Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

Plant Intelligence

Thursday, April 6th, 2017

Plants have between 15 and 20 senses, including smelling, tasting, and sensing light and sounds. The root tips are especially ‘intelligent’: sensing gravity, water, light, pressure, hardness, volume, nutrients, toxins, microbes, and messages from other plants. Here are some remarkable examples of plant behaviour:

  • Some corn plants emit a scent when caterpillars attack them, and the scent attracts parasitic wasps which then eat the caterpillars.
  • Many plants produce caffeine, a drug which encourages bees to remember the plants and return to pollinate them.
  • Forest trees use a ‘wood-wide-web’ of underground fungi through which they deliver food and water to other trees in need, and also signal others about insect attack.
  • Plants eat sunlight!

Read more about intelligent plants in this excellent essay by Michael Pollan.

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Am I Stardust?

Saturday, January 7th, 2017

Am I really made of stardust? Yes, many of my (and your) atoms were made in dying stars – when the stars exploded (‘supernova’) the atoms were flung into the universe and eventually became planets and plankton and people. The atoms themselves have not changed but were constantly recycled into different matter – those same atoms of stardust make up 93% of my body mass (some are hydrogen atoms which are actually Big Bang dust). That means I’m billions of years old… which is strange but oddly hopeful.

‘Our presence in the universe is deeply rooted in this cosmic history.’– Marco Bersanelli, physicist.

puppisMy Mum and Dad? The remnants of two ancient supernova explosions, Puppis and Vela. Image courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA

Best Plants For Bees

Saturday, October 1st, 2016

Honey bees are the glue that holds our agricultural system together…Hannah Nordhaus

One cause of the current honey bee decline is monocultural farming: bees are starving because of a lack of flower diversity. You can help by planting bee-friendly fruit trees, bushes, herbs and wild flowers, such as:
  • Nectar-rich flowers: clovers and mimosa; rosemary, thyme and sage; koromiko and veronicas; brassicas; dandelion, sunflower, dahlias, cosmos, and zinnia
  • Bluish-purple flowers such as Californian lilac, erica, and lavender
  • Flowers that bloom at different times in the year

LAVENDER copy                                                             Photo of lavender by Sarah Anderson

 

 

Connections

Saturday, July 23rd, 2016

We are an impossibility in an impossible universe.– Ray Bradbury

The human brain:

  • 85 billion neurons (nerve cells)
  • Each neuron is unique
  • Each neuron connects to 10,000 other neurons
  • That’s up to 1,000 trillion connections possible

The universe is not composed of mere matter, but of mind stuff. – Charles Birch

Photo: ‘Facebook’, my limestone bookends inspired by a Polynesian mask.

Puriri Moth

Sunday, May 29th, 2016

There are few butterflies in New Zealand but there are over 1,650 species of moth (most are found only here) which are important pollinators. The largest is the beautiful puriri, which can be up to 15 cm across its velvety wings. It spends four years as a caterpillar eating rotten wood, then changes into a moth that lives for only a few days.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPhoto: Puriri Moth, © Robert Hoare (used with permission). Click to enlarge.

Honey Bees

Thursday, April 7th, 2016

1. The bee and its place in history:  by Claire Preston, author of Bee.

The bee is the only creature on the planet that is a true creative artisan. It gathers materials and transforms them to make not only architecture but food.– Claire Preston

2. Behind the Bee’s Knees: The Origins of Nine Bee-Inspired Sayings

In the late 18th century, this slang term for something stylish and excellent actually referred to something small, weak or insignificant, such as the joint in a bee’s little leg.– Time
3. How To Keep Bees – The Basics: video from POD, the edible gardening website.
worker bee

Read To Babies

Sunday, February 14th, 2016

Reading and brain development are linked almost from birth. A baby’s brain grows quickly (tripling in size in the preschool years) as the brain cells make connections with each other. What creates those connections? Reading and singing to a baby; playing with a baby; touch and eye contact. By six years old, a child has the most brain connections he or she will ever have. A baby who’s been introduced to books will start school with many literacy skills in place.

