Books & Arts | Published:

Tales of wonder

Nature volume 540, pages 194197 (08 December 2016) | Download Citation

A bedtime story can ignite a lifelong love of science. Nature editors riffle through shelves and memories for favourites old and new.

George's Secret Key to the Universe

Lucy Hawking & Stephen Hawking

Doubleday: 2007. 9781416954620 9780385611817

Among the books that my family and I read on holiday, George's Secret Key to the Universe was the clear favourite with my daughters, aged five and eight. Theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking and his daughter, writer Lucy Hawking, have crafted a cracking narrative about a boy called George and his physicist neighbour, who owns a powerful computer named Cosmos. The story grabbed their attention — and held it for the week it took me to read it to them. They even preferred it to swimming. I was stunned. I hadn't ever tried a physics book with them before.

Image: Illustration by Richard Wilkinson

George's adventures with Cosmos, which can open a portal to any part of the Universe, are engaging thanks to humorous illustrations and high-resolution images of celestial objects including planets, the Milky Way and more. With George, we learn about the Solar System, the birth and death of stars, and black holes. Some facts are better than fiction. That is why my girls loved the story: it's about life, not just physics. George shares a world of discovery with us. And now my five-year-old wants to be an astronaut. My work is done.

May Chiao is the chief editor of Nature Astronomy.

Primates: The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Biruté Galdikas

Jim Ottaviani & Maris Wicks

First Second: 2013. 9781596438651

This spring, my eight-year-old had to write a biography for school. She wanted her subject to be female, living and accomplished. At our public library, we came across Primates by Jim Ottaviani and Maris Wicks, a book about the lives and discoveries of primatologists Jane Goodall (chimpanzees), Dian Fossey (mountain gorillas) and Birutė Galdikas (orangutans). Sophia selected Galdikas, whose story fascinated her; she was also keen to write about someone unknown to her classmates.

A graphic novel is perfect for this triple narrative: it succinctly conveys a great deal of information that would be challenging with text alone. And it shows the excitement of fieldwork without glossing over its challenges or the obstacles facing female scientists. Ottaviani's engaging storytelling and Wicks's captivating illustrations transport the reader to the jungles and mountains where the three women did their groundbreaking work. We highly recommend this book for the budding zoologist or curious young mind in your own life.

Sophia Sykes-Finkelstein is in the third grade. Joshua Finkelstein is a former senior editor at Nature and current deputy director of the Allen Discovery Center at Tufts University.

Insects Do the Strangest Things

Leonora Hornblow & Arthur Hornblow

Random House Books for Young Readers: 1968. 9780394800721 9780394900728

It's the strangest things that stick in your head from childhood reading. For me, it was a series of books penned in the 1960s by Leonora and Arthur Hornblow, a New York couple who pushed kids to pause and ponder the living things around them by providing interesting facts to savour, remember and share. Did you know that some ants farm a fungus in their underground homes? Strange! And bee grubs will grow up to be queens if they are fed a steady diet of royal jelly. Each animal gets a brief, bite-sized chapter that covers a broad range of weird facts.

For me, Insects Do the Strangest Things was the most memorable book in the series. Unlike its companions on fish, birds and other animals, almost all of the creatures that it discusses were easy to find in my backyard. It was an entry point and an open invitation to dig around in the dirt and explore some more. And the warm, joyous illustrations by Michael K. Frith still remind me of summer nights listening to crickets, swatting at mosquitoes and wondering whether I ever really could, as the book suggests, catch enough fireflies to read it by.

Brendan Maher is a News Features editor at Nature.

Henry Reed, Inc.

Keith Robertson

Viking: 1958. 9780670367962 9780394900728

Keith Robertson's Henry Reed, Inc. (1958) was the first book that I read as a child in which the main character wanted to be a scientist when he grew up. (As Nature readers will know, such books remain vanishingly rare.)

Robertson's protagonist is the son of foreign-service parents, sent to spend a summer with his uncle just outside Princeton, New Jersey. Inspired by all the nearby research and development companies, such as Bell Laboratories, he founds his own research firm with Midge, a girl who lives across the street. Her father is a chemist — common in science fiction, but not children's literature.

The book is funny and touching (although, unfortunately, a bit late-fifties misogynistic) and the memory of it stuck. (I also strongly recommend the 1963 follow-up Henry Reed's Journey, which traces a pre-interstate-highway trip that Midge's family and Henry take from Los Angeles, California, to Princeton, after a conference attended by Midge's father.)

I read Henry Reed, Inc. to my son when he was about 6. Although he did not go on to become a scientist (that was crushed out of him in elementary school), he enjoyed it: it gave that sense of vistas of possibility.

Leslie Sage is a senior editor in physical sciences at Nature in Washington DC.

