Humour and Laughter in Artificial Intelligence (AI)

Humour and Laughter in Artificial Intelligence (AI)

Earlier this week I wrote about laughter in my Appliance of Science column in the Irish Examiner. I really enjoyed researching this fascinating topic; there are so many different avenues of study to explore but one that really caught my attention in the investigation into laughter and humour in Artificial Intelligence (AI). Some refer to it as the final frontier. I couldn’t squeeze everything into the column so I thought I’d share it here instead.

What is the difference between laughter and humour?

The research is still scant on laughter and humour and the differences between them. It is hard to analyse and quantitate such subtle, human things. What might make us laugh one minute, may not the next.

Laughter is used as a communication aid; from the gentle chuckle to the full on belly laugh, it helps us to convey our response to various social situations. We don’t just laugh at something funny, we can use it to build rapport, show trust and acceptance and to fill in the blanks in conversation.

Humour could be defined as the art of being funny, or the ability to find something funny; it is a two way thing. It is full of subtle nuances and relies on correct social interpretation and interaction – and it is innately human.

There’s no joke in delivering a joke

Comic timing and humour are difficult enough for humans so the challenge is great when attempting to transfer these abilities to robots.

Comic timing is a very subtle thing, and can be very difficult to pull off. Engaging in any form of humour requires a lot of real-time thinking, identifying and reacting to social nuances and a certain degree of empathy in order to understand when to deliver the line and to predict how it will be received.

How will robots detect these very human, and very subtle cues?

That is the next step in AI, programming robots with the ability to get in on the joke, detect puns and sarcasm and throw a quick quip back! There is a whole branch of science dedicated to research and development in this area. Scientists in this field are known as Computational humourists. And they have come a long way; these are just some of the algorithms they have created so far.

Acronyms and Algorithms

The hope is that robots will use computational intelligence to process conversation. Here are just of a few of the algorithms that have been created (you’d have to love them for the acronyms alone)…

SASI – Semi-supervised Algorithm for Sarcasm Identification … this machine algorithm, developed by an Israeli research team, was designed to assist AI with the recognition of sarcasm. They current report a 77% success rate and see no reasons why they cannot improve upon these results.

Scientists are discovering that the detection of sarcasm is a very important and useful tool for humans and would certainly be a great advancement in AI technology.

STAND-UP – System To Augment Non-speaking Dialogue Using Puns; This program was created by a team of researchers in Scotland to assist children that use computerised speech aids to help them with certain communication challenges.

DEviaNT – Double Endendre via Noun Structure … the software that tells dirty jokes. Developed by two computer scientists in Washington University to determine appropriate word triggers or phrases that can be followed with ‘That’s what she said’ lines and apparently working with 70% accuracy.

How far has AI come with laughter and humour?

Things have developed further than you might think. Any sci-fi enthusiasts will be aware how much humour has been added to the robots of the future.

It may have been nothing more than fiction when data got his sense of humour in Star Trek: Generations* (1994) but it was becoming a reality by the time we were watching Interstellar, twenty years later.

Detecting emotions in humans

Robots are making increasing advancements in the detection of, and response to human facial expression and emotions. Some of these advancements are a little unsettling … will robots be the new companions for those in their twilight years? Even more disconcerting is the robot that can detect a criminal just by their facial features.

On a lighter note, many of these developments are focused on detecting facial muscle movements in humans as triggers for laughter. They are well on their way to detecting different types of human laughter too (which is something that many of us humans still find difficult).

Software has even developed to determine the correct pause time in response to laughter cues, and in detecting hidden laughter.

Robots on the comedy scene

Robots are pitching themselves against stand-up comedians to test their abilities. Although it is early days yet, some, like Robothespian are certainly holding their own.

My favourite is the Nao robot. Nao is only 58 cm in height and I think, firstly, this is one of the elements that I find so appealing; this robot does not try to look like me. Nao has learned to interpret human laughter with a 65% success rate, and, when he laughs in response, he does so with his whole body.

He is also doing well in his comic abilities, scoring very close to a human rival in a recent stand up challenge against a human.

How do humans respond to robots telling jokes?

So it seems humans are well able to laugh at a pun delivered by a machine. In comedy stand up situation it may put the audience at ease as they are not worried about hurting someone’s feeling or letting them down if they don’t laugh. The stress of creating rapport is removed.

