CM . . .
. Volume IX Number 18. . . . May 9, 2003
The human eyeball weights about 35 grams (1/4 ounce) and has a diameter of about 2.5 cm (1 inch). That's as big as the space across the face of a quarter (p. 12).
The French word for a wooden shoe is "sabot." When some French workers lost their jobs to machines, they threw their wooden shoes into the machines to wreck them. That's where we get the word "sabotage" (p. 31).
Spiders are voracious predators. All the insects eaten by spiders in one year would weigh more than all the people on Earth (p. 40).
Book a room at Jules Undersea Lodge, the world's only underwater hotel, and dive right in (literally!). The lodge is 9 m (30 ft) deep in a natural mangrove lagoon in Key Largo, Florida (p. 51).
Every minute of the day about 1 billion tonnes (907 million tons) of rain falls on Earth - about the same weight as 10,000 oil tankers (p. 82).
I grew up with a sister who was an encyclopaedia of factual information. It didn't matter what the topic of conversation might be, Becky always had a relevant contribution to make. I remember being astonished by this ability, and not simply because she could effortlessly retrieve specific facts about Greek and Roman mythology, organs and their functions in the body, authors and the characters they created, geographical and political features of nations, and the like. It was also that the information she gave was contextualized: Becky knew much more than the isolated facts themselves. For this reason, I don't believe she would have found Lyn Thomas' What? What? What?: Astounding, Weird, Wonderful and Just Plain Unbelievable Facts interesting. As the above excerpts reveal, there is little attempt to provide the reader with anything but "pages and pages of things that most people don't know" (p. 5) or what the publisher calls "bite-sized fascinating facts." I do, however, think Thomas' book will appeal to readers who have an interest in trivia and readers who enjoy bizarre looking images like some of Dianne Eastman's black and white illustrations.
Thomas has divided What? What? What? into nine sections: "Some Body!," "What We Wear," "Animal Planet," "House and Home," "Who Came Up with That?" "Wild Weather," "In the Air," "Water Worlds," and "Weird and Wonderful." Each section is 12 or 14 pages in length and begins with a title page and brief introduction that tempts one to continue reading. Subsequent pages in a section contain a listing or columns of subject specific facts under headings like "Unwelcome House Guests" and sub-headings "Bugs with Bite," "'Come into My Parlor', Said the Spider," "Eating You Out of House and Home" and "Home Invasion." The accuracy of each fact must be accepted on faith as neither references nor a bibliography of source materials is provided. This is an unfortunate omission. I imagine many readers would like to know more about specific claims that Thomas makes.
Knock-knock jokes, riddles, tongue twisters, mind puzzles, pop quizzes, and puns have also been included. They are strategically placed at the bottom right hand corner of odd-numbered pages. In the "Wild Weather" section on page 83, for example, an elderly man and woman, both with a leg in a cast and an arm in a sling, are drawn in a circle with two attached dialogue balloons. The man asks, "What do you get when two meteorologists each break and arm and a leg?" The woman responds, "Four casts!" Approximately one-third of the pages have appended facts, related to the content on the page, that are presented under a unique heading and in a different and smaller size font. It is here that among other things the reader is told about the connection between the "lub-dub, lub-dub" sounds of the heart and the closing of the heart's valves, insect larvae that cause Mexican beans to appear to jump and dance, the protocol for naming hurricanes, and the sixteen sunrises and sixteen sunsets seen each day by astronauts aboard the International Space Station. In one such entry of "Some Truly Useless Inventions" like "a black highlighter pen" and "fireproof matches," readers are asked one of the very few serious questions posed in the book - "How many wacky ones can you come up with?" (p. 73).
Eastman's illustrations appear on 126 of the book's 128 pages. They are interspersed throughout the text and take the form of cartoon-like contour drawings, silhouettes, photographs, computer generated images, engravings, clip-art, or combinations of these media. I initially believed the illustrations were included to provide a pictorial description of the factual information, but quickly realized they were more for comic affect; to capture the attention of the reader and generate laughter. Thus, rather than illustrating the "short structure called a haltere behind each wing of a fly" that enables it to fly fast and manoeuvre quickly, the reader sees the dotted path of a smiling fly wearing a helmet, goggles, and a scarf tied around its neck that flows in the air above its thorax and abdomen (p. 91). There are also images of chimpanzees in costumes, a dodo wearing a bowler hat, and too many animals with bulging clip-art eyes. I'm not certain why Eastman choose to illustrate What? What? What? similar to the way she had illustrated Thomas' earlier book, Ha! Ha! Ha!: 1000+ Jokes, Riddles, Facts, and More. Incredible, strange, and wonderful technological feats and evolutionary adaptations are made to seem zany and downright silly. It might be more interesting to be told why entomologists believe the black widow spider eats her mate or how ichthyologists explain the ability of the snake like fish known as the electric eel to "emit electrical shocks" or why either adaptation confers an advantage rather than to see the former in Victorian dress with buttoned, high heeled shoes and the latter with a tail end that becomes a two-prong electrical plug. My suspicion is that this decision goes beyond the claim that science must be made fun to interest students. Given the number of superb books of science facts published for juvenile readers, it's necessary for authors and their publishers to fill a niche not already full. The approach taken by Thomas and Eastman is certainly novel, but it seems more suited to books of jokes and riddles than facts resulting from scientific investigations and technological innovations. Moreover, one can't help but wonder about the role of images like Eastman's in the development of naïve beliefs and the construction of science misconceptions. Young learners are not always able to distinguish the imaginary from reality, particularly in the sciences where theoretical constructs can't be directly observed. The reality of the scientist can often seem as unreal as the imagined world of artists. From this perspective, the illustrations get in the way of the "astounding" and "wonderful" facts provided and discourage thinking scientifically about them.
Recommended with reservations.
Barbara McMillan is a professor of early and middle years science education in the Faculty of Education, the University of Manitoba.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.