Monday, July 31, 2006

The questionnaire is now closed.

The Science Fiction reading questionnaire is now closed. Thank you everyone who filled it in. I hope the book will be published in 2007 and I will advertise here when it is.

Blogging will continue sporadically and may well speed up in September when all my other obligations have been met! Expect notes on some well loved anthologies at the end of this week.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Where have all the Juveniles gone? To Galaxies, far, far away.

Given that a goodly part of my book will be saying "they don't write juveniles the way they did in my day", it seemed incumbent on me to consider where Juvenile sf might have gone to?: its values, concerns, and also the market. I know that many people go straight to adult sf at the age of thirteen, but is there still an "introductory" market?

The obvious place to look, is tie ins. Tie ins aren't what they once were. Novelisations of movies/tv are now something separate, and tie ins, though set in the same world, often aren't even about the original characters. More and more, tie ins are recogniseably independent contributions to Shared Universes, a concept with a long and respectable tradition in sf.

So for the rest of this week I'll be reading a random selection of tie ins (random as in, bought on a quick trip to Forbidden Planet in London.

First up:

Republic Commando: Triple Zero by Karen Traviss. Karen is one of my favourite sf writers so it seemed to be a good place to start.

Traviss is a working class lass from a naval town, and when she took on the franchise she deployed a lot of that basic experience of the grunt's eye view to take a long, hard look at the Jedi and their clone warriors. What's it really like to be one of a thousand clones? How do you create morale? Through fear, or through culture? Are you still human? In what ways do you recognise your brothers? How do you grow up to be a man when you know you are going to die soon? And how the hell do Jedi get off producing a bunch of slaves in their nice, ethical galaxy?

Small questions? Well, obviously not. But they are thrown out casually, tiny but integral elements in a frenetic tale of search and destroy, spy hunting, and counter-terrorism, all embedded in a set of coming of age tales.

Is this an entry level text? I think so: for all the hand-waving, hard sf, the real interest is in tactics, politics and some of the issues above. There is nothing a teen couldn't cope with--and frankly, I suspect a teen would find the complexity far less daunting than I did--and what little romance there is, is handled tactfully; I especially liked it because it was set within friendship-turning-to-love (and not lurve) and because there were Consequences.

Last thought: what's that new prize for class and sf? This book ought to be considered.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Book update

I've been a bit quiet because I've been downloading surveys. If I'd known how many I was going to get, I would never have used gmail.

As of today, I have 890 surveys. If you know anyone who might be interested in contributing to the research, the link is still to the left, and will be there until July 31st.

Thank you everyone.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Danny Dunn and the Smalifying Machine by Jay Williams and Raymomnd Abrashkin (London: MacDonald, 1969)

Danny and his friends Joe and Irene get caught in the Professor's machine and made very small. The book stands out only because being small is so realistically depicted: almost being blown away, the surface tension of water making it hard to get a drink. Also that both Danny and his friend Irene actively want to be scientists.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Alien worlds

A good post here on literature for gay and transgender children and teens.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Toothache of the Day

If there is one thing I have come to loathe in the past few years, it has been the replacement of the term 'student' with 'learner'. It was supposed to describe a more active process. In fact, it describes a more passive process. The student studies. S/he reads assignments but follows up interests. The learner sits there and learns what is designated.

No, you may not stand on the giant's shoulders.

Goldberg, Lazer. Teaching Science to Children. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, 1970.

This book opens with an annecodote, in which a eight year old child, observing acoustic tiles being put up and being told what they are for, asks the author if he could build such a box, and place in it a ringing bell, would it hold the sound?

His follow up question is whether, when the box was opened, the sound would come out "saved up".

Here is the answer:

"It was a stunning question. All that sound cannot just disappear. It must register its presence somewhere. I was tempted to give an impromptu lecture on energy conversions and the conservation laws, but I resisted the temptation.
"When children practise on their instruments in the music room, can you hear them all over the school?" I asked.
"No." He shook his head.
"Why not?"
"I guess the music gets used up", he replied, raising his shoulders.
"I guess the ringing of the bell also gets used up," I said.
The boy clearly was not satisfied. I showed him a little booklet on sound. He thumbed through it and took it with him. If the puzzle he had discovered proved to be sufficiently compelling, he would find something to do about it. Perhaps he might even build the box and check the results for himself. I knew he would pursue the proble, to the extent of his interest and ability. The school would provide encouragement, time and materials.(4)

The complacency of this response--and his subsequent query, "What are the conditions of learning that will encourage children to observe the events in their common experience and to note the uncommon, puzzling qualities about them? What can adults do, or refrain fro doing, to cultivate children's devition to questions....?" (4)-- is just astonishing. Goldberg does not recognise that he lied to the child, that he prevented the child from receiving the information that might have led to other thoughts, and that crucially, he withheld "the giant's shoulders".

It matters not that the boy might not have understood the explanation. He would have left knowing what it was he needed to learn about.

I skimmed the rest of the book; has anyone discussed to what degree Rousseau influenced the constructivists? All of them seem to be operating from a concept of the "natural" child, and seem to believe in a Baconian world that can be interpreted purely through observation.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Pick Me Up, Before You Go! Sandra Glover, It Didn't Happen. London: Andersen Press, 2005

Paul has been missing for four days when he turns up again, soaking wet and in shock. All he can say is "It Didn't Happen".

But there is no rejoicing for the girl he disappeared with, Melissa, is still missing.

