Science jumps off pages|
By Greg Toppo, USA TODAY
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — What could be more borrrrring than a thermometer?
It gets hot, the mercury rises. It gets cold, the mercury falls.
What a shock, then, to read this:
"Daniel Fahrenheit (1686-1736) was on the run — running from the police — because he wanted to make a reliable thermometer."
Thus begins a chapter in The Story of Science: Newton at the Center, the second of three planned books by renowned children's author Joy Hakim. The new volume has just been released by Smithsonian Books, but let's get back to Daniel Fahrenheit ...
Our story so far: Young Daniel's parents have died from eating poisonous mushrooms, and his four siblings are in foster homes. But Daniel, "who was quick and bright," is apprenticed to a merchant in Danzig, Poland. He's miserable — and obsessed with this idea: "Water always boils at the same temperature!"
His boss drags him to Amsterdam, and he escapes. But wait: The Danzig authorities send the Amsterdam cops after him. He hightails it to Denmark, Germany, Sweden ...
Did we mention this is a middle-school physics textbook?
Hakim (pronounced HAKE-im) already has legions of admirers for her best-selling American history series, A History of US. Now she is making fans of science teachers, who praise both her scholarship and her ability to make difficult subjects comprehensible.
"The science is impeccable," says Gerry Wheeler, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association. Wheeler, who has written a college physics textbook, says Hakim's writing "takes advantage of the power of story, but it's also quite sophisticated. She has refused to lower the bar."
Unlike with most textbooks, Hakim is the sole author of hers and actually seems to enjoy the material, reveling in both the connections between science and history and the trouble that scientists get themselves into. Who knew that Copernicus made enemies of both Martin Luther and John Calvin? She revels in the details of her subjects' lives, often for no other reason than that they're darned interesting.
In the new volume, we learn, for instance, that Galileo was unhappy in medical school and cut classes; that astronomer Tycho Brahe had the tip of his nose sliced off in a duel with a student; that astronomer Johannes Kepler had, in his own words, "a dog-like horror of baths."
Then there's the great 19th-century physicist Michael Faraday, who grew up in a "big, loving, pious" English family and never got a university degree because his family was too poor. "In often-snobby England, that will be held against him," Hakim notes.
Teachers also like Hakim's conversational style and irreverent sense of humor.
In a chapter explaining Galileo's writings on relativity, Hakim urges readers to "catch your breath, relax and be prepared to stretch your mind." She describes how an observer on shore, watching a ball fall from the mast of a moving ship, sees the ball move in an arc, while an observer on deck sees it move in a straight line. Acknowledging that the idea is a mind-blower, she says, "This is a tough chapter; stick with it; the ideas here are important."
A mother of three grown children, the former journalist and teacher does her own research, poring over stacks of science books in a quiet apartment that she converted into an office. (She and her husband, a retired businessman, live in another apartment in their suburban Denver high-rise.)
Over the years, she has learned to consult established scientists on the nitty-gritty details, but Hakim dedicates most mornings to solitary writing. Sticking with difficult ideas is "how you learn," she says.
"I read over my head an awful lot, and I miss a certain amount. Especially doing the science."
She derides the "fierce anti-intellectualism" in many public schools, saying most textbooks "are not only dumbed down for the kids, they're dumbed down for the teachers."
Her 10-volume history series sold about 4 million copies, spawned a PBS series and a companion book, Freedom: A History of US, and earned near-universal praise.
"She is the best thing to happen to education since the Xerox machine," says Sandy Murray, a history teacher at the private Landon School in Bethesda, Md.
But that didn't make it easier for Hakim to get her science books into print. She turned down a $100,000 advance from a big publisher who loved the idea but wanted to break up the books into stand-alone biographies of Aristotle, Galileo, Newton. That was the polar opposite of her idea, which was to "make connections" between great scientists, their times and their successors.
"I think that one of the problems with our kids today is that they can't think," Hakim says. "And if there's ever a subject that will make kids think, it's science."
So far, response to the series has been astonishing at schools that have tried it, she says. At Winslow Township Middle School in Atco, N.J., 100 children signed up to take an elective course that was built around the first book. And at Seven Hills, a private middle school for boys in Richmond, Va., headmaster David Dorsey says students were so eager to find out what happened in the second volume that they agreed to read drafts printed from computer discs.
"For these students, Hakim tells a story, and they cannot get it told fast enough," he says.
Students are awaiting a shipment of the new book and plan a "Hakim party" when it arrives, Dorsey says. Perhaps the only downside: The school has "the hardest time getting our Hakim (textbooks) back at the end of the year," because families want to keep the books through the summer.
The third volume, which takes students up to the 20th century, should be out next fall.
She is now writing a new series on geology and biology. And yes, she'll tackle Darwin's theory of evolution.
"That'll get me in trouble," she says, a twinkle in her eye.