To celebrate the release of the latest Professor Astro Cat book – Solar System we are hosting a very special interview with the author, Dr Dominic Walliman.
You can read our review of this wonderful work of non fiction here. Solar System is the latest book in the Professor Astro Cat series and this one is aimed at a younger audience of 3-7 year olds.
I decided to conduct this interview in the same way that I have any conversation these days, with my four-year-old chiming in with his own questions at regular intervals…
Grown up: How did you start writing science books for children?
My buddy Ben Newman approached me in 2011 with an idea to write a children’s book about space. Flying Eye Books were looking for book ideas and he had been working with them for a few years. We are friends from school and I was really into science and space and used to tell him all about the Universe and all the crazy things that we humans have discovered. I love telling people about the science I love and so it worked out really well.
4 year old: How can there be ice on mercury when it’s so close to the sun and boiling water on Neptune when it’s so far away?
On Earth we are hot in the Sun and cool in the shade, but we never get that hot or cold because we have the air around us that keeps things stable. On Mercury there is no air, so there is a huge difference between being in the Sun and being in the shade, and the ice exists in the shade where it can’t see the Sun and is freezing cold. As for Neptune, the core of Neptune is really hot but we don’t know if there is boiling water there, it is probably more likely on Uranus. (Think this was my mistake, I typed up Neptune but he had asked about Uranus) You are right, the heat inside these planets can’t come from the Sun because it is so far away. So where does it come from? When you rub your hands together really fast they get hot and this is caused by a thing called friction. The same thing happened to all the planets when they formed which made them heat up a lot, and there is still stuff moving about and creating heat today.
Grown up: We love the character of Professor Astro Cat, what was the inspiration behind it?
Ben created the Professor Astro Cat character for a wrapping paper design a couple of years before we stared on the book. When we started I really wanted characters to present the science because they are more fun and easy to relate to. I was originally thinking of human characters, but Ben showed me the Professor Astro Cat character design and it just clicked. It was obvious that Astro Cat was the way to go!
4 year old: How did the asteroid belt get there?
In the early solar system when the Sun had just formed, before there were any planets, the whole solar system was just one big asteroid belt and lots of gas. As time went on gravity drew these asteroids in towards each other and they started colliding forming bigger and bigger balls which eventually turned into all of the planets which hoovered up most of the asteroids. The rocks in the asteroid belt should have formed another planet, but for some reason they didn’t. Scientists think that the gravity of the big planet Jupiter is what stopped them from colliding so much, and so we are left with a belt of asteroids that hang out until this day.
Grown up: Did you always like learning about science when you were younger and what are the “wow” moments you had?
Yes I was really into dinosaur books when I was young, and then I moved on to nature books and then human history and everything else. I like learning about everything really but I gravitate towards science because it asks the biggest questions you can ask and also provides a way to try and answer them. There are so many wow moments!
Billions of particles called neutrinos are flying through your body every second without colliding with anything, which isn’t that surprising because you are mostly empty space because atoms are mostly empty space. Atoms are unthinking and unfeeling balls of energy but somehow if they are put together just right they make a person that can look out at all the other atoms and wonder about them while enjoying a cup of tea on a rainy day. But nothing intelligent put those atoms together in this way, just a trillion tiny little steps that went from simple chemicals, to the first simple thing we could call life, then evolution kicked in and over 4 billion years things got bigger and more complicated and turned into all the life we see around us. But for the vast amount of that time life was just working out how to get the machinery of single cells to work properly, multi-cellular life only appeared about 600 million years ago when the cells started working together which is another level of amazingness about our bodies – we are basically 37 trillion cells all working together, keeping us going for our lifetimes; overcoming an incredible amount of attacks and hardships along the way. There is no meaning to life it just seemed to happen and perpetuate itself but for some reason we evolved intelligent brains and as far as we know we are the only little part of the Universe that is experiencing itself, so we are all incredibly special.
4 year old: How far out in space has a person been?
The furthest a person has been from the Earth is around the other side of the Moon in NASA’s Apollo 13 mission way back in 1970. But we can go much further than that with our minds using telescopes and physics. With our brains we have been to the edge of the Universe.
Grown up: We think it’s great that you explain some fairly complicated topics in your books but, did you find it difficult to break these down so they were accessible to children?
Yes it is always difficult and something I’m still trying to get better at. It is almost like a crossword puzzle where I’m trying to get across the most accurate explanation I can in the fewest words, and also make it fun!
4 year old: What would an alien look like?
It’s funny, when we think of aliens we can’t help thinking of things that are like weird animals on Earth like strange insects or deep sea creatures. Thinking about what an alien would look like really tests our imagination! My guess is like a bowl of spaghetti and meatballs.
4 year old: Does space end and do you think there is something like a magical toyshop at the end of it?
We don’t really know! So far it seems like space goes on forever and ever. But if there is a magical toyshop somewhere out there, hopefully they will have a good spaceship for us and perhaps we can try and find out.
Grown up: What is the most important message about science that you’d like to get across with your books?
Too often science is portrayed as a set of unchanging rules and facts and truths that you are told and you have to believe. But in reality it is a hodge-podge collection of our current best ideas, some of which we can be very confident about, but everything can be turned on its head at any moment. The message I want to convey is that there are lots of mysteries still to solve in the Universe, we definitely don’t know everything, and even the most entrenched rules can be uprooted with a better model.
Thank you so much to Dr Dominic Walliman for your incredible answers, you have certainly given us a lot more to think about and a hunger to discover more. The answer to our last question is just wonderful, it sums up how I think about science, and definitely how I want my children to learn about it. The Professor Astro Cat books are a triumph in portraying this perfectly.
You can find out more about Dr Dominic Walliman, as well as a lot more science fun and brilliant explanations, on his website here.
Be sure to check out the illustrator of the series, Ben Newman, on his website here.
Buy Professor Astro Cat’s Solar System from Waterstones.
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