Big ideas for the small

11th April 1997 at 01:00
The launch of a series of books by scientists aims to fire the imagination of the very young. Sian Griffiths finds it all makes perfect sense

Makingsenseof science series THE SPACE PLACE By Helen Sharman PLANET OCEAN By Brian Bett LIGHT UP YOUR LIFE By David Phillips SATELLITE FEVER By Mike Painter All illustrated by Mic Rolph and edited by Fran Balkwill Portland Press Pounds 6.99 each

When Fran Balkwill's children, Jessica and Barnaby, were seven and three, she decided to tell them about her work. She went to bookshops and scoured libraries, but she could not find a book that explained cells - the subject of her research - in a way that made sense.

"The only one I could find was by Claire Rayner. It said cells were wobbly bits like jelly, with a nucleus in the middle. I thought, hang on, there must be something better than this," recalls Fran, now principal scientist with the Imperial Cancer Research Fund.

When she launches into a brief description of cell biology - how we are still related to the first ever cells, which were made of bacteria; how cells started to move and stick together and join to form a child; how there are cells called protists, with appendages resembling arms and legs - you can see what she means.

So, with her illustrator partner Mic Rolph, Dr Balkwill decided to produce her own children's books. The couple's first efforts, Cell Wars and Cells are Us won the 1991 Science Book prize. The approach certainly worked with her own family as Jessica, now 16, plans to read cell biology at university.

But although the couple created other best-sellers, Fran's full-time work on cancer research limited their opportunities. Then came the brainwave of asking other scientists to write about their specialities for primary school children.

The result is four books - by an astronaut, a deep-sea explorer, a satellite engineer and a laser expert - launched last month as the first wave of a series called Makingsenseof-science. Written by real-life scientists, the books are bubbling with the authors' enthusiasm for their subjects - in contrast to the more usual fare written by arts graduates with a sideline in information books for children.

So why did scientists agree to distil their practical experience into 3,500 words for eight-to-12-year-olds? Partly in response to the national need to encourage more children to study science, says David Phillips, professor of physical chemistry at Imperial College, London. He says that when he was deputy director of the Royal Institution, he realised that "by the time children are aged 10-18 we have pretty much lost them". He adds: "We need to stimulate them at primary school and hope it will carry through to those dreadful teenage years." But, says Professor Phillips, "primary school teachers are often daunted by the national curriculum's science requirements. Young children ask penetrating questions and teachers cannot cope".

And , says Dr Balkwill, science is raising a huge number of issues and much future legislation will attempt to control its progress. How can people make sensible decisions about Dolly the cloned sheep, or where to dump the Brent Spar oil rig, or even about the risks posed by the local factory, unless they understand the science involved?

Scientists are always being told they speak a jargon the rest of us can't understand - so how have these four succeeded in writing intelligible and fascinating scripts? The key lies in their sense of science as both easy and fun, coupled with experience in addressing children. Britain's first astronaut, Helen Sharman, whose book The Space Place is dedicated to her dad "for making the laws of physics seem so easy", says: "So often science is approached as difficult. If you don't understand science, it is usually because of the inadequacy of the person doing the explaining. Science is not complex - it is about gaining some basic knowledge and being shown how to apply it."

Ms Sharman has spent years lecturing about her 1991 eight-day trip around the earth as part of Project Juno. She has just come back from a session at the theme park Alton Towers, in Staffordshire, where she explained to children why they experienced weightlessness at the summit of rides and how the forces of acceleration and gravity operate here just as they do at a rocket launch.

She based her latest script around the questions children have asked her about space - "everything from 'Were you scared?' to 'What is it like going to the toilet?'".

She says: "These questions are scientific. The answers help to show children how science is an integral part of their lives." (Her book tells us a space capsule's toilet is like a funnel, with footstraps to stop you floating away and a recycling unit to "clean" urine so you can drink it.) Professor Phillips has likewise worked questions children have asked him into his book on light. (His favourite question: "Who was the first scientist?" Answer: "Adam, because he experimented with Eve," is not included). As one of the series' aims is to avoid ducking the "hard" scientific problems, he gamely grapples with the question of how light can be said to be travelling in a straight line when we draw it as an oscillating wave. "To understand light you have to understand it as both a stream of particles (photons) and in wave form. It is not surprising children find that difficult - so do scientists. But while we train ourselves to accept such things, kids do not," he says.

And although Brian Bett, author of Planet Ocean, has little previous experience with children, he has the advantage of conducting research in a fascinating world which, at its depth of 10,987 metres, has only ever been visited by two people.

Dr Bett's book is replete with the latest research - including the surprising discovery that the deep sea floor is subject to the swing of seasons. There is, for instance, a "spring bloom", when a blanket of plankton finally arrives, months after sinking below the sea's surface, only to be devoured by creatures as strange as a rat-tail and a sea cucumber. Moreover, Planet Ocean has the added attraction of having been written while the explorer was actually aboard the research ship Discovery.

One of the series' unusual features is the insistence on including scientific terms (albeit explained phonetically). Professor Phillips says: "We do use long words because we want people to get used to the idea that there is a language of science which needs to be learned. Children should not be scared of it." Neverthless it is the one aspect of the books that puts my seven-year-old daughter off - she baulked at the term oesophagus (ee-sof-agg-us) and wasn't altogether sure about "evaporates".

But the scientists agree their secret weapon is illustrator Mic Rolph, who cheerfully admits to hating science at his secondary modern. The new series uses Mic as a sounding board. Because he has to understand the scripts to illustrate them, he acts as a surrogate for the young reader, worrying away at difficult parts. "Maybe I am amazingly stupid, and that is why this works. I have to put my hand up and say I don't understand exactly what is going on," he says. The outcome is constant re-drafting - and occasional arguments - as the scientists struggle to pitch their explanation at an appropriate level.

Mr Rolph also provides the books' humour and the devices that draw the young reader in. Aware of girls' traditional antipathy towards science, he drew a girl character to guide readers through the most "scientific" of the four books, that on light. And in the space book a Sharmanesque figure explains what is going on.

Mr Rolph also found a plus side to working with scientists - they have access to unique resources. The laser drawings, for instance, were based on photos of the lasers Professor Phillips uses to treat cancer in his lab. The next set of books, due out later this year, includes one from naturalist and environmental campaigner David Bellamy, entitled You, Poo and the Potoroo's Loo. It is introduced by the Potoroo, an Australian marsupial that keeps gum trees healthy by defecating at their base, so there are no prizes for guessing what this is all about. There are even drawings of "scats", (the Aussie word for animal excrement). Now there's something for youngsters to look forward to.

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