(Whale image by Ciaran Duffy: used with permission)

Having recently returned from a sabbatical in the marvellous and the awe inspiring London's Natural History Museum, I've decided to call upon my inner sciencegeek to concoct a tale of high adventure for young readers.

In short, why not a story that attempts to be fantastical, but does so by relying only on the wonderful, strange, and (sometimes) frightening things that envelope this thing we call "science." Better yet, why not imagine a place where fantasy and magic is mistaken for reality, because this "science" is kept secret (both in practice and knowledge), and controlled by only a few and only those interested in power. And what would happen if two clever children, from our world, enter that place?

So, please do join Lizzie and Hobbes, the Popperfonts, as they embark on an adventure where synchrotrons are disguised as massive whales; where alternate realities may shed light on the mystery of their missing parents; where concepts like thermodynamics are powerful weapons; and where brave siblings attempt to bring back the scientific method in a world where the scientific method has long been forgotten.


Dave Ng

* * *


* * *


“Wait!” Lizzie said. “Not yet! This doesn’t make sense!” Lizzie didn’t like it when things didn’t make sense. She was one of those people who hated it when there wasn’t a rational explanation involved. “Just give me a minute to think this through...”

She took out her journal and opened it up to the entry she wrote that morning. “... There is always a rational explanation,” she continued. “For instance, I know why everyone was walking in the same direction.”

“Umm... What are you talking about?” Hobbes had a confused look on his face.

“I said I know why everyone was walking the same direction this morning!” Lizzie pressed on, “It was because they were all going to the same place. There’s an underground train station and it’s only at one end of the street. That’s why everyone was going the same way!”

“I’m still not following...”

“What I mean to say is that even if something looks strange, there is always a sensible reason behind it.”

Lizzie took out a pen and started to scribble in her book. “The room groaned,” she was reading out loud. “The room bended. A broken disconnected phone rang.” Then she wrote, “Pins behaved mysteriously.”

She looked up and asked Hobbes, “O.K. first, the groan... What did it remind you of?”

Hobbes thought for a second. “Well, it sounded a little like the noise that metal might make when it bends. Kind of like the sound effects you hear in movies when a giant steel bridge gets twisted because of something like an earthquake.”

“Exactly,” replied Lizzie. “And those pins: also made from metal. Or rather steel, a mixture of iron and cadmium with some nickel thrown in...”

Hobbes again had that disinterested look on his face.

“... Point is, can we think of anything that can make metal move seemingly like magic?”

“Oh!” said Hobbes excitedly, “I know! I know! A magnet?”

“Yes!” exclaimed Lizzie. She opened her journal and wrote down in big capital letters, “HYPOTHESIS!” Underneath that, she then added the word “magnet” and underlined it twice.

“Er… What’s a hypothesis?” asked Hobbes.

Lizzie paused and thought for a moment. “It’s a scientific word. It means an idea that you think gives you the best possible explanation. As well, this idea should be something that you can test, so that you can see if you’re right or wrong. “For instance, in our case, the hypothesis would be that the groaning, the weird bending sensation, the phone, the pins – all of these can be explained by the presence of a very large magnetic force.”

“You mean like a giant magnet?”

“Yes. exactly like a giant magnet.”

“Hmmm… I understand most of what you’re saying, but how does a magnet make a phone ring?”

“Good question,” said Lizzie. She then continued, “We can explain the phone ring quite easily.” She then went on to describe (using very large words) how this was possible. Hobbes, unfortunately, was only able to follow some of it, but still managed to get the central message: that is, that magnets and electricity are closely intertwined.

”If you take a magnet and move it around in the presence of electrical wire, you can generate electricity.” Lizzie was on a roll, launching into a short lecture about power generators, and how such power plants essentially use some form of energy like coal or a waterfall, to move magnets, which in turn generate electrical power.

Hobbes, in a last ditch effort to silence Lizzie, then interjected, “So what you’re saying, is that a magnet can produce electricity which is what might probably powered the phone to ring?”

“Yes, more or less.”

“And that at the end of the day, you hypothesize that Zoo Store One can be explained by the presence of some sort of giant magnet?”

“Again, yes.”

“And can I ask you how exactly would we test for that?”

Lizzie smiled at Hobbes, “Well, that’s easy… We just have to find the magnet.”

* * *

Not knowing what the next step might be, the two of them decided to gather around the pile of pins. Lizzie was busy making notes in her journal, noting the time, sketching the room, and recording the direction of the pins. “I need to think…” she muttered.

