Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Science + Fiction

A reader and frequent commentator asks:
My two daughters are both compulsive readers, gobbling up everything in their path. As a result, they both have very large vocabularies are very well informed about a range of things. I love it--instead of watching TV and getting dumb, they're reading, and getting smart. Mostly they read novels, but it's amazing how much about the real world you can learn from reading fiction.

One thing I'm sorry about is that they don't seem to be assimilating any basic science literacy from their reading. So my question for you, or maybe for your blog readers, is can you recommend any books that kids will love that contain science or math? They could be fiction or nonfiction, but if nonfiction, they have to be fun to read -- not too rinkydink on the one hand, nor too dry on the other.

They don't have to be great literature, just fun for 10-16 year-olds to read. I want to tap in that ability (and willingness) they have to effortlessly vacuum up knowledge. It would be cool if they knew as much about geology as they know about English folklore of magical creatures.

The one perfect example I can think of is The Phantom Tollbooth. I'd like 50 more books like that one.
We were discussing this in light of The Faulty Thermodynamics of Children's Stories. I've always wondered about the three bowls of porridge in Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Why is Mama Bear's porridge the coldest? Doesn't that mean she has the smallest bowl?
The only way that the story can make sense is if, for some reason, the Mama Bear has the smallest portion of porridge. In which case, this is a story with a very different moral than the original--it's a story about the oppression of the Mama Bear, either because the patriarchy is forcing her to eat only the scraps left behind after her husband and child have had their fill, or because the unhealthy woodland media culture has saddled her with a negative body image, leading to an eating disorder.
Or, perhaps, it should have been a tipoff to Goldilocks that the ordinary rules of Physics do not apply in that house. Never mind the nap; she should get the hell out of there ASAP.

Leave your book recommendations in the comments.

To get the ball rolling, how about Mr Tompkins in Wonderland and Mr Tompkins Explores the Atom for Physics?

For Mathematics, I likeI tried to read Flatland - A romance of many dimensions by Edwin A. Abbott because Rudy Rucker referred to it so extensively, but I found the language difficult (for a teen).

Uncertain Principles picked up this thread, and there are more suggestions over in his comments.


  1. How about A wrinkle in time, by Madeline L'Engel? Physicsy things in that. And the rest of the series was quite good too...

    Flowers for Algernon?

    There's a list of sci-fi for young adults here that might be helpful (there are lots of things on there that I really enjoyed when I was younger).

    Oh, and John Christopher's Sword of the Spirits trilogy, which is sort of about science indirectly - it's set in the future and people think science is evil, but there is a group of people keeping it alive secretly. It's a good one for looking at the use and misuse of science.

  2. What about Thomas Hagar's The Demon Under the Microscope which is certainly suitable for high school students. It has been a long time since I was that age but I might have enjoyed it in early high school or even before.

    I did read George Gamow's One Two Three Infinity and Paul de Kruif's Microbe Hunters when I was between 10 and 12 and loved both of them. I also read Madame Curie about the same time and loved it. I actually think I read Madame Curie first, and then the other two.

  3. My kids - now adults - enjoyed Ursula K LeGuin's books, and they are both BIG Phantom Tollbooth fans. They also love Lemony Snicket and Madeleine L'Engel's books.( and I read everything they did and found it all very interesting)

  4. Some of Madeline L'Engle's science is out of date (biology knowledge changes fast....) but that's who I thought of, too. I'll think some more, but would also recommend asking your librarian.

    When I was about that age I stumbled on a book called something like "Medical Detectives". It was about public health puzzles that had been figured out, such as the Legionnaires Disease outbreak in Philly that gave the disease its name. I can't remember much more about the book, but I remember that I loved it. So you could try some popularized non-fiction like that. Maybe Hot Zone, if you don't think the description of how Ebola kills a person would be too scary for them.

