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%

A syllabus for REAL learning

One of the luxuries that I am most grateful for is the opportunity to be a full-time, stay-at-home mum. Some might think it’s decadent, given that my youngest child is already 16 and her older siblings (eldest one is 31) all live abroad. But apart from my time at home with my other children and my parents, the rest of my time is wholly dedicated to Georgina, as is her father’s. She is our last offspring to cap off our long parenting journey and we are savouring every moment of our time with her. We both would be in the car together as much as possible when we ferry her round, be it to football practice or her boyfriend’s house or even just to a party down the road. During the car journeys, we talk non-stop about many things. I think her “real” education happens here. Below is an example.

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So, what do you remember about Chemistry from your own school days? Many of you would say remembering chemical reactions (what colour when you mix A with B, etc). Many of you would say equations. Many of you would say test tubes.

I had a wonderful teacher called Cliff Haskins, an Oxford man. He would tell us, “Just remember the first 15 minutes. We can talk about other things after that.” Little did I know then, but dear Mr Haskins actually worked very hard before each class to put all we need to know for a particular topic into 15 minutes of teaching time. Because we had such a sweet deal with him, we always paid rapt attention for the first 15 minutes. The other 45 minutes, well, we spent talking. Either gossiping with each other (he never minded) or taking part in his interesting, offbeat discussions.

I decided to teach my child this way. She had to learn benzene in class today. but here is what I was preparing at home for us to have fun with.

Step 1: Getting excited about C6H6

What’s so special about benzene? Its structure, of course. Try drawing C6H6, taking into consideration the covalence of C and H. What did you get? Scientists couldn’t figure out what it looked like for a long time. Codswallop about dreams of snakes swallowing each other’s tails and 6 monkeys holding hands. Finally, it was proved by looking at the bond lengths and Delta H.

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Step 2: So what?

Its shape gives it its special properties. It does not undergo addition, but substitution happens quite a lot. Aspirin, paracetomol, solvents. They are all benzene-based. Sorry dear child, you have to memorise the key reactions, but I have summarised the key points for you. It’s not too bad if you print this out and stick it on your wall. Look at it before you fall asleep at night instead of your boyfriend’s photograph.

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Step 3: Let the fun begin!

In my book, Catching Infinity, I wrote that exciting things happen at the boundaries. That’s why daredevils leap off tall buildings and biplanes. But we can do the same sitting in the comfort and safety of our homes IF we allow our brains to leap into the unknown. Real education after all is about exploring and thinking the improbable, rather than memorising. So I put this to my child: think about the extraordinary properties of benzene because of its delocalised pz electron cloud. Now think about superfluids. Can benzene possibly be a candidate for superfluids? And imagine what a world with a benzene-like spacetime feel like? Would it be like Alice In Wonderland’s treacle world?

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Yes, I was wrong to criticise the International Baccalaureate syllabus. After all, she goes to school to learn the rudiments to pass exams. It is up to me, her parent, to teach her about excitement and the boundless possibilities, and I am loving the journey.

Six ways of raising unfussy eaters

My childhood home had too much food. My Ma is addicted to food. She uses food to celebrate and she uses food to commiserate. Food, food, food. At 48, I still feel jumpy if there is no food in the house. I am suspicious of women who can’t cook. I don’t believe that people can be genuinely happy without proper home cooked food. Yeah, inherited prejudices. And oh, my kids can push my buttons so easily when it comes to food.

Many of us have an unhealthy relationship with food and we unconsciously pass that on to our children. To compound our inherited problem, small children are pretty smart creatures who learn from a very young age that they can use as a blackmail tool. Does ‘if you eat another mouthful, you’ll get ice cream’ sound familiar to you? I was guilt of saying this once to my eight year old son Kit, “If you don’t behave, you won’t get another cup of Ribena until you’re 20 years old.”

This is what I have learned from my 30 years of bringing up five children:

START THEM EARLY

I am a great believer that children should eat the same food as adults, with some modifications, of course, viz-a-viz salt and spices. Eating is a natural part of family life and I love this old adage, a family that eats together stay together.

EAT AS A FAMILY

Eating should be a celebration, not a battlefield. Even if you are eating simple takeaways (seen here), make it a lovely experience.

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MAKE FOOD INTERESTING

Involve children in the food preparation process. Make it child-play. Even boring food can appear interesting if (1) they enjoyed making it and (2) it looks funky.

