Wednesday, September 22, 2010

General Science Books and Series

Before I get into the nitty-gritty of physics-related books, I thought it might be best to list some all-in-one books about science as well as some of our favourite series of science books (so I don't end up repeating myself too often!). This list is by no means comprehensive, but simply contains those offerings that we've found and liked.

Through one of the online lists I subscribe to, I found this really interesting website that has information I think is important for all of use to be aware about: Science Misconceptions in Textbooks and Popular Culture. The author writes:
The complex and abstract nature of Science makes the subject difficult to understand. But complexity is not the only reason that Science is hard. The subject is made much more difficult by the presence of numerous misleading "Science Myths" which circulate in the popular culture, which are handed down from parents to children, and which have become so common and widespread that they even appear in science textbooks and are taught as facts in elementary school.

These "science myths" or "urban legends" present a major barrier to students because the kids must unlearn the incorrect myths before they can make further progress in their understanding. Unfortunately, this process of UNLEARNING happens rarely because the myths are supported by so many teachers, and they appear in so many textbooks. Most people never suspect their presence. If a particular concept in science seems impossible to understand, students won't blame their books. Instead they will blame themselves, or will blame the new concept for being too complex or too abstract to understand. Teachers won't suspect that errors are present in the books, reasoning that if several books teach the same concept in exactly the same way, how could all those books be wrong?
He quotes Tolstoy:
I know that most men, including those at ease with problems of the greatest complexity, can seldom accept even the simplest and most obvious truth if it be such as would oblige them to admit the falsity of conclusions which they have delighted in explaining to colleagues, which they have proudly taught to others, and which they have woven, thread by thread, into the fabric of their lives.
And then proceeds to clarify. "A lie repeated often enough becomes the truth."

(By the way, I disagree with his assessment that science is "hard"... it only feels that way when it lacks joy and passion.)

So, before sharing any of the books below with your learners, you may want to look through the common science misconceptions he lists so that if you stumble across one in your reading (or viewing), you can discuss it with your kids.

General Science Books

Science, like mathematics, comes alive through exploring the history of humankind and seeing the role that science has played in our development and success as a species. Janice VanCleave (a prolific author of kids' books related to math and science) has written two books that will appeal to the younger learner (ages 8 to 12, depending on the child). Scientists Through the Ages contains the biographies of 25 scientists from different fields of science. She also includes instructions for a hands-on activity (or experiment) relating to each scientist's important contribution to the overall picture. Her book, Science Through the Ages focuses on important scientific discoveries within the main fields of science.


The Science Book, by Peter Tallak, is a historical timeline of scientific discoveries. One page contains information, and the facing page contains a beautiful photo or diagram. The book contains the writing of numerous active scientists. It's a lovely book to flip through and absorb bits of science tidbits you may not have previously known. This book will be lovely for younger learners to look at for the pictures, but it will likely be your teens who will enjoy reading the information within.

From the product description: "From the world's greatest scientists comes the world's greatest science book--now in a smaller format at a great new affordable price. With a foreword written by critically acclaimed author Simon Singh (Fermat's Last Theorem), and essays by such major writers as Richard Dawkins, Susan Greenfield, and John Gribbin, it presents 250 of the most significant milestones in the history of scientific discovery. Accompanying this unique perspective on our ever-evolving view of the universe are some of the most visually dramatic illustrations you'll ever see. Short, lucid articles focus on everything from the speculations of the ancient Greeks to today's Nobel Prize winners, from Ptolemy's theory of an earth-centered universe to the first steps on the moon, and from the dawning of the concept of zero to the cloning of Dolly the sheep. Biology, physics, astronomy, medicine and mathematics: the breakthroughs in every field are all here and celebrated, in the first truly accessible, fully illustrated story of science."

Those of you who like Learning Company courses may already be familiar with the name of Robert M. Hazen. He's a professor of Earth Science, but is also gifted as a popular writer and presenter. His book, Science Matters: Achieving Scientific Literacy is a best seller. It contains essays about all the major fields of science and is very accessible to the lay person, regardless of one's previous science experience.

