How to raise empowered children

This is my older daughter, Kat. She has a lovely, gentle temperament and is not in the least feisty, unlike her fiery younger sister.

But when Kat was around 9 or 10 years old, something that the American government did annoyed her a great deal (I can’t quite remember what). It was pre-Facebook days, so she couldn’t do what people these days do, namely spend hours venting on Facebook.

Anyhow, I suggested to Kat that she sits down and write to the President of the United States about her grievances. Take the complaint direct to the cause, rather than be angry, impotent and spread it round fruitlessly, which serves no purpose whatsoever other than raise the toxicity of the world with more angry, frustrated words.

Kat did write to POTUS in her meticulous hand and trotted off to the post office to post the letter.

To our surprise, she received a letter from The White House a few weeks later, signed by Bill Clinton himself. We still have that letter somewhere at home. So though Kat had not changed US policy one bit, she had learned a very important life’s lesson.

And here’s the thing: anyone can write to the POTUS or the UK Prime Minister, and this is often far more fruitful than bashing away impotently on social media, spreading negativity, heaping on more vicious junk on the Internet junk yard. You probably have more chance here of someone taking up your case.

A few years ago, I was so so so incensed by Lloyds Bank and HSBC in the UK. I had requested an electronic transfer from my savings account held at HSBC to my current account held at Lloyds Bank for £5,000.

But the money never arrived at Lloyds. I marched into HSBC and demanded to see the manager, bearing all the necessary paperwork to show that my account had had £5,000 removed from it but my account at Lloyds had not received the £5,000.

The manager shrugged his shoulders and said, “Your money has left HSBC but we don’t know where it went.”

Surely there is an electronic trail?

HSBC would not budge and did not want to help me further. Lloyds Bank said there was nothing it could do. It seemed that the £5,000 had gone missing during its transfer between these two shitty banks. The physical distance between the two banks on High Street Kensington was less than 50 yards, yet they were not able to pick the phone and speak directly to one another because of “Data Protection”. I was so frustrated.

I could have posted a lot of incensed posts on social media about my rage, but instead, I wrote one letter to my Member of Parliament, Sir Jeffrey Archer, whose office sent one letter to both banks, and the matter was instantly resolved, with HSBC changing its tune completely. It went all the way up to the HSBC Head Office.

Two years ago, I had enormous problems with Vodafone UK, which a lawyer’s letter could not resolve. Vodafone continued charging me for a phone line that I tried cancelling NINE times, by letter, by phone and by personal visits to the Vodafone outlet. I cancelled the direct debit as a last resort, and Vodafone sent a debt collection agency to deal with my “debts”.

I wrote to every single Board member of Vodafone and London Stock Exchange’s Disciplinary Committee (Vodafone is a public listed company) outlining Vodafone’s shoddy back office system and disgusting behaviour towards its customers. Within a very short time frame, a pleasant member of staff phoned me with a groveling apology from Vodafone in the form of free line rental for six months for my current line for my “trouble”.

When my younger daughter disagreed with something the textbooks say, I told her to write to either Professor Stephen Hawking or Professor Carlo Rovelli, the world’s leading authority on relativity, space and reality who had written several best-selling books. The result? Professor Rovelli read through the manuscript of my book, An Evening In Wonderland.

Children learn from their parents. Monkeys see, monkeys do. Show them that we can get answers, if we direct our issues appropriately, rather than venting on social media. Set the example. Empower your children to be stakeholders of their world rather than impotent bit players.

When do we stop teaching our children?

We teach our children how to walk, to use a spoon, to cross roads. We teach them to lock doors, to know about money, to plan their future. For me, the teaching never stops, because it represents a transmission of family history and values from one generation to the next. Parenting is indeed a lifelong labour of love.

I feel extremely fortunate that I am able to devote myself fully into teaching my youngest child. I teach her the physical sciences, though her mathematical brain is superior to mine. Indeed, I wrote a book for her, a novella that builds the bridge between the world of theoretical physics and the one we live in.

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I also teach her ‘school’ subjects, but with heart and soul woven into the endeavour. After all, history has shown us that scientific theories come and go with new discoveries. What remains is the beautiful lesson embedded within them.

