are being pushed together, or for other reasons.

  • Ok, so this one is a bit long, and I may be misunderstanding the question. Maybe someone can do better.

    23. People have always tried to come up with explanations for things, and use these explanations to work out ways to improve their lives.

    In the past, many people believed in magical rules that are now called “similarity” and “contagion”. As far as we can tell, these rules don’t actually work, but the same rules are often used by people writing stories about imaginary magic, such as magic potions. The principle of similarity says that you can predict the effect of something by what it looks like, so that red things might affect the blood, or yellow things might treat jaundice (a disease that makes you go yellow), or plants with heart-shaped leaves might be good for the heart. The principle of contagion says that things that have been close together will have an effect on each other, so that a potion to make someone well, or to make you look like that person, might use some of their hair or clothing.

    As biology and chemistry developed, we got better at testing these rules and found that they don’t work, at least in any way that we can test. What matters is the shape of individual molecules in a medicine, rather than the shape or colour of the thing they came from. The same molecule will have the same effect even if it comes from a different source. For example, children with diabetes don’t make insulin in their pancreas gland, but they can use insulin made by special yeast cells in a lab, and it works just as well.

  • 11. Actually, it turns out that there is gravity in space, although sometimes it looks like there isn’t. Gravity is what keeps the Moon in orbit around the Earth, and the Earth in orbit around the Sun. However, when we see video from the International Space Station it looks like there is no gravity: the astronauts and any loose objects in the space station float around. What is really happening is that the astronauts are falling towards the Earth due to gravity, but because the space station and everything in it is falling as well, it looks like the astronauts are floating. So why doesn’t the space station eventually hit the ground? The space station and the astronauts are actually travelling very fast away from the Earth at the same time as gravity is gravity is causing them to fall. This is called orbiting: when the space station is orbiting, it is travelling at just the right speed and direction to stop it crashing into the Earth but not so fast that it gets any further away. If the space station were to hit its brakes (e.g. by firing a rocket engine to slow itself down), it would eventually crash into the Earth. In fact this is how astronauts get back to Earth once they have finished their stay on the space station.

  • Hi!

    I wrote these out, but decided some of the things were quite hard to talk about without pictures. So I’ve made some little posters about electricity.

    4) How does electricity run through wires?
    19) How does electricity work?

    3) How does electricity get made?

    I’m an engineer, so I use science to help me solve problems and make things. Right now, I’m working on a way to generate electricity from the footsteps of cows!

  • Batteries.
    Voltaic pile:
    Needed blotting paper, salt solution (strong), zinc disks, and copper disks. Cut the blotting paper into disks, moisten with salt solution and assemble in this order. Zinc, blotting paper, copper, zinc, blotting paper, copper … Assemble in a tube.

    Wet cell battery:
    Part fill a plastic or glass container with copper sulphate (blue stone) solution. attach a wire to a piece of zinc and immerse only the zinc, in the copper sulphate solution. Dip a copper wire or tube into the solution and you have a battery.
    Get the children to look up the Oxford Electric Bell.

  • Question 37: humans breathing under water or flying:
    This is a very interesting question. It is very difficult to predict which path evolution will take. But what we can do is look at what happened to other mammals after their ancestors returned to the ocean.
    Whales are descendants of hoofed animals that lived on land about 50 million years ago. Over many millions of years these ancestors probably spend more and more time in the water, for example for hunting, and became increasingly well adapted to this lifestyle. Eventually they did not return to land anymore. Whales are now perfectly adapted to living in the ocean, but they still have to come to the surface to breath and they have lungs, not gills. So from that example we could conclude that breathing under water seems to be a skill that is very difficult to evolve for mammals, even over many millions of years of evolution.
    Flying appears to be similarly hard. The ability to actively fly has only evolved once in mammals, in the ancestors of bats. The ability to just glide through the air on the other hand, like some “flying” squirrels, has evolved several times independently. So that seems to be easier.
    But maybe humans do not actually have to evolve the physical ability to fly or breath under water. They can much more easily develop technologies that help them with these challenges, like planes or aqualungs.

    I am a biologist and I am interested in how different species have evolved to become what they are today.

  • 5. Chemistry is part of science, as one of the physical sciences, just like physics, biology, etc. Because chemistry is the study of matter, chemistry is a component of the other physical sciences. Chemistry investigates the properties of atoms and molecules, but they are composed of even-smaller particles, which are investigated by physicists, who also investigate very large structures – like the universe. When molecules form complex cells, the structures built from cells are investigated by biologists and biochemists.
    More information at

    35. Maybe, sugar is a drug for some people, because it can trigger a good feeling in the brain, just like some drugs.
    More information at

    40. The boiling point occurs when the vapour generated by heating liquid water produces the same pressure as the gases in surrounding chamber. Lowering the pressure of the chamber will require less water vapour pressure, so the temperature of boiling liquid water will be lower.
    More information at

    41 Thermometers are simply devices for measuring temperatures. They can be based on a thin column of liquid ( mercury or alcohol ) in a transparent glass tube. The liquid expands consistently as it is heated, so the tube can be labelled with a scale, such as degrees.

    There are thermometers based on expansion of metals, differential expansion of two different metals bonded together causing bending as one side expends more, measuring infrared-radiation from heat sources, pyrometric cones that slump softening point ( a mixture time and temperature), and lots of different electrical thermometers using volts generated by joining different alloys or the change in resistance of metals ( eg platinum resistance, thermistors ), and many other types based on chemical property changes, such as colour ( thermal crayons or stickers ) or physical transitions, such as melting points and boiling points .
    There is a good book on temperature written by NZ Measurement Standards Laboratory staff.

  • 38. We don’t know for sure, but one theory is that people tend to dislike bitter vegetables such as brussels sprouts because many bitter-tasting plants are poisonous.

    This theory fits with the way food preferences change with age. Very young children will eat anything; toddlers are often very picky eaters; older children and teenagers become less picky. If this is evolution to avoid poisonous plants, infants don’t need to be picky because their parents control what they eat; young children do need to be picky to avoid dangerous foods, and older children and adults don’t need to be as picky because can tell what foods are safe and healthy by learning from other people.

    The same theory also would explain why pregnant women are more likely to dislike bitter-tasting foods, because their developing baby is more sensitive to poisonous plants.

  • 47. why is the sky blue?
    Great question! It is all about the scattering of light – that is the bouncing around of light off molecules in the atmosphere. A rainbow tells us that light from the sun is actually made of many colours. Sometimes those colours get separated, like in a rainbow. The blue sky and a red sunset are part of the same thing. Blue light is more easily scattered than red. So when the sun is low, not much blue light reaches us because it has been scattered out of the way, leaving the red light to reach us. However, the light we see at other time from other parts of the sky is the scattered blue light. Try this experiment. Find some rough ground, or a brick path. Roll a heavy ball (eg a football or cricket ball along it). It will most likely go straight (like the red light). However, roll a much lighter ball (eg a ping pong ball) it will more likely bounce to the side (that is, be scattered like blue light). The person standing to the side will more likely receive the lighter ball (blue light) than the heavier ball (red light).

  • Hi scientists, Thanks for the answers, the posters, the links and the experiments! We are stoked that real scientists are helping us explore our world. Sarah (Board of Trustees, Shotover Primary School)