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1. Microbes matter

By John Archibald

We humans have a love-hate relationship with bugs. I’m not talking about insects — although many of us cringe at the thought of them too — but rather the bugs we can’t see, the ones that make us sick.

Sure, microorganisms give us beer, wine, cheese, and yoghurt; hardly a day goes by without most people consuming food or drink produced by microbial fermentation. And we put microbes to good use in the laboratory, as vehicles for the production of insulin and other life-saving drugs, for example.

But microbes are also responsible for much of what ails us, from annoying stomach ‘bugs’ to deadly infectious diseases such as tuberculosis and plague. Bacteria and viruses are even linked to certain cancers. Bugs are bad; antibiotics and antivirals are good. We spend billions annually trying to rid ourselves of microorganisms, and if they were to all disappear, well, all the better, right?

This is, of course, nonsense. Even the most ardent germaphobe would take a deep breath and accept the fact that we could no more survive without microbes than we could without oxygen. No matter how clean we strive to be, there are 100 trillion bacterial cells living on and within our bodies, 10 times the number of human cells that comprise ‘us’. Hundreds of different bacterial species live within our intestines, hundreds more thrive in our mouths and on our skin. Add in the resident viruses, fungi, and small animals such as worms and mites, and the human body becomes a full-blown ecosystem, a microcosm of the world around us. And like any ecosystem, if thrown off-balance bad things can happen. For example, many of our ‘good’ bacteria help us metabolize food and fight off illness. But after a prolonged course of antibiotics such bacteria can be knocked flat, and normally benign species such as ‘Clostridium difficile’ can grow out of control and cause disease.


Given the complexity of our body jungle, some researchers go as far as to propose that there is no such thing as a ‘human being’. Each of us should instead be thought of as a human-microbe symbiosis, a complex biological relationship in which neither partner can survive without the other. As disturbing a notion as this may be, one thing is indisputable: we depend on our microbiome and it depends on us.

And there is an even more fundamental way in which the survival of Homo sapiens is intimately tied to the hidden microbial majority of life. Each and every one of our 10 trillion cells betrays its microbial ancestry in harboring mitochondria, tiny subcellular factories that use oxygen to convert our food into ATP, the energy currency of all living cells. Our mitochondria are, in essence, domesticated bacteria — oxygen-consuming bacteria that took up residence inside another bacterium more than a billion years ago and never left. We know this because mitochondria possess tiny remnants of bacterium-like DNA inside them, distinct from the DNA housed in the cell nucleus. Modern genetic investigations have revealed that mitochondria are a throwback to a time before complex animals, plants, or fungi had arisen, a time when life was exclusively microbial.

As we ponder the bacterial nature of our mitochondria, it is also instructive to consider where the oxygen they so depend on actually comes from. The answer is photosynthesis. Within the cells of plants and algae are the all-important chloroplasts, green-tinged, DNA-containing factories that absorb sunlight, fix carbon dioxide, and pump oxygen into the atmosphere by the truckload. Most of the oxygen we breathe comes from the photosynthetic activities of these plants and algae—and like mitochondria, chloroplasts are derived from bacteria by symbiosis. The genetic signature written within chloroplast DNA links them to the myriad of free-living cyanobacteria drifting in the world’s oceans. Photosynthesis and respiration are the biochemical yin and yang of life on Earth. The energy that flows through chloroplasts and mitochondria connects life in the furthest corners of the biosphere.

For all our biological sophistication and intelligence, one could argue that we humans are little more than the sum of the individual cells from which we are built. And as is the case for all other complex multicellular organisms, our existence is inexorably linked to the sea of microbes that share our physical space. It is a reality we come by honestly. As we struggle to tame and exploit the microbial world, we would do well to remember that symbiosis—the living together of distinct organisms—explains both what we are and how we got here.

John Archibald is Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at Dalhousie University and a Senior Fellow of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, Program in Integrated Microbial Biodiversity. He is an Associate Editor for Genome Biology & Evolution and an Editorial Board Member of various scientific journals, including Current Biology, Eukaryotic Cell, and BMC Biology. He is the author of One Plus One Equals One: Symbiosis and the Evolution of Complex Life.

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Image credit: Virus Microbiology. Public domain via Pixabay

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2. Practical wisdom and why we need to value it


By David Blockley

“Some people who do not possess theoretical knowledge are more effective in action (especially if they are experienced) than others who do possess it.”

Aristotle was referring, in his Nicomachean Ethics, to an attribute called practical wisdom – a quality that many modern engineers have – but our western intellectual tradition has completely lost sight of. I will describe briefly what Aristotle wrote about practical wisdom, argue for its recognition and celebration and state that we need consciously to utilise it as we face up to the uncertainties inherent in the engineering challenges of climate change.

Necessarily what follows is a simplified account of complex and profound ideas. Aristotle saw five ways of arriving at the truth – he called them art (ars, techne), science (episteme), intuition (nous), wisdom (sophia), and practical wisdom – sometimes translated as prudence (phronesis). Ars or techne (from which we get the words art and technical, technique and technology) was concerned with production but not action. Art had a productive state, truly reasoned, with an end (i.e. a product) other than itself (e.g. a building). It was not just a set of activities and skills of craftsman but included the arts of the mind and what we would now call the fine arts. The Greeks did not distinguish the fine arts as the work of an inspired individual – that came only after the Renaissance. So techne as the modern idea of mere technique or rule-following was only one part of what Aristotle was referring to.