I put my teaching resources on The Times Education Supplement. Until Sunday 12th February, you can obtain £3 credit off my Physics Relativity Option for 16-18 year olds, which includes an e-version of the book mentioned above. To redeem, enter code SUNDAY3 at tes.com/redeem. The link to the resource is:

https://www.tes.com/teaching-resource/ib-physics-option-a-relativity-powerpoint-lesson-prompts-handouts-and-reading-material-11411922

You will find much here, lots of physics and love ❤

Photo: lesson plan for Chemistry that extends beyond the syllabus.

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Monkey on his arm

I recently met someone special and we got to know each other deeply very quickly. Probably it was because our friendship began on a different plane, free from this world of social posturing, empty chitchats and sexual expectations. It was simply a case of two souls meeting each other by grand design: we also happened to be reading the same book (Sapiens: A History of Being Human by Yuval Noah Harari) at the same time, albeit in two different languages. But right from the start, we spoke the same language, laughing about the same silly things and understanding the deeper things without the need for words.

He did not have a good time in his childhood. And like many wounded souls who were wounded by a parent, he did all the ‘bad’ things in his youth. It is the obvious course of action. As the Franciscan friar, Richard Rohr said, “If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it”. Pain is like a monster that cannot be contained.

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Photograph: Flight to light, London to Phuket flight

Few of us are fortunate enough to escape childhood unscathed, as childhood is the time we are most vulnerable to hurts, especially the hurt inflicted by primary caregivers (often parents). This is one of the reasons why my children’s father and I are absolutely committed to making our children’s childhood as safe, beautiful and magical as possible – despite the harshness of the world we live in – because we have seen enough people who are outwardly successful, yet these ‘accomplished’ folks are Walking Woundeds on the inside, their lives blighted by their inability to walk away from past damage. They go on, passing their pain to others, because that is the nature of the beast.

In his late 30s, this special person I write about is self-aware, reflective, gentle and deeply in touch with himself. I find that he has shown tremendous courage to face his past and evolve from it, rather than deny, run away, build walls. Totally not in keeping with the rest of his appearance, he has a prominent tattoo on his forearm to remind him always of his path towards transformation. Once we own something, we can begin to transform the beast within us into what we want it to be. Running away does not help.

It could easily have gone another way with this special person – as I have seen in several others – if he had not been brave enough to transform his pain. He could have gone on destroying everything in his path, and in the process, destroy himself. Rather, he makes the flowers in his path bloom just by being the way he is.

But what I find most amazing is the depth of love in him for his family. Today, he is flying home to be with a sick relative. This is something I resonate deeply with: he is not stingy with the things that matter most in life, namely giving of oneself freely still, despite past injustices that had been done to him. Of course, when you give generously, you leave yourself open to potential hurt down the line. But really, it is the only way to be, to find our own salvation in the good things we do for others in the name of love.

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Photograph: Views over Patong, Phuket. Its beauty escape many people.

A Little Sister For Christmas

There was a time when people thought it was not important to educate girls.

The story of Malala Yousafzai (born 12 July 1997), who fought hard for the education of girls in the Swat Valley in Northwest Pakistan under the Taliban rule brought world attention to the fact that though it is eschewed in the constitution of many countries, girls still have to fight for the right to be educated equally as boys. Rural girls in developing countries are still not getting the opportunities.

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Last year, a man visited the British International School Phuket and brought a message of change and empowerment. The school, set amongst the hills of Phuket, is home to some 850 students, ranging in age from four to 18.

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The visitor’s aim was to encourage privileged girls to help those who are less fortunate than them. Several girls visited an orphanage in India last April, and during their visit, they got to know one little girl who stood out amongst the rest. They wanted to give this little girl a chance to study at their school.

Together the girls took their idea to the Headmaster and to their great delight the management were willing to offer a scholarship place the school.  However, the school could not also support travel costs or the cost of laptop and uniform. This left the girls with a major challenge, but they refused to be put off.

