Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘science’

28 NOVEMBER, 2014

Great Children’s Books Celebrating Science

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Finding magic in reality and our shared stardustness.

After my annual omnibus of the year’s finest children’s books, a number of friends have requested recommendations for intelligent and imaginative children’s books celebrating science. So I’ve put together this evolving reading list of favorites from the past century — please enjoy:

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28 NOVEMBER, 2014

Why Clouds Stay Up in the Sky

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The science of how to keep the weight of one hundred elephants in the air.

As Georgia O’Keeffe marveled at the beauty of the Southwest sky, which inspired much of her legendary art, she was especially enchanted by the “grey blue clouds … riding all through the holiness of it,” “bunches of clouds,” “different kinds of clouds.” Clouds, indeed, hold immeasurable mesmerism for children, artists, and ordinary grownups alike. But why do they actually exist and how do they work?

In this wonderful short video based on Gavin Pretor-Pinney’s The Cloudspotter’s Guide: The Science, History, and Culture of Clouds (public library | IndieBound), Joe Hanson of It’s Okay To Be Smart turns to science to make visible the invisible magic by which clouds hang oh so effortlessly in the sky.

This must be precisely what Richard Feynman meant in his unforgettable monologue about how “the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe” of nature.

Pretor-Pinney, founder of The Could Appreciation Society, writes in the introduction:

I’ve always loved looking at clouds. Nothing in nature rivals their variety and drama; nothing matches their sublime, ephemeral beauty. If a glorious sunset of Altocumulus clouds were to spread across the heavens only once in a generation, it would surely be amongst the principal legends of our time. Yet most people barely seem to notice the clouds, or see them simply as impediments to the “perfect” summer’s day, an excuse to feel “under the weather.”

Prefacing the book is the wonderfully heartening manifesto of the Society:

We believe that clouds are unjustly maligned and that life would be immeasurably poorer without them.

We think that clouds are Nature’s poetry, and the most egalitarian of her displays, since everyone can have a fantastic view of them.

We pledge to fight “blue-sky thinking” wherever we find it. Life would be dull if we had to look up at cloudless monotony day after day.

We seek to remind people that clouds are expressions of the atmosphere’s moods, and can be read like those of a person’s countenance.

We believe that clouds are for dreamers and their contemplation benefits the soul. Indeed, all who consider the shapes they see within them will save on psychoanalysis bills.

And so, we say to all who’ll listen: Look up, marvel at the ephemeral beauty, and live life with your head in the clouds.

The Cloudspotter’s Guide was followed by the equally delightful The Cloud Collector’s Handbook.

For more of Hanson’s illuminating science-plus explainers, see how a glass of wine explains the universe, why sci-fi authors are so good at predicting the future, and the mathematical odds of finding your soul mate.

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25 NOVEMBER, 2014

Maria Merian’s Butterflies: The Illustrated Story of How a 17th-Century Woman Forever Changed the Course of Science Through Art

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A heartening homage to a courageous woman who fought superstition with science and love.

While putting together the annual omnibus of the year’s best children’s books, I was reminded of how woefully rare inspired children’s books about science are in our culture — as rare, perhaps, as are homages to pioneering female scientists and celebrations of the intersection of art and science. The confluence of these three rarities is what makes Summer Birds: The Butterflies of Maria Merian (public library | IndieBound) so wonderful. Writer Margarita Engle and artist Julie Paschkis — the talent behind the gorgeous illustrated tale of Pablo Neruda’s life — tell the story of 17th-century German naturalist and illustrator Maria Merian, whose studies of butterfly metamorphosis are among the most important contributions to the field of entomology in the history of science and forever transformed natural history illustration.

There are many ennobling and empowering threads to the story of Merian’s life — how she began studying insects as a young girl, two centuries before the dawn of science education for women; how she trained tirelessly in art, then brought those skills to illuminating science, all while raising her daughters; how she traveled to South Africa with her young daughter in an era when women had practically no agency of mobility; how she continued to work even after a stroke left her paralyzed.

But perhaps most pause-giving of all is the reminder of just how much superstition early scientists had to overcome in the service of simple truth: In Merian’s time, people considered insects evil and found the “supernatural” process of metamorphosis particularly ominous, believing it was witchcraft that transformed the insect from one state to another.

By meticulous and attentive observation, Merian proved that the process was very much a natural one, and beautifully so. She was only thirteen. Her groundbreaking work was a prescient testament to Richard Feynman’s famous assertion that science only adds to the mystery and the awe of the natural world.

When people understand the life cycles of creatures that change forms, they will stop calling small animals evil. They will learn, as I have, by seeing a wingless caterpillar turn into a flying summer bird.

On her site, Paschkis shares her research process and offers a fascinating history of insect illustration.

For a grownup take on Merian’s legacy, complement Summer Birds with Taschen’s lavish volume Maria Sibylla Merian: Insects of Surinam.

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