July 09, 2009


The Frog Scientist. By Pamela S. Turner. Photographs by Andy Comins. Houghton Mifflin. $18.

Moon: Science, History, and Mystery. By Stewart Ross. Scholastic. $18.99.

     Whether they study small things or huge ones, scientists explore with similar techniques: observation, careful notation of findings, development of theories, and testing of those theories with an eye toward disproving them and coming up with better ones. Both Pamela Turner’s The Frog Scientist and Stewart Ross’ Moon show this type of science in action, and both are fascinating in showing how everyday science is practiced. The Frog Scientist is actually a slight misnomer, because there are quite a few people in Turner’s book who study frogs. The chief one, though, is Dr. Tyrone Hayes, whom we first meet in the hills of Wyoming and about whose background we learn later. He can be amusingly plainspoken – the Sonoran desert toad “looks like a cow turd,” he remarks at one point – and he clearly takes real joy in his profession: one photo shows him with an old book about frogs that his mother gave him, reading the book to his own children. Young readers will learn about the importance of frogs and other amphibians in the ecosystem, and about scientists who have taken unique approaches to preserving species whenever possible. For example, the amphibian conservation curator of the Atlanta Botanical Garden travels with “a specially modified carry-on suitcase full of frogs.” Hayes’ studies are interspersed with stories about other frog scientists and about the graduate students who work with Hayes both in the lab and in the field. There are intriguing tidbits of information on every page – for example, Hayes’ tadpole specimens are fed rabbit chow – and there is also plenty of information on how science is done, involving experiments’ design and their often unexpected results. But the book is scarcely all narrative. Andy Comins’ photos are just wonderful – readers may want to go through the entire book just to see the pictures before going back to the start and reading the text. There are gorgeous close-ups of numerous frogs, plenty of photos of scientists at work in the lab and outdoors, and delightful bits of personalization – such as the photo of Hayes and his students doing a simultaneous “frog jump” at a backyard party. The Frog Scientist shows that science, however carefully practiced, need by no means be dull – and it also introduces young readers to some gorgeous, fascinating and increasingly threatened animals.

     The words “gorgeous” and “fascinating” apply to the moon as well, and Ross’ book is careful to devote plenty of time to the moon’s romantic aspects: “Nothing has fired the human imagination quite like the mysteries Moon.” But this is primarily a book of science, and the dreamy qualities of Earth’s satellite are mostly seen in the context of attempted scientific understanding. The book focuses on subjects from the many discoveries that eventually made the 1969 moon landing by humans possible, to ancient theories about the moon and modern scientific views of it. There are surprises and little-known facts galore here: 18th-century scientist Sir William Congreve’s discovery of a way to make iron-tube missiles fly more accurately helped contribute to the eventual moon landing; Greek philosophers 2,500 years ago rejected thought patterns that considered the moon in terms of myth and religion, insisting on approaching it through reason; Sir Isaac Newton once threatened to burn down his parents’ house; “Moonraker” is not only the title of a James Bond novel and film, but also the name for smugglers “who raked ponds by moonlight to retrieve hidden loot”; and on and on. Ross spreads the story of the 1969 moon landing throughout the book, returning to it periodically in order to provide a narrative structure for what could otherwise be just a mass of history and scientific facts. Readers who want to get right to the point may find this approach a bit frustrating, but it has the advantage of putting the events of 1969 firmly into the context of millennia of fascination and speculation about Earth’s satellite. Ross manages to explain why madness is called lunacy, talk about werewolves, and explain astrological charts in addition to providing information on the Greek astronomer Hipparchus, a discussion of the moon’s gravity, and the fact that astronaut Neil Armstrong got his pilot’s license on his 16th birthday – a wonderful combination of fiction and truth that will likely leave readers even more interested in the moon than they were at the start of the book.

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