Passion to explain
Elaine Williams meets award-winning science author, former teacher Peter Riley
Science illiterates often claim that they first switched off from the subject at school - science was a secret language they could never hope to master. But they probably didn't have a teacher like Peter Riley, a science evangelist who is happy to start from the lowest of baselines in order to spread the good news.
Children from as young as four and as old as 16 have benefited from his ability to make science accessible and enjoyable. Remarkably, despite the fact that he was a busy head of science in a large comprehensive for 22 years, he has written about 80 books: textbooks, library and trade books, and science books for the primary literacy hour and for top ability GCSE sets. He caters for the full ability and age range.
Physics Now! 11-14 (John Murray), winner of the TES Secondary Schoolbook Award for Science, impressed the judges with its clarity and "ground-breaking" emphasis on the history of science.
Riley included a historical perspective because, he said, "I wanted to show how fragile our scientific knowledge is; that if that person hadn't done that thing in that place, that discovery would never have been made."
He added: "I also wanted to show how scientific knowledge is changing all the time, that it's not something set in stone."
The judges also found Physics Now! girl-friendly with plenty of role models such as Lise Meitner, an Austrian physicist who, in the early part of last century, studied how radioactive materials decay.
Indeed, the physics book, as with Biology Now! and Chemistry Now! in the same series, is full of wonderful, startling photographs, clear diagrams and helpful, comprehensible illustrations.
But Riley is equally happy writing Vehicles: Their Inside Story (Ginn) or Elephant Diary (Oxford University Press), both big books for the primary literacy hour, or The Body Quiz (Ginn), a book for reluctant readers. "I've always had this urge to get science over to anybody who would listen. I want people to know that science is much more part of our world than we realise, that it's all around us all the time and if we can enjoy it we will understand our world a lot better."
Riley was born and brought up in the Lancashire Pennine town of Colne. Surrounded by hills and reservoirs, Colne is bird-rich and Riley was a keen ornithologist from a young age. He was equally keen to record what he had seen and always kept a desk diary. Even when he left Colne to study zoology at Hull University, he returned to organise an exhibiton in Colne library in celebration of World Wildlife Year 1970.
He said: "There were displays and lots of pictures. I've felt a need to put things over in this way from the beginning. Lots of science written at that time was like a hidden language, full of phrases that only scientists could understand. If you couldn't catch on to the language, you were lost. I wanted to avoid writing like that."
He has settled in Burnley, not far from his birthplace. In these Pennine towns, conurbation and countryside seem especially close and for an easy, sociable person like Riley, and it was natural to want to share his interests.
Even now, he can walk out from his house on the edge of the town through beautiful woodland towards Pendle Hill. He walks every day, often with a Dictaphone to record his observations.
It was a move back to Lancashire from the East Riding of Yorkshire that prompted Riley to write his own science textbooks for his pupils. He had obtained a post as head of biology at Accrington grammar school for boys, which was in the process of merging with the girls' grammar and transforming into a comprehensive called Moorhead High School.
Riley said: "We had Nuffield texts for the grammar school pupils, but nothing for the lower ability children, so I started creating worksheets for them with lots of diagrams and things to do and stapled them together into booklets. In fact, the head used to go on about the amount of paper I was using up.
"One day, I was stapling up in the staffroom when the Hulton (educational publishers) rep came in. One of the art teachers said: 'Show him your book, Pete.' It was a life changing moment."
Some months later, in 1981, Groundwork in Biology, a Hulton Educational Life Science publication for 11 to 14-year-olds, was completed. That, too, won praise from the TES, which described it as a "superb introductory text". Five years later, his Signposts to Science series (Dryad Press, Batsford) became runner up in the TES Senior Information Book award.
As a result of that first book, which contained a chapter on the use of microscopes, Merit, the maker of home chemistry sets, asked Riley to become a consultant for Microworld, a Merit microscope kit, and to write an accompanying book of experiments.
From then on, Riley has been in great demand as a science book writer and, in 1996, he retired from teaching to dedicate himself to publishing.
He is never short of ideas and juggles numerous projects at any one time. Physics Now! is designed for top ability pupils - those taking GCSE separate sciences or sitting independent school Common Entrance. Riley now has designs on a new series for less able 11 to 14-year-olds.