Showing posts with label science. Show all posts
Showing posts with label science. Show all posts

Thursday, December 26, 2019

William Harvey by Thomas Wright


Rating: WORTHY!

Subtitled 'A Life in Circulation" (humor maybe?!) this biography of Harvey, the man who, in Elizabethan times, went against prevailing teaching and realized that blood doesn't ebb and flow in your vessels like an ocean lapping on the beach, but actually circulates. Galen was wrong! Who knew? Galen was a complete clown from what this book reveals of his teachings, but in Elizabethan times, he was a god of medicine and there were professional penalties for straying from what he taught, no matter how absurd it was.

Harvey came from a relatively modest background and rose to great heights. He lived at the same time as Elizabeth the First, William Shakespeare, Francis Bacon, John Donne, Christopher Marlowe, John Dee, Francis Drake, and Donald Trump (one of those may be fake news). He studied at what was then the center of diversity and education: Padua University.

Language was no barrier because all academics spoke Latin back then no matter which country they hailed from. He kept his head down and studied hard and did well, returning to England to be - eventually - accepted into the world of professional Physicians - such as it was back then. Blood-letting as a cure-all was still in vogue, as it would be for another three hundred years notwithstanding Harvey's discoveries, and his discoveries took time to gain traction since they flew in the face of accepted philosophy.

Those discoveries were made at a high cost to animals which were dissected alive and in great numbers as he demonstrated what he found to be the reality of blood circulation and the heart's purpose being a powerful pump. It turns out that blood was not created in the liver and delivered slowly to the various bodily organs, but was in continuous circulation and revitalized as it went. Parts of this book were hard for me to read as a vegetarian who went into a depression when a pet rat died, but I muddled through it and learned a lot. I commend this as a worthy read.


Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Mia Marcotte and the Robot by Jeanne Wald, Saliha Çalışkan


Rating: WORTHY!

This is a middle-grade story which isn't exactly my cup of tea, but it's entertaining enough that it passes muster for me. What I liked about it was that it stars a female protagonist who is self-motivated, imaginative, and a strong character, and who is deeply interested in science. All of that is a big plus. What I didn't like about it was that the 'rather dumb, pedantic, literal robot' has been done to death. It was already tiresome when Star Trek Next Generation introduced the ridiculous Commander Data and it could only go downhill from there. I think the science could have been a bit stronger and more prominent, too. Those gripes aside, I liked Mia and her attitude and the story was a short, fast read illustrated nicely by Turkish illustrator Saliha Calıskan.

One annoying thing to me was Mia's father's habit of referring to Mia as 'louloute', which is a diminutive endearment (purportedly!) for a young female child. I felt giving her a pet name and using it so often rather diminished poor Mia, who already had enough to deal with. Plus it felt so out of place. Maybe this family lived in Louisiana, but there was no mention of that state in the novel. The family name is suggestive of French origins, but there was nothing in the story to indicate why her dad would use this term since not a word of French was spoken in the entire story to indicate any such origin or tradition.

Mia really wants to be an astronaut, but in order to get one small step closer, she needs to do well in the science fair, but she needs a project! Can her visiting aunt's robot Aizek help her or will he get her into trouble? And can she help him learn to be a better robot? Those are the questions explored and answered here and despite some issues with it, I consider it a worthy read for a young female - and male - audience.


Saturday, November 2, 2019

Gender and Our Brains by Gina Rippon


Rating: WARTY!

This was subtitled "how new neuroscience explodes the myths of the male and female minds,"which struck me as odd. is the author goignt o argue that neither male nor female has a mind?! But I thought this would be more interesting than it actually was. My main problem with it was how long and dry it was. It felt more like reading an academic paper than it did a book aimed at the general populace, but maybe it wasn't aimed at the genpop. Who knows. For me it was interesting only in parts. One problem with it was that it spent so much time digging into the history of the misperceptions about female brains, but it seemed to me that anyone reading this would be already familiar with all of that - to one extent or another, so a simple précis of that history would have been more than sufficient. This author disagreed!

Once I realized that, I gave up any pretense of reading it and simply skimmed it, stopping at points that interested me for deeper reading. Curiously, one of the most fascinating parts to my mind was the discussion of gender differentiation among babies and infants - where there is little to none, not surprisingly. Paradoxically, I was more interested in learning if the brains were in any way different, and if so why and how, but there seemed to be very little on that topic - unless I missed it.

Maybe the overall message was that they're really not, which is largely what I was expecting. Clearly men and women are not alike, but that doesn't mean they should not be treated alike wherever possible and sensible. I mean it's foolish to pretend we're so alike to the extent that we ignore that women have a womb and a period among many other things, and are underrepresented in medical testing for drug safety, for example. Obviously, with some understandable differences in the chemicals raging through a body, there have to be some differences, but I wasn't able to easily find any real discussion on that topic. I found parts that touched on it, but the discussion seemed to whiplash between 'well they're different here', and 'but not much', or 'they're different here', and 'whether this is nature or nurture is unclear' and so on.

In short, the whole thing felt it was a bit of a an exercise in fence-sitting to me, and I became frustrated with all the pussy-footing around. At little more pedagogy would have been appreciated, but what there was seemed lost, like seawater buried under the foam when the wave rolls ashore leaving nothing but shifting sand and froth. So if you're into deep academic papers, then this might work for you, but as a teaching tool for those of us who wanted some clear idea of what, if any, real differences there are, why and how these come about, and what they might rationally mean, this book failed me. I therefore can't commend it as a worthy read.


Monday, September 2, 2019

Experiment with Kitchen Science by Nick Arnold


Rating: WORTHY!

From an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

What kid doesn't like to mess it up in the kitchen? This book facilitates all of that, but with a purpose: that of learning some science (and making some sweet treats along the way). We learn how to make butter, how to make a non-Newtonian fluid - which is a lot more fun than it sounds. We lean about fat and protein, starch and cellulose, swelling jellies, and how to mix oil and water!

We learn about specific gravity, air pressure, and surface tension, making beautiful paintings using milk, dishwashing liquid and food coloring, and also about colored foam and giant green eggs! The lesson on bicarbonate of soda and volcanoes makes some crunchy sweet treats, but note that not everything that results from these scientific forays ends up being edible! Educational it is, though. There will definitely need to be a lesson about brushing teeth properly after that one.