Episteme (from which we get the word epistemology or knowledge) was of necessity and eternal; it is knowledge that cannot come into being or cease to be; it is demonstrable and teachable and depends on first principles. Later, when combined with Christianity, episteme as eternal, universal, context-free knowledge has profoundly influenced western thought and is at the heart of debates between science and religion. Intuition or nous was a state of mind that apprehends these first principles and we could think of it as our modern notion of intelligence or intellect. Wisdom or sophia was the most finished form of knowledge – a combination of nous and episteme.

Aristotle thought there were two kinds of virtues, the intellectual and the moral. Practical wisdom or phronesis was an intellectual virtue of perceiving and understanding in effective ways and acting benevolently and beneficently. It was not an art and necessarily involved ethics, not static but always changing, individual but also social and cultural. As an illustration of the quotation at the head of this article, Aristotle even referred to people who thought Anaxagoras and Thales were examples of men with exceptional, marvelous, profound but useless knowledge because their search was not for human goods.

Aristotle thought of human activity in three categories praxis, poeisis (from which we get the word poetry), and theoria (contemplation – from which we get the word theory). The intellectual faculties required were phronesis for praxis, techne for poiesis, and sophia and nous for theoria.

Sculpture of Aristotle at the Louvre Museum, Eric Gaba, CC-BY-SA-2.5 via Wikimedia Commons

Sculpture of Aristotle at the Louvre Museum. Photo by Eric Gaba, CC-BY-SA-2.5 via Wikimedia Commons

It is important to understand that theoria had total priority because sophia and nous were considered to be universal, necessary and eternal but the others are variable, finite, contingent and hence uncertain and thus inferior.

What did Aristotle actually mean when he referred to phronesis? As I see it phronesis is a means towards an end arrived at through moral virtue. It is concerned with “the capacity for determining what is good for both the individual and the community”. It is a virtue and a competence, an ability to deliberate rightly about what is good in general, about discerning and judging what is true and right but it excludes specific competences (like deliberating about how to build a bridge or how to make a person healthy). It is purposeful, contextual but not rule-following. It is not routine or even well-trained behaviour but rather intentional conduct based on tacit knowledge and experience, using longer time horizons than usual, and considering more aspects, more ways of knowing, more viewpoints, coupled with an ability to generalise beyond narrow subject areas. Phronesis was not considered a science by Aristotle because it is variable and context dependent. It was not an art because it is about action and generically different from production. Art is production that aims at an end other than itself. Action is a continuous process of doing well and an end in itself in so far as being well done it contributes to the good life.

Christopher Long argues that an ontology (the philosophy of being or nature of existence) directed by phronesis rather than sophia (as it currently is) would be ethical; would question normative values; would not seek refuge in the eternal but be embedded in the world and be capable of critically considering the historico-ethical-political conditions under which it is deployed. Its goal would not be eternal context-free truth but finite context-dependent truth. Phronesis is an excellence (arête) and capable of determining the ends. The difference between phronesis and techne echoes that between sophia and episteme. Just as sophia must not just understand things that follow from first principles but also things that must be true, so phronesis must not just determine itself towards the ends but as arête must determine the ends as good. Whereas sophia knows the truth through nous, phronesis must rely on moral virtues from lived experience.

In the 20th century quantum mechanics required sophia to change and to recognise that we cannot escape uncertainty. Derek Sellman writes that a phronimo will recognise not knowing our competencies, i.e. not knowing what we know, and not knowing our uncompetencies, i.e. not knowing what we do not know. He states that a longing for phronesis “is really a longing for a world in which people honestly and capably strive to act rightly and to avoid harm,” and he thinks it is a longing for praxis.

In summary I think that one way (and perhaps the only way) of dealing with the ‘wicked’ uncertainties we face in the future, such as the effects of climate change, is through collaborative ‘learning together’ informed by the recognition, appreciation, and exercise of practical wisdom.

Professor Blockley is an engineer and an academic scientist. He has been Head of the Department of Civil Engineering and Dean of the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Bristol. He is a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering, the Institution of Civil Engineers, the Institution of Structural Engineers, and the Royal Society of Arts. He has written four books including Engineering: A Very Short Introduction and Bridges: The science and art of the world’s most inspiring structures.

The Very Short Introductions (VSI) series combines a small format with authoritative analysis and big ideas for hundreds of topic areas. Written by our expert authors, these books can change the way you think about the things that interest you and are the perfect introduction to subjects you previously knew nothing about. Grow your knowledge with OUPblog and the VSI series every Friday, subscribe to Very Short Introductions articles on the OUPblog via email or RSS., and like Very Short Introductions on Facebook.

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3. Sam Falconer: fantastic editorial science illustrations

Post by Heather Ryerson


The Pleasure

Memory Place

Space Colonization

Sam Falconer’s fantastic illustrations reflect science and the human experience through digital, collage, and hand-painted textures. His clever scenes provoke philosophical thought while quickly getting to the heart of a story. His editorial illustrations regularly feature in top publications such as The Guardian, The Washington Post, and New Scientist magazine.

