Sing a Song of Science: Scientists in the Field

In the mid-1990s I was listlessly working my way through requisite science and math classes on my way to graduating from high school and likely going on to a liberal arts school where hopefully I’d never have to take another science or math class again. I excelled in peer editing, enjoyed discussing character motivation, and took special, geeky pride in perfecting the classic five-paragraph essay, but I failed miserably (and almost literally) at pre-calculus, biology, and chemistry. Let’s not even discuss physics.

In my younger years I know I liked science. I certainly liked animals and nature. I loved the solar system. But by the time I reached middle school, whatever tenuous relationship I had with the hard (and boy, were they hard) sciences had disappeared.

Along the way, science had never been presented to me as something current. Like history, science was taught as though it was something that had already occurred. The big ideas had all been figured out. Beyond elementary school, science came across as a list of facts, theories, and concepts presented only for memorization for next week’s test. I was never given the impression that science, short of seeing pictures of men wearing goggles and messing around with beakers (and what exactly were those guys doing, anyway?), was something I could make a career of — and would I even want to? Science was old and boring.

snake scientist Sing a Song of Science: Scientists in the FieldAround that same time, some brilliant minds in children’s literature were considering ways to make books about science that were told by real scientists. In 1996 the Horn Book published an article called “Science Is What Scientists Do, or Wetenschap is wat Wetenschappers doen” by Diana Lutz. A science writer, Lutz made an interesting discovery reading science books with her daughter: “Few children’s science books are written by scientists or in consultation with scientists.” The books she read did no justice to the science she knew was happening in real life, every day, all over the world. Meanwhile, nature photographer Nic Bishop was approached by his editor at Houghton Mifflin who, along with publisher Anita Silvey, had considered asking scientists to write about the work they were doing. “It sounded like a good idea, in theory,” says Bishop. “But I knew that most scientists were way too over-committed with their own research to have time to write books. Instead, I thought, perhaps a dedicated author/illustrator with a science background could create a compelling book by accompanying a scientist on a research expedition.” Fortunately for all of us, Nic had recently met author Sy Montgomery at a nature writers’ conference. The two collaborated on The Snake Scientist, and with the guidance of editor Amy Flynn it became the first book in a series called Scientists in the Field.

Although The Snake Scientist may sound pretty basic — it’s about one scientist (Bob Mason) studying one kind of snake (the red-sided garter) in one place (Canada) — it’s anything but. The book shows what happens when 18,000 snakes (let’s just wrap our heads around that) come out of hibernation and provide a scientist and his team of assistants and young volunteers with the most snakes in one spot in the world for them to observe and study. The snakes are measured, weighed, fed. Data are collected. Questions are asked. Sometimes there are answers; sometimes there aren’t — it’s the scientific method at work. Sy and Nic crafted a story that takes readers to places they aren’t sure they want to go — but once they get there, they can’t wait to go back. Says Sy, “Sitting in a pit with 18,000 snakes — what’s not to love? And I loved meeting so many kids who went to the snake dens on their school field trips. They loved snakes — as we knew our readers would too — despite my mother’s distress: ‘Why can’t you write about bunnies or puppies?’”

The mission statement for the series is as follows: “The Scientists in the Field books show people immersed in the unpredictable and dynamic natural world, making science more accessible, relevant, and exciting to young readers. Far from the research laboratory, these books show firsthand adventures in the great outdoors — adventures with a purpose. From climbing into a snake den with thousands of slithering snakes to tracking wolves, swimming with hammerhead sharks, and collecting bugs, readers experience the thrill of discovering the unknown.” I don’t know about you, but I read that and I think YES! Get me away from those men with Bunsen burners and put me into a snake den! Take me on an adventure! Isn’t that what any kid wants when reading a book? Whether it’s fiction or not, doesn’t a reader want to be transported somewhere else? The amazing thing about science books is that the reader is generally being transported somewhere real, with real people, doing real (scary, gross, thrilling, innovative) things. Things that the reader could maybe do.

tracking trash Sing a Song of Science: Scientists in the FieldI have heard fiction writers say that a character will show up in his or her head and they feel compelled to tell this person’s story. Nonfiction science writers, I’ve found, are the same way, except they become enamored of an animal they read about, or a scientist they heard speak, or a story they caught in the newspaper. They simply must tell this story. When Loree Griffin Burns came across an article titled “Duckies Floating to Eastern Beaches,” she says, “I knew I had a story I wanted to tell children, but I was struggling to find the best format in which to tell it. A very smart librarian friend gave me a copy of Looking for Life in the Universe [a Scientists in the Field book by Ellen Jackson and Nic Bishop], and I knew before I’d finished the first chapter that this was the way to tell the story about a grown man who tracks plastic ducks around the world ocean.” And so Tracking Trash: Flotsam, Jetsam, and the Science of Ocean Motion was born. It became an environmental story about plastic in our oceans, ghost nets that trap sea life, and the things a young person could do to help make the situation better. It contained photos that could make anyone a bit sad: a seal trapped in netting, a dead bird with a stomach full of plastic. But it told the truth about how these situations came to be. And as Loree has discovered, children respond to the truth: “These books move beyond environmental disaster stories and into the realm of what are we going to do about it? Personally this is my favorite aspect of this series . . . kids can begin to see science not only as a potential career, but as a tool with which they can approach the difficult environmental issues of our times.”