Throughout the book there are safety warnings and copious advice on when adults should step in and help out. I think this was a smart, fun, safe, entertaining, and very educational book, and I commend it fully.


Saturday, August 31, 2019

The Water Cycle by Anita Ganeri, Chris Oxlade, Pau Morgan


Rating: WORTHY!

This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

Erratum:
In the back of the book, in a section labeled 'Notes for Teachers and Parents', I read in the second paragraph "How do the children think this might have effected the city?" which should have employed 'affected' rather than 'effected'. I'd recommend changing that before any teachers read it! It's much more effective, and not an affectation!

This was an amusingly-illustrated (by Morgan) and informatively-written (by Ganeri and Oxlade) book which discusses the water cycle, without which Earth would be a desert The book discusses, sometimes a bit repetitively, but repetition helps recollection, how water from the oceans evaporates and later precipitates over land as fresh water, which nourishes the soil and eventually flows back to the ocean via rivers, thereby completing the cycle.

The water cycle is a critical part of everyone's need for water, and access is becoming more stressed as the climate change grows worse and the rains come too harshly or not at all, and changing snowfall patterns leave less water to return to the rivers and ocean in spring. Lack of access to sufficient clean fresh water is looming as the number one crisis on our planet. As spoiled Americans each splash through 300 gallons a day in average, the poorer residents of, say, Chennai, in India, which is undergoing an appalling drought in 2019, have less than eight gallons per person per day.

Ava and George the 'geo-detectives' are our guides in this story, and are well-informed. Taking trips on boats and via airplane and even a parachute, and traveling from beach to mountain, they explore not only the cycle, but how water is abused and polluted. Until recently, Cape Town in South Africa was facing a zero water day in the near future: a day when there would be no fresh water for the city's population to use. This scared people so much that they began a serious conservation effort, and now they have put off zero day indefinitely.

There are eleven other major cities across the globe: Bangalore, Beijing, Cairo, Istanbul, Jakarta, London, Mexico, Miami, Moscow, São Paulo, and Tokyo which will face this crisis as well in the very near future if something isn't done - if water isn't valued as highly as it ought to be. This will occur during the lifetime of the children who might read this book, so any effort to educate them as to the vital importance of water is to be commended. This book as a worthy effort in that direction.


Thursday, July 4, 2019

When We Became Humans by Michael Bright, Hannah Bailey


Rating: WORTHY!

This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

Erratum:
On the introductory page What's a Human?' - in the section on hominins, the text reads, "Humans and are closest relatives are called hominins" I suspect it should read, 'our' closest relatives.

Written well by Bright and illustrated nicely by Bailey, this book tells of the evolution of humans over 65 million years - and yes, that's when the first mammals date back to! People often say that it was only the destruction of the dinosaurs in the penultimate extinction event (we're going through the ultimate one right now) that 'allowed' mammals to evolve to become today's dominant class of living things (aside from bacteria and viruses, that is. And beetles! LOL!).

I'm not sure I buy that. Dinosaurs, in one form or another date back to some quarter billion years ago, and they didn't start to become dominant themselves until a major extinction event from which they profited, in much the same way we profited. But could mammals have become dominant if Dinosaurs had not died out? I think they could, but there isn't any way to really know! perhaps a more interesting questions is: would humans ever have evolved if dinosaurs had not died out?

This books isn't about speculation though - it's about what actually happened as testified to by the abundant evidence we have for primate and human evolution from fossils, from genetics, and from other sources. This books starts tracing that lineage from the earliest mammals such as Purgatorius (sounds like a Roman gladiator, right?!) to Archicebus, to Aegyptopithecus. Here's a tip - any complicated fossil name like that which ends in 'pithecus' - that means it was some sort of ape or monkey. This one - the fossil of it, that is, was first found in Egypt, hence the start of the name.

A couple of others were Proconsul and Pierolapithecus. Yeah - not all names follow the same rules! Proconsul was a monkey but it cheated a bit because there was an ape in London zoo when it was discovered, that was named Consul, so this was named to indicate it came earlier than modern apes. Duhh!

In language suitable for younger children, the book explains clearly not only what we know, but how we know what we know. Evidence from anatomy, from old DNA, from comparing skeletons, and even from studying modern DNA and how modern organisms are related, can reveal a lot, when you know what you're looking for and have a competent scientific understanding. Those without such an education will draw false conclusions and even make things up. Those people are not scientists, and don't know what they're talking about. Stick with a solid 150 or so years of evolutionary science, a steadily mounting trail of reliable evidence, and a solid track record, and you won't go wrong!

Next up comes the earliest precursors of modern humans such as Australopithecus - there it is again. You now know the pithecus part, but what of the Australo-? Well, what sounds like that? Australia! That doesn't mean it was found in Australia, but that word - that prefix, means of the south. Australia's in the south and this specimen was found in the south - but of Africa. Ah you ask, so why isn't it called Africanus? Well, there is actually one called Africanus! Can't use the same name twice!

The names kept on coming. At one point there was almost no fossil evidence for human evolution; now, scientists are finding it regularly as they learn more about where to look. The book discusses these findings, including what these primitive people ate (and yes, by this point they were more like people than like apes), where they lived, and how they worked with tools.

The scientist sho study these things have found evidence of rock shelters where primitive humans lived the fires they made, and the tools they created. They even named one species 'handyman' - Homo for 'human' and 'habilis' for handy - that is, they were good with their hands. The name is often shortened to H. habilis - the first part always with a capital letter, the second part always lower case. They weren't handy because they lived close by and could come over and fix something for you at short notice! Once the 'H's started showing up, many more were found and this book does a great job of laying out the story, and illustrating how they might have looked - remember we have only the skeletons, so we have to kind of guess how they looked, and one guess is as good as another!