Check out more illustrations on his portfolio website.

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4. Pandemonium 2000

Pandemonium 2000 illustration by Christine Marie Larsen editorial and kid lit

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5. FreshPlans Visits the Sternberg Museum of Natural History

The Sternberg Museum of Natural History is a bit of a surprise.

Tucked away in a residential neighborhood in Hays, Kansas, the museum is unprepossessing from the outside. It grew out of the local fossils collections originally housed at the Kansas State Normal School, founded in 1902, which later became Ft. Hayes State University.

George F. Sternberg was in charge of gathering all the exhibits together into a museum that could share this wealth of specimens and knowledge. Sternberg found his first major fossil, a complete plesiosaur, in 1892. He was 9 years old at the time.

Here are the FreshPlans guys at the museum that bears Sternberg’s name. They’re feeling uncertain about this field trip.


Once inside, they see that the museum is definitely worth a visit. Here’s Mr. Sternberg himself — or at least a model of him — showing how archaeologists and paleontologists work. All dirt and dust has to be cleaned away from the fossil very carefully so there’s no damage. Fossils tell us more  all that we can know about what life was like before human beings were around to see and record the world. Being very careful and accurate is super important!


There are a number of permanent exhibits that show what Kansas looked like long before people came to see it. The “Titans of the Ice Age” exhibit shows the prehistoric animals that lived here during the last Ice Age, along with some modern animals that are similar to them.


The modern lion, for example, is similar to the ancient lion which we know only from fossils.


Before the Ice Age, dinosaurs roamed what would later become Kansas. Pteranodons are a special focus at the Sternberg, which has an exceptional collection of materials relating to these flying dinosaurs, the forerunners of modern birds.


You can also play video games designed to help visitors understand what like would have been like for the dinosaurs, and to get a sense of these large animals as animals, rather than cartoon monsters. Using joysticks, visitors can make decisions based on the environment and the sensory information available to the dinosaurs.


Traveling back even further in time, we come to the days when Kansas was under the sea.


It can be hard for kids to imagine that the places where they live were once covered by oceans, but the Sternberg has extensive interpretive materials which help visitors understand this more fully.


There are also temporary exhibits. When FreshPlans visited, there was an exhibit about rattlesnakes.


There were live snakes as well as interpretive exhibits that explained about the morphology, habitat, and habits of the rattlesnake, as well as their relationships with humans.


There were quite a few more live animals, and it was nice to see the modern animals along with those that are extinct. The sheer variety of exhibits kept the interest level high.

The Discovery Room is a great hands-on area with lots to see and do. There are many educational programs, from guided hikes to sleepovers, for schools and for families.

If you find yourself in Hays, do not fail to visit the Sternberg.

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6. Good Question!

Good Question! history and science books provide fascinating glimpses into specific topics using question and answer format. Each book is filled with fun facts and beautiful illustrations.

Why Does Earth Spin?
Title: Why Does Earth Spin? And Other Questions About Our Planet
Author: Mary Kay Carson
Publisher: Sterling Children’s Books
Genre: Children / Science
ISBN: 978-1-4549-0675-9
Pages: 32
Price: $5.95

Buy it at Amazon

How big is the earth? How old is it? What creates our weather? What is the hottest, coldest, highest or deepest place on earth? Why is the moon important to earth?

How Does a Seed Sprout?
Title: How Does a Seed Sprout? And Other Questions About Plants
Author: Melissa Stewart
Publisher: Sterling Children’s Books
Genre: Children / Science
ISBN: 978-1-4549-0671-1
Pages: 32
Price: $5.95

Buy it at Amazon

What is a seed? Do all plants make seeds? What is a plant’s secret weapon? Does a plant ever stop growing? Why do some flowers smell bad?

How Many Planets Circle the Sun?
Title: How Many Planets Circle the Sun? And Other Questions About Our Solar System
Author: Mary Kay Carson
Publisher: Sterling Children’s Books
Genre: Children / Science
ISBN: 978-1-4549-0669-8
Pages: 32
Price: $5.95

Buy it at Amazon

Which planet in our solar system is the hottest? Which has the shortest year? Are there other planets beyond our solar system? Why is there life on earth? Why are there footprints on the moon?

How Does a Caterpillar Become a Butterfly?
Title: How Does a Caterpillar Become a Butterfly? And Other Questions About Butterflies
Author: Melissa Stewart
Publisher: Sterling Children’s Books
Genre: Children / Science
ISBN: 978-1-4549-0667-4
Pages: 32
Price: $5.95

Buy it at Amazon

What is a caterpillar, and how did it get its name? What do butterflies eat? How do butterflies help plants? What do caterpillars do all day?

How Does the Ear Hear?
Title: How Does the Ear Hear? And Other Questions About the Five Senses
Author: Melissa Stewart
Publisher: Sterling Children’s Books
Genre: Children / Science
ISBN: 978-1-4549-0673-5
Pages: 32
Price: $5.95

Buy it at Amazon

Why are two ears better than one? Why do your ears stick out? What causes an itch? Why can’t you tickle yourself? Do all animals see the way people do?