The amount of time the child spends listening to parents and other loved ones read continues to be one of the best predictors of later reading.– Maryanne Wolf

Reading and thinking can enhance each other. It’s our brain’s ‘plasticity’ that enables us to learn to read – reading creates brand new neural pathways and these then become the basis for new thinking. (More reading quotes here).

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 Spencer and his Dad

Science Metaphors

Sunday, January 31st, 2016

Tell all the truth but tell it slant – Emily Dickinson

Science can be difficult to describe: all that maths, the weird words, and ungraspable quantum physics. That’s why analogies and metaphors are so useful in science. And so comforting:

We find it easier to reason by comparing unfamiliar with familiar, falling back on experience, looking for links between things, and seeking out pattern and meaning.  – Joel Levy, A Bee in a Cathedral

Science abounds in comparisons: a greenhouse to explain global warming; a cat in a box to illustrate a paradox; and Kepler’s clockwork solar system. One of my favourites compares quantum physics to jazz and general relativety to a waltz:

General relativity is like Strauss — deep, dignified and graceful. Quantum theory, like jazz, is disconnected, syncopated, and dazzlingly modern. – Margaret Wertheim, Physics’s Pangolin

Photo: Shrödinger’s Cat in a super position

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Winter Beehive

Wednesday, January 13th, 2016

In late autumn most of the male bees (drones) are pushed outside the hive to die – the female worker bees can’t afford the honey to feed them all.
 In winter, the large bee family huddles together in a tight ball which traps the heat of their bodies. It’s amazing that even when it’s way below zero outside, bees can keep the cluster at around 95˚F (35˚C). To adjust their temperature, bees vibrate their wing muscles and constantly change places with each other within the huddle. This close cooperation means bees can control the temperature and survive in almost any climate. Bees eat their honey in winter and on the odd fine day they fly outside to poo, as is their hygienic habit.

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The Genesis of Science

Thursday, December 10th, 2015

We should not write them off as superstitious primitives.– James Hannam

Gods_Philosophers_295It’s a myth (turned cliche) that science and faith have always been at odds. The book, God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science by James Hannam, shows how the church supported the genesis of science. Medieval universities were church-sponsored and ‘natural philosophy’ (as science was called back then) was a core subject. European thinkers drew on ancient Greek and Islamic texts to develop scientific principles that we still use today. Hannam debunks the myth of the ‘Dark Ages’: for example, people knew the Earth was round; the Christian church did not routinely persecute scientists; there were many inventions, from clocks to spectacles; and early Islamic scientists discovered how the eye functions and invented surgical instruments. (Essay on Science and Soul).

Honey Bee Science

Sunday, November 15th, 2015

Recent research has revealed more amazing honey bee abilities:

  • BeeSweet: Bees can detect electrical signals from flowers which help them identify the flowers with the richest nectar.
  • BeeSpresso: Many flowers have traces of caffeine in their nectar which bees are more attracted to than flowers without.
  • BeeTox: When bees eat honey it detoxifies them by triggering genes that make antibiotic chemicals.
  • BeeFriend: Bees use their right antenna to tell friend from foe – it has more smell-sensing hairs on it than the left antenna.
  • BeeStill: Even non-fatal amounts of pesticides will eventually destroy a beehive. Don’t spray near flowers!

Photo: Brittany beeIMG_4047

Quantum Compass Found In Animals

Monday, June 15th, 2015

At last, a big picture is emerging in science as links have been found between the small and the large, between quantum physics and biology. The poster child of ‘quantum biology’ is the European robin. The bird uses the Earth’s magnetic field to navigate vast distances – but the field is 100 times weaker than a fridge magnet, so how does the robin detect it? It uses an very finely balanced system that reaches from the sub-atomic level to the biological. Here’s how it seems to work: a photon (‘particle’) of  light enters the bird’s eye as it’s flying; the photon is absorbed by a protein molecule in the eye where it causes electrons to become ‘entangled’ (an electron state that’s sensitive to magnetic fields); this creates a chemical change in the protein molecule which sends a signal to the bird’s brain telling it which way to fly. This ‘magneto-reception’ occurs in many bird species (including chickens!), honey bees, dolphins, butterflies, sharks, lobsters and stingrays. This fascinating book tells the full story:

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How Big is an Atom?