H. heildebergensis and the Neanderthals are discussed next, the mysterious Denisovans, and even the 'hobbit' people - H. floresiensis! But you know what? All of these have disappeared, leaving humans: H. sapiens, as the sole surviving member of our genus (the genus is the first bit, the H, the species is the second bit, the sapiens. If there's a third bit, its a sub-species. All modern humans, no matter whether they look exactly like you or a bit different, no matter what country they live in or what they wear or believe, or eat or do everyday, are this same species. There's a chart toward the end of the book laying out all of these human and near-human species.

The book discusses how this all began in Africa, how the giant mammals of the world died out, and how humans spread from Africa to occupy every content on the planet - the most wide-spread single species there is. Maybe apart from rats. And mice. And bacteria. And viruses! I guess that's quite a few of us, huh?! There's a nice map showing how humans spread across the globe near the end of the book.

We went on - as the book makes clear, to refine our tools, to invent the wheel, to invent glue to hold weapons together to go hunting and to protect ourselves, to beginning agriculture, to domesticating animals - including the wolf which we now keep as dogs - and to inventing video games. Wow! Actually the book doesn't say that last bit - I added it myself. Bu we learned how to make things and then trade them with other communities to get other stuff that we couldn't find or make. Then came trade tariffs. Actually, I added that bit as well!

We went far beyond that over time to grow into and create the complicated world humans inhabit now. The book discusses healthcare, jewelry, art, and monument building, and then writing came along, of course, so we could record everything we did in order to benefit future generations - and this book is one of those results! I commend it as a fun, interesting, educational, and very worthy read.


Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Kitchen Science Lab for Kids by Liz Lee Heinecke


Rating: WORTHY!

This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

You can't have a poetical name like 'Liz Lee Heinecke' - and that last name redolent of my favorite Dutch lager, without a certain confidence that whatever she cooks up in the kitchen will be worth followinbg. Not that I've cooked up any yet, but I have my list of ingredients prepared so I can try at least a couple of them over the July 4th weekend. I;ve made jelly rolls before, but never a tie-dyed one, so that's on the list. Plus I need the food coloring for another project related to my 'The Little Rattuses' series!

This book here is dubbed the 'Edible Edition' but I'm not sure why - unless the print version is printed with vegetable ink on rice paper or something! I suspect it's because there are other labs, and this is the one working with actual food. Overall I found it enjoyable. It is full of great ideas for fun foods and drinks, but more than this, it offers some science tips on why foods bake, cook, ferment, rise, and otherwise behave the way they do when manipulated in our kitchens. This was a fun twist that I really enjoyed because knowing some science is never a bad thing.

This book covers simple projects like 'mere' decoration (that's not 'decoration of meres' but decoration of foods, BTW), to tastier treats like desserts, as well as drinks, main courses, snacks and sauces (again with the poetry!), so there ought to be something for everyone. All of these recipes are nut-free and other potential allergens are identified, so those fears are also addressed. The preparations are aimed at being child-friendly too, so there are advisories about potential problem areas where an adult might be needed or is required.

The recipes begin not only with a complete list of ingredients, but also any other items needed to complete it successfully, and each step is laid out with a photograph so you can make sure you're staying on track - assuming you can keep your mind off sampling those ingredients along the way! There's a richness of recipes and no frugality of finished foods to enjoy when you're done. It's fun, easy to follow, great to look at, and it's educational! Who could ask for a more useful book than this? I commend this one as a worthy read followed by a worthy eat!


Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Eye to I by Rolf Nelson


Rating: WARTY!

Rolf Nelson is a Professor of Psychology and Dorothy Reed Williams Professor in the Social Sciences at Wheaton College (the one in Massachusetts, not the idiotic creation-preaching one in Illinois), and the only thing I can say is that I pity anyone who has to sit through one of his lectures, unfortunately. These are a series of lectures which I thought might be interesting in view of the topic of the next book in my The Little Rattuses™ children's picture book series, but I'm sorry to report that there was little to nothing to see here, so I moved along.

The idea was to discuss how we see things and how our brain interprets what we see, but the lectures were dry, humorless, rambling and repetitive, and it was truly tedious to listen to them. I kept skipping tracks to move on to more interesting bits, but those were sadly very few and quite far between. I know it's a big academic thing to get a book out there on whatever topic it is that you teach, but I really think it's better not to put one out rather than publish one this bad. You'll learn more from reading Wikipedia on the topic of sight and color vision, even if it's tough-going, than you will from these lectures and stay awake in the process. This was awful.


Sunday, February 3, 2019

Super Scientists by Anne Blanchard


Rating: WARTY!

This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

This was a very confusing book because Net Galley has it listed as "by Anne Blanchard," as does the cover (with illustrations by "Tito") but the book itself internally lists it as "by Hervé Guilleminot & Jérôme Masi." Those latter two have written at least one book in this series, and I wonder if their names somehow got in there by mistake? It's very confused and one of many problems I ran into.

This initially seemed to me to be a neat and useful book giving brief details about well-known (at least to me!) and some lesser-known scientists, but the more I read of it, the less enamored I became. I was pleased by the inclusion of several female scientists, less pleased by the lack of scientists of color. I think that the problem is that the book focuses more on scientists of yesteryear, and less on more modern scientists. Carl Sagan is excluded, but Neil deGrasse Tyson is included, and I got the impression this was done solely to include a lone African-American scientist in the list (Brahmagupta is included and is a person of color, note, but he's Indian).

There were also multiple problems of errors in spellings or grammar in the text on the pages covering Darwin, Mendeleev,
Hawking, Tyson, and some others. On the Tyson page, for example, the text mentions gravity, but that refers to a movie title, so it should have an initial capital: Gravity. Strictly speaking, Einstein did not invent E=mc2, BTW, nor did he discover it. In fact he never used it in any of the papers which made him famous! He only made the formula famous by association.

To my knowledge it was first used by JJ Thomson around 1881, when he derived it inaccurately as E = 4/3mc2. Olinto De Pretto, an Italian, also derived it independently and equally inaccurately, but used 'v' instead of 'c' for the speed of light. It was used (although again with an error in it) by Friedrich Hasenöhrl before Einstein, and these people derived their work from earlier discoveries by such as Max Abraham, Oliver Heaviside, and Henri Poincaré.