Who Were the American Pioneers?
Title: Who Were the American Pioneers? And Other Questions About Westward Expansion
Author: Martin W. Sandler
Publisher: Sterling Children’s Books
Genre: Children / History
ISBN: 978-1-4027-9047-8
Pages: 32
Price: $5.95

Buy it at Amazon

Who were the mountain men of the west? What was gold fever? What did the pioneers use to build their first homes? What did pioneers do for fun? How did railroads help America’s westward expansion?

What Was America's Deadliest War?
Title: What Was America’s Deadliest War? And Other Questions About The Civil War
Author: Martin W. Sandler
Publisher: Sterling Children’s Books
Genre: Children / History
ISBN: 978-1-4027-9046-1
Pages: 32
Price: $5.95

Buy it at Amazon

Who fired the first shots of the Civil War? Why did the south rebel? Why were horses so important in the war? Why did so many people die in the war? How did America’s deadliest conflict end?

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7. Faith and science in the natural world

By Tom McLeish

There is a pressing need to re-establish a cultural narrative for science. At present we lack a public understanding of the purpose of this deeply human endeavour to understand the natural world. In debate around scientific issues, and even in the education and presentation of science itself, we tend to overemphasise the most recent findings, and project a culture of expertise.

The cost is the alienation of many people from experiencing what the older word for science, “natural philosophy” describes: the love of wisdom of natural things. Science has forgotten its story, and we need to start retelling it.

To draw out the long narrative of science, there is no substitute for getting inside practice – science as the recreation of a model of the natural world in our minds. But I have also been impressed by the way scientists resonate with very old accounts nature-writing – such as some of the Biblical ancient wisdom tradition. To take a specific example of a theme that takes very old and very new forms, the approaches to randomness and chaos are being followed today in studies of granular media (such as the deceptively complex sandpiles) and chaotic systems.

These might be thought of as simplified approaches to ‘the earthquake’ and ‘the storm’, which appear in the achingly beautiful nature poetry of the Book of Job, an ancient text also much concerned with the unpredictable side of nature. I have often suggested to scientist-colleagues that they read the catalogue of nature-questions in Job 38-40, to be met with their delight and surprise. Job’s questioning of the chaotic and destructive world becomes, after a strenuous and questioning search in which he is shown the glories of the vast cosmos, a source of hope, and a type of wisdom that builds a mutually respectful relationship with nature.

Reading this old nature-wisdom through the experience of science today indicates a fresh way into other conflicted territory. For, rather than oppose theology and science, a path that follows a continuity of narrative history is driven instead to derive what a theology of science might bring to the cultural problems of science with which we began. In partnership with a science of theology, it recognises that both, to be self-consistent, must talk about the other. Neither in conflict, nor naively complementary, their stories are intimately entangled.


Cloud to ground lightning over Sofia, by Boby Dimitrov. CC-BY-SA-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The strong motif that is the idea of science as the reconciliation of a broken human relationship with nature. Science has the potential to replace ignorance and fear of a world that can harm us and that we also can harm, by a relationship of understanding and care. The foolishness of thoughtless exploitation can be replaced by the wisdom of engagement. This is neither a ‘technical fix’, nor a ‘withdrawal from the wild’, two equally unworkable alternatives criticised recently by Bruno Latour in a discussion of environmentalism in the 21st century.

Latour’s hunch that rediscovered religious material might point the way to a practical alternative begins to look well-founded. Nor is such ‘narrative for science’ confined to the political level; it has personal, cultural and educational consequences too that might just meet Barzun’s missing sphere of contemplation.

Can science be performative? Could it even be therapeutic?

George Steiner once wrote, “Only art can go some way towards making accessible, towards waking into some measure of communicability, the sheer inhuman otherness of matter…”

Perhaps science can do that too.

Tom McLeish is Professor of Physics and Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research at University of Durham, and a Fellow of the Institute of Physics, the Royal Society of Chemistry, the American Physical Society and the Royal Society. He is the author of Faith and Wisdom in Science.

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8. Illustration Inspiration: Stephen Biesty

Stephen Biesty has worked as a freelance illustrator since 1985 creating a wide variety of information books for both adults and children.

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9. Where’s Green? (The EnteleTrons Series)

Where's Green?

Authors: Renee Heiss & Gary A. Stewart
Illustrator: Fay Cofrancesco
Publisher: Entelechy Education
Genre: Children / Science
ISBN: 978-0-9887813-0-6
Pages: 32
Price: $14.95

Buy it from Entelechy Education

Priti proton, Ellie electron, and Ning neuron are wandering around the forest when they realize something is drastically wrong. Although it isn’t fall, all the leaves are brown. A prism confirms their theory – green is missing.

A trip to where colors live reveals that there has been an argument over which position each resides in the rainbow, and the constant bickering caused Green to leave. But order is successfully restored, and the trees return to their normal colors.

On the surface, Where’s Green? is a cute story with a tidy resolution. But in addition to this nice tale, the science of how we see color is explored through the discussions between Priti, Ellie and Ning. Readers have an opportunity to determine which tools they would use to make discoveries along the way, and teachers can find learning guides at the publisher’s website. I highly recommend Where’s Green? for classroom science libraries.