Friday, May 1st, 2015
  • If you made a tower of ten million atoms… it would only be as high as a grain of sand.
  • Picture a walnut sitting in the palm of your hand…if the walnut was an atom then your hand would have to be the size of the Earth.
  • Look at yourself…seven octillion atoms [7,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000] make your body.

Atoms are held together by electromagnetic force and they are mostly empty inside. You are made of atoms, so you are mostly empty space too. If you took away the space from everyone’s atoms you could fit the entire human race into a small Lego brick.
Atoms have smaller particles inside them. There’s a nucleus in the centre with a cloud of charged electrons around it.  Look deeper inside and you’ll find even smaller particles with names such as gluons and muons, strange quarks and charm quarks. We live in a vast universe, but the universe is also inside us.

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Photo: atoms of gold

The Library Inside You

Sunday, March 29th, 2015

I’m inspired by the intricacy of our cells. Inside each cell are tiny molecules which are digesting, healing, sensing, supporting and moving us. Most of this is done by protein molecules – there are 60,000 different proteins in the body, such as enzymes (to carry out reactions) and hormones (send messages). We make proteins when we need them (eg. we build antibodies when we’re attacked by bacteria). In his wonderful book, Our Molecular Nature, David Goodsell writes:

We must be able to build each one exactly when and where it is needed, using only the materials available in the diet.

Why is this building process so accurate? Because each and every cell has a ‘library’ inside it called DNA which contains the precise instructions to build molecules. This ingenious library is used every second of your life. DNA has 6 billion bits of information; the equivalent number of books in a library.

Ultimately, a single cell, when paired with an appropriate mate, can build an entirely new human being, molecule by molecule. -David Goodsell

Using this blueprint, proteins are constructed in chains from smaller molecules called amino acids. Like letters of the alphabet, there are only 20 amino acids arranged to create thousands of novel proteins. Some proteins last a long time, others are disassembled after a few minutes. This allows the body to respond rapidly to any needs. The illustration (right) shows ubiquitin, a protein found throughout your body. Ubiquitin’s job is to attach to discarded proteins, tagging them for destruction.

David Goodsell is a scientist and molecular artist. View his art here and learn more about proteins at Molecule of the Day.

Illustration of Ubiquitin © David S. Goodsell, the Scripps Research Institute.

Forbidden Planet

Thursday, March 5th, 2015

The movie that forever changed my attitude to the future. – Michio Kaku

Forbidden Planet is a classic sci-fi movie about an alien society that has destroyed itself through technology and the scientist, Morbius, who discovers their secret.  It shares elements with The Tempest except the movie uses science in place of the supernatural – the great Arthur C. Clarke’s maxim was that any advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.  The film’s science is plausible and the psychology even more so. I love this movie for the brilliant monster from the sub-conscious (designed by Disney animators); its set design; the first ever all-electronic  score (by Bebe and Louis Barron); and the melodramatic script:

My evil self is at that door, and I have no power to stop it!Morbius

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What Has Nature Ever Done For Us?

Sunday, February 22nd, 2015

Tony Juniper’s book What Has Nature Ever Done For Us? brilliantly proves that money really does grow on trees. Nature is the basis of our economic lives and is worth $100 trillion/year to the global economy. But we use up our yearly budget of resources in about 8 months and after that we destroy our natural capital. Juniper lists the huge benefits we get from healthy soil, plants, light, water and animals, and shows it makes economic sense to care for them. Pollinators, for example, are vital for our food supply: of the 100 most important food crop plants, 71 are pollinated by bees. He says the most likely causes of the bee decline are loss of habitat and pesticides (especially neonicotinoids):

Of all the unintended consequences that arise from how we treat nature, the loss of pollinators caused by pesticides is one of the more ironic. Chemical that were designed to protect agriculture are undermining its viability.

But he’s hopeful we can protect the bees, for example, by planting ‘bee roads’ of flowering plants between crops.

