Saturday, July 01, 2006

Closed loop science: 100 Experiments by Georgina Andrews and Kate Knighton. London: Usborne, 2005

Another Aventis short listed book.

Designed by Zoe Wray and Tom Lalonde
Models by Katie Lovell
Illustrations by Stella Baggott
Photography by Howard Allman
Edited by Jane Chisholm

A really beautiful book with a lot of fun for a wet day (and some hot summer ones too). However, while the experiments are great fun, the explanations never go far enough, so that what a child is doing is practical mechanics, not actually science. God help the poor parent with a "why" child who doesn't know the science, because this book doesn't help a bit.

Here are a couple of examples:

1. soaking blotting paper in red cabbage, then using the strips to test vinegar, bicarb of soda and water, and just water. Here is the explanation.

What's Going One?
The indicator papers change colour when you mix them with an acid or an alkali. Acids always turn the paper as an acid and alkali detector. Vinegar is an acid and bicarbonate of soda is an alkali. Water is neutral--it's neither acid nor alkali--and so doesn't make the paper change colour. Try testing other things such as fizzy drinks, tea or milk.

OK--so what's missing? Yes, that's right. Any explanation at all of why any of the above happens. What exactly is the role of that cabbage?

2. An explanation as to why oil and vinegar don't mix, "Oil and vinegar don't mix. You can force them to mix temporarily by shaking the jar. But they don't mix together properly. The oil turns into small droplets inside the vinegar. When left to settle, the substances separate again."

That isn't an explanation. It's a description and it says the same thing at least two, if not three times. It rather reminded me of the the Glasgow Science Centre which showed children exciting things but didn't actually tell them anything they could then apply to anything else. This explanation was a brilliant bit of pre-Newtonian science in which each observation is discrete to that set of ingredients. I should say that the discussion of cornflour and water at least talks of "long stringy particles" so there is a chance a child might consider that other things have long, stringy particles.

3. Light through a bottle. With regard to the explanation: why if you put the light through a bottle of water with a hint of milk is it blue if you shine the light from the side, and red from behind? This: "the light is scattered in a different way" is monumentally unhelpful.

One that does work, and rather shows up the others, is an explanation of meringue which at least mentions that albumin is made of chains and has a diagram to show the way that, after whisking, the chains uncurl and trap bubbles. Another good one is the explanation of an aerofoil (again with a diagram) but it's spoiled by the explanation of a paper aeroplane on the next page (spelled "plane" with no apostrophe, presumably to cover all spelling variants).


Anonymous Simon Bradshaw said...

It sounds rather like a book from 1973 I have called Cup and Saucer Chemistry; looking through that, it has a similar range of experiments (including all three you cite) and again the 'explanation' is often more of a description.

I suspect the problem is that there's a desire to have some sort of explanation that fits inside the assumed attention span of the reader, and this probably goes even more for the GSC. The trouble is of course that a lot of simple experiments have explanations that need a bit more depth than that, so instead you get either a description of the result or what Jack Cohen terms 'Lies to Children' - the simple but flawed explanation that will satisfy 90% of the audience.

10:36 AM  

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