Jay Young is ruefully rubbing the back of his spiky-haired head and telling a story about his old, pony-tailed style. It concerns a compass suspended by a thread in a pop-up pyramid which was one of seven models in The Most Amazing Pop-Up Science Book, Young's first bestseller.
"When I was doing rough dummies for the book I discovered that cotton was too thick to suspend the magnetic needle, so I pulled out one of my hairs and used that instead," he explains. For every dummy, he plucked another hair. Once the book went into production he started panicking about his growing bald spot. Which is where the wig manufacturer stepped in...
It's a typical Young story, told to schools since that first book in 1994.It has since sold 500,000 copies, and the follow-up, The Even More Amazing Science Pop-Up Book has Young polishing his anecdotes for another school tour this spring.
Both books are irresistible. They feature paper models which pop up as you turn the pages, ranging from weighing scales to periscope to egg-timer - all sturdy; all, amazingly, in working order. Endorsed by the Science Museum, the first book sets out the intimidating world of scientific technology as a fascinating set of toys, governed by principles as simple as a taut wire between two cardboard boxes (the pop-up telephone). Young explains: "I got interested in the idea that things known as 'high-tech' are actually based on simple scientific rules - simple enough to make into a cardboard model which you can put into a book and fold flat. Things are now so packaged, it's easy to think they are beyond our understanding."
Young enjoys a child's sense of fun. "The books trick children into learning. You just hope something sticks." For Young, who flunked his own science
A-levels, these are books "I wish I had had when I was young". Their format fits his theories of learning; that understanding how something works is more important than knowing the details about it off-by-heart; and that most people learn things not in a linear way but by association. "I don't remember anything about Bismarck except that he had a big horse and a big head. Yet those strange facts act as anchors for others."
Young approaches science as a design problem - as shapes and functions and how things work. "When I go to schools I talk as an artist, not a scientist."
He does paper modelling with the children, such as making cut-out butterflies that balance in unusual ways. The children become inventors, and Young inspires them with tales about the man who patented the milk carton and other success stories. It is a designer's take on technology - reflected in his next book, about the connections between art and science.