Science books for kids matter (or used to)

The elementary school I attended hosted an annual book fair, and every year I went with my mother to browse. I would check out the sports books first, to see whether there were any books about baseball I had not already read (typically, no). There was also a small table of science books, and in 1962 when I was in the 4th grade, one of them caught my eye: a lavishly illustrated oversized “Deluxe Golden Book” entitled The World of Science.

My copy of The World of Science by Jane Werner Watson, purchased in 1962 when I was in the 4th grade.

My copy of The World of Science by Jane Werner Watson, purchased in 1962 when I was in the 4th grade.

As I started leafing through it, I noticed one of the cutest girls in my class regarding me with what I interpreted as interest. Right then I resolved to buy the book, or more accurately, to persuade my mother to buy it, as the price tag was pretty steep. Impressing girls is a great motivator.

The title page.

The title page.

As it turned out, I read the whole book, and loved it as much as my favorite baseball books. As you can see from these photos I took with my iPhone, I still have it. Though the book, originally published in 1958, has been out of print for a long time, it appears that you can pick up a used hardcover copy for 74 cents via amazon. It’s also on ebay.

Jane Werner Watson wrote many children’s books, some still in print, and mostly not about science. The World of Science is beautifully written and produced, covering a wide range of topics with admirable accuracy and clarity.

The chapter on physics includes a section on theoretical physics which opens with a story about a boy asking his father why the ball in his wagon rolls to the back when the wagon starts up and then rolls to the front when the wagon stops.

First page of the section on theoretical physics. Who's the guy in the bow tie?

First page of the section on theoretical physics. Who’s the guy in the bow tie?

Years after reading that story, when I saw the 1981 BBC interview of Richard Feynman done by Christopher Sykes (The Pleasure of Finding Things Out.), I was startled to hear the same story told in almost the same words. Listen to the part between 7:10 and 9:05 (but be warned — once you start listening it might be hard to stop).

I wondered at first what was going on … had Feynman stolen the story from the Golden Book I had read as a child?

The explanation became clearer when I opened the book for the first time in many years; now I recognized that guy in the picture wearing the bow tie. Perusing the very small print on the one page of acknowledgements in the front, I realized that most of the content of the book had been drawn from interviews with Caltech professors. The list of people acknowledged is a scientific All-Star team. For the physics chapter alone it includes Carl Anderson, Robert Bacher, Felix Boehm, Richard Feynman, Murray Gell-Mann, and Robert Walker, among others. In chemistry there’s Pauling, in biology there’s Beadle and Sperry, in geology there’s Patterson and Press, in astronomy there’s Greenstein, in engineering there’s Liepmann, etc. (Alas, I don’t see the names of any women.) Even when pictured, none of these scientists are identified in the text itself; they are listed only on the acknowledgements page, which I would have skipped over as a kid.

It seems that in 1954 Jane Werner (1915-2004) had married Earnest C. Watson (1892-1970), a Caltech physicist known for the theatrical flair of his lectures (and after whom Caltech’s Watson Public Lecture Series is named), when Jane was 39 and Earnest was 62. There must be folks around Caltech who knew Jane Watson (I did not), and I would welcome comments from readers telling us more about her. I assume that she became interested in writing a science book for children not long after she joined the Caltech family. It was a big undertaking, judging from the long list of people she talked to. Earnest, at that time Caltech’s Dean of the Faculty, wrote an inspiring foreword for the book.

I was drawn especially to the physics chapter, but there were other parts of the book that I really liked, such as a discussion of how the brain can be mapped, and an explanation of why skin grafts often get rejected. After reading the statistics section, I flipped pennies thousands of times and made histograms. I did the same thing with dice.

One particular nugget I learned from the book, though, made a notably deeper impression than any other: parity is not conserved in nuclear beta decay, hence the laws of physics make a distinction between left and right! If you think of the decaying nucleus as a spinning hand grenade, with the direction of spin indicated by the fingers of your left hand, the electron “shrapnel” prefers to be emitted along the direction of your thumb, which means you can tell whether or not you are watching the decay in a mirror (which interchanges left and right). It gave me a thrill to find out that a relatively simple experiment would reveal such a fundamental and unexpected property of matter.

The World of Science was a book for kids, and I was not quite 10 when I first read it (to within a few months, that was 50 years ago). It was published in 1958, and the first experimental result demonstrating the nonconservation of parity had been published in 1957. Watson explains the experiment quite cogently. It seems amazing to me now that a book for school children did such a fine job of conveying the excitement generated by a very recent discovery about elementary particles.

