February 22, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Extreme Science | Nonfiction Booktalker

The self-sacrifice of some scientists will inspire awe, admiration, and chills

You’ve heard of people throwing themselves into their work, right? Well, these books for grades five to eight introduce us to folks who literally hurl themselves with passionate force to make incredible advances in scientific knowledge.

Donna Jackson’s fascinating Extreme Scientists: Exploring Nature’s Mysteries from Perilous Places (Houghton, 2009) describes three researchers who boldly go into dangerous places on a regular basis. First up, Paul Flaherty, the hurricane guy. His daring team of hurricane hunters flies directly into the eyes of hurricanes, passing through walls of unstable and deadly turbulence. Once inside, they measure, observe, and try to forecast what the hurricane will do next. But then, they have to fly back out of the storm—essentially risking their lives twice each trip to save the lives of thousands of others who rely on their expertise and predictions.

Hazel Barton devotes her life to something that hardly moves at all. In fact, Barton is a cave woman. Jackson’s book tells us how she searches caves for the oldest life forms on Earth—microbes, including bacteria and fungi. She goes deep underground. She swims in pitch-black subterranean lakes. What Barton learns in those sunless, silent places could tell her what shapes life may take on other planets.

Stephen Sillett is a skywalker who regularly visits the tops of 2,000-year-old redwoods in old-growth forests. The trip is never easy; the lowest branches of some redwoods are more than 100 feet from the ground. But once he’s up, he’s in a whole new world, a unique, out-of-sight ecosystem where new trees grow on top of the original redwoods and animals are born and die without ever seeing the ground.

Tanya Lee Stone’s Almost Astronauts: 13 Women Who Dared to Dream (Candlewick, 2009) tells us the story of those who dreamed of skywalking in a big way: they wanted to become astronauts in the NASA space program. In 1961, women didn’t play professional sports. They couldn’t rent a car or take out a loan without a man’s signature. President Lyndon Johnson originally wanted women in the program, but he changed his mind. He told one of the candidates, “If we let you or other women into the space program, we’d have to let blacks in. We’d have to let Mexican Americans in and Chinese Americans. We’d have to let every minority in and we just can’t do it.” NASA did relent, and put women through the impossibly difficult training, and found that, in general, women were better at some parts of the work than men. But that was another time, and the 13 knew their options were limited. They would have to wait for others to make the leap into space.

What if a lab animal, a guinea pig, could talk, or could write about its personal experiences? In Guinea Pig Scientists: Bold Self-Experimenters in Science and Medicine (Holt, 2003) by Mel Boring and Leslie Dendy, we meet extreme scientists who became the subjects of their own experiments. They believed the risk was outweighed by the potential benefits to the rest of humankind.

Lazzaro Spallanzani, who, in the 1770s, learned first-hand the process of digestion, filled linen bags with food, ate them, and then watched them come out the other end. Then he examined their contents. Yuck! Daniel Carrion and Jesse Lazear infected themselves with deadly diseases. Marie Curie died from radiation poisoning. John “Jack” Haldane experimented with oxygen and air pressure, resulting in a perforated eardrum and several crushed vertebra. His apt family motto was “Suffer.”

Luckily for us, these stouthearted men and women did seriously cooperate with the demands of science. Their self-sacrifice will inspire awe, admiration, chills, and perhaps imitation in your booktalk audience. And they will never look at the simple act of eating in the same way again!

About Kathleen Baxter

Kathleen Baxter is the former head of children’s services at the Anoka County Library in suburban Minneapolis and a speaker at school and library conferences all over the USA. She never goes anywhere without a book.