And so, the project began with the International Women Association (IWA) Phuket and the school. Cosima Der Roche De La Baume, Emily Varley, Emiri Matsui and Sophie Duncan, all aged 15, threw themselves wholeheartedly into raising the necessary finances. Their target was to raise THB100,000 (approximately £2,255) by the New Year. So far, they have achieved 85% of their target via a series of well-planned fundraisers.

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Of course, there were the traditional bake sales. These were sold alongside tiny boxes of ‘love’, namely beautifully wrapped little keepsakes with a hear-warming message. A tennis tournament and a boot sale added to the girls’ coffers. The Christmas hamper raffle was a big contributor to the finances, as the hampers were filled with irresistible luxuries such as a Christmas cake, mincemeat and chocolates, to name but a few. An innovative project to make a quilt from donated secondhand uniforms is currently taking place, and the quilt will be auctioned off to help the girls meet their target.

All in all, it had been a really hardworking few months for Cosima, Emily, Emiri and Sophie as these hectic activities were happening in the midst of their IGCSEs.

“I think this experience has made us realise just how much time, effort and money has to go into changing the life of one individual. We all feel so proud to have been able to give a young girl the same opportunity that we take for granted. It has taken a long time to bring her to our school and it feels amazing to know we are making significant progress. We have gained much from this. This project has definitely developed our organisation and time management skills as well as educate us on the difficulty of changing the life of a young girl for the better.

“Our next steps are getting the girl settled into our school as well as provide her with everything she will need for her new life at BISP. This girl will then become our “adopted little sister” and the four of us will take on the role of making sure she settles into the school and her new life as quickly as possible. After that we will come up with a new project or find another girl or group of girls to help, although we have not thought this far ahead just yet.”

The gift of education, empowerment and lifelong friendships – what better gifts for Christmas than this modern trinity of incense, frankincense and myrrh.

Photo: The girls with their Christmas hamper winner.

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Related article: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/hard-girls-rural-india-stay-school/

 

Children get their intelligence from their mums – NO.

It is headline-grabbing but rather thin on the science. If I had published that as a research article, my supervisors would have slain me. Well, serious peer-reviewed journals wouldn’t have published it anyway. And who are the authors and affiliated institutions?

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There is an article that is making its round on the social media circuit, namely that a new “study” shows that children get their intelligence from their mothers. Intelligence, apparently, is carried in the X-chromosomes, of which women have two (men have XY). This study was published in a psychology blog and the article is not peer-reviewed.

Even with my limited biology knowledge, I find this claim dubious. A person gets half their chromosomes from mum, and half from dad. Thus, one half of mum’s intelligence-dwelling X chromosomes came from HER DAD anyway! So this headline-grabbing article falls on the first logic test. And hey, even men do have an X-chromosomes, though admittedly, they do not pass this to their offspring.

Moreover, the DNA unravels and combines in the most magical way that we don’t yet know about – the way they splice, cut, repair, meld, sew up. And it is not the whole X-chromosome that is about intelligence, maybe just a variant within the gene. And I don’t think geneticists know which particular variant is responsible for ‘intelligence’.

We are also just beginning to know that the same DNA sequence can be read differently, depending on the chemical markers.

And what is intelligence? It is the complex relationships between neurons and synapses that allow for recollections, memory, analysis, logic. The ‘best’ grade neurons and synapses, if not trained to fire effectively, are as useless as electrical circuits without a power supply.

Sure, it is headline-grabbing. And as mentioned, I have limited but strong foundational knowledge in biology, but even to a layperson like me, it doesn’t sit right.

But what I know for a fact is that my children get their emotional intelligence from their father. “Intelligence” needs other factors to make it work, like providing the right environment for developing brains, teaching young children how to think, creating safety in the brain so that the right triggers are fired.

My children’s father has this intuitive way of making little people feel special. It’s as if he is a gardener, only that he grows his little children instead of flowers. And his garden blooms very well, because it is his life’s work. So maybe there is the intelligence there, to focus on the task (whatever it may be), be grounded in faith and following our inner wisdom instead of fad. To learn to be kind always, to laugh a lot, to take a balanced view on achievements and most importantly, to nurture others.

