March 19, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

A Universe to Discover | From Galileo to Barnum Brown

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This article is the second in a two-part series covering recent books on scientists. For a look at additional titles that explore the topic, see A Lifetime of Study | On Site with Scientists.

Biographies and introductions to scientists can introduce young readers and listeners to the excitement that inspires a lifetime of study. They can also encourage students to consider such pursuits themselves—now and in the future. From Galileo to Barnum Brown, the titles recommended here range from gorgeously illustrated picture books to exciting stories of phenomenal discoveries supported by clear color photos, generous lists of additional resources, detailed author notes, and website updates.

Uncovering the Past

While some natural scientists explore the world around them, others dig beneath their feet to discover remains of animals from long ago. Tracy Fern introduces readers to Barnum Brown, whose fascination with fossils led him to search for dinosaurs. Barnum’s Bones (Farrar, 2012; Gr 1-4) included the world’s first skeleton of Tyrannosaurus rex.

In a suit and tie, and polished boots and bowler hat, Brown looked like a gent setting out for afternoon tea, rather than a man venturing into the desert to unearth prehistoric bones. His knowledge of geology and cartography, plus his keen observational skills and instinct, helped him uncover thousands of specimens, which he shipped back to Henry Fairfield Osborn at the American Museum of Natural History. The book’s endpapers include correspondence between “My Dear Professor Osborn” and Brown.

Boris Kulikov’s whimsical illustrations incorporate dinosaur bones in the portrayals of Brown’s journeys. Dinosaur ribs help him steer a raft along a Canadian river; skeletons burst through a map of Wyoming and float underwater as he prepares to dive off Cuba. A photo of Brown and the T. rex he discovered accompanies an author’s note.

Some students will want to linger over Kulikov’s humorous illustrations, while others may want to create a map designating locations of Brown’s birthplace, expedition sites, and the museums mentioned in the text. For readers eager to learn more about the paleontologist’s expeditions, Fern supplies a link to the museum archive where digitized versions of his field letters, notebooks, and photograph can be viewed.

Accounts of the lives and work of scientists from the past may give readers the impression that all the important discoveries have already occurred. That’s how it seemed to Lee Berger until his nine-year-old son, Matthew, spotted a fossil from a previously unknown species. The boy’s find—a part of one of the hominin skeletons recently unearthed in South Africa—has generated new ways of thinking about human evolution. In The Skull in the Rock (National Geographic, November 2012; Gr 3-7), Marc Aronson captures the combination of derring-do, knowledge, and luck that has propelled driven Berger since childhood. Successful explorations in 1991 were followed by years of fruitless searching, until 2007, when he used a new tool to view areas that he had explored many times: Google Earth. Among potential sites Berger identified was the one where his son discovered the sediba fossil.

Striking photos and clear captions explain how field scientists look for fossils and how specimens progress from site to lab. A timeline of major finds on the African continent follows a chapter describing the methods used to date these finds. The sophisticated labs and advanced technologies of today contrast dramatically with Brown’s fossil hunting a century ago.

Aronson shares both his writing process and his view on Berger and his discoveries. Reading these notes with students will help them understand the choices nonfiction writers make about the selection and the presentation of information. Readers are invited to join the those studying sediba by logging onto a website where updates to the book will be posted.

Tracking Animals

Threats posed to one species of amphibian and the efforts of scientists to save them are documented in Sandra Markle’s The Case of the Vanishing Golden Frogs (Millbrook, 2012; Gr 4-6). At the heart of the effort is Karen Lips, who has been working to discover why Panamanian golden frogs are dying in record numbers.

As word of her search for causes of the golden frogs’ death spread, scientists from around the world contacted Lips with similar stories. Lips considered and rejected various hypotheses that might have offered an explanation. The investigation intensified when a research team identified the microscopic fungi, Bd, in the amphibians’ skin. New questions quickly followed. How was Bd spread? Why was it killing frogs so quickly? Could the destruction be halted?

An international team of volunteers and scientists gathered in Panama to study and treat the animals, removing them from the wild when necessary. Numerous photos document their work. At the time of the book’s publication, the only healthy Panamanian golden frogs found now live in zoos and aquariums. Until scientists can determine how Bd can be removed from the environment, other amphibians remain at risk.

Have your students identify the various hypotheses Lips considered and why each one was rejected. Outline the difficulties faced by researchers in the field as they tried to stop the spread of Bd. Note that despite massive efforts, scientists can’t always protect species.

Kathryn Lasky documents another search for an elusive Latin American creature in Silk & Venom (Candlewick, 2011; Gr 4-7). Arachnologist Greta Binford grew up on an Indiana farm, but her passion for studying the brown recluse developed during an expedition to Peru.

