We skeptics spend a lot of time critiquing non-science and too little time promoting science itself. Science is awe-inspiring and fun, and any effort to communicate that to our children is worthwhile. A new book by Sean Connolly, The Book of Potentially Catastrophic Science: 50 Experiments for Daring Young Scientists, serves that goal well.
Connolly makes science sound like a great adventure: he explains how “mad” scientists have carried out potentially catastrophic experiments like jumping out of a balloon with only a few yards of silk to slow down the fall. Brave scientific pioneers stuck their necks out to make breakthrough discoveries that have vastly improved our lives and our understanding of how the world works.
He describes 34 of the greatest scientific breakthroughs, from stone age tools through Galileo, Newton, Jenner, Darwin, and Curie to the Large Hadron Collider. He tells their stories in an accessible, entertaining style, and he explains the scientific principles in simple terms illustrated by compelling examples. The book is intended for children ages 9 and up, but even adult scientists might enjoy reading it and might even learn a thing or two.
The best part is the experiments: 50 of them that kids can do at home to illustrate those principles. He makes them more exciting by rating them from one to four on a Catastrophic Meter Chart, with one representing “no risk of catastrophe” and four representing “high risk: involves use of fire, lot liquids, or hazardous substances. Adult supervision required.” Some of them are delightfully messy, like creating avalanches with sugar and flour, spilling water, and counting how many popcorn kernels pop out of an open pan per unit of time to demonstrate what radioactive half-life means. You can extract DNA in a kitchen experiment. You can measure the speed of light by melting marshmallows in the microwave oven. You can create a fossil. You can send a toy soldier aloft in a hot air trash bag balloon. You can build a soda bottle rocket. You can shock your tongue with a battery you make yourself from a stack of nickels and pennies.
Young fans of the Mythbusters should particularly love this book. Doing their own experiments is a step up from watching them on TV, and it might even be the first step towards a career in science.
This article was originally published in Skeptic magazine..