Yes, they actually let me speak in public

I was part of Celebrate Science this weekend, a festival of science writers and science teachers and other interested and interesting folks. The events were held at UBC, in the soon-to-open Beaty Biodiversity Museum. There’s a blue whale hanging from the ceiling there, which could easily hold a life-sized Jonah inside.

For those of you with an interest in science, or teaching, or what the heck Tanya talks about when she has to speak coherently, here’s the gist of what I said:

As I was going through my week and thinking about today in the back of my mind, thinking about what we were going to talk about on this panel, I happened to get a request for my bio. I skimmed it before I sent it out, and one of the things it said was:

Tanya is interested in science and social issues.

And I thought, eh… I don’t know. I might not be interested in science.

Which is a bit of a strange thought, since I have 50 Burning Questions to promote and another coming out and I just sent my publisher a proposal for another science-related topic. It’s really not a good time for doubts.

But really, what I meant was, I don’t have a big interest in molecules. My heart doesn’t beat faster for the periodic table. I had to explain an internal combustion engine for this book and it almost killed me.

I’m interested in science and social issues because science is a social issue. And that perspective – that science affects and involves life — allows me to weave all sorts of things into my books.

I’m going to give you an example, about Alfred Nobel. He was the guy whose mother forgot to tell him not to play with fire. In 1864, while he was trying to find ways to use nitroglycerin in industry, his brother blew up the factory. Then, after Alfred built a new factory and shipped his product all over the world, he found out it became unstable after being stored for a while. And some ships sank, some warehouses blew up, the San Francisco docks exploded.

Alfred Nobel didn’t stop. He continued his work. And eventually, he found a way to stabilize the chemical and he called his new product dynamite. Which of course went on to help build railways and dig mines and also kill thousands more people.

Is dynamite a good thing? Was Alfred Nobel right to continue his experiments after so many people, including his brother, were killed? Did creating the Nobel Prizes help make up for some of the destruction he caused?

These aren’t exactly scientific questions. But they are. And to make science a verb — to “do science” – we can encourage kids to ask all sorts of questions like this.

The other reason to include this sort of question is: girls.

Before my recent spurt of science books, I’ve written about famous rescues, blue jeans, bullying.. . a wide assortment of topics.

What I constantly hear from editors is: it’s too feminine. We need to grab boy readers. How are you going to capture the boys?

In 50 Burning Questions, I had hands-on experiments – some with open flame. I had forest fires, blazing warehouses, arsonists. I started to wonder: How am I going to interest the girls?

To be honest, I wouldn’t have been reading this book as a child. I would have been off reading the Babysitters Club.

So, how to capture the attention of a young me? The answer involves, again, showing how science affects humanity. How does it form our lives? How does it affect the lives of the people working in the field – the inventors and the researchers? Other parts of the world?

Those are the stories – the narratives within the scientific facts – that can capture the interest of both genders.

So, I’m going to tell a folk story from a Fijian island. There, hundreds of years ago, a man was walking along a river when he found a tiny, human-like creature trapped in the stones. The man freed the creature. In gratitude, the creature taught him to be more powerful than fire. For as long as the sun rose and set, the man and his male descendants would be able to walk on coals.

Now let’s talk about fire-walking. Let’s discuss possible technical explanations, such as a thin layer of moisture on the soles of the feet that might protect the skin from harm. We’ll discuss the surface area of the coals and how much heat they can produce.

And then let’s talk about spiritual explanations – that the focus of the fire-walkers has taken them to a higher plain, and they’ve achieved an altered state stronger than the hottest fire.

Now, maybe we’ll think about magic and how things aren’t always as they seem. Is fire walking some sort of scientific illusion? Let’s do an experiment. We can take a candle and a jar, and blow through the jar (of course the air carries around the glass) to blow out the candle.

Now, is fire-walking a science? Is it a spiritual practice? Is it magic? I don’t know.

What I do know, is that by combining all of these things -– narrative and experiments, life stories and technical details — we show kids that science isn’t all about understanding molecules. It’s about understanding our lives. And that is something that everybody should read about.

One thought on “Yes, they actually let me speak in public

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