Innovations to stir young minds

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Curiosity may have killed the cat, but for tomorrow's scientists it is essential.

Supreme Machines: Aircraft

Watts: 1999. £10.99

The Need for Speed Racing Cars

Watts: 1999. £10.99

Inventions and Discoveries: The Facts Behind Amazing Breakthroughs That Changed the World

Lorenz: 2000. £7.95

The Oxford Children's Encyclopedia of Science & Technology

. Oxford University Press: 2000. £9.99

Not long ago, while visiting my local public library, I found several children's books on science and technology from the 1950s, '60s and '70s. I was quickly struck by the similarities to the new works under review. Both sets of books had appealing titles, illuminating explanations of scientific discoveries and principles, clear descriptions of how tools and machines function, useful glossaries, and varying degrees of historical background, including some timelines. Regardless of the age level to which each book, old or new, was oriented, all conveyed the message that science and technology are accessible rather than mysterious. Some, although not all, further proclaimed that learning about science and technology is fun.

I am not, however, suggesting that you should patronize only used bookstores or libraries. The books discussed below not only update phenomena covered in their predecessors but also examine such relatively recent developments as personal computers, electronic communications, robotics and biotechnology.

Although the texts of all of the new books are too advanced for pre-school children, the illustrations in Supreme Machines and in The Need for Speed Racing Cars could spur interest and discussion at that level. Yet for children from ages 5 to 9, the texts of the two books, along with their illustrations, would certainly be suitable. So, too, would be Inventions and Discoveries, which, moreover, offer readers projects (such as making model cars, bridges, motors and telegraphs) that reinforce the scientific and technological knowledge conveyed by the texts and illustrations.

The Oxford Children's Encyclopedia of Science and Technology and How Things Work Today are for children of 10 or older. Indeed, interested teenagers might find them appealing (as might adults intimidated by more technical volumes). The first two books are truly comprehensive, with many entries —from Acids to X-rays in the former, and from Urban and Domestic Environment to Space in the latter — plus an abundance of details, handsome graphics and helpful cross-references. Complementing these volumes, which offer historical information but emphasize contemporary developments, is the slim but valuable Wow! Inventions that Changed the World. It provides fine mini-histories of technologies such as telephones, trains, photographs and printing-presses.

If the traditional messages that science and technology are accessible and often fun understandably persist in these contemporary books, so, too, do other, more questionable themes. First, like their predecessors, these latest works rarely distinguish science from technology. These enterprises have long been and remain largely separate, with different educational and professional requirements and different practitioners. Similarly, technology itself is broader than invention, contrary to what several of the new volumes imply. Even when, for instance, The Oxford Children's Encyclopedia treats science, technology and invention as separate phenomena, science nevertheless receives unjustified top billing as the alleged primary intellectual source of the other two.

Second, as with earlier books, the new ones embrace 'scientific and technological determinism', or the notion (stated explicitly in some of their titles and subtitles) that science and technology have 'changed the world' as nothing else ever has or, presumably, ever will. Contemporary historians of science and technology have repeatedly questioned this position, emphasizing instead the complex relationship between pre-existing cultural values and social structures and the varying impact on societies of scientific and technological advances.

Finally, like their predecessors, these current volumes all subscribe to the so-called 'Whig theory' of the history of science and technology. This notion derives from historian Herbert Butterfield's classic argument that English political and social history was often written as the story of unceasing progress, without significant setbacks or detours. True, Supreme Machines and The Need for Speed Racing Cars both mention vehicle crashes. And Inventions that Changed the World discusses a few failures, such as the Ford Edsel, and a few problems of modern cars, such as traffic, accidents and pollution. Yet the sea change throughout so much of the world in recent decades, from an unqualified belief in scientific and technological advance leading to 'progress' to a growing concern for other aspects of the 'good life' — not least, the environment — is missing from all of the works under review.

However difficult it might be for volumes such as these to enlighten children about the profoundly mixed blessings of science and technology, it is surely worth the effort. Are today's children not, after all, repeatedly exposed to examples of this in daily life?

Despite my reservations, these new books all deserve a wide readership. Learning about science and technology only online or solely through visits to interactive exhibits hardly suffices, especially for children. It is therefore reassuring to see that such fine books continue to be published.

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