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Science - Professor Pugwash

A life of plundering on the high seas required a bit of science

A life of plundering on the high seas required a bit of science

From the classic novel Treasure Island to the Aardman animated film linking pirates to Charles Darwin (which never happened in real life, although Darwin sailed the high seas for five years on the Beagle), pirates are always popular with children. Fictional pirates can be a useful context to introduce a range of science ideas to primary children. From navigation, using a home-made compass to look at magnetic fields, to powering your own pirate ship with a sliver of soap to explore surface tension in water, pirates needed a lot of science to carry out their pillaging and plundering.

A simple compass can be made using a needle that has been magnetised and then floated on the surface of water. Using a strong bar magnet, stroke the needle in one direction a number of times and it will become magnetised (take care, though, that the needles do not cause injury - use a straightened paperclip if you prefer). Rest the needle on a piece of tissue paper, then gently lower this into the water. The tissue sinks, leaving the magnetised needle floating in a northsouth orientation.

A nice activity is making some light pirate ships from cardboard, with a sliver of soap attached to the back so that it just dips into the water like an outboard motor and powers the vessel. The dissolving soap breaks the surface tension of the water and pushes the boat along. So, ready, steady, race - who has the best-looking and fastest pirate ship? Alternatively, make some tissue sails and blow the boats with straws to create battles on the high seas.

Of course, pirates love gold. The properties of gold, and indeed metals in general, can be discussed in class. From its density to the fact that it won't corrode in seawater, gold has long held a fascination. A nice link here exists with our recent Olympic gold medallists. Many of them were pictured biting their medals, something pirates do in the films to test if their booty is the real thing. Most people have a misconception that gold is a soft metal and biting it will leave a tooth mark. It won't. Though it will with lead: a dead giveaway.

James Williams is a lecturer in science education at the University of Sussex's School of Education and Social Work

Pirate facts

Pirates never made people "walk the plank".

Pirates rarely buried treasure and X never marked "the spot".

The heyday of worldwide pirating was during the early 18th century.

Women pirates did exist, the two most famous being Anne Bonny and Mary Read.

Blackbeard's real name was Edward Teach. He was only a pirate for about two years before he was killed in a battle in 1718.

The colour of the first recorded Jolly Roger skull and crossbones flag was red.

The West Country-style "Oh-arrr" pirate accent is believed to come from the actor Robert Newton, who played Long John Silver in Disney's 1950 film of Treasure Island. Newton was born in Dorset and educated in Cornwall.

What else?

For a practical lesson putting magnetism theory into practice, try a demonstration from iop. bit.lyS4ObHN

Get pupils to make their own compasses with JubeJube's lesson. If they are successful, perhaps they will find some hidden treasure. bit.lyQIjxC8.

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