Let me tell you a story

15th November 2013 at 00:00

Somewhere in this piece, I'll tell you what physicist James Joule did on his honeymoon. First off, however, I want to talk about the greatest book I have ever read. See if you can pick it out from this list: And the Land Lay Still; One Hundred Years of Solitude; But n Ben A-Go-Go; Five Go Off in a Caravan.

The answer is James Robertson's And the Land Lay Still.

I didn't "get" Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, yet it's highly regarded, so I learned from it that I have something still to learn. But n Ben A-Go-Go, a science fiction work written entirely in the Scots language by Matthew Fitt, rewired my head so that I began to think and even dream in Scots.

Five Go Off in a Caravan was my first love. I was 7 and in hospital for a minor operation. My parents bought me a Corgi Holmes Wrecker truck (with twin cranes and a tilt cab) to cheer me up and an Enid Blyton book to keep me occupied. I'd never read a book that had only five pictures in it before, but within minutes I was right in there, along with Julian, Dick, George, Anne and Timmy the dog.

I couldn't believe that someone had created something so exciting, and it led to another book, then another. I am probably imagining that I have gone from book to book, grabbing a new one as soon as I've finished the current read, like some biblio Tarzan swinging from tome to tome, never quite touching the ground.

Perhaps not, but the path to And the Land Lay Still can still be traced back to the Famous Five. One of life's greatest mysteries - why I should care about the fate of a fictional character - teases me with each good book that I read.

Author Neil Gaiman says there is no such thing as a bad book for children. Some might classify a good number of the books I read as bad, or at least trivial. I read a lot of crime fiction and one of the reasons I like it ties in with one of the reasons I like science: a story of a mystery to be solved. Perhaps we miss that trick with a lot of science education, forgetting about the story of a discovery or theory.

What's the story with James Joule on his honeymoon? He measured the temperature at the top and bottom of a waterfall and discovered that it was slightly warmer lower down. This little tale fixed the physics of energy conversion - of energy degradation to heat and of the unit of energy being the joule - in my mind far more effectively than a raw statement of fact, especially when Inspector Steele and his fellow fourth-year detectives (the word "dicks" was coined for us in all probability) carried out our own investigations in the form of experimental work.

If you've read this far just to find out about JJ's post-wedding antics, I may have proved my point.

Gregor Steele is a head of section at the Scottish Schools Education Research Centre.

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