Culture Schools

    The Ancient of Days by William Blake - illustration from Paradise Lost.

    Home school club: who coined the word ‘pandemonium’?

    20 May 2020

    This week we’ve got Beethoven making his own coffee, train conductors travelling outside their trains, and a fun experiment you can do with vinegar and baking powder. There’s also a probability experiment that will help you to win chocolate …


    The word ‘pandemonium’ was coined by John Milton in his poem Paradise Lost. Pandemonium was the capital of the underworld. Milton came up with the name by combining the Greek words ‘pan’ (all – as in, ahem, ‘pandemic’) and ‘daimon’ (devil).


    You’re on a game show. The host shows you three doors. Behind one is a giant chocolate bar, while behind the other two are tiny stale biscuits. (Let’s assume you want the chocolate, and haven’t got some weird liking for stale biscuits.) You choose a door. The host then opens one of the other two doors to reveal a biscuit. She then says that, before opening the other two, she will give you the chance to change your mind – you can switch from your original door to the other unopened one. Does it make sense to change, or does it make sense not to change, or doesn’t it make any difference?

    The answer is that it makes sense to change. You probably said it doesn’t make any difference, right? Don’t worry – almost everyone does. It seems a 50-50 chance, doesn’t it? But actually the question you should be asking is ‘what were the chances that I chose the chocolate in the first place?’ And the answer to that is: you probably didn’t. You were twice as likely to choose a biscuit as to choose the chocolate. So by changing your mind now, you’re twice as likely to be switching from biscuit to chocolate than the other way round.

    Difficult to get your head round at first, isn’t it? Why not act it out? You could use three cereal boxes as the doors, and get your parent or sibling to be the host. Keep playing it through, changing your mind each time and making a note of the result. The more you do it, the more you’ll find that roughly two out of three times the change gains you, rather than loses you, the chocolate.



    In the early days of British trains, conductors travelled outside the carriage, leaning in through the open window to check tickets. This was because the carriages were based on stagecoaches, where the guard sat outside at roof level. The new trains were fitted with boards, which the guard could walk along, pausing at each window.

    In 1838 a guard for the London and Birmingham Railway was killed when he slipped off the board and his legs got crushed beneath the wheels. As trains developed and got faster, it was only a matter of time before the guards joined the passengers inside.


    Ludwig van Beethoven

    Ludwig van Beethoven

    Beethoven made every cup of coffee he drank with exactly 60 beans.

    Creative types are often very precise in their preferences. They say routine helps their creativity. For instance the writer Stephen King always has to have the open end of his pillowcase pointing inwards, towards the opposite side of the bed. He says he doesn’t know why – he just likes things to be ‘the same way every day’.


    The name of Pendle Hill (in the Pennines, in Lancashire) means ‘hill hill hill’. The first people to name it were the Celts, whose word for hill was ‘pen’ (as in Penzance). Centuries later the Old English name for hill was the suffix ‘-dle’, so it became Pendle. Then later still, the modern word ‘hill’ was added by people who didn’t realise that the place had been described twice already.


    Here’s an experiment you can do with one of those rubber gloves everyone’s using at the moment. (Or a balloon. Or a freezer bag, or anything that will expand in a similar way.)

    Pour some vinegar into the glove – enough to half-fill the fingers. Then add a teaspoon of baking powder, and quickly hold the ‘wrist’ end of the glove so it’s all closed up. Then give a good shake. The vinegar and baking powder will react to produce a gas that inflates the glove.

    What’s happening? The baking powder is a bicarbonate, and the vinegar is an acetic acid. When they meet, the molecules of acid give their protons to the molecules of bicarbonate. This changes the baking powder into water and carbon dioxide (a gas). It’s the carbon dioxide that fills the glove.