Explosion of wonder and mystery

4th November 2005 at 00:00
PHYSICALLY SPEAKING: A Dictionary of Quotations on Physics and Astronomy. Selected and arranged by Carl C Gaither and Alma E Cavazos-Gaither. Institute of Physics pound;19.99

THE SCIENCE OF MIDDLE EARTH. By Henry Gee. Souvenir Press pound;10.99

GETTING THE BUGGERS INTO SCIENCE: How to Motivate Students in Biology, Chemistry, Physics and Investigations. By Christine Farmery. Continuum International Publishing pound;12.99

SCIENCE AT THE EDGE. Edited by John Brockman. Wiedenfeld and Nicholson Pounds 18.99

THE SUN: A BIOGRAPHY. By David Whitehouse. John Wiley and Sons Pounds 16.99

ANALYSING EXEMPLARY SCIENCE TEACHING. By Steve Alsop, Larry Bencze and Erminia Pedretti. Open University Press pound;18.99

Scientific books can embellish lessons with fun, facts and cultural references, says Jonathan Osborne

One of the great delights of being a teacher of science these days has been the renaissance of writing about the subject. Suddenly, in the past two decades, scientific ideas are being discussed everywhere - on the radio, on the TV and in print. A significant contribution has been an explosion in books. Those reviewed here, in varied and disparate forms, are another contribution to this burgeoning collection. Many of them are an important means of adding to the cornucopia of information that can transform a mundane lesson into one that is amusing or engaging.

For instance, if the measure of the health of any discipline is the ability to laugh at itself, then Physically Speaking is a book that should be on every physics teacher's shelf. It is replete with amusing and reflective quotes by the great and the good who have grappled with physics in some form or another. One of these quotations per lesson would go some way to improving the daily witticisms most of us can offer in the classroom.

Indeed, the book is worth its price alone for its amusing description of the sex life of the electron. In short, a book to fall happily asleep with.

In a totally different vein, but still as useful, is Henry Gee's exploration of The Science of Middle Earth. Gee is an editor of Nature and this book is a scholarly and erudite companion to Tolkien's trilogy. Gee's project is to explore whether the story is in any way scientifically feasible, and is essential reading for those with any kind of passing interest in The Lord of the Rings. Most inspiring is the view that science is a licence to imagine, to be creative and to be free - which is reflected so strongly in Tolkien's books -and which we desperately need to communicate in school science. The contents of this book would easily form the basis of many a classroom red herring when pupils' attention is beginning to wane.

In a more familiar genre of popular exposition, The Sun: A Biography, written by the science correspondent for the BBC, presents an account of the history of the study of the Sun and its significance. This is a well written and enjoyable account of the importance of this object in our lives, what we know about our nearest star and - just as important - how we know it. A particular strength of the book is that it places this knowledge in its social context, showing how such understanding contributed to the cosmologies of the time. Given that research shows that astronomy is the one science topic that engages all pupils, this book will form a useful addition to any teacher's fount of knowledge.

Science at the Edge has a different project, as its name implies. Through a set of interviews with leading writers about science, the editor attempts to construct a rapprochement between science and humanities, exploring how this objective might be achieved. One of the appealing aspects of the book is that John Brockman has invited critical commentary of his ideas - an approach which makes for a more engaging, and less one-sided, read.

Nevertheless, there is little here that has immediate salience to science teachers. Rather this is a book for those who would like to consider the place of science in contemporary society.

Getting the Buggers into Science promises more than it delivers, leaving the reader with a strong sense of "never judge a book by its cover" - however amusing. A more appropriate title would be "getting the young buggers into science", as much of its content is aimed at primary teachers.

While it is a worthy summary of many sensible ideas containing much appropriate advice, it is difficult to see how it will achieve its objective.

Staying with science education, Analysing Exemplary Science Lessons is an innovative attempt to bridge the divide between teaching practice and the research community. Written accounts of lesson provided by teachers are commented on by researchers who examine them for their strengths and weaknesses. At its heart is an attempt to engage the reader in reflecting on what constitutes effective practice and, as such, this format is at least partially successful.The poet William Blake once complained that science reduces the wonder and mystery of the world to objects in the dull catalogue of common things. The contents of many of these books remind us that this is not so. Rather, they provide an antidote to enliven the dullness of the common moment.

Jonathan Osborne is professor of science education at King's College London

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