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THEM ABOUT FOOD

There is so much to learn and it is all very fascinating. Even for parents. And learning about food is wonderful thing to do because you learn about staying healthy and taking responsibility for wellbeing. I think the best way is to actually grow something, even if you don’t have a garden. Container gardening works very well for growing herbs.

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ALLOW THEM TO EXPERIMENT

Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But it gives children the opportunity of finding their own way to loving food. My daughter makes the most disgusting concoctions which she tries to get us to drink, expounding on the health benefits of her lethal sludges.

You could try new foods together, explore together. It is about you, too, after all.

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TEACHING RESPECT

It’s about respect. If I respect your wish not to eat mushroom, you have to respect mine and eat carrots. I suggest having a “NO NO LIST” – allow your teenager to list six things that they have amnesty from. In return, they have to respect you back and eat what you painstakingly cook for them. It is a two way thing.

Bon apetit!

 

She conquers the world

My Ma expressed some concern that my youngest daughter Georgina, who is in the midst of her IGCSEs, is helping me with my new parenting book and that she has a full-on football training schedule. And a busy social life to boot. My Ma – who is a strong proponent of the theory that all human beings need to live happily is fresh air, love and sunshine – thinks that her youngest grandchild has too much on her plate.

“Oh, Jac, you weren’t brought up like this at all,” my Ma admonished me. “You were on the beach before your exams!”

But, Ma, I have a child who is wired differently. She has her snout in many pies, by her own free choice, and thrives on the pressure and challenges. What stress?

“With smart organisation, you remove stress,” Sixteen year old Georgina explained patiently. “A Game Plan brings order to the chaos.”

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It is indeed true. I was at University with three young children and no helper. In those days, I had to be very organised. Monday was washing day, Wednesday was catching up with University work day and Saturday was house-cleaning day and preparing freezer bags of food for the following week. It was only by being super-organised that I managed to survive those years and get a degree to show for it.

But often, children and teenagers don’t know how to organise themselves. This is largely due to helicopter-parenting: control-freak parents micromanaging children to the extent that children stop thinking for themselves. What is the point? Mummy/Daddy has planned the day down to the last hour for them. They just have to show up for the free ride, no need to switch the brain on.

In the parenting book that Georgina and I are working on, I explored this issue of disempowered children. How to cultivate motivation and initiative in children?

“Get off our backs for starters!” Georgina exclaimed. “Give us space.”

Yes, we used to allow her to wear her mermaid outfit everywhere, even to bed. It got dirty and tatty, but she still wore it. And we allowed her to. Why not?

Georgina spends a lot of time making detailed notes. Though she has told me to get off her back, I could not help but ask, “Aren’t you wasting your time, spending hours making pretty notes instead of studying?”

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“I’m organising my brain, Mum!”

OK, point taken. But why don’t you just read it from textbooks?

“Because the act of writing down the concepts in my own way and in my own words forces me to understand, Mum. I write down notes in class too which I often don’t look at again, for the same reason: it forces me to understand.”

Maybe not having an iPad throughout the years helped her in developing a good relationship between her brain and pens, pencils and paper. She is actively engaged whenever she is faced with something rather than passively entertained, be it studying or her social life.

Recently, I interrupted her whilst she was studying. She was wearing headphones.

“Can you concentrate whilst listening to music?” I asked curiously.

“It’s white noise, Mum,” she said. “It helps me to concentrate better.”

I listened in. Yikes! I had a blinding headache coming on immediately!

She grinned. “You see now why it focuses the mind?”

Our children are not us. They are wired differently from us. This is also their world. The future is theirs. And I think we have to trust them to find their own way, even if their way seems illogical. Dig deeper and often, you will see beautiful logic emerging from the madness of a teenage brain.

Legs Are For Walking

Parenting is a very personal journey, and I am sure I will be slated for this post. However, I will still post this, because I would like to see a shift in mindset towards raising healthy kids.

Each time your child whines, “Carry me” and you give in, you are not ‘spoiling’ your child emotionally. You are de-skilling your child. You are taking away his opportunity at that moment, to learn resilience. You are also not giving him the opportunity to work on his developing muscles.