Accepting the National Book Award for Nonfiction, Rachel Carson said, “The aim of science is to discover and illuminate truth. And that, I take it, is the aim of literature, whether biography or history or fiction. It seems to me, then, that there can be no separate literature of science.” And indeed the challenges for authors of a Scientists in the Field book are very similar to those a fiction writer might face: Who is my protagonist? Why does anyone care about this person? What’s the crisis? Where does this all take place? What’s going to happen next? And how does it all end?

project seahorse Sing a Song of Science: Scientists in the FieldIt sometimes seems as though the internet has brought so much of the world close by that kids may mistakenly think that everything has already been discovered. In making the world “accessible,” the internet has also made the world feel small. But there is still so much out there to see, in person. There is so much to be revealed, problems to be solved, questions to be asked. Every day there are news stories about species being uncovered in the far reaches of rural China or in the deepest depths of our oceans (which are less explored than outer space!). I will never forget my surprise when Pamela S. Turner wrote in Project Seahorse that scientist Amanda Vincent decided to study seahorses in the wild in the late 1980s . . . because no one else had done it yet. She was among the first. And only twenty years ago! The scientists profiled in the Scientists in the Field series are often the first, or sometimes the only, or even the “best” — but one common denominator is that they were all young once, with things that interested them. Then they end up becoming scientists, our twenty-first-century version of explorers, and we are lucky enough to have authors and photographers willing to join them on their journeys. Says Nic Bishop, “Many nonfiction authors will go to a local library and create a book by reading other people’s writings and experiences. But with Scientists in the Field we are out there — way out there — in the real world, gathering our material. There are considerable hardships and uncertainties, but the end result is a book that is palpable. You get to know what it is really like on the frontiers of science.” And I’d trust Nic on this point. After all, this is a guy who, in the course of photographing and researching these books, has turned a “strange copper color” from a bacterial infection contracted in Madagascar, been knocked over by an amorous kakapo bird, and, along with Sy, waited for a helicopter that did not arrive to pick them up in remote New Guinea (hey, it was only a ten-day walk back to civilization).

There are more than thirty books in the series. Most are still in print in at least one form. There are more in the pipeline. Often these books are signed up before the research is done, and the editor’s job becomes as anticipatory as the author’s and photographer’s. Thanks to science being, well, sciencey, we are never quite sure what the final story will be. A book about searching for snow leopards in the wild, with a snow leopard that ends up never being spotted? A book about conducting experiments on frogs, delayed a year to analyze the results . . . with results that are inconclusive? Such is life when it comes to working with real, active scientists and science. Donna M. Jackson, author of numerous books in the series (The Bug Scientists, the upcoming The Elephant Scientist), says, “My goal is to walk readers through the scientists’ experience and to share their ideas, exploits and passions . . . along with their disappointments and discoveries. It’s my role to show the scientific process in action and to bring its real-world applications to life through compelling stories.” It is this combination of anticipation and discovery that allows the books to show science as it is happening; as a reader you truly don’t know where you are going to end up. And how is that not exciting?

The Bat Scientists by Mary Kay Carson and Tom Uhlman was initially pitched as a profile of bat biologists, with the intent of spreading the word about bats and how beneficial they are to us — they eat a ton of mosquitoes and crop-damaging pests. However, within just a year’s time, the author and photographer realized they had another story to add into the mix. White-nose syndrome had begun killing America’s bats in record numbers. This quickly became a book not only about bats’ public image but also about a very current, very real plight facing these animals and the people who study them.

I can’t say for sure that if these books were around when I was young that I would have subverted my English-major tendencies and become a veterinarian or zoologist. What I do know is that I am thankful to be part of a team that brings these books to the young readers of today. If these books make even one young reader want to visit the cloud forests of New Guinea in search of a tree kangaroo, or the forests of Yellowstone to spot wolves, or the depths of a cave to observe bats, then these hardworking authors and photographers have succeeded.

Peter Lourie (Whaling Season: A Year in the Life of an Arctic Whale Scientist; The Manatee Scientists: Saving Vulnerable Species) is finishing up his third book for the Scientists in the Field series, about polar bear scientists. During his research trips Peter has traveled to Alaska, to Brazil, and to Florida and has accompanied scientists as they tranquilized bears from a helicopter, brought a bowhead whale onto the ice from an Inupiaq Eskimo hunt, and raced down an Amazonian river in a motorboat looking for a recently released manatee who had gone missing. It is these experiences that have made writing the books worthwhile to him, and it is these experiences, as in all Scientists in the Field books, that make the people and places meaningful to readers. Says Peter, “In this overly digital age, we’re all in jeopardy of losing touch with nature and the outdoors. This series is all about showing kids that dedicated scientists love their jobs, love the subjects they study, and especially love the places they go to study them.” As Robert Frost wrote in his poem “The Pasture,” itself a brief, beautiful look at the wonders of nature: You come too . . . You come too.

We hope you do.

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