Saturday, April 19, 2008

"How Did We Find Out" Science Book Recommendations

Even as a mechanical engineer, geeky, science-fiction-loving, experiment-enjoying homeschooler, science has been the absolutely worst topic ever. We do very little actual science. We've done some stuff with leaves, the human body, and some microscope work, but it's all haphazard and not at all hierarchical as recommend in the Philosophy of Education and Objectivist Epistemology.

I will say that I've found a series of books that are as close as I think I'll ever come to finding a close-to-hierarchical presentation of some concepts written by a non-Objectivist. With very little reservation I recommend the How Did We Find Out series by Isaac Asimov. Asimov is not fearful of technology and does believe that mankind can solve lots of problems. He presents the greenhouse gases as 'some people believe' (which I thought was OK) but does seem fairly opinionated about the stupidity of war ("How Did We Find Out About Solar Power?").

In "How Did We Find Out About Earthquakes?" he takes us through first blaming gods for earthquakes, then Europe ignoring quakes because they didn't occur frequently in that continent, to the full force of science trying to predict them and understand them. How the theory of all the continents being together was posited and then dismissed and then accepted after discovering about the trans-Atlantic fault. He explained about rock strata being crooked in some areas which made people think the surface of the Earth was actually moving. It was pointed out that the development of sonar after the war allowed us to map the ocean floor and find the faults defining the plates. There is a wonderful diagram showing earthquakes in relation to the faults discovered. He discussed the seismograph machines and how different types of waves of the quake allowed us to figure out about the crust, the mantel, and the molten core of the planet.

Another great book is "How Did We Find Out About the Beginning of Life?" The subject matter and presentation are wonderful. Toward the middle of the book he discusses molecules without much of a background, but I can live with that for now. It starts with the idea of Spontaneous Generation and how the idea began to be questioned. Then how scienticst discovered that maggots are actually from microscopic fly eggs. He then talks about the experiments performed (including Pasteur) that showed the very small microorganisms in a 'broth' and how, if they're all killed off through boiling, they do not reappear. He discussed the atmosphere of a young Earth (ammonia, methan, carbon dioxide, water) and the experiments that combined these gases with energy (heat or electricity) and how the experiment resultanted in more complex molecules. Further experimentation showed these larger molecules forming chains of amino acids and then these chains taking a circular shape similar to a cell.

These books are not perfect. They move quite quickly and not every discovery is explained. They can touch on quite in depth topics (or start with very in-depth topics like "How Did We Find Out About Nuclear Power?"). They are approximately 55 pages of mostly typed text. The writing style is simple and includes phonetic pronunciations of names and some scientific principles. There are some illustrations included, but mostly portraits and a few diagrams. There are 37 books in the series and they are no longer printed. The age ranges recommended seem to be anywhere from 9 years to 9th to 12th grade. The more complex the topic, the older the reader for whom it is recommended.
The titles in the series:

How Did We Find Out about (Our) Genes?
How Did We Find Out about Antarctica?
How Did We Find Out about Atoms?
How Did We Find Out about Black Holes?
How Did We Find Out about Blood?
How Did We Find Out about Coal?
How Did We Find Out about Comets?
How Did We Find Out about Computers?
How Did We Find Out about Dinosaurs?
How Did We Find Out about DNA?
How Did We Find Out about Earthquakes?
How Did We Find Out about Electricity?
How Did We Find Out about Energy?
How Did We Find Out about Germs?
How Did We Find Out about Lasers?
How Did We Find Out about Life in the Deep Sea?
How Did We Find Out about Microwaves?
How Did We Find Out about Neptune?
How Did We Find Out about Nuclear Power?
How Did We Find Out about Numbers?
How Did We Find Out about Oil?
How Did We Find Out about Our Human Roots?
How Did We Find Out about Outer Space?
How Did We Find Out about Photosynthesis?
How Did We Find Out about Pluto?
How Did We Find Out about Robots?
How Did We Find Out about Solar Power?
How Did We Find Out about Sunshine?
How Did We Find Out about Superconductivity?
How Did We Find Out about the Atmosphere?
How Did We Find Out about the Beginnings of Life?
How Did We Find Out about the Brain?
How Did We Find Out about the Speed of Light?
How Did We Find Out about the Universe?
How Did We Find Out about Vitamins?
How Did We Find Out about Volcanoes?
How Did We Find Out the Earth Is Round?

I picked one up from a library book sale. After reading it, I was so excited that I located 28 others and they're on their way to me now! I ordered a few through Paperback Swap. The others I found on Amazon in the Marketplace (when you find the title, click "Used & new" or click through to the product page and select "See all buying options"--they are usually less than a $1 each and then $3.99 for shipping).


LB said...


You know the lack of an heirarchical approach is the problem that I've had with teaching science for a while now.

Let me know how you like the rest of the books once you get them.

Of course, they're no longer in print - they make sense! (Oh, that's really much more cynical than I mean to be.)

These books sound like they might be pretty helpful on the way to tackling David Harriman's class in physics.


Kim said...

They're shipping soon, so I'll let you know. They seem to have a heirarchy all their own. Some are called 'first fact book.'

Rational Jenn said...

These sound great! What ages would you recommend them for?

I think my boy would appreciate the historical context, too. He likes that sort of thing, learning about what people did in the past and how we've built on that, etc.

Kim said...

I've had a chance to read quite a few. Hubby thinks I should be an expert now. The books themselves have their own heirarchy. None of them are really easy. For general information for the younger kid (mom does the reading), I think "How Did We Find Out About Earthquakes" followed by "How Did We Find Out About Volcanoes" would be good to read. They have a nice introduction, they tend to follow the historical development pretty closely and I think younger (as young as yours) would find them interesting.

The books about Comets, then Neptune, then Pluto (even though its wrong--so it could be skipped) are also not too bad--in that order. They do refer to Newton's gravity work but it might be OK.

The solar power book is another one that is probably pretty independent and not too hard to understand (though watch for the 'wasted money on fighting' spiel at the end).

Another OK one is the speed of light. It introduces all of the early experiments just fine. Nothing too hard there. It then introduces the Michelson-Morley interferometer experiment (wahoo--something I already knew about) using the light wave interference patterns to prove there was no ether and that's pretty tough to understand. The whole rest of the book is really good though.

The beginnings of life is actually quite good until the end. In the end it talks about molecules and the early earth atmosphere. It does a little explaining of each, but not 'how we know it'.

The book about genes isn't too bad. I haven't finished that yet either, but it seems one should know something about cells first--though it does talk about cell division, so perhaps only need to explain how we found out about cells.

I actually found the atoms book to be quite nice. I wouldn't expect anyone to fully understand all of the experiments, but they are presented. It's also an introduction to nuclear decay that would serve as a base for nuclear power, energy, and sunshine.

The outer space book also seems pretty good.

The books about microwaves,
energy, nuclear power, black holes start with pretty advanced stuff and just keep going. Better know a bit about the spectrum of light and atoms before getting to those.

Even though they may be listed for such-and-such an age, such a small book was obviously targeted to middle-elementary students (2nd to 4th grade) in my opinion. The concepts are heavy, though.