Let us start from the scientific angle. Children need to develop muscle tone. It is that muscle tone that allows a flexible foetus to be curled up in the womb, to develop into a baby who could sit up, crawl and eventually walk upright. The primary muscles required for this is the group of muscles that are loosely referred to as the core muscles. The core muscles can be visualised as a broad belt encircling the human body. Weak core muscles are the cause of bad posture, which over time, can lead to chronic back pain. For a child with weak core muscles, you see slouchy sitting position (exacerbated by hours sitting down). A floppy child is also often tired, because in that suboptimal position, he is not breathing efficiently. Her internal circulation may also be compromised. She may not be as active as she should be for her age group. Having weak core muscles is certainly not a good foundation for a young body that still has many decades of living to get through.

As children do not go to the gym to strengthen their core muscles (and there is no need to), they need to walk at every opportunity. On the emotional development side, children also need to learn to be resilient and self-sufficient. By three – yes, during the Terrible Threes – they should be learning about their body and the world they live in. Walking is one of the fundamental movements in life, and it also moves a child towards being independent from the mother. It empowers them.

If a child has strong physicality, she feels empowered. She is not afraid of feeling breathless or hot or tired. She embraces the different experiences. She feels confident about exploring the world and confident of her place within it, once she is comfortable with her body and its many experiences. You are empowering your child, when you move her from whining “Carry me” to “Yes, I can, Mummy.”

Children need to move for their brain development, and being attached to a parent like a limp rag doll does not constitute moving.

It is also about learning boundaries. Children need to know that there are certain things in life that they have to do for themselves, which Mummy cannot do for them. And walking is one of them.

Teaching boundaries to children is one of the challenges of parenting, namely how to teach them with love so that they grow up joyous. For me, over the course of five children, I discovered that it is with love, laughter, firm rules, consistency, joy, forgiveness and unconditional love that we teach our children that they have to accept parental autonomy. Parenting is not about giving in all the time, but a healthy balance of meeting your child’s needs as well as teaching him the things he needs to learn.

So if you have a child who is older than three, I would like to suggest trying to do away with the pushchair/stroller and see the changes. You will thank me in a few months time … big smile.

Photograph: 2 year old Georgina trying to keep up with her parents and siblings in foot-high snow.

Real-world stuff for teenagers with an inquiring mind

It takes a whole village to raise a child……I never doubted that after raising five children. My children’s father and I are fortunate in that we seem to have an endless stream of engaging, inspired adults who are willing to contribute to our children’s development from so many angles. For me, it is all about taking textbook learning into the context of the real world, so that my children are excited about learning which happens when they begin to see for themselves how the world actually works. The ultimate for me when it comes to educating children is to encourage them to think and connect the dots for themselves, rather than passing exams.The possibilities are endless, exciting.

Whilst searching for a parking spot along Bondi Beach last Christmas, Georgina had a brilliant idea for an apps to solve a real-world problem. But how to take a brilliant idea off the drawing board into the real world? I have no idea. Fortunately, her stepfather has plenty of experience (as it is his work).

And the news for G is, it takes more than a brilliant idea to make something work business-wise. You need luck, commitment, some capital investment (she knows that), some legal stuff, some financial stuff and the know-how. Quite a lot for a 15 year old with so many interest to take onboard, but the conversation opened her eyes to the world of work. It also opened a lot of interesting discussions.

“She should go to Silicon Valley, get an internship with some innovative company like Google. Because developing an apps is not just about finding programmers. And she needs to have good relationship with the local council, who will be her partner for this venture.” All very sound advice for a teenager to think about – because it would probably costs only U$50k to develop this apps in Asia, but perhaps the U$50k would be better spent on airfare to San Francisco?

That’s his blog: light enough for a teenager with an inquiring mind to read 🙂 http://agermanonthemove.blogspot.co.id

Six ways of having a fabulous summer on a tight budget

As the summer months edge into September, I cannot help but feel a tinge of regret. I always do, because summers had always been magical for me ever since my children were born. We were financially not well-off in those days, given that I was a University student and my children’s young father did not have a highly paid job. But we had something infinitely more precious than cold hard cash, and that was time plus the mindset to enjoy that time with our children. OK, I must confess here that in the beginning, we used to fight over this: I would rather we worked during the summer months to ease our tight financial situation, but he resolutely would not work at all from July to September. Oh, how we fought over our ideals, but I am glad he won hands down in this instance, because we have had close to 30 magical summers in our lifetime together.