Perhaps this is a better definition of intelligence.

Our Supermoon

Last night was supposed to be a special night. The moon was supposed to be the largest it has ever been for decades. Our friends had booked romantic dinners with their partners at various beachside locales, poised to be in the right place to get the best view of the Supermoon.

My sixteen-year-old daughter G wasn’t particularly fussed about the Supermoon. She was more concerned about the piles of homework yet to be done for the next day. But her father insisted that she walked up a little hill with us to look at the Supermoon. She protested whilst he insisted. “Homework is just homework, whereas you will remember this moment forever,” he had told her. “Something that you can tell my grandchildren about, you seeing the Supermoon with your parents on Andaman Hill in Phuket when you were sixteen.”

After some screeching on her part, she reluctantly came outdoors with us. The moon was tiny! And it was clouded over! I waited for her to jeer at her father, but instead, she said kindly, “I bet it was larger earlier on, Daaad. Remember the huge one we saw in Devon last summer whilst we were camping? Do you remember? We have seen some amazing ones, haven’t we, Daaad?”

At that moment, I thought she was the most magical child, the way she could transform herself instantaneously from a grumpy teen to a human being wise beyond her years, who has the capability of creating enchantment for her father with her words. For her words had taken him someplace special, to a place where the moon was huge and luminous and studded with love.

And so, we stood there on this magical night, just three of us, chatting about basketball, school, the weekend, standing in the glow of a very small, weak moon. But for us, it was magic all the same, if not more. Magic and Supermoon exist every night, if you have the eyes to see them. It is indeed a postulate of physics that things come into being only when we are here to witness their existence.

As for the three of us, we will certainly remember this November night in the year G was sixteen, standing on Andaman Hill, watching our Supermoon. The moon was shining magnificently in us that night ❤

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This is why I don’t read Facebook

A couple of friends and I were sitting in a cafe in our children’s school yesterday and we commented on the fact that Facebook news feeds are full of posts such as “Seven things to do to avoid cancer”, “Drink this and you will be fine” or “If you don’t do this, you will die a painful death”.

Yes, it is good to be informed, especially on medical issues. Therefore I subscribe to Nature, New Scientist and BMA Journal, where the published articles are peer-reviewed before being published. Even so, for every 100 persons killed by chemotherapy/vaccines, there are 100 more who are helped by the modality. This is the nature of science – there is no absolute. Perfection or the right way is a moving target with more than one answer or solution.

When I was at Oxford, one of the astrophysics professors (a young and handsome chap) was a celebrated Fellow of The Royal Society based on his work on cold dark matter. A few years later, he fell from grace because there were doubts about cold dark matter. But these days, he’s flying high again ….does cold dark matter exist??? Who knows.

Similarly, if we were to believe in all we read back in the seventies, we would have stopped eating eggs and butter in favour of the healthier alternative called margarine. If there was Facebook at that time, no doubt the news feeds will be full of “Butter clogs up arteries”, “Eggs are bad for you”, “Eat margarine for a healthy breakfast”.

But today, we are all running back to good old eggs and butter and condemning margarine.

So we obsess, forget to live and start developing new disorders. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness of our age, and many seemingly normal people morph into hypochondriacs because they choose to be immersed in the huge ocean of articles and posts, majority with unsubstantiated claims, small sample set or statistically insignificant results. And let’s face it, if you believe that we are under attack from Martians, there will be very compelling articles out there to prove that yes, you are correct, watch out for spaceships the next time you step out.

As my super-calm partner says, “These are all consequences of the monkeys in the brain”.

How powerful are these monkeys? I had one Facebook friend, whom I don’t even talk to on a personal basis, flying from Kuala Lumpur to Phuket just for one day in desperation, to ask me this pressing question, “Do I have cancer?” Based on the large amount of time spent on social media and on Dr Google, she was convinced that she was afflicted with the disease.
More damagingly, many teenagers suffer from eating disorders these days, and that is no surprise, given that they are flooded with the message that everything they eat has harmful consequences on their health.