  5. bsci08:04

    The first non-fiction title that comes to mind is "The Double Helix" The book is undeniably sexist and has historical inaccuracies, but it's very well written (probably more for a 16-year old than a 10-year old) and may get the reader more interested in "adult" books with accurate tellings about the discovery of DNA structure.

    Richard Feynman's autobiographical book are also good reads (though again a bit sexist). "What do you care what other people think" is probably the better and more serious book (with an amazing appendix on why the Challenger exploded), but I'm not sure how it would read without getting a feel for the person by reading "Surely you're joking..." first.

    Oliver Sachs is also a great non-fiction writer. His oldest stuff like "Awakenings" is a bit too clinical if you don't know some of the terminology, but books like "The man who mistook his wife for a hat" and "Anthropologist on mars" are probably good for a 16-year-old.

    I might think of more stuff later.

  6. Robert Heinlein wrote a whole bunch of juvenile novels in the 1950s, with kids doing things like building rocket ships in the backyard. Some of the science is dated, but it's good discussion points, and the basics are sound.

    There are also some lovely alternate-history books out there, which deal with using modern scientific knowledge in the ancient world, etc. These are probably a bit too adult for your kids, but take a look at the 1632 series by Eric Flint and the Nantucket series by SM Stirling. Also bordering on older adolescent territory is the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon, which has a fair amount of medicine and biology mixed in with the romance.

    For kids, there's always Harry Turtledove's timetraveler's series.

  7. Just keep them away from the Michael Crichton section and they'll be fine!

    The book on Fermat's Last Theorem by Simon Singh (it may have been republished as Fermat's Enigma) is easy, interesting read. The Feynman books suggested above are also good.

  8. Mama Bear's porridge is coldest because it was poured first.

  9. Kai, you solved the conundrum!

    Usually, the cook serves everyone else and themselves last. Perhaps Papa Bear made the porridge and served Mama Bear, Baby Bear and himself in that order.

  10. Anonymous20:10

    These are a lot of great suggestions! I'll see if I can get my daughters to try them out. I asked our pediatrician the same question, and she came up with
    "Me and Frumpet", by Evan G. Valens, 1958. Has anyone read it?
    I loved all the Feynman memoirs, but I read them later in life when I was able to approach his attitude towards women with a little bit of my own perspective. Not sure I'd want to turn Feynman loose on my girls just yet. What I like about Phantom Tollboth, as opposed to some of the more science fictiony things, is that the math in it (to my memory) is really accurate, whereas in scoence fiction, the science serves the fiction. Maybe accurate, maybe not.

  11. I didn't fully appreciate the Phantom Tollbooth until I started working in Meteorology. Did you know there really is a latitude belt called the Doldrums (aka the horse belt)?

    Why? Because winds are so light that it takes ships f.o.r.e.v.e.r to traverse the region. Sailors sometimes have to kill and eat the horses to stay alive.

  12. I always thought that Mama Bear was a sweet feminine bear and had a lower tolerance for hot foods.

    For books I like the Feynman biographies for science inspiration.

    There's also a lot of hard science fiction that leverages our current knowledge of cosmology. It was there that I first encountered strings, black holes, and other natural dangers to space travelers. I don't read so much of that any more so no authors are springing to mind, but it's not too hard to find.

  13. Carl Hiaasen's books for children, Hoot and Flush, include doses of ecology and action. Ohh, I see on his website that Scat just came out.


  14. Even though the books are

    (a) rather dated now, in more ways than one; and

    (b) aimed at the low end of the age demographic we are talking about, or younger;

    I still feel that someone should mention the Danny Dunn books as a great example of science education cloaked in children's fiction.

    Danny Dunn should get a "reboot" with contemporary stories, like Nancy Drew.

  15. I also agree with the Madeline L'Engle books. I loved them as a child. If you want to get more scientific, how about 101 Science Things Book http://www.stevespanglerscience.com/product/1887 or Thomas Edison for Kids http://www.stevespanglerscience.com/product/1949


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