Lasky integrates general information about spiders into the story of Binford’s specialized research on how variations in spider venom may have evolved over millions of years. Diagrams of alignments of ancient continents and shifting tectonic plates plus a “family tree” of arachnids help explain the basis of her hypothesis about spider migration. Photos by Christopher Knight track Binford’s work in field and in the laboratory, and offer intriguing, close-up views of these creatures.

Have readers select a spider in the book’s visual glossary and locate it on one of the referenced pages. Depending on the season and availability of identification resources, students can head outdoors for some first-hand observations or connect to the suggested websites to learn more about these arachnids and Binford’s research.

Exploring the Universe

Scientific research can lead to controversy. Bonnie Christensen allows one of history’s most influential stargazers to present his own story in I, Galileo (Knopf, 2012; Gr 3-5). Imprisoned for his claims that the Earth moves around the sun, an aged Galileo directly addresses readers as he recalls his life. His own inventions, such as a complex compass, were overshadowed by improvements he made to a Dutch device for viewing distant objects: the telescope. But once Galileo could view the moon and planets, he found evidence to support Copernicus’s theory that the sun, not the Earth, was the center of the universe. Daring to propose this heretical idea kept him in conflict with the Catholic Church for his entire life. The volume’s illustrations, particularly the representations of the solar system, recall images from the manuscripts and books of the period.

Christensen’s brief preface and afterword explain ideas about the universe prevalent in 1564, the year Galileo was born, and how the man’s work continued to shape scientific thought for centuries. A chronology places significant dates from his life in a broader context by noting events such as the Pilgrims’ landing at Plymouth and William Shakespeare’s birth. The text and documentation also reference other scientists and inventors. Students can list these individuals and add notes about each person’s work and relationship to Galileo’s. The project will help them recognize that scientists build on the advances of others, sometimes by challenging existing ideas, and at other times by extending previous advances.

The last entry in Christensen’s chronology is the 1995 landing of NASA’s spacecraft Galileo on Jupiter. Despite the many hours he spent studying the solar system, it is unlikely Galileo ever dreamed of the discoveries that would be made by The Mighty Mars Rovers (Houghton, Gr 5-9). Although Elizabeth Rusch concentrates on the vision and drive of astronomy professor Steve Squyres, who spearheaded the mission, the story—like the project—expands to encompass hundreds of individuals. Rusch deftly presents the challenges of designing and building the two small robots, Spirit and Opportunity. Which instruments should be included, and how much could they weigh? What solar panel design would optimize energy production to keep the rovers functioning?

The problem solving and testing culminate in the scientists’ anxious wait for the rovers’ descent to Mars and transmission of images. As the robots explore the Martian surface, readers will share the excitement of their success, and the dismay of the scientists when the machines encounter unexpected obstacles.

Numerous images from Mars offer intriguing views of the planet, but the photos of the scientists and engineers are equally affecting. Their emotional and intellectual investment in the enterprise is apparent as they continue to experiment to explore ways in which Spirit and Opportunity can venture farther and function longer. With the landing of a new rover, Curiosity, this past August, Mars exploration is once again in the news. Rusch ends with a note about this newest robot along with a link to the NASA website so readers can follow the recent developments. The author’s lively presentation of science in action and meticulous documentation make this title an outstanding entry in the consistently fine “Scientists in the Field” series.


Activities suggested above reference the following Common Core State Standards:

RI. 1.9 Identify basic similarities in and differences between two texts on the same topic.

SL. 1.2 Ask and answer questions about key details in a text read aloud.

RI. 4.7  Interpret information presented visually, orally, or quantitatively . .  . and explain how the information contributes to an understanding of the text in which it appears.

W. 4.3  Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, descriptive details, and clear event sequences.

W. 4.8  Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.

RI. 4.8  Explain how an author uses reasons and evidence to support particular points in a text.

RI. 4.1  Refer to details and examples in a text when explaining what the text says explicitly and when drawing inference from the text.

L. 5.5a  Interpret figurative language, including similes and metaphors, in context.

RI. 3.6  Distinguish their own point of view from that of the author of a text.

RI. 4.3  Explain events, procedures, ideas, or concepts in a historical, scientific, or technical text, including what happened and why, based on specific information in the text.

RI. 4.5  Describe the overall structure . . . of events, ideas, concepts, or information in a text or part of a text.

RI. 5.8  Explain how an author uses reasons and evidence to support particular points in a text, identifying which reasons and evidence support which point(s).

RI 3.5  Use text features and search tools to locate information relevant to a given topic efficiently.

RI. 5.3  Explain the relationships or interactions between two or more individuals, events, ideas, or concepts in a historical, scientific, or technical text based on specific information in the text.

W. 5.7  Conduct short research projects that use several sources to build knowledge through investigation of different aspects of a topic.

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  1. Myra Zarnowski says:

    Thank you for such a useful list and description of science books. Keep these lists coming!