Reviewer: Alice Berger

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10. Girl Geek Chic: --Let's Change What's Cool

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Last month on National Astronomy Day, I was at the Clay Center Observatory signing copies of How Do You Burp in Space? And Other Tips Every Space Tourist Needs to Know.  After inscribing a copy for a young boy, I looked up at his older sister.  
“Do you want to go to space, too?” I asked.

“I did once,” she said.

“What happened?”

She gave me a small smile, a Mona Lisa smile—that is, if Mona L. were a just-budding adolescent proud of her newly acquired sense of condescension. 

“Oh…other things took over,” she said in a tone that implied I couldn’t possibly know what she meant.

Oh…but I do. Having been there and done that, I was actually thinking about something else.  Do these other things that "take over" really have to edge out wanting to go into space or a daily check on favorite animal cams?  Is this really an either/or situation? Do the hormones make us want to pack away those childish things?  Or, despite so many strides, do we still think there’s only one type of girl that does those hormones justice?

This last question still on my mind, I later googled “nerds becoming popular” and immediately clicked on the images page.  I already knew that Sheldon’s chic and Zuckerberg’s billions have brought those three words in close company.  What I wanted to know was how many pictures of girls I would see sprinkled in among the guys wearing pocket protectors and suspenders.

Discounting “popular” girls torturing geeks, here’s the first “nerd girl” picture I came upon.  I was hopeful.  What a fool I was.  Once I clicked through to its home site, here are the words I found:  Who would have thought that being a nerd would be cool?  Well the time has finally come. There is nothing more fashionable that an over-sized pair of geeky glasses.  PS-When I saved the picture to my computer to easily transfer to this post, I noticed it was labeled, "pretty nerd."

Little Mona Lisa Girl at the Clay Center, the deck has been stacked against you.  Come on, STEM books, cool geek girl role models, Neil Degrasse Tyson.  Help girls aspire to go to space and wear cool nail polish in orbit, if that’s what they want.  Help everybody feel as if science and smart is back in fashion and sexy.

I spoke to astronaut Sunita Williams when writing Burp in Space, but never asked her if she felt she had to choose between lipstick and her dreams.  I wish I had. Maybe I would have been primed to say something to this young girl.  Even if she couldn’t hear me now, perhaps it would plant a seed. I know lots of girls get reacquainted with previous interests as women, but I hate to think of what has been lost in the meantime because their intellectual passions couldn’t coexist with the teenage definition of femininity.

On June 20, Liz Rusch is publishing I.N.K.’s last recommended booklist.  This time it focuses on STEM-related topics.  Let’s all take a second look.

 * * * * *

Thank you, Linda.  Thank you, I.N.K. Thanks to all of our readers. It’s been a pleasure.

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11. The Cynja, by Chase Cunningham & Heather C. Dahl | Dedicated Review

Get ready for some serious action in the first volume of a new comic-book-style picture book series about malicious cyber attacks, The Cynja.

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12. Learn About “The Cynja” with Chase Cunningham and Heather C. Dahl

The cyber world is filled with battles between good and evil—it’s as thrilling as any comic book—and yet it didn’t have its own superhero. So we started thinking, what would you call someone with super powers in cyberspace? What would they look like? They’d need to be smart and stealthy, wouldn’t they? And have awesome weapons? And before you could say “DDoS attack!” we had “the Cynja”—a cyber ninja!

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13. Artmaster Shirow Di Rosso Discusses “The Cynja”

Shirow Di Rosso is the Artmaster behind the new comic-book-style picture book series about malicious cyber attacks, The Cynja.

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14. Magnets and Magnetism: A Preschool Science Program

Our latest adventures in preschool science have proved rather attractive. (Get it? That’s magnet humor!)

Photo by Amy Koester.

Photo by Amy Koester.

I’ve seen a number of my colleagues (Katie and Abby, for example) offer some great preschool science programs on the topic of magnets, and I figured it was high time I offered something on the topic, too. Here’s what I did:

First, we shared a story that provided an introduction to the concept of magnets. I opted for Stuck by Oliver Jeffers, a whimsical story about a young boy whose kite becomes stuck in a tree. He tries throwing increasingly more ridiculous items up in the tree to try to dislodge the kite, but everything seems to get stuck. Quite an amusing story.


Photo by Amy Koester.

Next, we retold the story of Stuck using magnet props, and we talked about how magnets stick together. Kids helped me stick the various objects onto our tree on the magnet board, and they experimented with things that the magnet props would and would not stick to.

We did hands-on activities to further explore how magnets work. I always set up stations with some brief instructions, which allows children and their caregivers to move from activity to activity at their own pace. I then wander the room providing support and modeling scientific questions to attendees. I had four activity stations set up for this program:

  • What’s Magnetic? – I cut egg cartons in half, resulting in cartons with six sections each. I put small objects in each of these six sections: plastic beads, washers, paper clips, pipe cleaners, pom pons, etc. The goal of this activity was to use a magnet on each of the six objects to determine which were magnetic. Then, after sorting into magnetic and non-magnetic piles, they could try to determine what make an object magnetic.
  • Photo by Amy Koester.