Description of experimental confirmation of parity nonconservation

Description of experimental confirmation of parity nonconservation

By the way, if the mirror had the ability to interchange matter and antimatter as well as left and right, then the decay of the nucleus and its “mirror image” would look the same. Physicists call this CP symmetry (C for charge conjugation and P for parity). But even CP symmetry is not exact, which helps to explain why we are made of matter instead of antimatter. Jane Werner Watson could not have known about that in 1958, because CP nonconservation was not discovered until 1964. There is one surviving symmetry, inviolable as far as we know, in which the “mirror” also changes the direction of time (CPT symmetry).

I read other science books at around the same age, some very good and some not so good. One I especially liked was Isaac Asimov’s Breakthroughs in Science, which told stories, engaging as well as informative, about great scientists throughout history and their discoveries. But The World of Science was special, because it provided such an accessible account of cutting-edge contemporary science. I’ve never encountered another book aimed at the same age bracket that does this as well.

Judging from the scientific sophistication and accuracy of its content, I presume that some of the scientists Watson interviewed must have been seriously involved in the production of the book. It was a highly successful outreach project over 50 years ago.

Many questions come to mind. How many other readers were as deeply touched as I was by The World of Science? Do any readers of this blog remember it from their childhoods and what did they think of it? How did Jane Watson manage to get such widespread cooperation from the Caltech faculty? Are there any comparable up-to-date books available today? Can online resources (including blogs) have the same kind of impact on today’s children? Will bow ties for professors come back anytime soon?

And … what was your favorite science book when you were growing up? Tell us in the comments.

43 thoughts on “Science books for kids matter (or used to)

  1. I read parts of Isaac Aasimov’s ‘New Guide to Science’ as a kid, and I found that very inspiring. Reading the chemistry parts compelled me to buy a chemistry model kit from UCLA’s student store. When I was really young, I read whatever I could get my hands on about dinosaurs. Other sources of inspiration included the Disney ride ‘Adventure Thru Inner Space’ (there is stuff in there that inspired some of my research interests), the funky visuals I saw during my many migraine headaches, tons and tons of things from video games and board games, and (of course!) the statistics on the back of baseball cards.

    (I figured it was worth mentioning non-book inspirations as well.)

    • Yeah, baseball cards were big for me, too. The first year I collected was 1961, and I acquired an almost complete Topps set buying one pack at a time from a neighborhood stationery store. I chewed a lot of bubble gum that year.

      • I am not at all surprised to find out you collected baseball cards, as I remember you’re a big fan! I tried the Topps gum once and was not impressed. I mainly hoped that it didn’t ruin the back of a good card, especially when I bought packs from older years (where some of the cards were worth a little bit).

        I have my fingers crossed for Wednesday’s announcement of the HOF voting results. :)

          • Jealous!

            I don’t have anything anywhere near that magnitude of value, and many of the cards that were my most valuable ones (1985 Topps McGwire and Clemens rookies, etc.) have lessened in monetary value in recent years and also give me somewhat of a bitter taste these days.

            Now that I can afford it, at some point I am going to just walk into a baseball card store and buy some old, expensive packs just to try my luck.

  2. One book that caught my interest and helped shape my choice of study was “Anilin”, a German book describing the development of modern chemistry and chemical industry, published in the 1930ies in German, but watching the moon landings on TV since early childhood (and being baffled why they stopped visiting there) certainly brought more interest in sciences in general.

  3. Interesting post. My favourite childhood science book was a hand-me-down from the family attic – it was in tatters but I still devoured every page of it. I tried to find a better copy of it but couldn’t in any of the libraries or bookstores. It was called Physics for Entertainment by Ya. Perelman (2 volumes). Particularly loved the snippets from fiction (e.g., Invisible man) and how he related the physics behind them. The fact that Physics could be enjoyed outside of a school textbook was quite revelatory at that age.

  4. For me, it was the Tell Me Why series of books by Arkady Leokum. I had little access to other quality science books having been brought up in a small town in southern India and I devoured this. There was a lot of respect for science in my town despite little science education. Later, it was a BBC documentary including an animation describing Continental Drift that blew my mind when I was 12. From there (in order): planetary geology (Earth’s interior), the solar system and its formation, nebulae and the galaxy, the interior of the Sun (all from Dorling Kindersley), nuclear physics, the rest of physics and reason.

    Science outreach works. You need pretty pictures, captivating animations and a really good typeface.