Here are our trialled and tested ways of having a fabulous summer on a tight budget:

  1. Home exchange

This sounds unbelievable, but we exchanged our humble council house in a rough estate in Manchester with a couple from Italy who wanted two weeks of ‘hard culture and party’. Welcome to the Barlow Hall estate, folks, where most of our unemployed neighbours stayed up late drinking cheap beer and watching football on television (you could hear the swearing though the thin walls). The couple from Italy was quite tight-lipped about what they had to offer (they posted photographs that gave very little clues), but we thought we had nothing to lose anyway because no house could be crappier than ours. Imagine our surprise when we arrived at a small palazzo in Venice. Apart from the stress of our children wrecking priceless carpets and falling into the canal, I must say it was one heck of a fabulous summer.

Websites for home exchange:

https://www.homebase-hols.com

http://www.homelink.org.uk

  1. Camping

Over the years, I have visited some really amazing places, but when it comes to sheer magic, nothing could ever beat waking up in a tent in the morning, stepping outside and seeing hundreds of wild New Forest ponies streaming past within feet of me. My children were completely blown away.

Thus, investing in a tent was the best investment we ever made. If you are a camping newbie, you could try ‘glamping’ (glamorous camping) or camp in specialised campsites where you could find help on hand, running water and loo.

Though for me, nothing beats hitting the road with the children in the backseat of our old Land Rover, pitching up our tent wherever fancy took us. We camped in a cornfield in Luxembourg one summer (which must surely be the weirdest place ever) and had such a beautiful time in the fields of gold, feasting on corn, making corn dollies and going on long walks. Sometimes we ventured into the town for showers, to buy provisions and visit the sights. We waited every morning for the farmer to evict us, but he never came. We left a bottle of wine and a heartfelt Thank You note thanking him for one of the most magical holidays we have ever had.

  1. Visit hospitable friends

My eternal gratitude always to my dear friend Ruedi Achermann who very kindly loaned us his sumptuous apartment in front of the Rhine when we couldn’t afford holiday lets. We would chug to Basel on our trusty old beast of a Land Rover and live like lords for weeks on end. Look earnestly into your address book – you will have friends like Ruedi Achermann somewhere in there.

  1. Pack up with similar friends

Exploit economies of scale. Go on holiday with like-minded friends with children of the same age group. Not only do the children entertain themselves, adults can trade babysitting duties too.

  1. Collect coupons

We painstakingly collected coupons from The Times for free ferry crossing to France in low-season February, sailed to France for Valentine’s Day and made our magical third daughter there, all on a shoestring budget.

  1. Work for your board

My daughter’s martial arts coach from the UK will be running a three-month martial arts training camp on the beautiful tropical paradise Phuket. His wife and daughter will be accompanying him for this experience of a lifetime. And you guess it, free board and lodging for the whole family, an opportunity to visit somewhere amazing and start something …. all on a shoestring (airfares covered as part of the deal).

An evocative article on autumn: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-3220331/Crackling-bonfires-new-books-school-Yes-end-summer-saddest-time-year-adore-it.html

The Joy of Learning

The world is full of magic to be discovered, and it was my children’s library and laboratory during their childhood years.

I would like to begin by saying that I am not an educationalist, but my children’s father is. He has a Bachelor of Education degree from King Alfred’s College, Winchester, but the best of his education philosophy (in my humble belief) comes from his mother.

My mother-in-law was brought up in a poor part of South East London. Her mother was a Spanish immigrant who did not speak much English and went blind when my mother-in-law was 11. The war came soon after that, so my mother-in-law had a very low level of formal education. She worked as a cleaner, cleaning offices and schools. But she self-taught, despite her limited hours, to better herself. She finished her years of work as a clerk at London Electricity Board, a huge achievement for a girl who did not go to school and had a lot of responsibilities.

The great thing about my mother-in-law is, she did not harangue her blue-eyed boy to study, study, study. And so, my children’s father grew up cycling round the Kent countryside from the age of 4, played with the family pets, and later on, jammed away in a rock band in some mate’s garage. He is the most balanced, happiest person I know, and he learned a lot and earned enough to buy us a magical life.