    Photo by Amy Koester.

    Can You Make a Magnet Chain? – This activity illustrates that a magnet’s force can be conducted through magnetic objects, thereby creating a chain of objects connected by magnetism. I had a variety of different strength magnets, as well as paper clips and screws (no sharp edges, of course!) for children to try to make the longest chains they could.

  • Magnet Hair Salon – I cut chenille sticks in various colors into pieces about an inch long, and I drew faces on magnetic wands. The activity was to use magnetism to style the magnet wand creatures’ hair out of chenille sticks.
  • Writing with Magnets – I set out several of the library’s magnetic writing boards to invite children to practice their shapes and letters. I also supplied some questions for caregivers to ask their kids while writing, such as how the magnet pen worked to draw on the screen and how the screen eraser worked.

Everyone got to take something home to continue learning about magnets. My take-home activity sheet provided simple instructions for families to create their own magnetic treasure hunts. I also set out a variety of the library’s materials about magnetism, from fiction and nonfiction books to DVDs. Everyone went home happy and a little more knowledgeable about magnets.

Don’t forget to check out the other Preschool Science programs I’ve shared here on the ALSC Blog: Shadow ScienceObservation ScienceGravity ScienceWater ScienceBody ScienceColor ScienceWeather Science, and Strength and Materials Science.

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15. Flying Machines

Illustration of flying machines and hot air balloons by Christine Marie Larsen

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16. Bad Science

Bad Science: Quacks, Hacks, and Big Pharma Flacks Ben Goldacree

Goldacre is seriously pissed off at the lack of scientific literacy in the media and general public. Luckily, he’s rather funny in his rage. (To get a taste, check out his Guardian column by the same name)

He looks at several issues, mostly related to health, how they’re marketed, why we buy the claims, and how horribly wrong it all is. Along the way, he teaches the reader how to understand things so they can cut through the crap and know what lies and lines they’re being fed.

It’s a great mix of condemning the system and teaching you how to buck the trend. It’s also a bit disheartening-- we fall for this stuff SO EASILY. Even I do. But, now when I hear a new health claim, I find myself really thinking about it-- the most basic question be--does this even make SENSE, and then looking at how studies were constructed.

Goldacre looks a lot at alternative therapies, the claims they make and how they’re utter crap. But he also looks a lot of mainstream medicine and they claims THEY make--especially Big Pharma (which he explores a lot more in his new book, Bad Pharma: How Drug Companies Mislead Doctors and Harm Patients). He has a few things about the beauty industry--many of the lotions and potions contain ingredients "clinically proven to X" even though those studies usually had the vitamin ingested, not applied topically--enough that I want an entire book on it.

But, the best part is, Goldacre’s voice. His writing is clear and easy to understand (even if you don’t have a degree in science) and is just plain funny. He feels very strongly about this-- it’s not a dispassionate book, but a plea for us to think about what’s going on and to stop falling for clever lies and disguised gimmicks.

Oh! Also, I learned that carrots do not improve eyesight. Turns out that old chestnut is WWII propaganda. The Allies had invented radar and the Nazis couldn't figure out how British pilots could see so well at night. In order to mislead them (last thing England wanted was Nazis with radar) they said that their pilots just ate a lot of carrots and it helped their eyesight.

An Outstanding Book for the College Bound.

Book Provided by... my local library

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17. Animal Board Books by the American Museum of Natural History

Both ABC Animals and Spot the Animals: A Lift-the-Flap Book of Colors are recommended for toddlers, and make unique gifts.

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18. Dangerous: Review Haiku

Starts fast, finishes fast,
relentless in between.
Fasten your seat belts.

Dangerous by Shannon Hale. Bloomsbury, 2014, 416 pages.

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19. Red Madness by Gail Jarrow

Red Madness: how a medical mystery changed what we eat by Gail Jarrow Calkins Creek. 2014 ISBN: 9781590787328 Grades 7 to 12 I checked a copy of this book out from my local public library. There was a time in U.S. history when the flour and cereals that were consumed were not fortified with Niacin (B3). In this superior nonfiction title,  Gail Jarrow shares a medical mystery of how

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20. Survive! Inside the Human Body | Series Review

Combining science and graphic novels is a fantastic way to capture and satisfy the natural curiosity and interest of early and middle readers. The Survive! Inside the Human Body trilogy presents a fun and practical way to introduce complex human biology concepts to readers interested in learning more about the digestive, circulatory and nervous systems.

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21. Women in STEM

STEM Women in STEMThough there is an increasing focus on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education in the U.S., there remains a gender disparity among workers in these fields. According to a  2011 U.S. Department of Commerce report, women are less likely than men to have an undergraduate degree in a STEM field and they are also underrepresented in the STEM workforce.

Female role models and examples can be particularly helpful to combat this disparity and to encourage all children — and particularly girls — to pursue careers in STEM fields. Fortunately, there seems to be an increasing focus on women in STEM in children’s literature, which makes it possible to offer these role models in your classroom or library. The books below are some particularly good options for kids interested in STEM and they all focus on the contributions women have made in these disciplines. All of the books perfect for kindergarten through second grade unless otherwise noted.