It appears that people will also take rude jokes better from a robot than a human.

It’s all in the data

A lot of these developments are achieved because of the amount of data available in the world today. From what coffee we drink, to what TV programmes we watch, everything is recorded. Every time we like a Facebook post or make an on-line purchase we add to this growing mass of information that is used to determine and code how humans work!

This’ll stop you in your tracks

A robot has been doing the TV circuit of late and recently stole the show on Good Morning Britain; I found the clip fascinating and unnerving in equal measures. The Robot in question is called Sophia; it may not help that she reminds me of a movie I watched recently on Netlfix*, called Ex-Machina (I’d recommend watching it, but maybe wait a while after reading this post).

The facial expressions and minute muscle movements in Sophia’s face is amazing; she is programmed with 62 facial expressions.

Take a look…

Is any of this really necessary?

I think it is fair to say that there is much progress still to be made in the advancement of humour and laughter in AI but it is still remarkable how much has already been achieved.

The question is, is this a good thing? Do we need or want our robots to develop such human qualities?

Computational humourist Vinith Misra suggests that these advances could be the way to “make healthy relationships between us and our machines “and may, in the processes even make better connections between us humans.

But is it necessary for machines to be fully integrated into human lives?

Those in the business believe that these advances can reduce human stress and ultimately strengthen human bonds. Maybe we can learn from AI about how to laugh and make others laugh?

Laughter certainly has a lot of benefits to us humans; does it really matter if it is a machine that is makes us laugh?

What do you think?

*Disclosure: As a member of the Netflix Stream Team I have received a years subscription to Netflix, free of charge, and an Apple TV, for streaming purposes. 

What’s in a song? The science of singing

What’s in a song? The science of singing

How is your singing voice? I’d love to tell you how good mine is but my kids would be on that like a shot; they are only too happy to tell anyone willing to listen how bad their mum is at singing. So I reserve it for the shower, solo trips in the car… or for tormenting my children.

Regardless of how good your singing skills are, there is still a great benefit to opening your mouth and belting out a song, more than you might think. And as usual, science has plenty of facts to back this up. Some of these might surprise you.

The science of singing - boy singing

Image source:

Some benefits to singing  – with a dash of science

Singing can improve our mood

This one probably isn’t of any big surprise; all of us have experienced singing in our lives, whether we are willing participants or coerced into it; but we all feel better afterwards. Why is that? It seems that singing releases a cocktail of chemicals that can both calm and invigorate at the same time.

When we sing we light up the right temporal lobe of the brain, causing the release of endorphins.  These chemicals can literally lift our mood and give us a sense of euphoria.

Studies have shown that singing can also cause the release of oxytocin, the feel-good hormone that can reduce stress levels and help calm the body and mind. Oxytocin is also connected with strengthening bonds and friendships between people which is interesting as many studies have reported that people that sing together in choirs reap more benefits than singing solo. One of the observations is that people who sing together will literally synchronise their heart beats.

Singing can improve our health

The benefits mentioned above can not only make us feel happier but also reduce blood pressure and feelings of depression and isolation.

Singing can improve our breathing and our posture. It can help relieve respiratory illnesses and improves our cardiovascular and pulmonary health.

Perhaps one of the most amazing benefits of singing is the report that is can improve the cognitive abilities and well being of people suffering with dementia. It has also been shown to help people with speech impediments (such as stuttering), stroke victims and sufferers of Parkinson’s  Disease.

Singing can help us learn

Singing can alter our brain’s chemical and physical make up. it can help us exercise specific parts of the brain and can even enhance our learning. In particular, singing can help us learn a new language. Apparently singing phrases in a foreign language can help us remember them more easily and for longer.

Whatever benefit you are after, it seems that singing really might be what you need. And if you are just too shy to try it, then you can simply listen, which has lots of benefits too, but that’s a blog post for another day.

What would happen if we travelled at the speed of light?

What would happen if we travelled at the speed of light?

My youngest child is seven; he is a boy of many questions. Lately he has turned his attention to speed, specifically the speed of light, and what would happen if you travelled that fast.