Remarkable Creatures

Tracy Chevalier

HarperCollins: 2009. 9780007178377

From her childhood, working-class woman Mary Anning hunted for fossils in England's Lyme Regis. She studied and sold the remains of large marine reptiles, many of them scientific firsts. Remarkable Creatures, Tracy Chevalier's novel inspired by Anning, shows how her finds drew the attention of renowned scientists such as geologist Charles Lyell and naturalist Georges Cuvier. Anning ultimately contributed to the theory of extinction, indicating its importance in Earth history.

We enjoyed searching for fossils in Spain's Aviados mountains and were keen to learn about Anning. This stirring book shows that anybody can do scientific research, even against the odds. Science in the nineteenth century was dominated by men, and Chevalier shows how Anning and her self-educated friend Elizabeth Philpot battled for recognition. She communicates accurate science in a way sure to interest young adults who might shy away from academic papers. Chevalier takes liberties in describing the relationships between Anning, Philpot and other historical figures — but isn't this the storyteller's privilege? Remarkable Creatures made us yearn to visit Lyme Regis and hunt fossils again.

Laura Mata Le Bot (14) is a student with a love of science, dance and experimental baking. Nathalie Le Bot is a senior biology editor at Nature.

Outside Your Window: A First Book of Nature

Nicola Davies

Candlewick: 2012. 9780763655495 9781406304916

Ella, age four, loves poking around in mud and searching for minibeasts under stones. A First Book of Nature is her sort of book. Beautiful illustrations by Mark Hearld and words by Nicola Davies send the reader on a mesmerizing journey through the seasons, from melting icicles to the sounds of sleepy summer, through berry picking to slow wintertime.

Poetry peppers the colourful pages, perfectly capturing the wonder of discovery. The animals are carefully observed. Lizards are “fast as thinking/There, then not there”. A running horse is thrillingly scary, but at rest and offered a carrot, “its dark eye is quiet and its nose is velvet, more tender than your own cheek”.

The odd science lesson is thrown in — how rainbows appear, the life cycles of fungi. There are suggestions for activities (“Things to do in your den. 1. Sit and think. 2. Notice things, like the smell of the earth, or what beetles are doing.”) There are even recipes for bird cake and compost. The book is a work of art that holds Ella's rapt attention throughout. And it reminds me that even on a grey London day, I should take a break and see what's outside.

Clare Thomas is a senior editor in biology at Nature.

The Number Devil: A Mathematical Adventure

Hans Magnus Enzensberger

Henry Holt: 1997.

Image: Illustration by Richard Wilkinson

At school, my best friend's favourite book was Hans Magnus Enzensberger's The Number Devil. Her enthusiasm made me curious enough to give the story a try. In the book, a charismatic devil called Teplotaxl visits the dreams of 12-year-old Robert to introduce him to the magical world of mathematics. From prime numbers (which the devil calls “prima donnas”) and vroom numbers (factorials, in mundane English) to the concept of mathematical proofs, Enzensberger's descriptions were brilliantly imaginative. I, too, soon found myself thinking about the weird connections between triangular arrays and Fibonacci numbers whenever a maths lesson at school became dull.

Fast-forward 15-odd years and my friend, having earned a maths PhD, has just given up a lucrative consulting job to work in the didactics of mathematics. If you ask me, there is at least a subconscious connection between that decision and Enzensberger's book. Explaining the mind-boggling abstractness of her algebraic topology research with the most colourful images, my friend has, in any case, made me firmly believe that everybody can understand mathematics — as long as they have access to a number devil.

Leonie Mueck is a senior editor in physical sciences at Nature.

The Rabbit Problem

Emily Gravett

Macmillan Children's Books: 2009. 9780230704237

Emily Gravett is a master of delicate, humorous watercolour illustration, and her trademark skills (also on display in 2011's The Odd Egg and the 2008 Spells, both published by Macmillan Children's Books) are well to the fore in The Rabbit Problem. This faux calendar illustrates Fibonacci's sequence, using the same example that Fibonacci himself employed in his classic of arithmetic, the 1202 Liber abaci (Book of Calculation). In Fibonacci's theorem, the next number in the sequence is generated by summing the two previous numbers (1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144 ...). My eight-year-old could easily handle the maths.

Starting with one pair of rabbits in a field, Gravett demonstrates how many of the animals there will be after a year (“No Rabbits May Leave The Field”). The book addresses population problems month by month, from Hungry Rabbits (solution: plant carrot seed) to Cold Rabbits (knit a jumper). It all ends with December's 144 pairs dramatically escaping in a double-page pop-up, pop-out spread. The charming inserts such as (partly chewed) carrot recipes and leporine newspaper articles make it suitable as a simple bunny tale for tots, too.