When my kids were young, we did not have enough money to keep up with what other families were doing. Thus, my kids grew up without electronic toys or even a colour television. We had to ‘make do’. Pots, pans, wooden spoons when they were young, and later, family games of Pictionary and Charades. We built forts from blankets and sheets, collected interesting things from our walks for our Seasonal Nature Table, and from this way, we all learned about ourselves, the natural world, family values and the beginnings of language, literature, the sciences.

Later, when iPads became the rage, we could have afforded it but somehow never got around to buying it for our youngest child. Her former school had made it mandatory for each student to have an iPad, the much touted learning tool, but she did not do too badly without ever having owned an iPad.

We had to work harder as parents because we did not have the whizzy gizmos to educate our children. We don’t use the internet to babysit them either, so much as the temptation was there to allow them to passively learn from the ‘Net, we taught them the old fashioned way, namely by experiences in the real world.

My second son built a real-life go-kart with his father in the garden shed. He raced the go-kart, became quite good at racing, and then sold it for profit. He wasn’t an academic child, and he certainly did not leave school with a string of A’s, yet he managed to win a scholarship to study Mechanical Engineering & Electronics at Southampton University, and in a time where there are many unemployed graduates, he is second in command of all the weapons on a Royal Navy warship. He is 27, exuberant, boisterous, balanced, loves life.

His younger sister is enjoying the closing years of her very magical childhood, living in a land of aquamarine oceans, blue skies, winding island roads. She rides shotgun to school everyday with her father, chatting away happily, and often, with her mother too. She talks about her day, uncensored, with passion and heat. The teachers were sometimes unfair, there were bitches in her school and dumb boys. History and English Literature are confusing, Maths is boring, and the Sciences are easy. As for English Language… “don’t get me started” with a roll of her eyes.

Unbeknownst to her, as we soothed her, answered her, rebuked her, we are teaching her. Not only about the syllabus, but our family values, the ways of the world, humanity.

And because we limit the time she is allowed to spend studying, she dives on her books with great gusto. And because she is only allowed limited time on her subjects, she on her own accord brings them into her real world, in our car conversations and whenever she makes the connection with the real world. And her eyes and quicksilver brain are always searching to make the connection, sometimes between the most innocuous events and objects. A casual conversation about “those shoes” became the laws of Spanish grammar and ultimately, the trivium. She argues heatedly, sticking her head between her parents’, intent on getting her point across.

We see the joy of learning awakens in her, and it is a great feeling.

Education for Tomorrow

People are often confused about my education philosophies.  My children’s father and I are both unapologetic beach bums living on the paradise island of Phuket, with no ambition beyond walking the beach each day. Our older children have all grown and flown the nest, back to our home country (UK) and making strides in their adult lives. Now, there is only Georgina left. She is our last child, and her father and I are living the last years of our parenting journey with her (or should I say, through her).

We both have seen a lot, as one does with over a decade of travelling, living in foreign lands, meeting unusual people and raising five kids. Oh, the wisdom we have acquired from the road, it is nothing like what the books tell you. Of course, as parents, we want to impart the real-life wisdom to her – after all, what parents don’t.

A couple of the important things that we have learned: happiness is internal (therefore don’t go chasing big job titles) and in a world that has become increasingly fast-paced, we have to hold on to good old-fashioned values. And thus, we tell our child, you get the best learning at home (well, on the beach) and in church.

But here’s our dilemma – we have a child who is gifted (I hate the word) and who storms ahead, propelled by her curiosity of the world around her, her impatience at not knowing answers, and her desire to rule the world and see her name in lights.

With the benefit of hindsight, experience and years on the road, we want to tell her this:  a lot of what you obsess about is not important, anymore than exam grades are.

Fortunately, we live on a holiday island and she attends a progressive British international school, so the focus on exams is missing from her psyche. Thank goodness.  I could not have coped with exam stress for the second time in my life (coping with my own was bad enough), and exams say nothing about a person’s capabilities anyway.  I give you an example: despite her tender years, Georgina is one of the most erudite, vocal and critical thinkers I know, and English is her mother tongue. Yet English Language is one of the subjects that she consistently scores lowest in exams.

But dear parents, it does not mean that we just let our child’s fertile brain just rot. We teach her. Teach as in giving her the building blocks to build her own framework, rather than telling her what she has to know. Because a lot of what we know is rubbish anyway, come tomorrow, but the learning process remains and paves the way for future, yet-to-be-known experiences.