Everyone who has even a small garden can help with this.

what has Nature_final

A Bee In A Cathedral

Sunday, February 1st, 2015

A Bee in a Cathedral by Joel Levy is a fascinating book of science analogies and astonishing numbers. Suitable for all ages, only the physics section is a bit complex. A few of my favourites factoids:

  • Every day 1 million meteoroids strike the Earth
  • How far to the nearest star, Proxima Centauri? Travelling in a rocket at 250,000km/h, it would take you 18,000 years
  • Most of the living cells in your body are less than a month old
  • About 50 million neutrinos are passing through you now
  • Every molecule in a glass of water is changing partners billions of times a second.
  • How hard does your heart pump blood? Empty a bathtub in 15 minutes using only a teacup —repeat this without stopping for the rest of your life
  • If an atom were blown up to the size of a cathedral, the nucleus would be no larger than a bee buzzing about in the centre.a-bee-in-a-cathedral

Game Of Drones

Sunday, January 11th, 2015

Male bees (drones) have a decadent life inside the hive but it ends gruesomely. In spring and summer drones spend their days eating and sleeping – the female bees even clean up their droppings for them. In autumn the females push most of the drones out of the beehive to die in the cold air. Why have drones at all? To mate with a new queen, but it only happens once every few years. Several drones will mate with her and die in the act. Drones themselves have no father; they hatch from unfertilised eggs. It was once thought all bees came from virgin births, until in 1788 a blind Swiss naturalist, Francois Huber, proved that queens mated.

What big eyes the drones have; all the better to find the queen.

Bee Super Hero

Sunday, December 21st, 2014

Honey bees have six (girl) powers to match any comic-book super hero. And like every super hero bees have one fatal weakness: when a bee stings you, it dies.

1. Super Flyers
Like Superman, bees are great flyers. A bee flies about 1000 km in her life. If she was human sized, that’d be like going five times around the planet. And she can carry 122 times her own weight.

2. Super Attractors
Like Magneto, honey bees use electro-magnetic forces. They have their own navigational GPS thanks to millions of magnetic crystals that sense the Earth’s magnetic field. Bees also have an electrical charge which attracts pollen.

3. Super Therms
Like Torch and Mr Freeze, bees cope with extreme temperatures. In the heat, air-conditioner bees fan their wings to cool the hive; and in the cold, bees huddle in a tight ball and shiver to keep warm.

4. Super Smarts
Like Professor X, bees are intelligent communicators. They are the only other creatures we know that use a symbolic language. The bee dance indicates direction and distance to flowers, and the quality of nectar. Bees can also tell time, measure, memorize, and solve problems.

5. Super Food
Like Wolverine, bees have healing powers. Honey is nutritious, lasts forever, and is a healer, killing bacteria and fungi. Manuka honey fights infection and heals burns. Bees use anti-bacterial propolis to keep their hives germ-free.

6. Super Transformers
Like Spiderman, bees can change their genetic structure. A queen bee is not born that way – any girl bee can become a queen. The worker bees prepare a royal baby by feeding it on royal jelly which triggers DNA change.

 

A Love Story – Pollination

Sunday, November 16th, 2014

It’s the most important relationship on Earth – everything in Nature depends on pollinators and flowers getting together.

Pollination is ‘a love story that feeds the Earth.’ – Louie Schwartzberg.

For a flower to make fruit and seeds, its pollen (male) must get to an egg (female), usually in another flower – and bees do 80% of the moving. The result is a cornucopia of foods from cherries to cashews, courgettes to coffee. Our relationship with the pollinators is equally vital so let’s provide bees with a variety of flowers, clean water and spray-free gardens.

Scenes from Louie Schwatzberg’s dazzling movie, Wings Of Life:

How Bees See Us

Saturday, October 11th, 2014

The honey bees’ ability to learn faces is unexpected. – ‘Good With Faces’, Scientific American

When I first started beekeeping, older beekeepers often said their bees recognised them – now we have proof it’s true. Honey bees’ brains are the size of a sesame seed with only a million neurons (we have 100 billion), but bees can learn patterns, navigate, communicate, count, tell time, measure, and memorize. Research now shows they can also recognise human faces. Bees were trained (with a sugar water reward) to identify a human face, front and side view – and after training they could instantly identify the same face rotated 30˚. Honey bees do not have distinctive facial markings, so why have they evolved this ability? It’s due to their pattern-recognition skills but I wonder if it also evolved as bees formed a close relationship with humans over the last 20,000 years. Here’s how I might look to a bee with it’s many-faceted compound eyes:

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The life of the bee is like a magic well: the more we draw from it, the more there is to draw.’ — Karl von Frisch

The Forces of Writing

Sunday, September 28th, 2014

Writing requires four fundamental steps:

Imagine: ‘Open your mind’ (P.D. James)

Write: ‘Put one word after another’ (Neil Gaiman)

Edit: ‘Omit needless words’ (William Strunk)

Hope: ‘Outrun the self-doubt’ (Stephen King)

The steps of writing harmonise nicely with the four forces of physics:

Electromagnetism holds our atoms and molecules together, and like imagination, it has infinite range.

The Weak Force is confined to the centre of atoms, as a writer must be confined with a story until it’s drafted.

The Strong Force holds atomic nuclei together, as editing gives the story strength.

Gravity is like hope, in that it keeps us anchored and has infinite range.

Read my essay, The Science of Writing.

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Origin of Bees

Saturday, September 13th, 2014

New genetic research suggests honey bees originated in Asia not Africa as previously thought. Bees have been around for a while: the oldest known bee is a 100 million year old bee suspended in a piece of amber (a tree resin), found in Myanmar (Burma). Ancient bees lived in trees or on cliffs – honey bees derived from cavity-nesting bees that spread out from Asia about 300,000 years ago. People discovered honey about 20,000 years ago; it must’ve seemed like a magical food in their diet of wild animals and plants. Early honey hunting was a dangerous job because bees lived in tall trees or on cliff faces. Cave paintings show hunters climbing cliffs to raid nests – imagine dangling from a vine, 150 metres up a cliff, while being stung by bees! People still do this kind of honey hunting today in India, Nepal, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Image: Rock painting of a honey hunter in Valencia, Spain (6000 to 8000BC)

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Science and Soul

Sunday, August 10th, 2014

Does the universe have a purpose or is it an accident? Scientists have divergent views on the significance of the universe. At one end of the spectrum is the iconoclast, Richard Dawkins, who sees an indifferent universe which has “precisely the properties we should expect if there is at bottom no design, no purpose.” At the other end is biologist Jane Goodall who believes the universe is both purposeful and meaningful. In between there are theories ranging from a ‘conscious universe’ to a ‘self-creating universe’. Whatever their beliefs, at least there’s usually a shared sense of wonder among scientists…

…Read the rest of my essay, Science and Soul, here.

puppisPhoto: The remnants of supernova explosions, Puppis and Vela, birthplace of some of our atoms. Image courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA

Deadly Pesticide

Sunday, August 3rd, 2014

The threat to nature is the same as that once posed by the notorious chemical DDT.– BBC News

A new study on ‘neonicotinoid’ pesticides says that they are a key factor in the decline of bees. The study combined 800 research papers from 20 years and concluded these nicotine-based nerve poisons are also damaging the wider environment. The pesticides are systemic – the whole plant remains toxic right through to flowering – so bees (and other critters) are poisoned by pollen, nectar, and drinking water. These pesticides are widely used in NZ and even sold in garden centres. The government has not yet responded to the new study, so meanwhile, avoid these products: Confidor, Advantage, Merit and Admire (what shameless names). And remember that there are ways to deal with pests without harming bees, including organic gardening and IPM:

It is high time we returned to Integrated Pest Management (IPM) – an approach focussed on minimising pesticide use, maximising the number of biological control agents, using cultural controls such as crop rotations, and monitoring pest numbers so that chemical controls only need be applied when there is a problem.– Prof David Goulson

Electric Bees

Saturday, July 19th, 2014

Honey bees and flowers have an electric relationship. A bee in flight becomes positively charged through friction with airborne particles. Fortuitously, flowers have a negative electric charge – and naturally, positive and negative attract each other. The bee (+) detects the tug of the flower charge (-) and lands on it. Immediately two things happen. Firstly, charged pollen leaps onto the bee’s body, a bit like your hair will leap onto a rubbed balloon. Secondly, the flower loses its negative charge – this tells nearby bees that this flower has just been visited. The flower has time to ‘recharge’ itself and refill its nectary. It’s a sweet friendship: bees get food (pollen, nectar) and flowers get pollinated.