If, as a parent, you are looking for a way to quickly upgrade your science understanding, or you are looking for a book for your teen to read to pique their interest, this book is a great place to start.


Exploratorium is a science museum in San Francisco, California (and only a two hour direct flight from the Victoria airport).  It's an amazing venue with models and demonstrations spanning all the different fields of science. This book, Exploratopia, is one of the best science experiment books that we've come across. It's full of interesting information, presented in a kid-friendly format, and the experiments are all easy to do. It has a large number of physics-related activities, as well as a huge section on human perception. It's a definite "must-have" item for your home learning explorations.



Many of you will be familiar with Bill Bryson's book A Short History of Nearly Everything, but you may not be familiar with his book for children on the same subject matter. A Really Short History of Everything. This book is charming, in true Bill Bryson style, and contains all sorts of scientific tidbit of interest. It's illustrated and has lots of photos, too. From Booklist: Bryson offers a kid-friendly version of his popular-science compendium for adults, A Short History of Nearly Everything (2003), in this illustrated trip through, well, nearly everything. His enthusiasm is apparent right from the foreword, where he proclaims that “there isn’t anything in existence—not a thing—that isn’t amazing and interesting when you look into it.” He proceeds to back up this statement as he whirls through mind-numbing notions such as the creation of the universe and the life-span of an atom with good cheer and accessible, even exciting, writing. The two-page spreads meander their way through the various recesses of science with a combination of explanatory prose, historical anecdotes, wry asides, and illustrations that range from helpful to comical. -- Ian Chipman

A Note on Encyclopedias: It's always worthwhile to have a general Science Encyclopedia on hand. You can usually trust Usborne, DK or Kingfisher to have one worth putting on your shelves. If you can actually go to a bookstore and look through a few before selecting one, then you'll be able to decide on one you like the best. Two that I'd like to include in our home library are DK's Science: The Definitive Visual Guide and National Geographic's The Science Book: Everything You Need to Know About the World and How It Works. Both of these books are offerings in a series of books that look quite intriguing. We have few volumes in the DK Definitive Guides and they are truly lovely. We've spent hours pouring over them, so I highly recommend them.

And since we are already talking about series...

Science Series


DK's One Million Things. This is an interesting series because you can get the one big book, One Million Things: A Visual Science Encyclopedia that contains sections on Nature, Human Body, Science and Technology, Space, and Earth, as well as sections on People and Places, History, and Art and Culture. You can also buy books on each of these topics that expand the information and, from my perusing, don't seem to directly replicate it. Both the images and the presentation of the information seems to be different. So, if your child likes this format and wants to also look through the volume on space, it will probably work out.


Stoddart's Eyewitness books revolutionized information books for children. Now published under the DK banner, the Eyewitness books have turned many a dusty subject matter into a garden of visual informational delight. These books are perfect for supporting a child's interest in a specific topic or field. If your child is interested in paleontology, for instance, you can find books on dinosaurs, fossils, and prehistoric life. As paleontology is related to geology and earth science, you can find books on rocks and minerals. We've been collecting these books since before we were even sure we were going to have children. After our son was born, we purchased books according to his interests. For example, when he was one and a half, he loved elephants and camels, so we bought the books on elephants and deserts. When he developed an interest in ancient Egypt when he was 2, we bought the book. Over time, we've accumulated a handsome collection that is more useful to our family than a set of regular encyclopedias would be.


DK also has some well-done general information books (including science topics) that were probably created with teens in mind. The titles include Do Not Open, Pick Me Up, Ask Me Anything, and Ask Me Everything. My son really has enjoyed looking through these books as he's picked up lots of general information about... everything.

When you look up the links to these books, you'll see other DK offerings. DK is a wonderful publisher of informational books for kids (and adults, too - I love their travel guides).