  5. I teach 8th grade science. I keep as many science books as possible out in my classroom… From national geographic publications I had as a kid, lots of DK eyewitness publications, I love David Mcaully’s “The way We Work” and giant sized book on human anatomy. Books are very important. Almost all of them were purchased with my own personal teacher pocket money, or from mom who buys extras after her volunteer hours at the public library. Kids have very little access to good books these days. Out school library has little to work with and very short hours. Keep books coming at educators!

  6. Honestly, I was never really drawn to science books as a child. This is sometimes hard to admit but I actually loved going to the library to read cookbooks! I was that 7-year old kid that kept takeout menus on her bed stand and read them before going to sleep and then dreamed of designing a restaurant serving only foods that fitted my taste. Long story short, it was my curiosity in food science that eventually led me to my career in science/ pharmacy. My Chemistry AP teacher lent me “The Chemistry of Toast – a food science investigation.” I think food science is a very clever and relatable topic for most people because we are always eating and sharing food with others. Also, what better way to start a conversation than “So do you know why there are holes on Swiss cheese?”

  7. I forgot to mention that “Bill Nye the Science Guy” was a favorite show of mine and many of my peers for those of us that grew up in the 90s. Touching on the topic of food science again, I have a younger cousin who loved learning through the Food Network shows “Unwrapped” and “Good Eats” with Alton Brown.

  8. Isaac Asimov’s “The Left Hand of the Electron”, published 1972, a wonderful collection of 17 essays, including some on “parity violation” in organic chemistry.
    For video, it’s always worth mentioning the amazing “Powers of Ten” films (and accompanying book).

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  10. Two books come to mind for myself:

    I wasn’t still a child, but I read Jeffrey Weeks’ “The Shape of Space” while in High School, and it did a great deal to inspire me.

    Also, my Elementary School taught multiplication in third grade. When I finished filling out a day’s worth of “multiplication tables,” I was referred to our classroom’s “library” which had ~10 books. One of these was a gem called “Mars.” I don’t remember the subtitle, but the book analyzed Mars through the lenses of different branches of science.

  11. I think one of the best demonstrations of how important science books are for a kid are documented in the book The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind – the story of a boy from Malawi who built a wind turbine for his family, inspired by old physics books, basically the only books available at the library of his school.

    I can hardly remember which particular books had inspired me – I read anything on science available in the house – most of it not really written specifically for children. I went through all the classical phases: Astronomy inspired by Star Trek, dinosaurs and animals in generals, the inner workings of the brain, mathematical puzzles… I was fond of Gödel, Escher, Bach as a teenager and by Einstein’s introduction on special relativity.

    • Dear Elkement,

      Your example of the boy from Malawi is as inspiring as it is humbling for someone like myself, who came from a country where science and “the pleasure of finding things out” used to mean so much in our distant past. I don’t remember reading any science books when I was growing up and given my fascination with math olympiad books, I expect that I would have loved to read a few of the books mentioned in the comments above. Maybe it’s just me, but growing up in Greece in the 80s and 90s, there was no excitement about science, or technology, or the arts. Most of us were too busy watching our favorite basketball and soccer players become rich and famous, to have any time to read books about the stars, or about the food science behind the holes in Swiss cheese.

      My country is in trouble these days. It is not our financial debt that is responsible for this time of despair and hardship. It is the fact that most of us forgot what it feels like to create something with our own two hands – the adrenaline rush and the flushed cheeks that come with intense play. We are afraid that we forgot how to do great things, as if our ancient ancestors had some magic wand which was lost in the mists of time. There is no magic wand – there are only little things, like good science books, an inspiring volleyball coach, a mom that studies history and math with you every day. And these small things make the biggest difference.

      If one watches minutes 20-27 of Sykes’ interview with Feynman, it becomes obvious that all the money and fame and genius in the world is not going to amount to much if the element of play and intense curiosity about the world is not present in an individual and in an institution. I am not sure what the next step for Greece, or for the world is, but I have a feeling that inspiring each generation to play and to fail, to make stuff and to fail until they are panting with exhaustion, is going to be an important aspect of success.

      • Thanks for the detailed reply! You should consider promoting this comment into a full blog post. Your analysis is much more interesting than most of the scholarly articles about the situation in Greece, written by experts in politics and finance.

  12. My mother was a member of the Book of the Month Club and two selections that I remember in the early-mid sixties very well were: Red Giants and White Dwarfs – Robert Jastrow, and The World of Mathematics – James R. Newman. Both were later republished and are still popular.