The first question came at bed time (why is it always bed time??). He wanted to know what would happen if he travelled at the speed of light and would it change time. I answered as best I could (while trying to back out the door and turn off the light) and left it at that but the question has resurfaced and I know this little guy will not let it rest until he is sure he has full understanding of the answer. So, to satisfy my own son’s curiosity, and in case anyone else out there wanted to know… here is a quick low down on high speed.

Let’s start with the basics

Firstly, the speed of light is a staggering 299,792,458 metres per second (or approximately 299 792 kilometres per second). Albert Einstein may not have calculated this, but he was the one that recognised it as the fasted thing in our Universe, a cosmic speed limit.

This is the speed of light in a vacuum and is commonly denoted as c. Light travelling at different speeds depending on what it is travelling through, so for light to travel through anything other than a vacuum, it will travel a little slower. For example, light travels about 90,000 m/s slower in air (that’s about 0.03% slower).

In water light travels at 75% the speed it would in a vacuum.

It’s all relative

Einstein’s work on this cosmic speed limit led him to develop a little theory, calling it the Theory of Relativity.

Einstein’s Theory of Relativity…

E = mc2

E stands for energy, m is the mass of the object and c is the speed of light. But it still looks pretty confusing, right? Keeping it simple, this equation says two interesting things…

  1. it ties mass and energy together
  2. it says that nothing with mass can travel as fast as, or faster than the speed of light

You might like a refresher on what mass is… mass is basically a measure of how much matter (atoms) something is made up of, or how densely packed those atoms are. We usually talk about mass in terms of weight (kilograms) but when we do so, we are typically saying how much it weighs here on Earth.


Close, but not close enough

Light is made up things called photons and they have no mass. Everything else we can think of in our everyday lives does have mass.

Applying Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, the closer an object (with mass) gets to the speed of light, the more energy is required to keep it moving, until eventually the object would have an infinite mass and require and infinite amount of energy to move it… and that’s just not possible.

So nothing with mass, including us, or a big rocket, can move faster than the speed of light.

The fastest speed of a manned spacecraft to date was achieved by the Apollo 10 lunar module, on May 26, 1969 when it reached speeds of 39,897 km/h (about 11 km/s) before re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere.

Take your time

Where does time come into all this? Well, you might remember that the c in E=mc2 is a unit with distance and time in it, so time is part of the equation too.

What happens to time when we start to travel at close to the speed of light? The answer to that depends on where you are standing, in other words, it depends on where you are observing from.

Let’s take an example, and remember, this is all hypothetical… you are in a rocket travelling through space and you manage to travel at speeds approaching the speed of light. So for you, time slows down and you reach your destination in a relatively short space of time. You arrive, do whatever it is you went there to do and then head back to Earth (again at speeds close to the speed of light).

The main thing you would notice when you get back home is how old everyone is! People who were the same age as you when you left would be a lot older than you when you come back. Remember, as Einstein said, it’s all relative! It depends on where you are observing from; if you are on Earth then time continues as normal. But if you head off into space and travel at speeds that slow down time, then a little time for you will equal a lot of time back on Earth.

Scientists like to call this the twin paradox; if you took a set of identical twins and sent one travelling off in space at speeds close to the speed of light and left the other here on Earth, when the first twin returned from his cosmic travels he would be younger than his twin who remained on Earth.

In summary… we can’t actually travel at the speed of light, but if we could travel close to the speed of light then yes, time would slow down (for us anyway) but by the time we got back to Earth, everyone else would have aged more than us!

What did my son think of my explanation? I read this post to him last night and broke some of the theories down into seven year-old sized chunks of information and he was happy enough with the answer, he especially liked the twin paradox 🙂

Then he added some theories of his own… I’m not sure what Einstein would make of these but this guy certainly has some interesting ideas; Have a listen to a seven year-old’s theories on what else would happen if you travelled close to the speed of sound! 

Image sources: Rocket, time and light images were sourced on
Mystery creature revealed – the ‘by the wind sailor’ (Velella velella)

Mystery creature revealed – the ‘by the wind sailor’ (Velella velella)

How did you do with April’s mystery creature? It was a bit deceptive because it looked like a jellyfish but it is not actually one… it is the Velella velella and here are five facts all about it!

Image credit: Wilson44691 - Own work, CC0

So good they named it twice

The Velella velella is the only known species in its genus, therefore it is often referred to as just velella. It goes by other names too, the most common one is ‘by the wind sailor’ but it is sometimes also called the ‘purple sail’ or ‘little sail’. I think we can agree that sailing is a common theme here! And it is no wonder, it looks quite like a mini sail boat. It is deep blue/purple in colour with a translucent stiff, ridged sail along the mid line.