Meanwhile, the stuffed animals in Zoo Store One continued to look ominous. The glints of light reflecting off of their glass eyes led Hobbes to think that they were still watching the children intently. The eyes also had the curious effect of always appearing as if they were staring directly at him – as if they were following his every move. This made him nervous, but it also reminded him of something.

“Lizzie, what do you have in your pockets?”


“Pockets,” he repeated. “What do you have in your pockets?”

Lizzie rummaged through her pockets and pulled out a few coins, a stick of gum, and a bit of thread. She also had an old cellular phone that was given to her by Aunt Charlie in case of an emergency.

“Perfect,” said Hobbes, scanning the loot. “I can use that thread.”

“What?” replied Lizzie once more, looking bemused.

“Give me your thread. I’m going to use it with some of these paperclips in my pocket and one of those mysterious pins there, I’m going to make us a three dimensional magnet detector!”

“Really?” Lizzie was watching Hobbes deftly twist the paperclips into various shapes, linking them together. “A three dimensional magnet detector? That sounds pretty fancy.”

“Well, actually, it’s more of a compass type thingamajig.”

Hobbes was fiddling with the thread and tying it to various places on a small paperclip frame. Then, with a careful knot, right in the center of his creation, he attached one of the mysterious pins. Overall, with all the thread going back and forth in the metal frame, it looked a little like a science fiction version of cat’s cradle.

Immediately, the pin oriented itself and was pointing assuredly in a single direction: towards the door and also a bit upwards.

“That’s brilliant!” exclaimed Lizzie. Excitedly, they carefully carried the magnet detector out of Zoo Store One, and walked slowly all the while staring intently at the pin. When they walked from one end of the hallway to the other, they noticed that the pin was moving, changing its direction slightly, so that it was always pointing towards this imaginary spot in the ceiling.

“It must be close by,” whispered Lizzie, “probably in the museum.”

For the next couple of minutes, the children walked in staggered footsteps. Every now and then, they would stop, and then shift their direction. Sometimes, they would meet a wall, which meant that they would have to work out where the other side of the wall would be. They definitely felt that they were zoning in on a very specific area of the museum, and Hobbes smiled at the thought that they were being guided by the whims of a very bizarre pin.

Then, at one point, the noticed that the pin was doing something very unexpected: It was pointing straight up. When this happened, both children gazed upwards.

“It must be up there,” said Hobbes. “Whatever it is we’re looking for, it must be right above us.”

“Let’s take the stairs then,” said Lizzie, and very soon, the children found themselves on the next floor. This was one of the public areas of the museum, specifically a large hallway lined with many skeletons and models of various mammals. It was past five o’clock now, and with the museum being now closed to the public, the hallway was empty. The children crept along, while the mammal specimens stood silently.

At the end of the hall, Lizzie stopped. “The pin wants us to go in there,” she said as she noted the sign on the wall. It read: LARGE MAMMAL HALL.

Upon entering, Lizzie and Hobbes’ senses were immediately hit by a safari of delights. This room was very different from Zoo Store One, which was more about storage and packing up. This mammal hall was definitely all about display. A few steps in, and already, in front of them, there was an elephant, a giraffe, and a rhinoceros. They were also stuffed, and just standing quietly like three soldiers on a vigil. Like most when presented with such a sight, the children were astonished at how impressively large these creatures were in real life.

Despite this wonderful sight, and such is the wonder of the Large Mammal Hall, any thoughts that the children might of had were quickly replaced by another – a “What is that?” This was because their gaze had settled upon something truly massive that was hanging silently from the ceiling, usurping all views of the hall. This sight was perhaps best described by the words “whale” and “blue,” which was only fitting since it was actually a full scale model of a blue whale, the largest animal on the planet.

“Whoa,” said Hobbes. “That’s huge!” It was huge. Easily, the same length as two large buses.

“And look! The pin is pointing right at the whale,” said Lizzie. This was true. The pin was pointing straight at the whale: straight as an arrow in fact. It would seem that the children had found their giant magnet, unlikely though it would seem.

The children inched closer, with each step causing the pin to react as if it was straining to escape. The children stopped in front of a railing, obviously placed to prevent the adventurous from crawling under the whale.

“It’s definitely the whale that is our magnet,” said Lizzie. She was pleased with herself because her hypothesis was correct. There was indeed a giant magnet involved. However, it also occurred to her that it didn’t necessarily explain anything. For instance, why would a giant life size model of a blue whale be magnetized?

