National Science Day (February 28) quietly passed us by, but it’s always a good time to reflect on how science can make our lives sustainable and dispel darkness, both metaphorical and literal. So, you have been told that Darwin’s Theory of Evolution is hogwash. What do you do? Believe it or dismiss it? Here’s the thing: science does not dabble in half-truths and conjectures, and so, you can call someone’s bluff if you know how to (No points for guessing that Darwin knew what he was talking about). Across the world, STEM (Science, technology, engineering and maths) books are being designed for children to make the wonders of science come alive for them through fiction, biographies and imaginative non-fiction narratives. Here’s something to get you started, for god knows, we could all do with some hard facts:
How to Weigh an Elephant (2012, Katha) by Geeta Dharmarajan with art by Wen Hsu gives readers (5+) a nifty introduction to one of India’s early women mathematicians, Lilavati, who lived in Maharashtra in the 12th century. The king’s favourite elephant needs to be weighed, but no scale can hold an animal of such proportions. As the intellectuals of the kingdom wrack their brain, young Lilavati cracks the puzzle on her own. The book introduces children to the Archimedes principle (when a body is immersed in liquid, it experiences an upward buoyant force equal to the weight of the liquid displaced by the body), but also to the fact that, sometimes, solutions can be arrived at with a little lateral thinking. The book also comes with an index of other women scientists who have made pioneering contributions.
The mimosa plant or the Touch-me-not was at the centre of many of scientist Jagadish Chandra Bose’s experiments in bio-physics in the early 20th century. In Jagadish and the Talking Plant (2010, Tulika Publishers) Swati Shome looks at the pioneering genius of Bose through the eyes of the mimosa. Bose, who made many innovations in wireless communication, was one of the first to foray into bio-physics and his research remains as relevant today as it was radical back in the day. Shome merges Bose’s journal entries with an overview of his life and lightens it up with some humorous anecdotes. Anushree Bhat’s illustrations are Lauren Child-esque and in perfect harmony with Shome’s narrative style. Appropriate for: 8+
StoryWeaver, Pratham Books’s open-source digital platform for children’s stories in multiple languages, is a treasure trove for budding bibliophiles. Among its extensive STEM titles, that include How Do Aeroplanes Fly? by Aditi Sarawagi and Padmaparna Ghosh’s delightful Up World, Down World, a personal favourite is Rajiv Eipe’s Ammachi’s Amazing Machines (2016, appropriate for 4+), in which Ammachi agrees to indulge Sooraj’s love for coconut barfis only if he promises to help her with it. Soon, the two are busy getting a coconut down from the tree, breaking it open and grating the pulp out to turn it into yummy barfis. Eipe, who has also illustrated the story, uses minimal text and vivid visuals, gently slipping in basic working principles of an inclined planes, wheel and axle, pulley and wedges, to name a few.
So you want a life in science, filled with research and extraordinary discoveries, but what if everything that you do fails and none of your ideas seem to work out? Is that a cue to give up or change tack and push on? In The Most Magnificent Thing (2010, Kids Can Press) by Ashley Spires, an unnamed young girl wants a life of adventure and delight as the creator of the “most magnificent thing”. She “tinkers, hammers and measures”, yet, none of her experiments hold up. As each of her ideas fail, the young protagonist becomes mad at her failure and is prepared to give up. In steps her best friend, her dog. As the two go for a long walk, the girl comes back rejuvenated and more determined to make things work. In a world of relentless rat race that rarely tells us how to cope with failures, this is an important book that teaches its audience (appropriate for 5+) that it is perfectly okay to make mistakes, to fail and to rise up from it to try again.
The history of inequality between men and women in science is thrown into sharp spotlight in Rachel Ignotofsky’s Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World (2016, Random House), a vibrant encyclopaedia of women scientists down the ages, from Hypatia to the first woman Fields award winner, the late Maryam Mirzakhani. Along with a timeline of women in science, the book also speaks of how, traditionally, science has been a male bastion and how these known and unknown innovaters — Ada Lovelace, Madam Curie, Jane Goodall, Katherine Johnson, Elizabeth Blackwell, among them — charted their own often-difficult journey towards satiating their boundless curiosity. Each biographical sketch in the book, part of Ignotofsky’s series on high-achieving women (she has a similar volume on women in sports), is accompanied by breathtaking illustrations. Even though it would be exciting to see more Asian representation in volumes such as these, this book, appropriate for 10+, is an important record of the struggle for equality for women in science.