Looks like a jellyfish but…

It is not a jellyfish – it is actually a hydroid colony; it is made up of hundreds of small organisms, each with their own different function. Each colony is considered all male or all female. They are only about 7cm in diameter.

At the mercy of the winds

There is no way for the velella to propel itself around in the open oceans in which it is found. Instead it is at the mercy of the winds, moving in whatever direction the prevailing wind takes it. This is why, under certain weather conditions, large numbers of these are washed ashore, particularly after stormy conditions and high winds.

 Image credit: Dan from United Kingdom - - image description page, CC BY 2.0, Link

Valella can be found all over the world but mostly in tropical or subtropical waters. They are pleuston – organisms that live partly in and partly above water.

Eat or be eaten

Velella are typically eaten by specialized gastropods (mollusks) such as certain nudibranches. They are carnivorous themselves, feeding on plankton. The short tentacles that reach into the water contain toxins to stun their prey.

Although that are not considered a threat to humans, these toxins could possibly cause some mild skin or eye irritation, if handled.

Division of labour

The various life forms that make up the colony have specialised functions; some are involved in defence, some feeding, others reproduction etc. Any nutrients ingested from feeding are distributed among all the life forms of the colony.

Reproduction is by asexual budding (meaning that tiny new organisms , called medusa, are formed from little nodes that bud from the adult; these buds grown and eventually break away. This process of reproduction can produce thousands of these tiny medusa, each only 1mm in diameter.


Check back tomorrow for another mystery creature for you to solve!

[Watch] How and why do freckles appear?

[Watch] How and why do freckles appear?

Another great question this week, this time sent in by seven year old Daniel, who lives in Singapore; Daniel would really like to be a scientist when he grows up, but I reckon he already is one as he loves asking questions and finding out lots of facts about science and nature. In fact, Daniel is a regular to this blog, he often is the first to work out the Mystery Creature of the month!

Daniel’s question is…

How and why do freckles appear?

Many of us have freckles, Daniel has them too, in fact he appears IN the video as the freckle model 🙂 If you would like to know a little more about freckles (I bet you do!) just watch this video below!

Freckles are pretty common, especially in people with fair complexions, but before we look at how and why they appear, let’s take a closer look at what they are?

What are freckles?

Freckles are small spots on the skin, they are usually tan or light brown in colour. Unlike moles or some birth marks, freckles are flat on our skin. They are completely natural and harmless.

We are used to seeing them on peoples’ faces but they can be found all over the body.

They often become more obvious or more abundant when we expose our skin to the sun and that gives us the first clue as to why they appear.


Natural Sun-screen

Freckles are the result of a natural colour (or pigment) called melanin produced by the body to protect the skin against the harmful rays of the Sun.

This process is called photoprotection and this is how it works…

When UV rays of light from the Sun hit our skin they  trigger certain cells in our body to make more melanin.

The cells that make the melanin are called melanocytes.

melanocytes and freckles


The melanin is sent to the outer layer of our skin where it absorbs these harmful UV rays, protecting the skin cells (and the cells’ DNA) from their damage.

Usually melanin is distributed evenly around the parts of the skin that are exposed to the sun, causing our skin to tan.

When melanin is distributed evenly we tan

Sometimes though the melanin clumps together in areas, forming little dark spots that we call freckles.

When melanin comes together in small areas of skin we get freckle spots

So basically, melanin is a little like our bodies’ natural sun screen… which kind of makes freckles like natural sun screen spots I guess.

Who gets freckles?

So do only fair skinned people get them? No, that’s not so. There are probably a lot more people with fair complexions with freckles, and freckles tend to be more noticeable on fair skinned people, but people with all types of skin tones can get them too.

Freckles can appear on all skin tones

Freckles can develop on all skin tones

Freckles tend to run in families, so if your parents have them there is a good chance you do too. The tendency to get freckles is genetics… and is connected to a gene called MC1R.

So remember, freckles are natural and harmless. They are just a sign that our body is taking care of us and keeping us safe.

