The Magnet 0008 — Best 1950s Kids' Science Books
Also, lockout boxes, Japanese metal, memory locomotives, and more
A long time ago I read a good piece of advice in The Whole Earth Review: read a children’s book to learn about a topic. Ever since then I’ve been adding kids’ science books to my home library. I’m biased toward books from the 1950s and 60s because the illustrations are excellent and the writing is straightforward (though sometimes the information can be out of date). Here are some of my favorites:
The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments (1960)
I don’t have a physical copy of this book because used copies sell for $200 or more, but The Internet Archive has a scanned PDF you can download for free. The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments teaches you how to set up a home chemistry lab and has recipes for chlorine, ammonia, hydrogen, hydrogen sulfide, and ethanol. Obviously, adequate ventilation is a must for doing these experiments.
Our Friend the Atom (1956)
This Walt Disney book by Heinz Haber is a companion to the film of the same name. Lavishly illustrated by Disney Studio artists, Our Friend the Atom opens with a sobering illustration of a mushroom cloud, follows with a history of humankind’s quest to understand and tame the power of radioactive elements, and ends with an optimistic view of nuclear energy.
Used copies are on Amazon for $30+, and it’s also available for 1-hour checkout in PDF format from The Internet Archive.
The Human Body: What It Is and How It Works (1959)
At just 140 pages, The Human Body is a detailed and fascinating physiological study of the nine major systems of the human body. Author Mitchell Wilson was an interesting person — a physicist-turned-novelist, he was Enrico Fermi’s research assistant and was married to Stella Adler, the famous acting coach. His daughter, Victoria Wilson, is a vice president and senior editor at book publisher Alfred A. Knopf. The book’s artist, Cornelius De Witt, illustrated many Golden Book titles and painted murals for the New York World’s Fair in 1939.
Used copies are on Amazon for $5+.
The Giant Golden Book of Mathematics (1958)
This is my favorite book in my collection, not just for Lowell Hess’s stunning mid-century illustrations but for author Irving Adler’s engaging way of presenting mathematics as principles that govern everything in the universe. Here’s Adler’s surprising method for arriving at the value of π by dropping sticks on the floor:
Strange as it may seem, there is a way of calculating the value of π by dropping a stick on the floor. The floor has to be made of planks of the same width. Use a thin stick, such as a toothpick, that is as long as the planks are wide. Simply drop the stick many times. Keep count of the number of times you drop it and the number of times it falls on a crack. Double the number of times you drop the stick and then divide by the number of times it fell on a crack. The result is your value of π .
For example, if you drop the stick 100 times, and it falls on a crack only 62 times, divide 200 by 62. The result is about 3.2. This is not a very accurate value of π . The more times you drop the stick, the more accurate a value you will get. When you drop the stick, whether or not it crosses a crack depends on where its center falls, and how it is turned around its center. When a stick turns around its center, it moves around a circle. That is why π , which is related to measuring a circle, is also related to the chance that the stick will cross a crack.
Used copies are on Amazon for $30+ and it’s available for 1-hour checkout in PDF format from The Internet Archive.
I’ve known Charles Platt for nearly 30 years. He’s one of the most interesting, polymathic people I know. He’s also brilliant, creative, and generous, and I’m grateful to count him as a friend. Even if you don’t know anything about Charles, I recommend his fascinating autobiography, An Accidental Life. He’s written three volumes so far: one (1944–1964), two (1965–1970), and three (1970–1979). Charles recently introduced me to an all-woman Japanese rock band called Band-Maid. He said:
By chance I ran across Band-Maid on YouTube. This five-female rock ensemble dresses in maid-cafe outfits in a deliberate strategy to stimulate conceptual dissonance while they play heavy-metal rock. Cultural appropriation has never looked so weird, especially when you factor in their stated goal of achieving "world domination," which is the title of a recent album.
While you might think that this is only sufficient to sustain some transient novelty value, the musicians are talented and unafraid of innovation, supported by machine-gun drum riffs, a truly creative bass player, and a guitarist who says she's a fan of Jimi Hendrix. The songs fascinate me because many have a structure that is alien to Western ears. Typically there's an eight-bar segment which seems straightforward enough, but then another eight-bar segment that takes it somewhere different—and then you may get yet another eight-bar segment, as if the band writes music as a process of accretion. Meanwhile the singer, who has a beautiful yet powerful voice, delivers a wandering vocal full of long, emotional phrases, while the band hammers away behind her in 1/16th notes.
Plus, they have a sense of humor. When they're not exploiting the maid motif (they refer to their audiences as "masters and princesses," and they describe their songs as "servings") they have produced an April Fool's single in which they perform, deadpan, as geishas in full costume, adding a koto to the metal mix. Not since Frank Zappa has there been so much sly humor coupled with outstanding musicianship in rock music.
Don’t miss Band-Maid’s hand-washing instruction video.
THINGS I DIDN’T KNOW EXISTED
A couple of weeks ago I saw a photo of a lockout box, and I didn’t know what they were for. From what I learned online, lockout boxes are part of a safety protocol called “lock out tag out” (LOTO) that ensures workers don’t get electrocuted or injured by live machinery at a facility or construction site. The lockout box contains one or more keys that switch on power to machinery (or start a bulldozer or other earth-moving truck). Everyone on a site has a colored key to open one of the colored padlocks on the box. Every padlock must be removed from the lockout box before the key inside can be removed. That way, everyone will be together (and not somewhere working on a machine or under a truck) when the key inside the box gets used to activate power.
In addition to introducing me to Band-Maid, Charles also let me know about an old British children’s magazine called The Magnet, a weekly adventure-story periodical. According to this website (which has high-quality scans of every back issue), The Magnet was first published in 1908 and continued until 1940, when it became a casualty of the paper shortage of the Second World War. Each issue had a story about a group of boarding school students (The Greyfriars Chums) and other stories about athletes, sailors, deep-sea divers, pilots, and detectives. The dense 3-column copy was broken up with black-and-white line drawings. My favorite part of The Magnet is the page with funny ads. “Have you a red nose?” reads one. “Send a stamp to pay postage and you will learn how to rid yourself of such a terrible affliction free of charge.” Another ad promises a method to increase your height. “Enrol and watch yourself grow!” And another promises a money-back guarantee cure for “blushing, shyness, ‘nerves,’ self-consciousness, worry habit, unreasonable fears, etc.” I guess teens living a hundred years ago suffered from the same anxieties of teens today.
MORE MEMORY DRAWINGS
Memory bikes vs. memory locomotives
Earlier this month, I wrote about why it’s hard to draw a bike from memory. I invited readers to share their drawings of memory bikes, which you can see here. A couple of days ago the cartoonist Lloyd Dangle sent me a drawing of a bike and a steam locomotive. He said:
Here's my bicycle drawing from memory. I can draw thousands of objects from memory and very quickly. I draw live with groups as a visual strategist [example] these days and I’m called on to listen intently and draw rapidly while making sense of business conversations and sussing out what’s important.
To the point of your article, I understand exactly how a bicycle works so it’s not a problem to draw it from memory. Some images give me problems though. An old-fashioned locomotive [see above] kicks my ass every time because I’ve never understood how those rods that synchronize wheels work, even after looking at tons of reference photos and videos to try to get my head around it. Lucky for me old-time locomotives only come up rarely as metaphors!
That’s all for this week. Please share this issue with your friends!