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Books

Childishly scientific

5 February 2013

2:30 PM

5 February 2013

2:30 PM

2.30pm, Tuesday, the bookshop of the Natural History Museum. Horrible Science: Blood, Bones and Body Bits is being leafed through by one of its typical readers. In other words he’s 45, six-foot-three and has a full beard.

One of the greatest joys of parenthood is the excuse it gives you to abandon ‘proper’, grown-up science books, and get stuck into those aimed at your child. I’m at the museum with my 3-year-old son, who has just shrieked ecstatically at the huge dinosaur in the main hall, and is now eagerly sizing up a T-rex sticker book. One of his Christmas presents was Big Questions from Little People Answered by Some Very Big People (scientists and writers dealing with kids’ queries). We have delighted in the tale of Wilson Bentley, the first man to realise that no two snowflakes are alike, though were saddened at the tale’s conclusion (1931, another flake-collecting expedition, Bentley catches a chill and dies). Also we can now both regale you with the explanation of why poo is brown. Haemoglobin, essentially: once it’s done carrying oxygen around your body it turns into a chemical called bilirubin, which gets jettisoned as part of your excrement – and bilirubin is brown.

Actually my science reading had been veering this way even before Barney arrived. The older you get the more confidence you have in saying:

‘Hang on, when I was six everything was exciting, everything was “why why why?”, I was a sponge of questions just waiting to soak up answers. Then what we in this country laughably call an education system ignored my queries about why the sky is blue, forced me instead to learn the periodic table by rote, and crushed my impudent curiosity beneath its heel of Proper Learning. Whereas if it had listened, and explained that air molecules reflect the blue part of the light spectrum better than all the other colours, I might actually have learned something.’

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And so your inner-child, who never really went away, chooses to read kids’ science books, which respond to the questions we all ask about everyday life but somehow never get the answers to. You should have seen my 40-something friends devouring Big Questions … over the Christmas break. None of them knew why poo is brown. They do now.

‘Your friends sound perfectly normal,’ says Sarah Jones, bookbuyer for the NHM. ‘At Christmas we did a “poo” table, just books about that particular substance, nothing else. Children couldn’t get to it for the adults in the way. Then there’s “Gooey, Chewy, Rumble, Plop”, about food and the human body. It has a life-like tongue on the front, and everyone has to touch it. We regularly have to change our display copy because the tongue gets worn out.’ Sarah also cites Mad Science as a hit with the grown-ups (‘it’s like extreme sports but for science’), as well as the Horrible Science series. ‘Blood, Bones and Body Bits is a very good example of that.’ Amazon backs up her experience. One of the book’s reviews is from a Mrs Swainston, who bought it for her son: ‘I’m a student nurse and found the hormone piece very educational for myself.’

The best adult science writers, in fairness to them, have realised this is the way to go, and base their books around the questions and experiences we all have. New Scientist magazine’s Why Don’t Penguins Feet Freeze? series has been massively successful. Brian Clegg’s Inflight Science explains all sorts of principles and theories that are linked in some way or other to the act of taking a plane journey: how a metal detector works, why lightning happens … and yes, why the sky is blue. The conceit allows Clegg to roam far, wide and entertaining. Did you know, for instance, that the myth about carrots being good for your eyesight comes from World War II? The British invented the story that our pilots had been eating carrots to help them spot German bombers, as cover for what was really picking out Jerry: our top-secret radar system. Incredibly, people believed it.

Now, when is that bloke going to finish with Blood, Bones and Body Bits? I want a look. If my son’s very lucky he might just get a peep too.

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