A big thanks to Daniel for sending in this question; if you have a question you would like me to answer just leave it in the comments below or sent it to me by email (


The science of elasticity, energy and rubber

The science of elasticity, energy and rubber

Energy is a great subject in science. It covers so many things and I have many other aspects that I hope to share with you soon but one thing that explains energy so well is a simple rubber band; it can demonstrate elasticity, kinetic energy and potential energy and it great to use in some really cool experiments. Here are just a few short facts on the topic.

What is Elasticity?

Elasticity is the ability of an object to return to its original size and shape after it has been stretched or squeezed.

When we pull an elastic object we are applying a force on it called a stress. If we apply too much stress to an object it will eventually reach a limit called its elastic limit.

When an object is pulled beyond its elastic limit is cannot return to its original shape.

All objects will eventually lose their elasticity due to wear and tear, friction and stress.

Potential and Kinetic Energy

Potential energy is energy stored within something. Kinetic energy is energy in motion.

If we take the example of stretching a rubber band…

When we use force to stretch an elastic object, such as an elastic band we are filling it with potential energy. When we let go of the rubber band and it springs back to its original shape, the energy released is Kinetic Energy.

Did you know… kangaroos and other animals use the combination of potential and kinetic energy to save energy while jumping and springing?


Rubber is a material that has very good elasticity. It is a polymer, made up of a long chain of repeating molecules, that can be easily stretched and bent.

Rubber exists in both a natural and synthetic form; the natural form is latex from the sap of rubber trees.

A bit of history

The ancient Aztec and Mayan civilisations are thought to have been the first to discover and use this natural rubber. They used it to make balls for sport and rubber shoes, although the quality of this rubber was sensitive to heat and cold.

Columbus is credited with bringing rubber to Europe.

In 1839 Charles Goodyear discovered that he could stabilise rubber by mixing it with sulphur at high pressure; he called this process vulcanisation.

When Goodyear died in 1860 he was completely impoverished due to constant legal costs regarding his rubber patents.

Did you know… the largest rubber band ball ever made weighed 4,097kg and was made using 700,000 rubber bands?


An experiment to try

Want to try an experiment that combines rubber, elasticity and kinetic and potential energy? Why not make a catapult? Or use elasticity to launch a paper plane. You’ll find out how, and a lot more of the science behind these experiments in this post!


A new venture

This article originally appeared in Science Spin magazine. Although the magazine is no longer in print I am delighted to be sharing some science facts and experiments in a new venture… you’ll find my new SCIENCE FOR KIDS page in each edition of Easy Parenting Magazine. I share one of our favourite experiments in the April/May edition, currently in shops. Take a look…



[WATCH] How do planes stay up in the air?

[WATCH] How do planes stay up in the air?

This great question was sent in by six year old Cathal, who can sometimes be found over at Bumbles of Rice blog; Cathal has a really scientific mind and is always asking him mum lots of questions. Sometimes she sends them on to me, which I really love.

I thought that Cathal’s question was a great excuse to try out another whiteboard video, I hope you like it Cathal and keep those questions coming!

How do planes stay up in the air when they are so heavy?

It is a common question and one that we all want to know; especially if we are sitting on a plane about to take off! So if you want to know how planes stay up in the air, make sure you watch this video below to find out!

Planes are pretty big machines; the world’s largest passenger plane is the Airbus A380 which can weigh as much as 560,000 Kg.

That is a lot of plane to get into the air and keep it there.

The largest passenger planes is the Airbus A380, weighing in at a massive 560,000 kg

Even smaller planes, with all their equipment and passengers and baggage, are pretty heavy things, so how do they stay in the air?

We think of air as being very light as we move through it all the time. But remember air is made up of tiny molecules that can actually be really strong too, there are lots of them and they can move together with quite a force.

Air can be so strong it can blow over people, cars and even buildings when it moves very fast, like a tornado!

It can be strong enough to hold a plane in the sky too, but we don’t need to create extreme weather conditions to do so, we just need to consider four important forces, and get them just right.

The four forces are LIFT, GRAVITY, THRUST and DRAG!

These four forces act in different directions… Lift pushes the plane up, Gravity pulls it down, Thrust propels it forwards and drag pushes it back.

The four main forces acting on a plane in flight are lift, gravity, thrust and drag

If we can get these four forces balanced just right, we can get a plane in the air, and keep it there.


