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Great Canadian Scientists

by Barry Shell

In his introduction, author Barry Shell (research communications manager at the Centre for Systems Science at Simon Fraser University), talks about his own route to science. “In university I majored in organic chemistry because of all the wonderful glassware you could play with.” Since I’m someone whose obvious destiny with literature was almost deflected by the lovely shape of the Erlenmeyer flask, I concluded that Mr. Shell was my kind of guy and that Great Canadian Scientists was my kind of book.
The heart of this book, a set of 18 portraits of important living Canadian scientists, is written in a spirit of good humour and contagious enthusiasm. The range of science is very broad, from meteorology to psychology, from chemistry to anthropology. We meet a spectroscopist, a geometer, a cytogeneticist, a cosmologist, and a couple of ethnobotanists.
Each profile includes a who’s who-type introductory entry, an anecdote about a significant moment of discovery, a description of what the scientist was up to when he or she was 12 years old, an explanation of the science involved, an activity for the reader, a piece of advice, and a teaser centring on what the scientist believes is the most interesting mystery in the chosen field.
There is a lot of science to absorb in this collection. Immunologist Tak Wah Mak’s fanciful description of the T-cell receptor’s role in our immune system gave me my first glimmer of real understanding of the AIDS virus. I found out why lemmings are fascinating to ecologists and that the one thing they do not do is jump off cliffs. The value of this book to the young reader lies, however, less in the specifics of each field than in the overall portrait of how science is done and why. Shell has captured scientists as people; we learn what their favourite piece of music is, the names of their children, how their colleagues describe them. (A significant number are described as modest, retiring, or self-effacing. Power to the shy!) Via anecdote and childhood memories we see the roots of science in curiosity, pleasure, and passion. We learn of books and teachers and chance events that inspired these careers in science. We get a sense of the long slog, the brilliant moment, the drama and creativity of science. We find out why anthropologist Biruté Galdikas puts up with standing waist-deep in a leech-infested swamp – to observe orangutans – and how when zoologist Charles Krebs fell through a crack in the ice in a northern lake, his first concern was to save the data. We feel welcomed into the world of science. “If you love this and it gets you thinking and dreaming about shapes and numbers, consider this…” writes the author.
Great Canadian Scientists is an exemplary reference book that fills a gap. Its reference apparatus is clear and well organized with index, glossary, and encyclopedic supplement containing brief information on dozens more scientists. Good on sources and further reading, it’s also a good read. I think one big reason for its success is that author and designer have allowed it to be a book and to do what books do. With a lively but non-frenetic look to the page, the book allows the reader the pleasure of continuous, if brief, narrative.
Great Canadian Scientists also exists as a CD-ROM and a web site. The CD-ROM has video interview clips, point-and-click activities, background music, and a quiz. It does well what CD-ROM does well: retrieves information quickly, sorts information in many ways (scientists from Quebec, medical researchers), and gives that little burst of electronic applause when you get one of the quiz questions right. The third mode of being – the web site – massages the information in yet another way. It links you to other sites and provides an e-mail capacity so children can ask questions of scientists (“but no homework questions”).
All this makes a fascinating test case for where children’s information books might be headed. CD-ROM provides the easiest and most varied access to facts. Some of the activities, such as chromosome sorting, are also better suited to the screen than to the page. The total pool of information on the CD-ROM (10 profiles), however, is smaller than in the book (18 profiles), a phenomenon I’ve noted in many electronic versions of print sources. The web site encourages wandering off on a tangent, information hopping. And again, some of the activities, such as “designing your own oligonucleotide” are possible only by use of the Internet. What then are the book’s strengths? Shell says “the book lets you go home and read more about the scientists while you’re on your living room couch or at the kitchen table.” To my mind, the book also provides the highest degree of emotional and intellectual engagement. It was while reading the book that I really felt what it would be like to do science.
Great Canadian Scientists, in any or all formats, is an obvious school and library choice. It would be a shame, however, if this material were used just for school assignments. It should be sitting around homes for browsing. Who knows what budding medical researcher, physicist, ecologist, or indeed science-literate citizen might not find him or herself in its pages?