Rachel Carson Women in STEMRachel Carson and Her Book That Changed the World by Laurie Lawlor with illustrations by Laura Beingessner
Nature enthusiasts will find inspiration in Rachel Carson’s story of building a career as a biologist writing about the environment. The book opens in Carson’s childhood and details her education as a biologist at a time when few women were employed in the field and her struggles writing Silent Spring, her most famous book. It does not shy away from her battle with cancer, which ultimately killed her, and offers a note with additional information about Silent Spring’s impact. The book also includes numerous notes and a bibliography of both Carson’s books and other works about her.

me jane Women in STEMMe…Jane by Patrick McDonnell
Jane Goodall is a particularly popular subject for books for all levels of readers, but this multiple award winner is among the best. Combining adorable illustrations, materials from Goodall’s own childhood notes, and selected photos, it shows how a childhood dream can become a reality, which is an inspirational message no matter what your goal in life may be.

Florence Nightingale Women in STEMFlorence Nightingale by Demi
Though Florence Nightingale is a well-known historical figure, this book brings to light aspects of her life that will be unfamiliar to many readers, including her determination to pursue a career in nursing despite her parents’ reservations and her innovations in hygiene practices. The illustrations bring to life her family and the hospitals where she worked and will keep readers engaged. The book also includes a timeline of her life and books for further reading at the end.


Marvelous Mattie Women in STEMMarvelous Mattie: How Margaret E. Knight Became an Inventor by Emily Arnold McCully
Born to a poor mother in 1838 at a time when few women had the opportunity to have a quality education or the freedom to become inventors, Mattie Knight used the toolbox she inherited from her father to start inventing as a small child. Over the course of her life, she created numerous important inventions, including a guardrail to protect workers in textile mills and a machine that is still used today to create paper bags. The book not only details her inventions but also shows her strength in defending them from those who tried to steal them from her. The illustrations incorporate examples of diagrams for her inventions and the book also includes an author’s note and bibliography with more information on Mattie.

Girls Think of Everything Women in STEMGirls Think of Everything: Stories of Ingenious Inventions by Women by Catherine Thimmesh; illus. by Melissa Sweet
This book, which is aimed at young readers in about second through fourth grade, collects stories of a variety of female innovators who created everything from a chocolate chip cookie recipe, to kevlar, to computer compilers. Young inventors are also included, offering great inspiration for young readers. All of the stories are illustrated with a combination of collages and paintings. The book ends with resources for young inventors.


Rosie Revere Women in STEMRosie Revere, Engineer by Andrea Beaty; illus. by David Roberts
Rosie loves to invent things and hopes to be an engineer one day, but when one her inventions fails, she thinks about giving up. Her great-great-aunt sweeps in to convince her that she is wrong and to explain to her the importance of trial and error. The cute story and entertaining drawings will be sure to make this book a favorite.


Of Numbers and Stars Women in STEMOf Numbers and Stars: The Story of Hypatia by D. Anne Love; illus. by Pam Paparone
This book tells the story of Hypatia, a woman in ancient Alexandria whose father chose to educate her the same as boys were educated at the time. Despite the limitations placed on women at the time, she became a respected mathematician and philosopher, a process that this book brings to life through its illustrations.

Infinity and Me Women in STEMInfinity and Me by Kate Hosford; illus. by Gabi Swiatkowska
Readers of this book follow an eight-year-old girl named Uma as she grapples with the concept of infinity. Friends and relatives all try to explain it through different analogies, bringing Uma to consider topics as divergent as music, friendship, and love in her quest to grasp the meaning of infinity.

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22. From Modern Art to Medicine: Exploring Museum Blogs

With International Museum Day approaching on May 18, let's browse the blogs of some museums on WordPress.com -- from premier art institutions to science and natural history organizations.

10 Comments on From Modern Art to Medicine: Exploring Museum Blogs, last added: 5/19/2014
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23. The science behind getting kids excited about things they can’t see

51dseWGtRUL._SX385_I don’t know about you, but in our family, 99% of bedtime reading involves fiction.

Non fiction, or information books, rarely get chosen to share a cosy cuddle just before the kids go to sleep. But Tiny: The Invisible World of Microbes by Nicola Davies, illustrated by Emily Sutton has recently helped us break the mould.

You want to share an amazing journey with your kids? You want stunning illustrations to enjoy pouring over together? You want to finish the book with a sigh of satisfaction, a sense of coming full circle and feeling that your world and understanding of it just got a little bit richer? Well, Tiny has been doing all of that for us, and more.

An exploration of life so small you need a microscope to see it, Davies and Sutton take a few clever hooks, and quickly reel you in. Through a perfect fusion of words and images they explain the scale and scope of microscopic life, not only powerfully, but also with real beauty. Judicious use of mind boggling facts (for example, how many microbes you might find in a teaspoon of soil) leave lots of space for awe, wonder and curiosity, without ever overloading a young reader/listener.

Click to be taken to a photo of the same microbe illustrated here by Emily Sutton so you can see how beautifully she has picked up the details.

Click to be taken to a photo of the same microbe illustrated here by Emily Sutton so you can see how beautifully she has picked up the details.

