July 14, 2016


Eureka! 50 Scientists Who Shaped Human History. By John Grant. Zest Books. $14.99.

My Weird School Fast Facts: Geography. By Dan Gutman. Pictures by Jim Paillot. Harper. $5.99.

My Weird School Fast Facts: Sports. By Dan Gutman. Pictures by Jim Paillot. Harper. $5.99.

     The world of once-over-lightly fact books is one in which some entries work a lot better than others. John Grant is at the high end of these short, fact-focused books with Eureka! The 50 scientists about whom he writes briefly, focusing both on their lives and on their discoveries or beliefs, include the typical-for-this-genre mixture of the well-known and the less-known. In the former category are Pythagoras, Hippocrates, Ptolemy, Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Newton, Darwin, Mendel, Pasteur, Curie, Einstein, Heisenberg, Turing, Salk, Hawking and others. In the latter – which proves in many cases the more-interesting grouping – are Gottfried Leibniz, Mikhail Lomonosov, John Dalton, Ignaz Semmelweis, Lise Meitner, Howard Florey and more. What is amazing to realize is how important these less-known names are: Leibniz invented the form of calculus universally used today (Newton is often deemed the discoverer of this type of mathematics, but in fact Leibniz’ approach, created at the same time, proved vastly superior); Semmelweis discovered the now self-evident reality that hand washing significantly reduces infection rates, saving millions of lives even though he was fired because so many doctors of his time resented being forced to wash up; Florey made mass production of penicillin possible after its discoverer, the far-better-known Alexander Fleming, was unable to figure out how to purify it or produce it in quantity. Grant presents information on the scientists in a breezy, easily readable style that is nevertheless fact-packed. He throws in useful footnotes from time to time – for instance, in discussing Carolus Linnaeus, Grant explains that the reader belongs to the species sapiens of the genus Homo. Grant includes a “But There’s More” section at the end of each mini-biography, pointing readers to further information of various types. For instance, in discussing Émilie du Châtelet, mistress of Voltaire and underappreciated scientific thinker, Grant mentions that an asteroid and a crater on Venus are named for her and also tells readers that “a popular and very approachable (but obviously dated) account of the love affair between Voltaire and Émilie du Châtelet is Nancy Mitford’s Voltaire in Love (1957).” Grant does a fine job of explaining the difficulties faced by scientists of all eras. “Galileo had to use his pulse in order to time the swing of the cathedral chandelier because there were no proper clocks then,” Grant writes. Much later in history, “It was easy for the geological establishment, hostile as it was to the idea of moving continents, to dismiss [Alfred] Wegener’s conjecture [about continental drift] as the witterings of an amateur.” Grant manages a fine balance between explanations of the important scientific findings associated with his 50 chosen subjects and some offbeat matters regarding them. Among the latter, at one point he notes that Charles Darwin’s son, George, “produced a theory to explain the origin of the Moon that was for decades rejected but is now (in modified form) widely accepted.” At another he remarks that more information related to Ada Lovelace, considered the creator of the first computer program, may be found in “the early steampunk classic The Difference Engine (1990)” as well as in a graphic novel by Sydney Padua. Grant is knowledgeable and, equally important in an “overview” book like this one, able to communicate knowledge in simple but not simplistic language that readers are likely to find attractive enough so that they will be spurred to dig up more material about these scientists on their own – the best possible outcome after reading a book such as this one.

     Dan Gutman’s writing is even breezier than Grant’s, and the My Weird School Fast Facts books are enlivened by Jim Paillot’s illustrations, but these (+++) books are not especially effective at communicating information to young readers. Indeed, that almost seems not to be their purpose. These are entertainment books above all, using characters that fans of the various My Weird School series (there are several) will recognize and like. To be sure, the facts are there, but they are presented in a fashion that distracts as much as it informs. In the geography book, for example, A.J. starts the chapter on mountains by saying, “Why do we have mountains? Because if we didn’t, mountain climbing would be really boring.” And then there is a footnote: “It’s almost time for the chapter on natural disasters! I can’t wait!” This sort of approach is presumably supposed to build some heady excitement for learning things, and certainly there is learning here: “The tallest mountain on Earth is Mauna Kea, a volcano on the island of Hawaii. The base of Mauna Kea is at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, so the summit only rises 13,796 feet above sea level. But Mauna Kea is 33,000 feet tall, much higher than Mount Everest. I wonder if Mount Everest is jealous.” Kids who do enjoy the presentation will certainly learn some things: “If you like to fly kites or ride dune buggies, you should go to Namibia. The rust-red sand dunes there are the highest in the world.” There is information in the geography book on various customs around the world: “Every Chinese citizen over eleven years old has to plant at least three trees every year.” And there is material on every state in the U.S.: “Arkansas has the only diamond mine in North America.” “The Empire State Building, Rockefeller Center, the Pentagon, the United States Treasury, a dozen other government buildings in Washington, D.C., and fourteen state capitols were built using Indiana limestone.” “Minnesota has more shoreline than California, Florida, and Hawaii combined.” The information here is delivered in scattershot fashion with a minimum of organization – it is accurate, though, and fans of A.J. and Andrea (the two narrators, each of whom says to ignore the other) will enjoy their back-and-forth.

     Gutman’s sports book works somewhat better than his geography one: sports are not academically significant in the way geography is, and somehow that helps the facts in the book mesh better with the offhand format. Among the information here is that there is no recording of the first Super Bowl, because the tape was reused; a Supreme Court Justice, Byron White, once played professional football; baseball umpires use hand signals for balls and strikes because a deaf-mute player in the 1890s needed them and they caught on with other players; the man who invented basketball also devised one of the first football helmets; someone once used hockey’s Stanley Cup as a cereal bowl; a Boston dentist invented the golf tee; and on and on – this is really a book of trivia, which makes sense in a sports context. Baseball, football, soccer, basketball, hockey, golf, and auto racing get their own chapters here, with skating and skiing and tennis and volleyball and other sports given the once-over-even-more-lightly in a single chapter. Among the most interesting trivia in the book are the ones involving the Olympics, such as mentions of some of the sports that used to be included: tug-of-war, rope climbing, and live pigeon shooting. And American kids may be quite surprised to find out that the world’s two most popular sports are soccer (No. 1) and cricket (No. 2). Both the My Weird School Fast Facts books are enjoyable expansions of the My Weird School franchise, and if neither is presented in a way that makes its facts truly memorable, both are enjoyable enough so that fans of Gutman and Paillot will likely recall some of what A.J. and Andrea tell them. For a few minutes, anyway.

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