  13. I discovered “Relativity for the Million” by Martin Gardner in my dad’s bookshelf when I was twelve and it completely blew my mind. That is the book that got me hooked on theoretical physics, so I recommend it to everybody who will listen. I was also quite fond of “The Cartoon Guide to Genetics”, since at the time I was interested in building an army of super-mutants. Sadly that dream never panned out. But it was a great book.

  14. Your post brought to mind two books I read when I was in elementary school: The Story of Atomic Energy by Laura Fermi (Enrico’s wife, I believe), which was easy to read but still amazing; and The Mind by John Rowan Wilson (part of the Life Science Library), which covered among other things illusions and how the senses worked (and how the mind is easily tricked!) The whole series was great, but I particularly enjoyed that one title.
    I hadn’t thought about those two books in a long time…
    http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B0006AX0EM/ref=oh_details_o00_s00_i00
    http://www.amazon.com/mind-Life-science-library/dp/B0007DRB20/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1357675478&sr=1-1

  15. I unfortunately missed out on science books as a small kid, but I really loved a german TV show called “the program with the mouse” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Die_Sendung_mit_der_Maus). It’s not really about pure science but rather a general understanding of how things work. It aims to explain “riddles of the everyday world” to young kids, maybe around 4-6 years old. For example, it might explain how holes get into bread, how fridge magnets work (and even how they are produced) or how stripes get into tooth paste. You know, the questions that really matter ;)

    It’s quite a brilliant program in that it not only succeeds in explaining things in an extremely simple language, but often sets out to investigate a question either with the item at hand or if this is not possible with items that behave in a somewhat analogous way. This was quite fun because even as a kid you could often try out such things without any help and convince yourself.

  16. For me, like a previous commenter, it was books from the Life Sciences Library published by Time-Life in the 1960s (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Life_Science_Library). These were my Dad’s originally, but they passed down to me, and I remember spending a lot of my time reading books in this series when I was around 10 or 11 (my favorite titles were “Mathematics”, “Energy”, and “Man and Space”). I also remember being inspired around this time to build my own laboratory of sorts in my room, which was in an upstairs loft, far from prying eyes of parents. This lab produced many failed (and in hindsight, dangerous) experiments, however, I do remember one success which was the construction of an electric motor from paperclips, enameled wire, a battery, and a magnet, the recipe for which I believe I got from the book “Machines” in the Life Sciences Library. I am not sure if it was the fact that I was finally successful with one of my experiments (I actually got really good at winding my own electric motors), but these books had a huge impact on me wanting to go into science. I loved those books, and I look back fondly on that time when everything was no new and interesting and ready to be tested in my room/lab.

    OJP.

  17. OK, I am someone who was directly influenced by the book “The World of Science”. It was a gift of a friend of my family who thought I needed encouragement with math and science. I kept reading all I could find. I read just about all the math and science books in my well stocked high school library. I went to MIT, and there I met my wife-to-be. So hell yes, this book has been a tremendous influence in my life (also the notorious Golden Book of Chemistry experiments).

  18. I remember reading Watson’s “Frosty the Snow Man.” A bachelor most of his life, Watson met Jane Werner, a Santa Barbara resident and prolific author and editor of more than 200 children’s books, while they were on a Mediterranean cruise. He wrote a friend, “I have something surprising to tell you. In fact, I’m still surprised myself. I’m going to be married.” A few months later, they were married in Scotland. They divided their time between Pasadena and Earnest’s house in Monteceito, which helps to explain how Jane got to know so many of the Caltech faculty she wrote about in “The World of Science.” After Earnest retired from Caltech in 1960, he and Jane moved to Delhi, India, where Earnest served as this country’s scientific attache for several years.

    Jane continued writing books for children and young adults well into her seventies. Some of the titles reflect her abiding interest in the world’s societal problems: “World in Danger–Too many People,” published in 1994 (she “address this monumental issue in words and language that can be easily understood by twelve-year-olds,” wrote one reviewer); “Alternate Energy Sources” (1979); and even one joint book with her physicist husband, “This Year at Christmas: A World of Christmases” (1980).

    Judith

    • Dear Judith,

      Thank you for opening this rare window into the lives of these amazing individuals. I invite my single friends to Mediterranean escapades every summer for the sea and the sun. The food is pretty delicious too. I guess there are other benefits too, including indirect ones, like inspiring a young kid 50 years ago to go into physics and make breakthrough discoveries.

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  20. Thank you for this website!!