Davies has composed a beautiful “story” in the sense that there is a beginning, middle and end, with a dramatic turn at one point (what bad microbes can do to you) and a reassuring, rewarding ending where different strands come together. Sutton’s detailed, earthy-toned illustrations are clever and sprinkled with humour. She can pull of both minutia and epic vistas with equal skill.

A glorious introduction to the variety of microbes, and the impact they have on our lives, this stunning book is not only a delight to read and look at, it will leave parents and children asking each other more questions, and wanting to further explore the unseen world around them.

To “see” microbes at work we decided to give making compost in a bottle a try. Here’s the recipe we followed:


  • Clear 2ltr plastic bottle with lid
  • Fruit and vegetable peelings
  • Grass clippings/leaves
  • Garden soil
  • Shredded newspaper
  • Water
  • Tape
  • Scissors
  • Permanent marker

  • compost2

    1. Cut around the bottle neck to form a flip top lid (the bottle neck alone will not be large enough to pour the ingredients into the bottle)
    2. Layer the ingredients in a repeating pattern until you reach the flip top lid level. The pattern we followed was soil, fruit/vegetable scraps, soil, newspaper, soil, grass clippings, soil, fruit vegetable scraps etc. Each layer was 3-5 cm deep.
    3. Moisten the contents of the bottle with a little bit of water.
    4. Tape the top of the bottle closed.
    5. Mark the top of the compost on the side of the bottle.

    6. Place your mini composters in a sunny spot.
    7. Once a week observe any changes eg in the level or appearance of compost. Depending on local conditions in 3-6 weeks you’ll see a marked change in the contents of the bottle.


    After 5 weeks we decided to open up our bottles, the level of compost having dropped by about 10 cm.


    The newspaper was nowhere to be seen, many of the vegetable scraps had disappeared (only the larger chunks of carrot were still visible), and whilst the grass was still visible, it had clearly changed.


    I tried to convince my girls that what they had just observed was a magic trick: leftover kitchen and garden waste along with our daily newspaper went in, and out came (something well on its way to being) nutrient-rich fertilizer..

    I have to admit, this magic trick didn’t have the instant wow factor of some magic tricks they’ve seen in their life times, but the potion making aspect of the original layering of ingredients, and the clearly changed form of the bottle contents did pique their curiosity.

    We didn’t have music on whilst making our compost, but here are some fun songs that go well with a book all about microbes:

  • Germs by Ozomatli (listen for free here on YouTube)
  • Microbe Hunter by Monty Harper (listen for free here on Harper’s website)
  • Bacteria Party (you can listen to this very funky song for free here on Richard Quarle’s website)
  • Virus Bug Blues (again, available to listen to for free here on Richard Quarle’s website)

  • If I were based in a school doing this compost activity, I’d definitely look into making this Compost Musical with my class.

    Other activities which would go well with reading Tiny: The Invisible World of Microbes include:

  • Making your own yoghurt. Microbes are used to ferment milk from which yoghurt is made. Here’s one set of instructions that you could follow to get some microbes working on your behalf in your kitchen.
  • Learning more about microbes from some great online sites designed for kids. We particularly like this video and this mini-site from the Children’s University of Manchester.
  • Cuddling up to some microbes. We own a few of these lovely soft toys made by giantmicrobes.co.uk.
  • Investigating how yeast works. The microbes in yeast react to different environments, and this experiment from education.com shows you how you could investigate what yeast microbes like and dislike.
  • What non fiction books have you shared recently with your kids?

    Disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from the publishers.

    nonfiction.mondayEvery Monday is a celebration of all things non-fiction in the online children’s book world. If you’d like to read more reviews of children’s non-fiction books, do take a look at the dedicated children’s non-fiction blog: http://nonfictionmonday.wordpress.com/

    3 Comments on The science behind getting kids excited about things they can’t see, last added: 5/19/2014
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    24. Great Men and Women in the History of Medicine - an audiobook review

    Angus, David. 2013. Great Men and Women in the History of Medicine. Read by Benjamin Soames. Naxos Audiobooks.

    It is a shame that this compendium of influential people in the history of medicine is not available in print or e-book format.  It would be a great reference for students doing research or biography reports.  Don't let the audio book format deter you, however.  As I wrote in my review for AudioFile Magazine (linked below), Benjamin Soames conveys a fascination for his topic that is infectious! (pun intended)

    Some of the people featured in Great Men and Women in the History of Medicine include:
    Hippocrates, Galen, Hildegard of Bingen, Ibn Sina, Al-Razi, Andreas Vesalius, William Harvey, Edward Jenner, Crick and Watson.  You may not know their names, but their discoveries have benefitted you.  I'm not sure of the best audience for this book, but I can tell you that I thoroughly enjoyed it.

    Read my review of  Great Men and Women in the History of Medicine for AudioFile Magazine here.

    Listen to an audio sample of Great Men and Women in the History of Medicine here.

    Read all of today's nonfiction reviews at the Nonfiction Monday blog!

    0 Comments on Great Men and Women in the History of Medicine - an audiobook review as of 5/19/2014 7:14:00 AM
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    25. City Drones

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