So bring on glamorous selfies (I like to see how the other half lives), food photos (to inspire a foodie like me) and jokes especially (because that’s why I read Facebook, to de-stress, not get more stressed up). And please think twice before sharing scare-mongering articles on health (unless it is your personal research involving hundreds of people over a long period of time) … because remember, no one knows anything for sure and it is counterproductive to get folks psyched up about something that is not necessarily accurate.

Here’s an informative article on anxiety in New Scientist – we inherit it and childhood events could well be the cause. Don’t pass it on.

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(Graphics from www.muttabouttown.com)

Teaching Children Adult Love: The Six Tenets

We are more likely to teach our children about sex – especially the morality of it – that we often forget the much more important lesson in Adult Love, namely teaching them how to be in a loving adult relationship.

Whilst it is accurate to say (based on numerous scientific research) that children model their childhood home environment in their adult lives, they are also bombarded with media ideals and mixed messages from the external world.

By and large, we get by. We learn from our experiences as we go through life (perhaps that is why first loves and teenage affairs are often such dramas). We make mistakes in our early relationships, break hearts, get ours broken, and move on to the next one. That is how life goes in the modern world.

The caveat is of course if we do not learn and we end up in the same ‘wrong movie’ scenario of destructive, temporary relationships: those we love have such powers to damage us, and having been hurt, we go on damaging others, lost in the mire.

I am a strong believer in teaching children how to be someone’s spouse and parent. These are my six tenets:

  1. Be fearless

When you choose to be with someone, give yourself fully. Burn all your bridges behind you so that you can focus all your energy into your joint future.

Give children a safe childhood home that they can always come home to so that they are not afraid to be fearless.

  1. Give generously

This is not about material things, but the giving of something most precious: yourself. Do not be stingy with your love, your caresses and your kisses. Intimacy – physical and emotional – is the lifeblood of a lifelong relationship.

Be generous with your affections with your children.

  1. Focus inwards instead of running away/looking elsewhere

Being strong in times of adversity (or boredom) is the key to Forever-Love. Life cannot be on a high all the time, and having the strength to keep going is so important. As I often write: love is not an emotion, it is a construction.

Teach children to stick to something instead of giving up easily.

  1. Respect yourself and respect your spouse

Respecting your spouse means that your loyalty lies with him/her, rather than outside forces, including families and friends. This is because outside forces can be destructive to a relationship (for example, a twisted, poisonous aunt or cousin), and often, in the name of your best interest, actually cause more harm to an otherwise good relationship.

Teach children that loyalty starts in the home and never talk bad about people.

  1. Never destabilise the home

A home should always be a safe place for both parties in a relationship and their children. It is a construction and an expression of lifelong love. It is also a source of comfort and joy. If you destroy it, what do you have left? Careers and high octane sex does not last a lifetime, but a stable home does.

Teach children to value the home and the people who live within it above all.

  1. Think in terms of ‘us’ instead of I, me, mine

We are taught to be independent and self-sufficient. They both are good traits to have, but they must never obscure us to opening ourselves up to love. Life is so much more beautiful if we have someone we can truly share it with. 1 + 1 = ∞

Build close relationships in the first family so that it becomes normal for a child in his/her adult years to be sensitive to others.

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As parents, even in this modern day and age, we dream that our children will grow up to have families of their own and living happily ever after within this nurturing framework. This natural wish is corroborated by well-known, long-term research by Harvard University and other credible institutions showing that they key to a happy life is having a good spouse.

Teaching our children about Adult-Love is our contribution as parents towards creating a pool of good spouses who will bring love, light and kindness to the lives of others. For if we don’t, who will raise our children’s good spouses?

You are never alone in your dark hours if you have someone decent and true to share your life with. Cherish that person who ends your solitary confinement. Love him / her to your best ability ❤

This article and drawing are dedicated to Anneke, who died 36 years ago when her son was eight years old.

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Wonderland: Shapes & Illnesses

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At first glance, you might think that this drawing is that of a mandala or some mathematical shape which I am so fond of. But actually, it is a diagrammatic representation of the Barr-Epstein virus.