There are confusing errors too, such as having Thales be the first to determine that the Moon merely reflected the sun's light, and then five or so pages later, having a different scientist, Zhang Heng, be credited with this primacy. This book definitely needs a serious effort at editing and correction. Some of the wording, such as that on Darwin's page is nonsensical. This may be because of translation errors or may be just sloppiness. Either way there is no excuse for it.

It brings together a brief assessment of the progress of science and the scientists who enabled it over the years:

  1. Thales
  2. Pythagoras
  3. Aristotle
  4. Euclid
  5. Archimedes
  6. Zhang Heng
  7. Hypatia
  8. Brahmagupta
  9. Avicenna
  10. Alhayzen
  11. Roger Bacon
  12. Nicolas Copernicus
  13. Galileo Galilei
  14. Johannes Kepler
  15. Isaac Newton
  16. William Harvey
  17. Rene Descartes
  18. Antoine Lavoisier
  19. Mary Anning
  20. Michael Faraday
  21. James Clerk Maxwell
  22. Charles Darwin
  23. Gregor Mendel
  24. Louis Pasteur
  25. Dmitri Mendeleev
  26. Ada Lovelace
  27. David Hilbert
  28. Marie Curie
  29. Ernest Rutherford
  30. Albert Einstein
  31. Neils Bohr
  32. Alfred Wegener
  33. Alan Turing
  34. Rosalind Franklin
  35. Vera Rubin
  36. Franchise Barre-sinuossi
  37. Tim Berners-Lee
  38. Stephen Hawking
  39. Neil deGrasse Tyson

I confess I am not sure what order the list is in exactly! Yes, it's chronological, but Tim Berners-Lee, who codified the World Wide Web, was born over decade after theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, yet he precedes him in the text, so maybe some chronology other than birth order is employed. That's a minor issue. You will notice that there is only 39 names in the list. This is because the fortieth is, inexplicably, the human genome project!<\p>

The single name most closely associated with that is Craig Venter, but evidently because he was running a private genome scan in competition with the public one, he gets no credit here. There are a lot of scientists who do not, including many of color who have made major contributions to science. Women are represented, but could be more so. Emmy Noether gets a mention, but not a page to herself, and Lise Meitner gets no mention at all, for example.

While as of this writing, no black scientist has won a Nobel prize (although many people of color have won one for endeavors outside of science) there are women and people of color who could have been mentioned for their contributions such as Samia Al-Amoudi, Alice Ball, Benjamin Banneker, Satyendra Nath Bose, George Washington Carver, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, Charles Drew, Joycelyn Elders, Ernest Everett, Sunetra Gupta, Indira Hinduja, Manahel Thabet, and so on.

I think this book could have done a lot better in its selection, and it certainly could have been a lot better edited. Given it is what it is, I cannot commend it as a worthy read.


Saturday, December 29, 2018

Leonardo's Science Workshop by Heidi Olinger


Rating: WORTHY!

This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

This was a fun book advertised as a STEAM book, which to me was confusing until I realized it meant STEM: Science, Technology, Engineering, (and) Mathematics. I've never known it to be referred to as STEAM, although it does have other acronyms that have been used from time to time. To the best of my knowledge, the America COMPETES Act of 2007 refers to it as STEM, although the companion book I also review today includes Art, so maybe that's where they're pulling the 'A' from.

Frequently referencing Leonardo da Vinci, who was not a steampunk (in case you wondered!), but an artist, inventor and innovator, this book introduces youngsters to his work and through it to a look at science, nature, and even some art. Growing up with no formal education, Leonardo from Vinci nevertheless mastered a multidisciplinary approach to topics and excelled in pretty much everything he explored.

And he explored a lot, which gives this book a huge platform to launch an assortment of explorations itself, including flight, motion, 3D illusions, and even an electron dance, as well as making your own fabric from recycled plastics. Yes, depending on the age/ability of the child, some adult help may be required here to pursue all these topics, especially since da Vinci isn't the only great thinker of yesteryear who is called upon. Other well-known names are Galileo Galilei, James Clerk Maxwell, and Isaac Newton, so you know this needs to be approached with a certain amount of gravity, although an Apple computer isn't required....

I do ahve to point out that the airfoil explanation on page 20 is not correct. NASA’s own web page here: https://www.grc.nasa.gov/www/k-12/airplane/wrong1.html explains. Wikipedia also has an explanation: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lift_(force) . It’s also questionable whether Galileo Galilei dropped lead balls from the tower in Pisa, but likely he did a similar experiment rolling balls down a ramp. He wasn’t the first, though. John Philoponus did it a millennium before Galileo, and it was definitely done by Dutch scientists in the late sixteenth century.

More spectacularly, astronaut David Scott did it on the Moon during his Apollo 15 mission using a hammer and a feather, which in the Moon’s near-vacuum, both hit the ground at the same time. And on the topic of Moon astronauts, Neil Armstrong actually said, "That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” It’s just that the ‘a’ got lost. If you listen very carefully you can just about catch a brief hesitation where he says it. If the first person to set foot on the moon had been a woman, I'd be willing to bet she would have said 'humankind', but I guess we'll never know!

Anyway, I commend this book as a fun and entertaining occupation for young - but not too young - children.


Leonardo's Art Workshop by Amy Leidtke


Rating: WORTHY!

This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

This is a companion to the other book I reviewed today (Leonardo's Science Workshop), and is aimed at the arts, again through the lens of Leonardo of Vinci's accomplishments, and often referring to his own art and notebooks, of which he left many - although nowhere near as many as he wrote, it appears.

Leonardo never saw any separation between the topics of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, commonly referenced today under the acronym STEM (not STEAM, as these books term it). Leonardo always went deep into a subject if he went at all, wanting to understand not the superficial, but the integral, and this book follows his example, offering fun and delightfully messy topics like creating paints and dyes from food, as well as beautiful ones, such as working with prisms, and other aspects of using light for art, such as building a camera obscura, as well as understanding what light is.

Art of the past is explored in entertaining and practical ways such as in contour drawing, and to keep things in perspective, there's also a discussion of one-point perspective drawing. Science and art are brought together, in much the way Leonardo himself did, by exploring ideas and work by such artists as Sandro Botticelli and Paul Klee, and such scientists as Sir Isaac Newton and Leonardo Fibonacci.