Usborne is also a great source for informational books. We have quite liked Usborne's open-the-flap series, See Inside. These books may seem more suitable for younger kids, but I think all of us like to open flaps and discover hidden information. These books are best ordered directly from an Usborne distributer or an online seller because you don't really want to pick up a copy from the store that's had all its flaps opened by browsers (okay, I don't want to... you get to make  your own choices about that one). But if you are in a store and you see one (but don't lift the flaps... okay, maybe just one), then look through it and decide if it's meaty enough for your learner.




Yet another amazing DK series, The Brainwaves are some of our favourite fun science (and more) books. These are done in comic style, with lots of little relevant drawings and quips on each page. These tend not to be in depth looks at any topic, but provide a wonderful survey exploration. If your kids tend to shun science books or they feel overwhelmed by print, these books may provide them an opportunity to discover new information. From School Library Journal: "A sprawling, unique overview of the various scientific fields. Although students will have to hunt through the dense layout to find facts, they will likely encounter what they are searching for. The index is an indispensable tool. The layout is intentionally busy, with tiny, colorful characters known as the Brainwaves jam-packed onto each page. Cracking jokes and demonstrating scientific principles, these lighthearted Lilliputians mostly serve to add levity to the proceedings, but occasionally provide helpful examples. Topics, which include the periodic table, force, and future science, are each presented on individual inventive spreads with facts in short bursts of text that intermingle with the illustrations. Appealing enough to inspire pleasure reading, the book will also serve those looking for scientific facts." — Travis Jonker

I talked about Horrible Science under Chemistry books, but it's worth talking about them again here under general science resources.

These books are funny. That's the appeal. Funny. And factual. And perhaps a little bit gross and disgusting.

From the website: "Welcome to the explosive world of Horrible Science. It's science with the squishy bits left in! Most people think that science is serious. Seriously dreary, seriously brain-dead and seriously boring. But most people are wrong. Science isn't boring -- it's horrible! And when science is horrible, it comes to life in an exciting way..."

My very favourite series about science is Joy Hakim's The Story of Science. These books are brilliant. I cannot gush enough. From the website:

"If you think science is difficult, these books are meant for you. They focus on the quest to understand the universe, from Thales to today's cosmology. Reading them you'll meet Pythagoras (a great mind, but a strange man), Archimedes (he could do everything), Isaac Newton (not very likeable), James Clerk Maxwell (a shy Scotsman who did the math that led to the electromagnetic revolution), and Einstein (who not only brought us relativity, but confirmed the atom and laid the foundation for quantum theory). Quantum theory? Relativity? What are they? Read these books and you'll find out."


Jim Ottaviani has either created or edited a number of fabulous graphic novel type books about science and scientists.

These books bring the human face to scientific discoveries as he focuses on the people involved and explores how their lives unfolded... before, during and after that particular moment in the timeline of scientific understanding.

These books are great for science fans as well as the reluctant scientist.  If you are looking for material to strew for your older learner, just to bring some science into their lives, these books are a great place to start.

Larry Gonick is another author who provides many interesting books on science topics: the Cartoon Guides. From Amazon.com (about the book pictured here): "It's been said that before physics students can fly with Feynman they need to walk with Halliday and Resnick. Those of us who are still toddling along, however, need Larry Gonick. Gonick's characteristically quirky drawings are teamed with physicist Art Huffman's prose to produce lessons like this: picture Sir Isaac Newton driving a Mack truck labeled "Big Inertia." Ike is talking into a CB radio, saying: "Breaker one nine: force overcomes inertia and produces acceleration. Do you read?" As the jacket copy says, "If you think a negative charge is something that shows up on your credit-card bill--if you imagine that Ohm's law dictates how long to meditate--if you believe that Newtonian mechanics will fix your car," here's the book for you." -- Mary Ellen Curtin


Simon Basher leaped onto the market in 2007 with his cute, appealing, and informative The Periodic Table: Elements with Style. He now has a number of books related to different aspects of science (and is also exploring the worlds of math and grammar).  Most of his books have been well-received, but do read the reviews or take them out of the library before you decide to add to your home collection.






There are likely many other fabulous science series out there. I'll likely think of one or two as soon as I publish this post (isn't it always the way). If you have some to add to this list, please do so in the comments. I'd love to hear from you.