Virus symmetry is one of the most beautiful, naturally occurring structures of nature. Though incredibly tiny (the smallest animal virus is the one that causes foot-and-mouth disease at 20nm), viron symmetry is highly structured and falls into highly organised categories: helical, polyhedral (cubical) and binal symmetry.

Not so bacterium structures which sometimes look like primitive spaceship.

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My daughter who is studying Biology for her International Baccalaureate commented dourly that there is so much stuff to learn for this subject. I don’t want her to just memorise stuff, but to be excited by the knowledge (or else the three years of preclinical medical course would be hellishly long for her).

So relating virus and bacteria to us and our daily lives:

Virus and bacteria cause infection in the body. When their presence is detected, the body switches on its inflammatory response, which is its strategy for fighting infection. However, inflammation can kill, though it was meant to be our body’s lifesaving strategy.

But here’s the useful piece of information that you might not previously know: virus and bacteria cause different types of inflammatory responses. Studies done at Yale University by Ruslan Medzhitov showed that a body recovering from colds (often caused by viruses) benefit from feeding, whilst those suffering from fever (typically caused by bacteria) should be starved, especially of carbohydrates which breaks down into glucose. For me, this is a really exciting discovery because it means that Medicine can move forward from blanket prescription of antibiotics – which does not work in many cases anyway – to a wellbeing system of managing health through nutrition.
The old adage of feeding the cold and starving the fever seems to be on its way to be proven ‘true’ by modern scientific establishment.

In the meantime, I leave you with some viruses.

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Note: In my novella which will be published on the 21st November 2016, An Evening in Wonderland – A Brief Story of Maths, Physics & The Universe (suitable for young adults), the protagonist Alice Liddell urged her beloved Professor to close his eyes and look for the symmetries in the world within and also out there in the universe, for within the shapes lie the truth that he was seeking.

You can read an interview with Ruzlan Medzhitov in the New York Times by clicking on the link here.

“Let’s talk fractals, Mum!”

When my youngest child G was in primary school, the walls outside her classroom were display boards for pupils’ artwork. She wasn’t academic at that time (being a late reader), but with child-like enthusiasm and exuberance, she used to put a lot of work into art.

Yet somehow, her creations never quite made the grade compared to her peers’. A few pupils in her class were producing such amazing work that G’s efforts looked as if they had been done blindfolded and upside down, though G consistently scored higher than these pupils in classroom-based tests and exams.

Hmmm.

My hunch was proven when she was in Year Six. Her homework was to make a volcano. She built a very realistic-looking one out of cardboard cartons filched from coffee shops, which she soaked and moulded into a volcano before spending hours painting it. It took her hours! Proudly, she had trotted off to school with her creation.

But she was somewhat deflated when she saw her classmates’ productions: fibre glass, LED, computer-printed labels, and very professional-looking. It was very obvious that these were the work of adults. I was annoyed. I wanted to complain to the school about the pervasive issue of parents and tuition teachers doing their children’s homework, but G’s father had wisely told me, “It is not important, because there will come a time when ALL kids will be graded according to their own abilities.”

Six years later, he is proven right. G is now in the first year of her International Baccalaureate programme. One of the questions under the Theory Of Knowledge box for Mathematics was, ‘How many times does something have to be repeated before it becomes a pattern?’

The physicist in me, with the benefit of three years of postgraduate studies at Oxford, jumped in enthusiastically.  Non-Euclidean vs Euclidean shapes! Supersymmetry in Theoretical Physics! Fibonacci’s Sequence!

I would gladly answer that question for her, and do a good job, too.

But my child, too used to doing her own homework, grinned at me in challenge. “Let’s talk fractals, Mum!”

And at that moment, I realised, wow, this sixteen-year-old can think very well for herself, so totally independent of me, and if truth must be known, I am learning from her.

Photograph and article on fractals from New Scientist can be found by clicking this link.

(Note: Special thanks to our friend Gary Macaulay, who is an inspired maths teacher, for the afternoons messing around with G folding tetrahexaflaxagons instead of sitting at the table drilling in past papers or teaching her how to pass exams with 100%.)

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Related article: The Scenic Route to 100%