There's a bad error on page 95 where an eight inch diameter circle is determined to have an area of fifty square feet! I think they meant fifty inches! Also page 109 on 'Spectacular Spans' has a color key which shows valley folds blue, but image shows them green. Whether this was just in my electronic copy I do not know, but if it's in the print version it needs correcting.

If you have time (and who doesn't?!), you can make your own sundial using information in this book, or even an infinity scope which sounds a lot more dangerous than it really is! The sundial isn't just a project. You learn in reading about it, not only how it was made, but why it was made the way it was - so please, do touch that dial! This is the approach throughout the book and is an excellent learning opportunity for any young child. I commend this book as a worthy read.


Saturday, December 15, 2018

Planet Earth by John Farndon, Tim Hutchinson


Rating: WORTHY!

This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

Don't tell me you didn't want to know this 'Stuff you should know about'. There are adults who could learn a lot from this, but it's aimed at younger readers, with dazzling, full-page (and multi-page!) illustrations and quite a bit of text. It explains Earth, from the core to the sky, and from dusk until dawn, and from north to south, and from dry to wet - in short, everything that goes on with Earth as a planet is in here: How does the Earth move and orbit, how night and day work, why the moon seems to change over the course of a month, what's under the Earth's crust and how does this make continents move? It covers volcanoes and mountains, rocks and water, air and clouds. It digs into caverns and ocean trenches, and discusses storms, rain and the wind, and offers tips on becoming your own weather forecaster!

Designed from the ground up as a print book, this doesn't work too well as an ebook which is the only version I had access to, and especially not on a smart phone! Even on a decently-sized tablet though, the illustrations need to be stretched to read the text. Some of the pages were single screen, but most were a double-page spread, and some were multipage spreads - I imagine the actual book has some pages where a leaf on one page or both folds out to double the size of the illustration.

I'm by no means a scientist, but I am well-read in the sciences for an amateur and I saw no problems with any of the information here, so I commend it as a worthy and very educational read which will answer pretty much any question a younger child has, and stir up a passion to go find out more detail in older children.

I don't know if the ebook review version, which is the only version an amateur reviewer like myself ever gets access to, was abridged, but mine was in two different downloads. The book is numbered through page 80, where the index begins (there's also a glossary), but the ebook numbering on the bottom of my screen went only to page 21! Now some pages where multi=page spreads, so for example what was listed as page 10 by the ebook reader was numbered on the pages form 20 through 23, but even so, the page numbering went only to 57 on my ebook, so I was missing about a third of the book.

It was also difficult to maneuver in the ebook version - hard to swipe from one page to the next, and troublesome to stretch the pages to read some of the text. Also, it was a bit slow to load the next page. I commend this book as a worthy read (assuming the print book has all the pages!) and based on reading only about two-thirds of it, but I cannot commend the ebook version (assuming that there is one, based on my experience of this review copy.


Friday, November 2, 2018

STEAM Stories: Robot Repairs (Technology) by Jonathan Litton, Magalí Mansilla


Rating: WORTHY!

This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

These stories are aimed at introducing kids to concepts of physics and engineering in a light, entertaining, yet instructive way. If there's one thing this world needs, apart from a total absence of inflammatory so-called leaders of the free world, it's more girls looking towards a career in the sciences, technology, engineering, and math. Girls may feel they don't need those subjects, but those professions definitely need girls' minds, ethics, sensibilities, and team-work skills.

That's why I thought this was a fun and useful book, again by the team of writer Jonathan Litton, artist Magalí Mansilla to introduce young people to these professions, and why it was good to show a female character being proactive and sharing equally in a project.

The story is simple - this old robot falls apart and a boy and a girl decide to use their smarts to see if they can put it back together again and make it work. Of course they do, but they have to think about what they're doing and make smart choices to get it right. This is a positive thing for young children to be exposed to, and I commend this book as a worthy read.


STEAM Stories: The Great Go-Kart Race (Science) by Jonathan Litton, Magalí Mansilla


Rating: WORTHY!

This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

Written simply by Jonathan Litton, and colorfully illustrated by Magalí Mansilla, this is another in a series aimed at promoting young people's interest in the sciences, technology, engineering, and math, and this one takes an engineering and a problem-solving approach, teaching a little physics and intelligent thinking along the way. Girls are sadly underrepresented in these fields and the professions suffer from that, so anything that serves to promote an interest in these subjects as a path to a profession, is to be welcomed.

It's the big go-kart race and our diverse boy-girl team are competing, but it's not simply a matter of steering the vehicle around a track! There are unexpected problems along the way and some very inventive and thoughtful efforts at solving them are required. Our boy and girl are equal though, and equal to the challenge, both of them contributing to the solutions. It's this team work, even in the midst of this highly-competitive race, that pays off, as it always will. I commend this as a worthy read for young children of both genders and all shades.


How to Think Like an Absolute Genius by Philippe Brasseur, Virginie Berthemetv


Rating: WARTY!

This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

I have to say up front that I wasn't impressed by this book. For one reason it was overwhelmingly white male - as though there are so few examples of other genders and ethnicities that the author couldn't find them. I call bullshit on that. He simply didn't look, and instead of finding a diversity of modern cutting-edge exemplars, it seems he took the lazy route and fell back on historical figures.

The book is divided into three sections, the first, 'Be Curious', is all white males. The second, 'Be Imaginative', is all white males. The third, 'Be Determined', is all white males save two token people: Martin Luther King and Agatha Christie, but what is the point of being determined if authors determinedly exclude you in books like this? Each individual section had up to half-a-dozen 'also-ran' names listed, but again these were overwhelmingly white men - around sixty of them, and white women - around forty, with a literal handful men and women of color. This book needs to be shunned on that basis alone. I'm surprised the publisher allowed it to be published like this in this day and age.

Even with the white folks, the author talked only about the positive, like every one of these people was a paragon. He never brought up anything negative about his heroes, such as that Einstein made a major blunder in his calculations precisely because he did not have the courage of his convictions, or about Charlie Chaplin's predilection for juvenile females, or America's darling Edison (barf), who cruelly electrocuted animals for no other reason than to try to 'prove' that his rival Tesla's AC power transmission system was dangerous and Edison's own limp DC current was the only intelligent way to go. Guess who won?