By this time, Hobbes had already crossed the railing and was walking directly under the whale. The force of attraction to the pin, was so strong here that the pin had ripped itself from the thread and was now stuck on the whale itself.

“Lizzie!” Hobbes waved her over, “It’s warm!”

Lizzie quickly joined her brother, and tentatively placed her palms on the whale.

“You’re right. It is warm.”

Hobbes then pressed one of his ears against the whale, “It’s kind of humming too. What do you think is inside?”

Lizzie looked at Hobbes for a moment and considered his question. Her mind was abuzz with trying to compose a new hypothesis to test. Something along the lines of, “The whale is a giant magnet because…” Unfortunately, no matter how hard she tried, she could not think of a reasonable end to that sentence.

Hobbes began knocking the surface of the whale with his knuckles, trying to search for any clue that might provide some information on the situation. As he did this, Lizzie happened to notice a small area of the underbelly that had the faintest of dents. She tried to trace the dent with her fingertips (as they were much easier to feel than to see), and when she did this, she realized that the dent could be drawn like a big rectangle.

“There’s something here,” she said to Hobbes. “Something square… maybe a door or something.”

Hobbes started to push upwards at the spot that Lizzie was talking about, which looked quite funny, since from afar it would probably look like he was trying to “lift” the humungous animal.

Then, without warning, the children heard the sound of air escaping. A trapdoor in the underbelly of the beast had just revealed itself.

The children glanced at each other with a look that said, well I don't know, and proceeded to cautiously climb up the ladder. As they did this, the door slowly shutted behind them. They were now inside the whale.

Although the children were not exactly sure what to expect, they were nevertheless surprised at what they saw. The space looked very much like a scene from some space movie, like a room you might imagine being used to steer a spaceship. This “belly” room was understandably large, not surprising given the size of a blue whale: Lizzie even reminded herself of the time she had read that the creature was so large that even the heart of a blue whale was as big as a small car.

The room also had a bridge-like walkway that spanned the length of the whale, and positioned in such a way so that occupants couldn’t walk on the floor. This was because the floor was covered with thick wire, which was also coiled up along one side, then over the ceiling, back down the other side, and finally onto the floor again. In fact, the wire was coiled hundreds (possibly thousands) of times, in such a way as to create a spiral tunnel that span the whole surface of the belly. This also meant that there were two “openings” in the wire tunnel, one of which was in the direction of the tail and the other being the head. The trapdoor had opened up toward the head side, and when Lizzie examined this area more closely, she could make out an open slit that presumably followed the lines of the whale’s mouth. Looking through the thin slit, she could see a partial view of the outside world.

Hobbes walked over the bridge to the tail side and waved Lizzie over. This end had two chairs and a few items of equipment that reminded the children of what you might find in a space control center. There were blinking lights and buttons everywhere, a keyboard, and several computer screens. All of the screens were blank except for one. This screen was faint, but it was definitely on. The background was black, but dim green letters were on display: “02 WHALES LEFT TO CHARGE.”

"What do you suppose that means?" asked Hobbes. But before Lizzie could answer, the screen flickered for an instance, and then revealed the following: "01 WHALE LEFT TO CHARGE."

"Did you see that?" said Hobbes, and then the screen changed once more. "ALL FIVE WHALES CHARGED AND READY. PRESS SPACE BAR TO CONTINUE."

"That's why it's magnetic!" blurted Lizzie suddenly. "A coil of wire pumped with electricity can behave like a magnet! And giant whale sized tunnel of wire pumped with electricity will obviously behave like a giant whale sized magnet! This blue whale is one massive electromagnetic engine! That's why the room groaned, the phone rang, and the pins moved. All because of this whale!" Then she stopped herself, and added, "But why would someone build it and who turned it on earlier?"

Hobbes began to look worried. The excitement of the past hour suddenly drained from him, because now he had an awful thought in his head.

"Lizzie, Do you think it's even safe to be here?"

Lizzie paused to think a moment. Although she had done quite a lot of reading about the principles of electro-magnets, the books never did talk about the dangers of standing inside one. Still, Lizzie was always cautious, and so in this respect, she would have probably decided to leave the belly right then and there, if it were not for what she saw next.

Stuck on one of the corners of the control panel, there was a small piece of ripped paper. The paper was of a colour that looked familiar, and upon closer inspection, it even had handwriting that looked familiar. Then, Lizzie experienced a wave of shock: It was her mother's handwriting.

Hurriedly, she pried the piece of paper off the wires. It had only two words: collider whale. It was also dated February 14th.