Let’s consider LIFT first, and to do that we need to look at the shape of the plane, and in particular… the wing. We call the wing shape an aerofoil, it is curved at the top, like this. This shape is designed to make air move faster over the top of the wing than below it.

When air speeds up its pressure decreases (this is in keeping with a law of physics known as the Bernoulli’s principle).

Bernoulli’s principle states that an increase in the speed of a fluid occurs simultaneously with a decrease in pressure

When the air pressure on top of the wing is less than the air pressure below the wing it creates a force called LIFT which pushes upwards on the wing.


GRAVITY is the force that pulls the plane towards Earth; it keeps it on the ground. In order for the plane to get into the air, the LIFT force needs to be greater than the force of GRAVITY.

To get enough air moving over the wings of the plane it need to be travelling through the air at quite a speed.


We use engines to propel the plane forward using a force called THRUST! The more thrust is generated, the faster the plane goes and the more air travels around the wings. LIFT increases until its force is greater than that of GRAVITY and the plane takes off into the air.

So far we have covered three of the four forces… LIFT, GRAVITY and THRUST. There is one more to consider… DRAG.


DRAG can be described as a force that acts against a moving object. So, in this case, the plane is being propelled through the air, by the force of THRUST, but that air is moving against it, and creating a DRAG force.

THRUST moves the plane forwards, DRAG pushes it backwards. In order to keeps the plane moving in the right direction, THRUST must be greater than DRAG. Planes are designed to be streamlined – to allow air pass around them with the least amount of resistance – to reduce DRAG.

A bit of Balance

So a plane can stay in the air once the four forces… Lift (up), Gravity (down), Thrust (forward) and drag (backwards) are kept at the right balance.

Essentially the plane needs to have no net force acting on it, which means that each of the forces balance each other out.

Newton’s Law of Motion

Let’s consider one more law … Newton’s Law of Motion which states that an object at rest will stay at rest and an object in motion will stay in motion, once there is no net force acting on it.

Newton’s first Law of Motion which states that an object at rest will stay at rest and an object in motion will stay in motion, once there is no net force acting on it

What this really means is that, once all these four forces are balanced, the moving plane, will stay moving… in the air… in flight!

Which is just the way we like it!

A big thanks to Cathal for sending in this question; if you have a question you would like me to answer just leave it in the comments below or sent it to me by email. 

Why does my tummy rumble?

Why does my tummy rumble?

I’m back with another great question this week, send in by Sarah, who wants to know …

Why does my tummy rumble?

It is all explained in this short video, just click to play (or, if you prefer, you can read the answer below).

While we sometimes find the noise a little embarrassing it is actually a really natural, and essential thing and shows that our bodies are working correctly, but why all the noise?

Let’s take a closer look!

The noises come from our digestive system, which is basically a long tube that stretches from out mouth to our anus! It usually comes from our stomach or small intestine.

The wall of this tube is mainly made up of muscles, called smooth muscles, which move in a certain way to push food through the system. This muscular movement is called peristalsis and this is how it works…

A small area of muscles contract, a bit like squeezing a ring around a part of the tube and this pushes things like foods, liquids and gases forward a little; then these muscles relax and the muscles in front of them contract and so on, pushing food and other content down the tube with each contraction.

Think about squeezing toothpaste from a tube!

The noises we hear are due to the movement of food, liquids and gases down the digestive tract. We associate the noise with an empty stomach, or being hungry, but the sounds are made when we have food in our system too. We often don’t notice them as the sound is dulled down.

When our digestive system is empty the noise is a lot louder.

It makes sense that peristalsis happens when we need to pass food through our digestive system, but why all the activity when our stomach is empty? Well this is the result of something called the Migrating Motor Complex or MMC for short!

This usually happens when our stomach and intestine have been empty for about two hours; a type of electrical pulse is triggered and this causes peristalsis through the digestive system. This serves a type of cleansing function; it clears any pockets of leftover food, mucus, bacteria and other debris from the stomach and small intestine.

The MMC response is usually triggered when our digestive system has been empty for about 2 hours

The MMC response is triggered every 90 to 120 minutes, until the next meal is eaten. It does tend to quieten down a bit while we sleep and then ramp up the activity again when we waken, which is why we often have gurgling tummies in the morning.