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Jane Goodall – Reason For Hope

Monday, June 16th, 2014

Jane Goodall’s memoir, Reason For Hope, is certainly that – her life is inspiring. It covers her childhood in wartime England; her revolutionary studies of Tanzania’s chimpanzees; and latest development work via her Goodall Institute. The most moving chapters relate the death of her husband and how she found spiritual support back in the jungle. The writing is honest, sometimes poetic, and the science is simply conveyed. I like the way she integrates science with her beliefs (which embrace several traditions). Here’s a link to a fine interview with Jane Goodall; and a few quotes from her book:

Each one of us matters, has a role to play, and makes a difference.

We either agree with Macbeth that life is nothing more than a ‘tale told by an idiot’, a purposeless emergence of life-forms…or we believe that, as Teilhard de Chardin put it, ‘There is something afoot in the universe, something that looks like gestation and birth.’

Yes, my child, go out into the world; walk slow
And silent, comprehending all, and by and by
Your soul, the Universe, will know
Itself: the Eternal I.

goodallbook

More Than Honey

Tuesday, June 10th, 2014

We fill our lives with honey and wax.. giving  humans the two noblest things, which are sweetness and light. – Jonathan Swift, 1773

candleHoney bees provide us with many fascinating products apart from honey: wax, propolis, and pollen. Beeswax (made in the bees’ bodies) has oodles of uses, including in polish, cosmetics, jelly beans, artists’ media, dental floss and even for cleaning up oil spills. It’s a favourite for candles because beeswax gives off a sweet scent and a lustrous, smokefree light.
Propolis is the bee’s cleaning product – a sticky, germ-killing gum which they collect from plants. It’s used to plug cracks and keep the hive walls clean. Propolis fights infection in humans, especially in the mouth. Pollen is rich in protein and vitamins for the bees; but humans eat it too. The boxer, Muhammad Ali, ate pollen, which may explain his famous saying, ‘I float like a butterfly, sting like a bee’.

Dances With Bees

Sunday, May 25th, 2014

The second most complex language on the planet. – Professor James Gould

We communicate with the alphabet; honey bees are the only other creatures we know of that use symbols. Their dance moves describe where to find flowers. When a bee finds a patch of flowers she goes home and dances in the hive for her sister bees. The dance shows the other bees both the direction and the distance to the flowers. The direction is told by the angle of the dance: for example, if the bee dances straight up the honeycomb it means ‘fly straight towards the sun’.
The distance to the flowers is told by waggling. Each waggle of the abdomen means a set distance: eg. one waggle might mean 50 metres, so 10 waggles = 500 metres to fly. A faster waggle dance means the flowers have plenty of nectar.
Bees dance in the dark – the audience receives instructions through touch, sound, smell, and taste (nectar).

Photo: Sarah Anderson

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5 Ways Books Help Children

Sunday, April 27th, 2014

Perhaps it is only in childhood that books have any deep influence on our lives. – Graham Greene

In a world that offers children so many digital delights, why bother with books?

1. Books help children understand the world

Books expose children to new ideas and help shape their world view – reading is a meeting of minds.

While reading, we can leave our own consciousness, and pass over into the consciousness of another person, another age, another culture – Maryanne Wolf

2. Books help children understand themselves

Stories give a frame of reference by which they can measure their experiences and feelings.

We read books to find out who we are. – Ursula K Le Guin

3. Books develop children’s imagination

Reading is imagination, and imagination enriches the real world.

Children do not despise real woods because they have read of enchanted woods; the reading makes all woods a little enchanted. – C.S. Lewis

4. Books develop children’s brains

Books boost a child’s intellectual development. The brain changes when children learn to read: it creates new neural pathways which are the basis for innovative thinking. Reading and thinking enhance each other.

5. Books are enjoyable.

Ultimately a child must want to read. The child who reads for pleasure is forming a wonderful habit – and there’s also pleasure for parents in reading aloud.

See also: Guide To Best Books For Children

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