________________ CM . . . . Volume VI Number 6 . . . . November 12, 1999

cover Accidental Discoveries from Laughing Gas to Dynamite. (Rev. ed.: Originally published as The Serendipity Effect).

Larry Verstraete. Illustrated by John Etheridge.
Markham, ON: Scholastic Canada Ltd., 1999.
136 pp., pbk., $6.99.
ISBN 0-590-51425-3.

Subject Heading:
Discoveries in science-Juvenile fiction.

Grades 3 - 6 / Ages 8 - 11.
Review by Darleen Golke.

*** /4


George de Mestrel was on a hike through the woods when inspiration struck. Bothered by annoying burrs that stuck to his clothing, de Mestral stopped to pry them loose. What made them so difficult to remove? he wondered. A closer examination showed that the burrs had hook-like arms that locked into the open weave of his clothing. The discovery led de Mestral to invent a hook-and-loop fastener of his own. Today his invention - Velcro - Can be found on everything from clothing and lunch bags to space suits and spacecraft.
Verstraete's "Introduction" explains the premise upon which the book is based. "Ideas surface," he writes, "in the strangest ways, often when they are least expected. Sometimes they seem to pop up almost by accident." He calls the "ability to make unexpected discoveries by accident" the serendipity effect. Organized into five chapters, "New Perspectives," "Fortunate Fumbles," "Opportunity Knocks," Experimental Twists," and "Surprise Endings," this collection of "errors, accidents, coincidences and odd circumstances" ranges from Pythagorus' experiments 2500 years ago to McCrory's pollution-fighting Hair Pillows of 1995.
     Each chapter highlights 5 -11 discoveries and supplies information about the scientist and the discovery or invention. At the top of the page beginning each discovery, the scientist is named with the relevant date. Entries average about two pages, although several, especially in "Experimental Twists," run longer and combine discoveries like those of Pasteur and Jenner or Priestly and Lavoisier. Dates are provided for the principal discovery or invention but not for spinoffs. Verstraete includes several "short snappers" - every day products like Velcro, ivory soap, Walkman, silly putty, WD-40, potato chips, blue jeans. Supplemental information in "Did You Know?" circles and note boxes adds interesting facts or updates to the feature. The "Did You Know" segments, for example, reveal details like a "mishap with soda water" results in Coca Cola; a spilled chemical mixture leads to Scotchguard. The note boxes explain how products like lifesavers, sunscreen, Nutrasweet, and maple syrup emerged.
     Verstraete delivers the information in easy to read, entertaining, and conversational prose to appeal to the very young as well as to adults. Young readers will probably remember the human bits about scientists and their discoveries more readily than the actual scientific achievement. Hopefully, they will be motivated to learn more about science when it is presented as fun.
     Teachers, always looking for unusual ways to present information to reluctant students, could use this collection to supplement their classroom materials. A table of contents, a bibliography, an index, and a list of the brand names, registered trademarks, or patented names are provided. More than forty black and white illustrations have been scattered among the entries. An explanation of the computer process that produced the colourful cover design concludes the volume.
     Another of Verstraete's publications, Whose Bright Idea Was It?, was nominated for Ontario's 1998 Silver Birch Award.


Darleen Golke is the teacher-librarian at Fort Richmond Collegiate in Winnipeg, MB.

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

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ISSN 1201-9364