The story is told by Paul's sister Laura who talks of his alienation in schoo due to exczema and poor sight, and the way in which Melissa maniupulated him. But alongside this is Paul's story, told from inside his head as he lies in bed. In this story, the miraculous disappearance of Paul's exczema, his amazing improvement in sight, can all be traced to the night he saw the space ship. When he and Melissa disappeared it was because Paul was searching for help to cure Melissa after a terrible accident.

Melissa's reappearance--apparently uncured--confuses the finale and leaves Paul wondering what the truth actually was. I'll side with sf.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Teeth! Burnie, David. The Kingfisher Illustrated Dinosaur Encyclopedia. Edited by Illustrated by John Sibbick. London: Kingfisher, 2001.

Wish I had more time for this book.

What makes the book work particularly well is that explanations of process are offered to explain why "factual materia;" is evidence for the claim being made.

I've selected three pages which are worth considering in detail: "How Animals Evolve" (14-15); "How Fossils Form" (18-19) and "A Question of Size" (84-85).

1. : "How Animals Evolve" (14-15)

Here I was impressed by the way the process of evolution is described. "During his [Darwin's] lifetime, many people imagined that evolution followed a set path, steadily 'improving' living things in the same way that designers improve machines. But today, biologists take a rather different view. The reason for this is that, unlike a human designer, natural selection cannot plan ahead. Instead, it works like an impartial judge, testing every tiny variation, and rejecting any that do not have an immediate use. It cannot select anything that simply might prove useful in the future.

"This way of selecting features means that complicated structures, such as eyes... have to evolve through a succession of stages, and that each of these stages must bring benefits of its own. Primitive feathers, for example, would have been useless for flight, so they must have served some other function when they first arose. Paleontologists believe that they know what this function was--a discovery that has had a major impact on our understanding of dinosaurs as well as birds.

"Another feature of evolution is that it can never start from scratch. Instead, natural selection works from living thing as they currently exist, encouraging features that helo them to make the most of their way of life. But no matter how much living things change on the outside, their bodies still contain the evidence of their long-distant evolutionary past. For paleontologists, this evidence is a treasure-trove of information about how living things have evolved." (15)

2. "How Fossils Form" (18-19)

Here, two things attracted my attention, first simply that it succeeds in explaining why fossils are so rare, that there are many things that can go wrong in he process, and second that it explains how the relative frequency of trilobites (and their skin shedding) has enabled paleontologists to use them to construct a time line or fossil calender.

There is a very beautiful diagram at the bottom that shows the process of fossilsation.

3. "A Question of Size" (84-85).

The book explains gigantism as driven partially by predation (larger animals survive, but larger predators are also more successful) and the way in which the larger dinosaurs digestive system worked, which put a premium on the generation of heat from larger and larger stomachs. However, gigantism is stalled by "increasing difficulties mating and laying eggs" and the strain put on the heart.

"But from an engineering standpoint, a more fundamental problem concerned their weight: as they evolved larger and larger bodies, this climbed at a prodigious rate.

"To visualise how this happened, imagine three 'dinosaurs' shaped like cubes, with sides 1cm, 5cm and 10cm long. The second dinosaur is only five times as long as the first, but is weight is 125 times as great (the result of multiplying 5x5x5). The third dinosaur is 10 times as long, which means that it weighs a thousand times as much as the first. Once sauropods reached lengths of about 20m, each additional metre meant a jump in weight of over a tonne--a tremendous burden that still had to be supported by just four legs.

"The strength of a leg depends on its cross-sectional area, rather than its volume. This means that if an animal gets larger while keeping the same overall shape, its weight outstrips its strength, so its legs are put under greater and greater stress, Sauropods coped with this by modifying their leg bones, and by keeping bending to a minimum, but in the end it would have been weight, rather than anything else, that brought their growth to a halt."

Without any great efforts, the authors succeed in demonstrating the openness of science and the degree to which one element of knowledge rests on many others, that knowledge is an expanding jigsaw, not independent particles.

Monday, July 03, 2006

The Winner of the Aventis Prize: Kate Petty and Jennie Maizels, Global Garden, An Eden Book Project (London: Transworld), 2005).

A pop up book. Very pretty but with very little information. Too often the pictures are supposed to speak for themselves, but I'm not convinced. When the jeans are revealed to be made of cotton bolls, how many European parents would be able to recognise them?


Which just goes to show that kids and adults don't have the same tastes. The short-list came from the adult judges, the prize was selected by kids. I may be biased, but I thought Johnny Ball's Think of a Number was head and shoulders the best book, and certainly the only one for which I didn't have any serious criticisms.

My Childhood Hero: Johnny Ball, Think of a Number. London: Dorling Kindersley, 2005.

Utterly brilliant. Each page has clear diagrammes, and consists of information, followed by examples, followed by problems. I can't do justice to this book. Just go buy it. If your kids don't love it, you will.

One of the best pages is the one in which a world without numbers is imagined through news headlines: a lottery of coloured balls; a game with "lots and lots of goals"; a high jump record 'a bit higher than the last record".

There are sections on the history of numbers and maths, there is instruction on geometry, and excellent pages on patterns in numbers such as the Fibbonaci sequence and Pascal's triangle. And Johnny Ball becomes my hero for explaining why all of this is so important.

Crucially, the book is information dense. It expects children to get excited and it deliberately provides more than they could possibly manage (excepting the odd genius) on each page.

I'm resitting my maths GCSE this year and working through this book slowly ths summer is going to help enormously.

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).