Information books

1st December 2000 at 00:00
Science THE KINGFISHER ILLUSTRATED ANIMAL ENCYCLOPEDIA. By David Burnie. Kingfisher. pound;25.

THE KINGFISHER BOOK OF THE UNIVERSE. By David Lambert and Martin Redfern. Kingfisher. pound;20.

THE KINGFISHER BOOK OF EVOLUTION. By Stephen Webster. Kingfisher. pound;14.99.

THE MYSTERY OF TIME. By John Langone. National Geographic. pound;25.

These four science titles for children should take some of the effort out of present-buying. The Kingfisher Illustrated Animal Encyclopaedia and the Book of the Universe are full of interesting and well-presented information, while the Book of Evolution and National Geographic's The Mystery of Time deliver philosophy and thought-provoking ideas along with the facts.

The animal encyclopaedia claims: "All animal life is to be found within." I'm not sure about that, but the book explains classification and describes a rich variety of animal life.

Although more pages are devoted to mammals than any other type of animal, David Burnie resists the trap of ignoring less cuddly creatures. Invertebrates (particularly insects), fish, amphibians, reptiles and birds are given full coverage. A great book for youngsters keen on animals, useful for finding examples to support school projects and interesting to dip into. And yes, it competes well with and indeed complements similar Internet resources - you can't curl up by the fire with your computer, can you?

The Kingfisher Book of the Universe is another lovely book that arrived just in time to play a vital role in my 10-year-old son's school project on the solar system. The text is lively and accessible but not patronising, so a wide age range would enjoy it. The pictures are excellent - and it is interesting and enjoyable to dip into.

My main criticism is the dominance of Earth - 143 pages are taken up with its formation, climate, life, volcanoes and oceans. The rest of the universe is covered in the remaining 68 pages. This reflects the sort of topics late primary and early secondary readers will meet at school, but it could be deceptive for the more general reader.

The Kingfisher Book of Evolution is completely different. It can be read as a fascinating story weaving together history, science, philosophy and religion, or it can be dipped into as a source of information and interest.

Visually it is enormously appealing - color, photos and collages make every page attractive. In fact, in one or two cases the picture compilations are so clever that it is difficult to decide what they are showing.

In six sections, Stephen Webster traces the development of ideas about the origins of life from the Ancient Greeks through to Darwin and beyond. He explains the principles of evolution, involving DNA and hereditary principles, and examines the evidence for it.

The story of the history of life on earth is dramatically reviewed before Webster moves on to the evolution of behaviour and its effect on natural selection. With these ideas in place, he considers human evolution and human success. The final section considers the implications of evolution for life in the future - and on other planets.

The book is well-written, with ideas expressed articulately and clearly. It is a pleasure to read and continuously interesting. I have a few minor quibbles - some of the details on Darwin reflect common misconceptions rather than the lesser-known facts, and the conflict with the Church and the implications for society of Darwin's ideas are perhaps underplayed.

Any youngster who has ever been fascinated by dinosaurs, science, or ideas for their own sake would find something of interest in this delightful book.

The Mystery of Time, subtitled "humanity's quest for order and measure" tackles a challenging subject with skill and enthusiasm. Definitely a book for 13 to 14-year-olds upwards, it is beautifully presented, with wonderful illustrations and a light and open style that allows the author to approach complex ideas in an accessible way.

Time in science, in life, in our emotions and in philosophy are all evoked and addressed. The main sections of the book delve into the development of ideas about time, the cycles of nature and timekeeping within the natural world, how ways of measuring time have developed, time in the context of the human life and what the author calls "deep time" where wormholes in space and time travel are all stirred into the narrative.

The Mystery of Time makes a fascinating read for any teenager - or adult - who likes to think about and look at life from a fresh angle.

All of these books would be a welcome addition to the pile of presents under the tree - the only problem is, which one to choose?

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