I hope you enjoyed this short explanation and video; Do let me know in the comments below and as always, if you have a question you’d like answered just leave it in the comments below! 

Are all raindrops the same size?

Are all raindrops the same size?

As you know, I love receiving your questions and I am always thinking of different ways to answer them. Some you will find in my regular column in the Irish Examiner, some I answer here on the blog, in written, video and info-graphic form.

Here is something a little bit different and I am hoping to make it a regular thing, so please let me know what you think and keep those questions coming!

Are all raindrops the same size?

In order to answer this question we need to first understand how raindrops are formed. And that story starts right down here on Earth. We have lots of water in the form of rivers, lakes and seas and when this water heats up it changes into a gas, called water vapour which rises up into the air.

The sky actually has lots of bits floating around in it – like dust and smoke particles. The water vapour tends to form tiny droplets of water around these little specks of dust and smoke and these droplets come together to make clouds.

At this stage the tiny drops are light enough to stay in the sky, but, as the cloud fills up with more and more of them they tend to start to bumping off each other and as they do they join together to form bigger droplets. Eventually they get so big and heavy that they can no longer stay in the cloud and they drop down towards the Earth as rain.

A water droplet needs to be at least ½ mm in diameter before it will fall as a raindrop.

Depending on how many droplets have joined together to make that raindrop, we already have drops of different sizes falling from the clouds.

What shape doe you think the raindrops are? Teardrop shaped maybe? No, not at all! Although raindrops are usually depicted in this teardrop shape they actually start off as nice round spheres. They have lots of forces acting on them, like surface tension which acts on the surface of the drop keeping it in that nice round shape.

As the rain drops fall they experience other forces too like air pressure. As it pushes from below and above the rain drops get squished into sausage like shapes until they eventually split into a number of small drops of various sizes and these are what fall to the ground.

So, are all raindrops the same size? Definitely not!

And they are not all teardrop shaped either.


A big thanks to Ewan for sending in this question. Remember to keep sending in your questions. You can leave them in the comments below.

I’d love to know what you think of this video, there are lots of improvements I want to make and I’d love your comments and feedback.


The perfect pancake formula

The perfect pancake formula

We are big fans of pancakes in this house; I’m pretty casual with my batter making at this stage, I throw a few things into a bowl or blender, a bit of a mix, into the pan, quick flip and hey presto! It seems I am going about it all the wrong way. There are formulas that I should be following, such as…

  1. The batter formula

If you take your pancakes seriously, you’ll want the appearance to be just right. It’s not just luck or habit; it is all about the flour to liquid ratio, according to a group of researchers at University College London.

The thickness of the pancake determines the way the water in the pancake is released during cooking and ultimately determines the overall appearance of the finished product.

The experts devised a formula…

Mixture (ml) required per pancake : (D² x T x π) / 4

Total mixture (ml) required: (D² x T x π) / 4

… where D is the diameter of the pancake pan and T is the thickness that you want your pancakes!

And believe it or not, this pancake study has medical benefits too: the team are using what they learned to create better surgical methods for treating glaucoma, which is a build-up of pressure in the eyes caused by fluid.


  1. The perfect batter calculator

If this all sounds a bit too complicated then don’t worry, maths students at the University of Sheffield have taken this formula and generated a calculator that does all the maths for you. All you need to do it type in how many pancakes you want, how thick you want them and how wide your pan is and voila, you get an exact recipe!

  1. The super formula

If you like your pancakes with some extra maths then don’t worry, there is a formula for you too, but hold on to your whisks, this one is pretty tricky!

100 – [10L – 7F + C(k – C) + T(m – T)]/(S – E)

Apparently, the closer you get to 100, the better the pancake.

L is the number of lumps in the batter; C is that consistency.

F stands for the flipping score, k is the ideal consistency of the batter and T is the temperature of the pan.

M is the ideal temp of pan is, S is the length of time the batter stands before cooking and E is the length of time the cooked pancake sits before eating.

Are you still with me? If not don’t worry. If everyone in your house is happy to eat your usual offerings then I’d go back to the old reliable. Me? I’m taking my inspiration from this post and I’m going to add some colour and sprinkles… without a calculator in site.

Whatever way you make your pancakes today, I hope you enjoy 🙂


If you want to know a little more about your pancakes, from history, to ingredients, to science, check out my post over on today!