Big questionsIt was once observed that the basic questions of philosophy are regularly asked by small children: "What is out there?" (ontology), "How do we know?" (epistemology) and more commonly, "Why should I?" (ethics). Intrinsically curious about themselves and everything around, they -- unlike most adults -- don't seek to dismiss what they don't know/have forgotten as unimportant.

It is not only about philosophy, but stretches into many other spheres of human existence, endeavours and interactions as well as our world and its other inhabitants. Some children may ask what rainbows are, how cars run or why people have different-coloured skins -- queries that may get answered by parents, who retain some of their education, or teachers with an interest in inculcating knowledge, rather than getting through the syllabus.

But some children may get into more complex, much perplexing questions that will stump their elders. Can you, without recourse to the web's resources, explain to them how electricity is made, why adults are in charge, or if monkeys and chicken have anything in common.

Help is at hand with this book.

Citing her two-year-old son who pointed at Earth's satellite and asked "What dat?", its compiler Gemma Elwin Harris says telling him it is the Moon would satisfy him then but soon lead to more difficult questions about what it "is made of, how far away it is and whether a goldfish survives there".

"The questions children ask are often baffling. Chances are, if you ever knew the answer -- or even part of the answer -- you've probably forgotten it or can only remember a half-baked version of the truth," she says.

But what if "you could turn to well-known experts at this point and get them to answer for you, in language simple for a child to understand?" This was the idea behind this book where thousands of children aged between four and 12 in 10 British primary schools were asked to send questions "they most wanted answered".

The queries, says Harris, ranged from "cute and quirky" -- seeking to know why space is "so sparkly" or whether a bee could sting another -- to "fiendishly difficult" -- such as on the origin of the oceans; and a few "shot straight to the heart of a deep philosophical conundrum", ranging from why wars or love happen or "where does good come from".

There were over 100 other questions about space, animals, the human body's working as well as culture, psychology, sports, cuisine, literary creativity and more. And to answer them for this book were the same number or more experts in their fields, ranging from naturalist David Attenborough, survival specialist Bear Grylls, science writers Jim Al-Khalili, Marcus Chown and John Gribbin, and neuroscientist Susan Greenfield.

They are joined by philosopher A.C. Grayling and philosophy popularisers Alain De Botton and Julian Baggini, linguists Noam Chomsky and David Crystal, celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay, authors Philippa Gregory and Philip Pullman, athletes Jessica Ennis-Hill and Kelly Holmes and many others. 

Not only do we get answers to rather tricky stuff about how our brains control us, what makes some people mean or if Alexander the Great liked frogs, but also advice to what children can do about global warming or to become writers, artists and sportspersons -- or just better people.

For those among Indians who may be interested, there are also two questions concerning cows, though the answers might not be pleasing to them -- but then science seeks to explain, not please.

While this compendium should be a must for children taking a keen interest in their surroundings -- as well as their parents, who could learn a thing or two that they might have wanted but foregone in the race to pass exams and build careers -- its real significance is different.

It shows what a society that cares about its present and future needs to encourage its young minds to ask, instead of trying to feed them with toxic political or obscurantist ideas or rewritten history, but above all, to inspire them to ask questions and find answers. IANS

Title: Big Questions From Little People... Answered by Some Very Big People; Author: Gemma Elwin Harris; Publisher: Faber & Faber; Pages: 337; Price: Rs 399