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Science Books from my Childhood


Originally posted on July 17, 2006.

David Ng asked a question:

Are there any children's books that are dear to you, either as a child or a parent, and especially ones that perhaps strike a chord with those from a science sensibility? Just curious really. And it doesn't have to be a picture book, doesn't even have to be a children's book - just a book that, for whatever reason, worked for the younger mind set.

Here is my list of childhood favourites, the books that turned me on to science - a list that reflects the time and place where I grew up:

As a little kid, I have practically memorized the 1971 translation of the 1968 book The new golden treasury of natural history by Bertha Morris Parker (under the title of Riznica Prirode). This is where I learned all the names of prehistoric creatures like Dynichtys, trilobites, dinosaurs and prehistoric mammals. This is where I learned about the Solar system and about evolution. And everything else. This is the book that started it all.

At about the same time (very early childhood), I also had and read repeatedly Our Friend the Atom by Heinz Haber, where I learned the basic physics (which I, for the most part, forgot since then).

I have already written about the importance to my naturalist development of The prince and his ants (Ciondolino) by Ricardo Vamba aka Luigi Bertelli.

I also had a couple of books by Alfred Edmund Brehm, including his most famous Brehm's Life of animals: A complete natural history for popular home instruction and for the use of schools, which I used, later in school, as a source for some early papers/reports about animals.

Then, I swallowed a number of translated books by Gerald Durrell and his Russian counterpart, Vera Caplina.

Later, I graduated to works by Konrad Lorenz and, at the age of 13, my first attempt at reading Darwin's Origin Of Species.

Finally, probably the most important kids' books I had were a trilogy by Dr.Zivko Kostic (which I see has been reissued): "Between Play and Physics", "Between Play and Chemistry" and "Between Play and Mathematics". Each of the books had a story - a bunch of kids (mostly boys!!!! - reflecting their origin in the 1950s and 1960s) having a club, meeting regularly and doing experiments or, even more often, using their knowledge to pull pranks on each other and the rest of the community.

But the story was restricted to just a few places scattered around the book. Most of each book was devoted to about 150 "experiments". I have not just read each of the books many times, but I have also tried to do many of the things described within. Math was easy - paper and pencil was all one needed for most of it. Chemistry was great fun, but it was hard to come up with chemicals (probably impossible in the here and now). So, I mostly did the physics stuff, using materials easily found around the house - some string, a glass of water, a pencil, a coat-hanger and a bottle cork. That was great fun.

More importantly, each book is broken into chapters, each chapter covering a particular topic or sub-discipline. And each chapter started with a brief and fascinating history of that field. Archimedes. Mendeleyev. Newton. They were all in there, in anecdotes and coming alive on the pages of the book.

But the greatest fun was when I got to meet the author when I was about 10 years old or so. For a kid in Yugoslavia at the time, it was equivalent of you getting to meet Carl Sagan or Isaak Asimov. My idol, in flesh and blood! And not just for a few seconds at a book signing - he came to visit us for lunch and coffee at my grandparents' summer cottage.

So I listened with awe to his stories and he answered about a zillion questions I had for him. He is still alive and my mother said she was in touch with him recently. She just bought me the three-book set of Kostic's books. They were re-issued about three years ago and are now in EVERY school library in Serbia, as well as favourite prizes to give to good students at end-of-the-year ceremonies.

Perhaps they may be fun to translate. Or, I can do something that I wanted to do for decades now - write the fourth volume: "Between Play and Biology".

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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