Here’s what I mean: whilst I was at Oxford, the superstar of the Astrophysics department was a young scientist called George Efstathiou, who was heavily lauded for discovering cold dark matter. A few years later, his theory was found to be flawed and cold dark matter was dead. And then, it revived again….it goes to show that nobody really knows The Truth, not even parents.

Georgina’s father has a Bachelor in Education degree, so I derive some degree of comfort in the fact that at least one of us know what he/she is doing when it comes to educating this child. We want to educate her for a better world (she, and all the other youngsters, are our world). It sounds rather pompous, so in company, I always say, “Education for tomorrow”.

And this is it about education for the new world: our children are going to grow up to be someone’s husband/wife, parent, employee, employer, leader, friend, helper, and a whole gamut of unofficial occupations. Look around you at these people in your life – what do you love and cherish about them? What do you admire about them? What is it about that special person that makes the world better?

Now turn the mirror inwards to your parenting self. Are you raising that wonderful person, or are you too obsessed trying to create a genius out of a moderately clever child?

I often post on social media about the challenges of raising a child who does not want to follow her parents’ footsteps and live on the beach, existing solely on love, fresh air and sunshine.  I post about her asking questions on isotopes, grammar rules, marine plywood, universal proof and a whole lot of other things that are quite frankly beyond my rusted brain. I often struggle to find the answers and have invested hours rereading my old books and doctoral thesis to bring myself up to date.

However, my intention is not to create a monster – sorry, I mean genius. I have no ambition whatsoever of raising a scholarship student either. And there is nothing I find more irritating than a precocious child spouting rubbish that he/she had picked up from the Internet or from reading unsuitable books – the saying ‘empty vessel makes the most noise’ springs immediately to mind.

No, we teach our child to learn. Relativity, Quantum Theory and other big-ticket topics that fire the imagination are merely tools for learning, and not the actual Holy Grail. These subjects teach a child that the world is not known, much as we like to think it is, and orders are rapidly changing.  This is why Ptolemy is proven wrong, whilst Einstein’s legacies are work in progress. Learning how to think is expansionist and cannot be converted from textbook learning.  It is from a different branch all together.

For background, Claudius Ptolemy was an influential mathematician, astronomer, astrologer, geographer and poet. Ptolemy was famous for a number of discoveries, out of which the most famous was a theory that expounded that the earth was the centre of the universe (though some might argue that Ptolemic system holds true for some isolated cases). We now know that the earth is not at the centre of the universe, and nor is the universe the centre of other universes. There is no centre, though no one knows for sure, not even the ‘experts’ with their space-age, multi-billion dollar toys. And this is what I answered to a mother today who suggested that I seek experts to help my daughter with her maths: there is no expert, and the best teacher for a 15 year old child is her parents. Maths knowledge – or any non-contextual knowledge for that matter – will not make her a better person, or a happier one, or a successful one, if your definition of success is a balanced, productive adult with a fulfilling personal life.

I was once asked, when I was giving a talk at the Science Museum London, what I thought about Einstein’s Relativity equations.  Thinking on my feet, I responded immediately, “They kind of work, because Einstein left gaps in it for things that he did not yet know.” I was terrified of being misquoted afterwards, as it was a high profile event and I shared the stage with Professor Michael Rowan-Robinson and A.S. Byatt. To compound my worries over my unscripted grandiose statement, the ultimate head of my department at that time was Professor Christopher Llewellyn Smith, who was the Director General of CERN, the European multi-billion pound research facility in Geneva. The dressing down never came (maybe I was correct, but who knows), and a few weeks later, I won the Department of Trade & Industry’s SMART Award.

I don’t use any of it. Except maybe to win arguments with my child.

But this is the important lesson I learned from Einstein: as time passes, we will continue to grow and gain a deeper understanding of things, and we will see things differently. We must allow for the empty spaces in the present.

As my child succinctly summarises, “Oh, the textbooks are not always right then.” And neither are parents.

Real knowledge has to be discovered, either in the real world or within the unplumbed depths of your mind. It does not come spoon-fed to you, either in books or the Internet. And that is what we are teaching our child: to think critically, to question relevantly, to search effectively, to create workable frameworks, and most of all, to find joy in the living and meaning in the caring.

I dedicate this article to my dear friend Richard Boyle, who understands what I am trying to teach my child, keeps me inspired and gives me much joy.