Edison was not a genius. A genius does not blindly try out hundreds of filaments to figure out how to make a light work. In fact Edison wasn't actually the one who tried all those - he had his more than likely underpaid workforce do all the work. Maybe that was his genius: getting others to labor for him while he took all the credit? But the real genius was the guy who invented the light bulb before Edison 'did': Sir Joseph Wilson Swan. Can we not find better inspiration and better, more diverse people to seek to emulate than these? I refuse to believe we cannot.

The short response to this title is: No, you can't teach someone to be a genius. The problem is that part of it is nature, which is really hard to change unless you become the scientist who does figure out how to change that. The other part though, is nurture and it's highly malleable, especially in young children.

In short you can encourage people to think in ways that might lead to important insights and inventions, but just as with a horse being led to water, you can only do so much. That doesn't mean you can't be inspired by those who have gone before, but it's a lot easier to be inspired by someone who is in some way like you, and the majority of people on this planet are not white males - they're half female and largely non-white! I cannot commend this book at all. It's entirely wrong-headed, unless the author really only wants white male children to be moved by it.


Sunday, October 7, 2018

Little Learning Labs: Astronomy for Kids by Michelle Nichols


Rating: WORTHY!

This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

Not to be confused with Nichelle Nichols of Star Trek fame, Michelle Nichols is Master Educator at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, which I can say I have visited although it was many years ago. I thought this book was great. It's simple without being too simple, instructive, useful and very educational.

It places equal emphasis on fun projects and scientific learning, and some of this stuff was new to me, who thinks of himself a something of a science buff. Who knew you could measure the speed of light with a chocolate bar?! I kid you not, and you don't need to worry if you get it wrong because you can comfort yourself with the chocolate afterwards!

The book contains a galaxy of simple child-sized 'experiments' which any kid can do and which are certainly not dangerous. Divided into two units: observing, and scoping out the science, the book begins at the vey very beginning - not, not the Big Bang, silly, but at the beginning of the scientific method - making observations and recording your findings. It teaches children how to estimate angles in the sky with a reasonable degree of accuracy, and how to determine east-west and north-south line by means of two simple observations of shadows cast by the sun. It discusses sunrise, sunset, high noon, the Moon's phases, eclipses, and why stars twinkle. All of this begins with simple tests, experiments and observations any child can make, bolstered by the science behind the experiments explaining why we get the results we do and what they mean.

The science takes over with the construction of a pinhole projector made from a cardboard box and aluminum foil, how to detect infrared light, what ultra violet light is, making a solar oven, mysterious glowing water, and of course the very chocolatey speed of light. Does light travel slower in dark chocolate? Never mind, I just made-up that last bit!

I loved this book, I think it's a great introduction to astronomy for young children, with no dusty cobwebbed lessons! It's all fun, all simple, easy-to-understand and well explained, and most importantly, it's tied in to the science in easily grasped ways. You can't get a better science book for kids than this one, and I commend it fully.



Saturday, September 1, 2018

Jane Goodall by Isabel Sanchez Vegara


Rating: WORTHY!

This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

This is another in a series of books aimed at doing its part to redress the imbalance between genders when it comes to high achievers. This one shows young children that a determined young woman can do whatever she wants if she puts a mind to it.

The story simplifies Goodall's interesting and complex life considerably, but hopefully it will inspire children to read more about her as they mature. Her story is one of an abiding interest in animals ever since she was young, inspired in part by a plush toy she had as a child: a chimpanzee. From this simple beginning, she found her way to Africa and came into contact with famous human ancestry researcher Louis Leakey, who eventually dispatched her to work at Gombe, where Goodall's unorthodox research practices were at times criticized, but which nonetheless produced original and unexpected research results.

Goodall was one of three Leaky Ladies, so to speak, whom Leakey named 'The Trimates', the other two being Dian Fossey who died horribly at the hands of gorilla poachers, and Birutė Galdikas, who studied orangutans. Each of these has written one or more books on their studies. It would be nice to see a book in this series for each of the other two women. I commend this one as a great start.


Saturday, August 11, 2018

The Ape that Understood the Universe by Steve Stewart-Williams


Rating: WARTY!

This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

This is a science book that purports to look at humans from the perspective of how an alien might see them, but in practice, there is very little of this perspective employed. After an initial flurry, aliens are mentioned only spasmodically.

On the one hand this would seem to offer an interesting PoV, but on the other, this kind of thing been done before, and it seems a stretch to begin with. The arrogance of the pretension that we can honestly and objectively look at ourselves as an alien might see us seems antithetical to a scientific approach. By definition an alien is a being not like us, so to suggest we can honestly put ourselves in their shoes is a stretch at best!

We can't even put ourselves reliably into the shoes of animals most like us on Earth let alone some tentacle-sporting Betelgeusian, so it seems to me that there's an inherent insult in taking such a perspective. Such a PoV almost inevitably makes the alien look like a moron.

I really did not like the Star Trek Original series. Actually, these days I've gone off all Star Trek TV shows. I refuse to watch Discovery for its stupidity and lack of imagination, but TOS was the worst. Admittedly it was a product of its time, and in some ways ground-breaking, but it was nonetheless a poorly-written and simplistic show, and it carried the same pretense this book does: that of an alien observing humans.

The alien was Spock, and in trying to show him coping with human culture, it made him look like a complete idiot who, despite having lived among humans for some considerable time, and being half human himself for his entire life, simply didn't get it. That wouldn't have been so bad, but the fact is that he never got it, and was typically at a complete loss, which is what made him moronic. He wasn't a genius. He wasn't brilliant. He wasn't even logical a good portion of the time.

Star Trek has a habit of doing this. In Next Generation, the resident imbecile was Commander Data. In Voyager there wasn't one single dumb-ass. It oscillated between Neelix, Tuvak, and Seven of Nine. The only show I've seen where the Vulcan wasn't made to look moronic was in Enterprise, which actually made her a complex character with a real life. And we all know what happened to that show! Having realistic characters got it cancelled and kept Star Trek off the air for years! Then they rebooted with Discovery, where everyone's a dumbass. Go figure!

