________________ CM . . . . Volume XII Number 8 . . . . December 9, 2005


Sensational Scientists: The Journeys and Discoveries of 24 Men and Women of Science.

Barry Shell.
Vancouver, BC: Raincoast Books, 2005.
202 pp., pbk., $24.95.
ISBN 1-55192-727-6.

Subject Headings:
Scientists-Canada-Biography-Juvenile literature.

Grades 8 and up / Ages 13 and up.

Review by Barbara McMillan.

**** /4


It’s great to learn new things and form new ideas about how nature works, but to me the people who do science are always at least as interesting as the discoveries they make… For this book, I wanted to find out not only how the science was done, but also something about the people behind the science.

Barry Shell, research editor at the Centre for Systems Science at Simon Fraser University and author of Sensational Scientists, has achieved both of his objectives in this revision of Great Canadian Scientists, a 1997 Polestar publication. In so doing, Shell has updated and enriched a book that was, and will continue to be, a valuable resource to teachers of science, people interested in scientists and their science, and students considering a science career. The 202 pages of Sensational Scientists provide descriptions of science being carried out or completed by astrophysicists, chemists, geneticists, immunologists, mathematicians, meteorologists, microbiologists, molecular biologists, paleontologists, psychologists, and zoologists who are arranged alphabetically by surname. The representatives of these scientific fields are five women and nineteen men who either were born in Canada, studied in Canada, work in Canada or worked in Canada at some point in their career.

     Shell interviewed the 24 scientists featured in Sensational Scientists and wrote a 6 to 8 page profile for each. The profiles include personal information (i.e. photograph; date and place of birth; family members; traits of character; favourite music; title; place of work; status – working, semi-retired, deceased; degrees attained; mentors; and awards) as well as a personal story from their youth and the recounting of a dramatic experience in their life as a scientist, an illustrated description of the research in which they have made discoveries and were or continue to be engaged, advice to those considering their particular area of science as a career, and areas in science where questions still need answers. At the end of each profile, Shell includes a list of suggested readings that provide more information on the scientist and his or her science than is possible to give in the profile alone. There is as well a 14 page glossary of the scientific terminology used in the text. In all but two of the profiles, one finds an invitation to carry out an activity that involves the reader in “research” that draws upon ideas used in the profiled scientist’s field. As one example, after readers learn about meteorologist, Roger Daley, they are presented with a simulation of how Daley and other atmospheric scientists work out the speed of moving clouds, winds, and storms. Using a ruler, stopwatch and a drop of milk in a slowly stirred cup of coffee, one is to measure the distance in centimeters from the centre of the cup to the exact spot where the milk drop falls and the time it takes the drop to make one complete rotation. After calculating the distance the drop travels using the formula (2r), the distance is divided by time to determine velocity.

     As elegantly simple as the activities can be, it is the way in which the scientists articulate their deep interests and simultaneously make the reader aware of their enthusiasm for science and sheer doggedness that is most appealing. H.M.S. Coxeter, a mathematician and geometer, who lived and worked to the age of 96, is quoted as saying, “If you are keen on mathematics, you have to love it, dream about it all the time.” “I am extremely fortunate for being paid for what I would have done anyway” (p. 41). “ I am never bored” (p. 39). Cosmologist, Werner Israel, in a similar vein, responded, “It’s a long hard road, and none but the very dedicated should attempt it.” “When you have caught this bug, it is impossible to shake off” (p. 80). Finally, there is Tak Wah Mak, an immunologist and molecular biologist studying the structure and function of molecules and cells in the human immune system, who helps readers understand helper T-cells and the consequence of AIDS while telling a story about biodetective Tommy T-Cell. Unlike other profiles where the science may be too sophisticated for 12-year-old readers to understand, Mak’s story is engaging and clear and not dependent on one’s coursework in human biology.

     The same can be said for Barry Shell and the ideas he presents in his introduction to Sensational Scientists. He explains in the language of everyday conversation why men and women become scientists, how science works, and why science matters. This needs to be understood by those who never felt comfortable as a student in science classes, and his book is certainly one way of helping teachers and guidance counselors expose students to careers they may never before have considered.

Highly Recommended.

Barbara McMillan is a professor of early and middle years science education in the Faculty of Education, the University of Manitoba.


To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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