Science not borrrring any more

What could be more borrrrring than a thermometer? It gets hot, the mercury rises. It gets cold, the mercury falls.

What a shock, then, to read this: “Daniel Fahrenheit (1686-1736) was on the run — running from the police — because he wanted to make a reliable thermometer.”

Thus begins a chapter in The Story of Science: Newton at the Center, the second of three planned books by renowned children’s author Joy Hakim. The new volume has just been released by Smithsonian Books, but let’s get back to Daniel Fahrenheit.

Our story so far: Young Daniel’s parents have died from eating poisonous mushrooms, and his four siblings are in foster homes. But Daniel, “who was quick and bright,” is apprenticed to a merchant in Danzig, Poland. He’s miserable — and obsessed with this idea: “Water always boils at the same temperature!”

His boss drags him to Amsterdam, and he escapes. But wait: The Danzig authorities send the Amsterdam cops after him. He hightails it to Denmark, Germany, Sweden...

Did we mention this is a middle-school physics textbook?

Hakim (pronounced HAKE-im) already has legions of admirers for her best-selling American history series, A History of US. Now she is making fans of science teachers, who praise both her scholarship and her ability to make difficult subjects comprehensible.

“The science is impeccable,” says Gerry Wheeler, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association. Wheeler, who has written a college physics textbook, says Hakim’s writing “takes advantage of the power of story, but it’s also quite sophisticated. She has refused to lower the bar.”

Unlike with most textbooks, Hakim is the sole author of hers and actually seems to enjoy the material, revelling in both the connections between science and history and the trouble that scientists get themselves into. Who knew that Copernicus made enemies of both Martin Luther and John Calvin? She revels in the details of her subjects’ lives, often for no other reason than that they’re darned interesting.

We learn, for instance, that Galileo was unhappy in medical school and cut classes; that astronomer Tycho Brahe had the tip of his nose sliced off in a duel with a student; that astronomer Johannes Kepler had, in his own words, “a dog-like horror of baths.”

Teachers also like Hakim’s conversational style and irreverent sense of humour. In a chapter explaining Galileo’s writings on relativity, Hakim urges readers to “catch your breath, relax and be prepared to stretch your mind.” She describes how an observer on shore, watching a ball fall from the mast of a moving ship, sees the ball move in an arc, while an observer on deck sees it move in a straight line. Acknowledging that the idea is a mind-blower, she says, “This is a tough chapter; stick with it; the ideas here are important.”

A mother of three grown children, the former journalist and teacher does her own research, poring over stacks of science books in a quiet apartment that she converted into an office.

“She is the best thing to happen to education since the Xerox machine,” says a history teacher.

She is now writing a new series on geology and biology. And yes, she’ll tackle Darwin’s theory of evolution. “That’ll get me in trouble,” she says, a twinkle in her eye.