    When I was a kid, my Mom bought the same book as you have: “Deluxe Golden Book” entitled “The World of Science.” Little did I know back then as a 3rd grader way back in 1958 that I would end up at Caltech! I, too, had zero idea that many of the chapters were authored by Caltech faculty… at the time, I enjoyed reading about the science and looking at the figures (never really paying attention to the “old people” in the photos!).

    I was very fortunate to have BOTH Professor Feynman as well as Professor Gell-Mann autograph my copy of this classic on THE page that has their joint photo (which you show in your post above). When I asked Prof. Gell-Mann for his autograph, he looked at Feynman’s autograph on the page and said, “I know that fellow.” The, he glanced again at his photo and said something like, “Those neurons I had back then are long gone.” Of course, the neurons that he had at the time I got his autograph were just as impressive!

    As an alum, I am considering donating this book to Caltech at some point…

    With respect to other reading material as an elementary school kid, I LOVED Kenneth M. Swezey’s books on hands-on science experiments, including “After Dinner Science,” “Science Magic,” etc. I also received monthly (?) newsletters by Don Herbert (“Mr. Wizard”) on various topics including static electricity, surface tension, etc. And, around the same time, there was a monthly (?) set of experiments by a company called “Things of Science,” which came in the mail, packaged in manilla envelopes and small boxes that were also fun to do. At the time, I asked, and I received, permission from my 5th grade teacher (at Hancock Park Elementary in LA) to perform experiments based on these publications before my classmates. That’s when I knew that I wanted to be a scientist! Fond memories…

  21. My experience with the book was pretty much as you describe, loving baseball, girls, and accepted to Cal Tech (but went elsewhere, although my best grade school friend DID get his ) while Feymen was there) although mine came as a gift from my father as a HS freshman in 1958. I had it until a few years ago through MANY moves and possession discards, when I gave it to a young man who I hoped would cherish it as I did. Now I have a grandson who just turned six, and It took me years to track down the title of the book, with the help of many. But your article was the gold mine. Just reordered it for my grandson. Thanks so much. You made my day, both in being able to secure a copy and being able to relive how much that book meant to me.

      • I think that’s Murray G-M in the bow tie. Did anybody mention Gamow’s little book for young readers—the Mr. Tomkins series. As I recall, David gave that book to me early in our marriage (maybe it contributed to its longevity—now going on 54 years). As for Jane’s’ access to the faculty, the campus was truly a different place then, really small, everyone was on a first-name basis, and Earnest was such an iconic figure by the 50s, that Jane would have had no trouble getting the faculty to sit down and talk to her. Also, she was a really talented writer.

        Also, people read books then; there was even a first-rate physics library.

        Judy

  22. My dad was stationed to the Philippines in 1960. When my mom, my sister and I joined him that summer he had gifts for each of us; mine was a copy of The World of Science. I was seven years old and I read it through though much of it went over my head but I read it again and again. Sometime in the last twenty years or so I loaned this book, I don’t remember to whom, and it never came back. I have someone special, my granddaughter, that I think would enjoy it. She’s eleven now, but her fascination with science is already longstanding; when she was four she told my wife, “Grandma, I want you to tell me all about the moon and grandma, don’t leave anything out.” I realize that things have changed since 1958 but the best of this book is the telling and I’ve got a strong feeling she’ll love it.

    I was looking for a used copy when I found your blog entry. A lovely appreciation, plus it gave me all the info I needed to do a productive search – all I remembered was a vague picture of the cover & I ended up on your blog based on a link in Google images.

    I didn’t grow up to be a scientist; my professional life has been in data systems design, software development, and the like. I loved this book because of the “Oh WOW!” feeling it gave me. I’m still fascinated by science and I’ve read science fiction all my life, still looking for that same feeling. In fact, a few months ago I gave my granddaughter another favorite book, my old hardback copy of A Wrinkle in Time. I can’t wait to give her The World of Science (after I re-read it again).

  23. I received a copy of The World of Science when I was quite young, perhaps 8 or 9, and mostly interested in astronomy. I was raised in the UK but had a great-uncle who had emigrated and lived in Kentucky. I am pretty sure it was his wife, a remarkable lady in her own right, who gave me the book. As you might imagine the pictures were the hook, but there was so much in the book, you just knew there was a vast world out there. The bit on parity violation was a mystery to me, but later on I latched on to new bits of knowledge because I had already read about them. I became a chemist and later a software engineer, moving to the US. Now I live in Rochester NY and count among my friends a certain Professor formerly of Cal Tech. Since my wife and I introduced him to his wife, and I am here partly because I read the book, he owes his connubial bliss in part to Jane Werner Watson and the faculty of Cal Tech!

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