There are a number of scientific references in The Lost Property Office that can promote discussion among students and book club readers alike. The fundamental scientific concept underlying the text is Jack’s hyper-observancy, stemming from overlapping senses. This relates to a neural phenomenon called synesthesia. We’ll save that for last. First, a look at the scientific fly-bys in the book.
Much of the magic in The Lost Property Office is science based, and there are a few additional quick nods to science. Here are some highlights.
Hooke’s Hobby Science Lab
A mix of history and science, the secret lab underneath the Monument of the Great Fire is real, as was Gwen’s explanation for its existence. Students may recognize Hooke as the man who coined the term “cell” after his observations with a microscope, but Hooke also did work in other scientific disciplines and worked alongside Christopher Wren as a surveyor, rebuilding post-fire London.
While clockwork as we know it cannot account for the sustained flight and violent static discharge of the Clockmaker’s beetles, there are still many incredible clockwork devices out there. For a great example of a centuries old clockwork device, check out this peaceful pistol
The engineering evident beneath the streets of present-day London is astounding. Even this amazing, interactive, real-time 3D map of the Tube doesn’t do it justice. And then there are the underground rivers. An entire network of rivers runs beneath the city streets, forming part of its sewers. There are brickwork cathedrals down there, some with their own subterranean weather systems.
The Science of Luck
Key to Jack’s experience is his unlucky number. He is the thirteenth of his line, and therefore banned from the Ministry of Trackers. Is luck real? Certainly the phenomenon of luck is part of our human experience, whether we create it for ourselves or not. While sitting on the banks of an underground river, Jack and Gwen discuss the science behind bad luck.
The Science of the Great Fire
An entire city cremated, exploding stones, a melting roof that runs down Ludgate hill like lava. The primary source history quoted in the Barking Tower chapters offer a starting point to discuss a number of phenomenon that can only be seen in large-scale fires. Spraying water on it just won’t do.
Sparks and Minerals
A laser shined on a rigid object can pick up the sounds around it, captured in vibrations. What if you could interpret those vibrations at a molecular level. How far back might the captured sounds go? What about photons? Jack experiences these molecular phenomena as recorded data that goes directly to his brain. But each type of mineral offers different results. Why might metals offer better fidelity but shorter memory than stone? Why do gems achieve the best of both worlds?
The fated transport that takes Jack and Gwen from the abandoned Tube station to the Ministry of Guilds gets its light from bioluminescent bacteria activated by motion through the water. Certain bacteria luminesce when they sense a large number of buddies about. In this way, some companies are hoping to replace light bulbs.
Jack finds the Ember in a fountain that has burbled out warm water for the entire history of the Ministry of Trackers. But the fountain isn’t fed by a geothermal spring. Geothermal springs tend to get all the attention, but a good many springs in the world are simply fed by gravity, meaning groundwater, resupplied by precipitation, runs downhill under the surface until it finds an outlet at such a spring.
The core of the Earth is incredibly hot. What if a chunk of it, thrown to the surface, just kept burning? How would you control it? Is there another element within the Earth’s crust or mantle that keeps that core in check?
In the book, QED stands for Quantum Electrodynamic Drone. In physics, it stands for Quantum Electrodynamics, the quantum field theory of electrodynamic force. Both usages are a play on the mathematical phrase Quod Erat Demonstrandum (that which was to be demonstrated) which is a way of saying that a proof is complete—or, in the vernacular, “So there!”
Jack finds a number of items hidden in his father’s study. Among these, are the scouts, which employ clockwork-style mechanisms to pass over an area, and then depend on his tracker abilities to pass visions of the light and sound recorded in their molecules.
These little beauties, also found in House Buckles, can shock an opponent. Using a pull-chain, Jack spins a magnet inside a copper sphere, building an electric charge. The same principle of electricity generation is alluded to in the description of the underground waterfall near the entrance to the ministry. The scientific term “electrosphere” actually refers to the region surrounding a star that contains many free electrons.
Jack’s struggles with the influx of data from the world around him. Cross-sensory data comes in as noise, crowding his brain and causing headaches. To cope, he buries his senses and himself in his smartphone. He doesn’t understand how others cope with the world so easily.
With Gwen’s help, Jack discovers that this hyper-sensitivity actually makes him hyper-observant. Jack has intersecting senses. He sees and feels sound, touch, and taste (smell). As Gwen explains, it’s like having all the curtains open in a house. You see the same world outside, but you see it through several different portals. Because Jack can both see and hear a sound or smell, he processes it more quickly and more completely than a normal person.
But all that data can be too much, and trying to shut it all out only makes it worse. Gwen teaches Jack how to let the data in and interpret it. Jack becomes the hyper-observant side of their Sherlock Holmes team, while Gwen takes on the deductions.
What is this phenomenon that plagues Jack? Is it real?
Jack “suffers” from synesthesia. So do I (the author, James R. Hannibal). Synesthetes, for reasons that are still a matter of debate, may not develop complete walls between their senses. Some may not develop any walls at all. Jack and I are among this latter group.
Most adult synesthetes did not learn that they experience the world differently from others until late in life, thanks to the relative obscurity of information about the phenomenon until recent years. They simply learned to cope, and in some cases, unconsciously capitalize on their strange senses.
I did not hear (read) the term synesthesia until well into my marriage, when my wife helped me understand that she was experiencing the world differently than I, and that I was the strange one, not her. At that time, a search of a popular Internet site that bills itself as the compendium of all knowledge told me I was suffering from a mental disability, or a possibly a series of delusions. Since then, thankfully, such misinformation has largely disappeared.
My synesthesia, which has a side effect of seeing letters, numbers, dates and other concepts in consistent coloring, and improves my ability to observe data in specific situations, has certainly aided my military and aviation careers. Along the way, it also forced me to cope with heightened sensitivity to noises, tastes, pain, and smells. To paraphrase my father’s words, adversity has built character. I hope.
A child with synesthesia today ought to be able to capitalize on the benefits of the phenomenon, and to better cope with the debilitating aspects—simply because we know so much more about it. That’s why Jack’s adventure is important to me. There are a great number of young trackers out there who may not understand why they are more distracted by the chirping of a bird outside the classroom window than their peers, or why they have to leave-the-house-or-die-trying whenever mom cooks with onions (for me, this is the equivalent of wading through foul, black sludge). If only those young trackers knew the cause of their distress, and understood it better, they could turn it to their advantage.
As you may have seen or heard me say elsewhere. Making Jack’s synesthesia synonymous with his tracker abilities was a way for me to turn something personal that has been called a birth defect into superpower.