Dinah Loon is a physical-sciences subeditor at Nature.

A Year in Brambly Hedge

Jill Barklem

HarperCollins: 2010. 9780007371662

Jill Barklem's Brambly Hedge books follow a community of mice through Britain's changing seasons. From the Snow Ball of Winter Story to the surprise picnic of Spring Story and riverside wedding of Summer Story, our diminutive hedge-dwellers mark the passing of the year in parties wreathed in buds, blossoms, berries and ice. Throughout, they pick and store nature's bounty, turning it into miniature pies and pastries, jellies and syllabubs. Small wonder that the younger of my own small wonders (Josh) demanded a Brambly Hedge party for his fifth birthday, complete with a rowan-trimmed straw hat.

Somehow, Barklem's quartet of stories — although ostensibly about the festivities of bonnet-clad rodents — dodges tweeness and lands somewhere deeper and more resonant. Her exquisitely illustrated books are as much hymns to the joys of observing the natural world, to communing with it and in it, as are the works of travel writer Robert MacFarlane or environmental historian Oliver Rackham. My wee boy loves to point out how this tree in the story we're reading has fruit, whereas in the previous book it was in flower, or to assure me that we, too, could nap beneath bluebells. Quite so.

Sara Abdulla is chief commissioning editor for Nature.

The Mysterious Benedict Society

Trenton Lee Stewart

Little, Brown (Books for Young Readers): 2007. 9780316057776

Reynie Muldoon is a 12-year-old orphan who replies to a newspaper advertisement inviting children to attend a series of mind-bending tests. He passes and, with three other gifted children, enters the service of the kindly yet eccentric Nicholas Benedict, who is investigating the nefarious doings of the Learning Institute for the Very Enlightened (L.I.V.E.), a school run by Benedict's evil twin, Ledroptha Curtain. Reynie and his companions have to infiltrate the school and find out what's going on.

One could dismiss The Mysterious Benedict Society as espionage for pre-teens — an urban version of Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons (1930) — except for the utter eccentricity of all the characters, and the full-fat science and logic content. (In one test, the children are asked to navigate a tiled floor without treading on any of the squares. Only Reynie walks blithely across — the tiles are rectangular.)

Like all the best books for children, it's done the old-fashioned way: without compromise. This volume is the first in what is currently a four-part series — one instalment of which is called (and I'm not making this up) The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Prisoner's Dilemma.

Henry Gee is senior editor in biology at Nature.

Animals Without Backbones: An Introduction to the Invertebrates

Ralph Buchsbaum

University of Chicago Press: 1938.

If you had told the ten-year-old me that Animals Without Backbones was a classic biology textbook, I would never have picked it up. I struggled to, anyway: the decades-old dog-eared copy that I found at the back of my dad's bookcase had a loose monochrome cover that always wanted to come off in my hands. This was a link to his world as a scientist, and to what he did all day. (Actually, he was a research chemist, but what did I know.)

More, the book was a glimpse of a world just as alien as those in the pages of my 2000 AD comic, peopled with warlocks and genetic infantrymen. The pictures looked hand-drawn, and showed features on the outside of the creatures as well as their inner structures. I studied those pages and copied the drawings — the stunning representation of the Hydra especially — into my sketch pad, next to Rogue Trooper and Judge Dredd. 2000 AD later published one of those drawings, but it was the fantastic stories of the true, hidden world of invertebrates that really fired my imagination.

David Adam is Editorials editor at Nature.

Doctor Dolittle in the Moon

Hugh Lofting

Jonathan Cape: 1928.

Growing up in wild corners of North America, I had close encounters with bears, deer and rattlesnakes — as well as a huge range of fictitious fauna in books from Beatrix Potter's 1904 The Tale of Two Bad Mice to Rudyard Kipling's 1902 The Cat that Walked by Himself. Hugh Lofting's Doctor Dolittle series wonderfully mixed it all up, harnessing the empirical method to unlock an alternate universe of beasts that behave like beasts, but engage in rational discourse. A favourite was the 1928 Doctor Dolittle in the Moon. In it, our interspecies polyglot shifts his research into a higher gear.

Dolittle's lunar mission is a naturalist's dream, with a gargantuan moth and vast oxygen-emitting flowers serving as spacecraft and life support, respectively. With a crack team from his household in Puddleby-on-the-Marsh, the doctor roams the Moon digging up data on its formation, the impacts of microgravity and the longevity of its exotic, surprisingly numerous inhabitants. Perhaps most delightful is Dolittle's encounters with the Whispering Vines — voluble vegetation living in ecological cooperation. Although I didn't know it then, Lofting's free-floating imagination had hit upon some of today's more fascinating questions in plant science.

Barbara Kiser is Nature's Books and Arts editor.

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