This book treats its aliens in the same way, but since that was a minor part of the book, I let the conceit go, hoping the book would win me over. I'm sorry to report that it didn't. A huge portion in the middle of the book is devoted to sex and reproduction and how animals differ (or don't) when compared with humans. How anyone can make a discussion about sex boring, I do not know, but this author did it with the facility of a guy who was trying to pick up a woman in a bar or some such social setting, and insisted in rambling on about sex and intimacy when the woman wasn't even remotely into him.

That's how this affected me. It went on far too long, it was rambling, it really offered nothing particularly engaging, and as with the rest of the book, for me it brought nothing new, nothing amusing, and not even a new perspective on things. Others may find this more educational and entertaining than I.

I'm not a scientist, but I am very well read across multiple sciences from books and other materials by a variety of authors over many years, and so perhaps I have a leg up on the lay reader, but to me it felt as though you would have to know literally nothing about any of these topics to find much here that was very stirring. In short, you'd have to be the idiot alien!

So, some of the approaches taken here just seemed plain wrong to me. For example, at one point the author informs us that "Evolution ain't about the good of the species." Well you can get into some good semantic arguments here, but from my reading, that assertion is plainly wrong in very general terms, because evolution doesn't work on individual animals! Mutation does work on individuals, but for evolution you need a species over time.

That's how it works, that's the origin of species. Mutations can be good, bad, or indifferent, and not all of them get spread, not even if they're good, but often enough, the good ones - that is the ones that give the organisms in the species some reproductive or survival advantage, will tend to outcompete those without such advantages and there it;s good for the species! The mutation(s) will spread through the species and so the species succeeds where others fail, or it may even become a new species over time.

So is this for the good of the species? Well it's not designed to be for the good of a species. There's no designer. It's simply a filter - rather like a knock-out game. No one designed France to win the last World Cup, but that's how the filters played out. The France 'species' of soccer team proved to be the fittest; better able to compete. No individual won that world cup, but all members of the 'species', fitter than members of competing 'species' in the contest, contributed to the win.

To use the author's example, sharper teeth may be good for a lion, but if the genes that produce them don't spread across the species, then nothing's going to change! Teeth that are too sharp may end up slicing the lion's mouth, allowing infection in, and killing it off before it can reproduce, and that's an end to it, but if the teeth were just perfect and it left offspring that were more successful than their peers in surviving and reproducing, the teeth would spread, over time, through the pride, and so would benefit the species.

The author admits this when he says that evolution works within species - not within individuals, so I really have no idea what he was trying to argue here, and you can argue that's my fault or you can argue that the author did a poor job of getting his point across. The problem is that this was a repeated issue for me in reading this.

This is a long book with 6,904 locations so making it engaging and interesting was important to me, and it simply wasn't. I hate to invest my valuable time in a long book only to find it's not done anything for me or even worse, not so much as done what it claimed it would in the blurb. Of course, blurbs aren't written by the author (unless they self-publish), so the disconnect between what you're told you will get and what you end up getting can be quite jolting and can make or break a book for me.

Talking of book length, I found this formula online which purportedly converts location to page count. If you divide the location number by 16.69 this gives the page number supposedly. By that method, there are over 413 pages in this book. Another online formula suggests dividing by twenty which would mean this one has 345 pages. It's listed online as having 378 pages which suggests the formula ought really to be in between those two, dividing it by 18.26. But maybe there is no accurate formula for every book. What a world we live in, eh? I blame Amazon!

The point though, is that however many pages it had were too many, so this book could have done with a lot of editing and a serious trim to the discussion on sex which rambled on repetitively, circling round and round, until I completely lost interest in reading any more about it or any more of the rest of the book.

I did skim the altruism pages and found it somewhat disturbing that the author has never apparently heard of cases of altruism between different species of animal. It's like he could not see the trees for the florist, so this tended to rob him of whatever point it was he thought he was making about investing in your own genetic lineage. He seemed to be seriously undervaluing nurture and friendship, especially when it came to humans. But as I said, I skimmed it, so maybe I missed something there.

I wish the author all the best in his career, but I cannot in good faith recommend this particular science book, which is unusual for me. I typically enjoy science books and recommend them, but this one simply did not get there. It was more of a spandrel than a genetic improvement in the species of science books, and definitely not at its fittest.


Sunday, July 1, 2018

Wanda's Better Way by Laura Pederson, Penny Weber


Rating: WORTHY!

This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

In trying to decide what she wants to do with her life, young Wanda discovers that she's actually a scientist and an inventor. She doesn't just complain when she sees a problem, she also sees a solution and then goes and puts it in place by herself. Seeing a crowded, untidy changing room at dance class, she finds a fix. Seeing squirrels stealing bird seed, she finds a way to prevent it. Seeing dad separating egg yolks for a cake, she finds a better way to separate them!

I liked the go-getter character, and the fact that she fixed things herself, but there was much more than this. There was the analysis of the problem, which is explained at the end of the book, and the desire to do something - to be active, not passive. Wanda was also the child of a mixed-race family, which was a joy to see. There are so few books about diversity and it's as rare to see mixed-race parents in a children's book as it is to see same sex parents.

The illustrations were beautifully done by Penny Weber and the text by Laura Pederson was straight forward and evocative. The book had a great overall feel to it. I liked it very much and I recommend it.


How to Speak Science by Bruce Benamran


Rating: WARTY!

This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

Translated from the original French by Stephanie Delozier Strobel, this is a chatty, loose look at science and its history and the people who made that history, and it’s often light on the science and heavy on the chat. This might have something to do with the author having a French language You Tube channel (e-penser) on this same topic. The author has an easy, breezy tone, which can make for a nice read, but can also be annoying, and sometimes I think he assumes too much, such as when he says, "The other school of thought was led by Democritus - and of course Leucippus before that."

I found myself asking, why 'of course'? I'm not a scientist nor an expert on science, but I am very well-read for a lay-person and I try to keep up on science and technology as time permits, yet I'd never heard of Leucippus and I'd guess that most people have not, perhaps even including most scientists, so I didn't get why the author writes like everyone knows this already! No, we don't! Or maybe I'm just cantankerous today!

There was some looseness about grammar in the book, too, such as when I read, "...seemed to made it his life's goal...,' which should have been 'make it' (of course!). Not long after this I read, "Such as, running electricity through water (electrolysis) to break down two volumes of water...yields two volumes of hydrogen gas (H2) and one volume of oxygen gas (O2)." I didn't understand the 'two volumes of water' bit! To me it would have made more sense to talk about a volume of water.

Perhaps this sentence, in a section talking about the transmutation of one substance to another and the work of Lavoisier and Dalton, was transmuted itself, but the transmutation didn't complete properly, leaving two half sentences mismatched together instead of one intelligible one? It was issues like this that made me feel this book could use another read-through before publishing. Since this is a translation, it’s hard to say if these problems reside with the translation or with the original authorship, be advised. And since this was a ARC, perhaps these issues have been corrected since this version was made available for review.

There was unintentional humor, too! In a section talking about Giordano Bruno, there was a numeric reference to a footnote which revealed the source of the quote. It's after the colon in the following sentence "Bruno also believed that God was both the mystical minimum and maximum: the monad, source of all numbers" The numeric reference was 6, but it was repeated - a regularly-sized six, followed closely by a smaller, superscript six. I believe this was a duplication of the reference number. It's a pity it wasn't a triplication which would have given us an amusing 666! Although there are some who believe the number of the beast was not 666 but 616, which is several doors down the street. But again, another read-through would benefit the text and catch minor issues like this.

The overall readability though, is good, although there are some oddities and annoyances. The author refers to draft dodger Muhammad Ali when he compares a heavyweight hitter to a problem, but Ali wasn't the greatest by any measure. He comes in third after Wladimir Klitschko and Joe Louis in cumulative title wins, most opponents beaten, and most wins in heavyweight title bouts, and seventh after those two in Longest individual heavyweight championship reigns. There isn't any category where he comes out on top. Except motor mouth, maybe! He was an amusing and sweet guy so I understand but not the self-described greatest.

This is a matter of preference and a minor issue really, but to me it was suggestive of the author going for easy rather than realistic, which is odd choice for a science volume. I could see that sort of thing in a creation "science" book, but in a real work of science? I think the same problem evidences when he tries endearments such as overusing the term "dear readers" and his repeated "joke" when he uses the word 'people' and consistently follows it with "the species, not the magazine" even when 'people' isn't capitalized. The first time might have been amusing, but repeating it endlessly? Not funny. In fact, I found both of these things truly annoying and distracting from the import of the book itself.

On big problem is that this book was written as a print book with academic inclinations, which means it has very wide, tree-killing margins. In an ebook, it matters less because no trees were harmed in its production, but this still doesn't get it off the hook. More voluminous books usurp more energy when stored, retrieved, and transmitted, so a shorter book is always wiser if it can be achieved without seriously compromising readability and quality. Narrower margins would have made this book shorter and less abusive of trees. In a world where trees are really the only entity fighting greenhouse gasses with any determination and application, I can’t favor a book which advocates killing more of them.

There were other issues caused by this being designed from the ground up as a print book and then sent to lowly amateur reviewers like me as an ebook. The organization of the printed page, if it’s anything other than straight-forward text, doesn't translate to screens on a smart phone! The print version has what the author calls 'focus panels' - which I assume are small, hived-off sections, perhaps outlined by a border, which briefly digress into a topic mention in the main text. This might well have worked admirably in the print version, but in the ebook, there is no demarcation between these focus panels and the main text other than a change in font.

Aside from that, one section runs right into another so that, for example, in the chapter on light, in a section talking about Arab scientist Abu Ali al-Ḥasan ibn al-Ḥasan ibn al-Haytham, known more commonly as Alhazen (the author tells us) one screen ends with “...mainly by Ibn“ and the next screen starts with a section on reflection and refraction, which occupies almost the entire screen. Confined tightly to the bottom of that screen is the rest of the sentence that was begun on the previous screen. It’s really disruptive to reading. Evidently no thought whatsoever was given to producing an e-version of the book wherein the focus panels are turned into links which can be tapped to read the content and then tapped again to return to the text. That’s annoying at best.

The section on al-Haytham was regrettable in another way. The author introduces this amazing scientist with the admittedly awkwardly long name, especially for we westerners, and then diminishes the man by saying, "I'm going to shorten that to 'Ali', no offense intended by using the nickname." I did find that offensive. The name Ali is not actually an insulting name in Arabic. It means something along the lines of 'esteemed', or 'worthy', but in western hands it has come to be a term that's at best dismissive and at worst abusive of someone of Arabic descent. I don't understand this patronizing usage. Why not simply use his "last" name (al-Haytham) as he would any other scientist? Why not use the already established 'nickname' of Alhazen? Going the way he went is the equivalent of saying of Einstein, I'm going to shorten that to 'Fritz', no offense intended by using the nickname! Or of saying of Richard Dawkins, I'm going to shorten that to 'Dork', no offense intended by using the nickname. It is offensive, period.

I made it about a quarter of the way though this book. I could read no more of it after I read this in a discussion of the antiquity of telescopes: "[Telescopes] were primarily used on ships for looking at things that were far away...and sometimes, I'm sure, for watching the hottie next door through the window without being seen." I know this guy is French and maybe they think they have a disreputation to keep up, but seriously? It's inappropriate. He couldn’t have said "for spying on the person next door'? Or even 'for spying on the woman next door'? It had to be 'hottie'? That was less than fifteen percent into this book of some 330 pages, so I felt like I ought to have read more than this , but I flatly refuse to continue after a comment like that in a science book. It's supposed to be aimed at the lay reader, not at readers who can only think of getting laid.

In a world where myth, rumor, wild-ass blind conviction, religious fervor, and gossip are all-too-rapidly taking the place of established facts, people need a solid grounding in science and critical-thinking more than ever, and good science books can help. I didn't feel that this one does help, so while I wish the author all the best tackling subjects outside his field of expertise, I cannot recommend this particular effort as a worthy read.