Review: The Where, The Why, and The How

Curiouser and Curiouser:  Books That Answer and Spark Questions

Do you ever long for a no-electronic media night?  I have two books to recommend that will make such a thing both a delight and a learning experience for everyone.

I’ve always have loved science and art.  Science always seemed to be more like an art to me, but it’s probably because I approach it that way.  The world is full of wonders — whole universes live in a drop of pond water, in a dribble of saliva. Science gives me the stories of those small universes and the ones that are bigger than I could ever imagine on my own.

So I highly recommend The Where, The Why, and The How, 75 Artists Illustrate Wondrous Mysteries of Science, by Jenny Volvosky, Julia Rothman, and Matt Lamothe, Forward by David Macaulay, (Chronicle Books, 2012).  It provides a lot of scientific theory  and great splashes of color to illustrate what we can only speculate on. It’s promoted as “Science like you’ve never seen it before.”  The editors are partners in ALSO, a design firm based in Chicago and New York.  Julia Rothman is also author of the popular blog Book by It’s Cover. 

In the introduction, author and illustrator David Macaulay (The Way Things Work, Cathedral), talks about how we’ve become spoiled by an abundance of information.  “If you want to know anything, just Google it.”  He tells how a lively discussion about why eggs are shaped like eggs was abruptly ended by Wikipedia brought up on someone’s phone.  “The most fun, the period of wonder and funny guesses was lost as soon as the 3G network kicked in.  Fortunately, there are still mysteries that can’t be entirely explained in a few mouse clicks.  With this book, we wanted to bring back a sense of the unknown that has been lost in the age of information.  While scientists have figured out a great deal, much remains theoretical and sometimes opposing theories exist.”

Fifty scientists agreed to be a part of the project and explain theories around unanswered questions.  Then 75 of today’s “hottest” artists and illustrators were let loose to provide visual accompaniment — they were free to be as literal or imaginative as they liked. 

Often they seem to go off on an improvisational riff which can be both baffling and add to the general sense of wonder.  What is the origin of the moon?  What causes depression?  Why do pheremones work?   Why do humans have so much genome “junk”?   And there’s a lot of humor here.  Why do we blush?  Why do pigeons bob their heads when they walk?

The illustrations have a modern and retro feel.  “We chose a mix of well-known and up-and-coming illustrators, comic artists, fine artists and designers.”  It has a remarkable cohesion and sense of style without being too stylized.  The book is dense and has the heft and weight of a new text book and invites hours of perusal. 

You can see a video of the art of this amazing book here.

While The Where, The Why and The How aims to rekindle curiosity,

Big Questions from Little People and Simple Answers from Great Minds, by Gemma Harris, (Ecco, 2012) is aimed at getting children curious as early as possible.  It’s a very entertaining and educational collection of short essays from philosophers, scientists, reporters, artists and doctors.  Harris collected questions from school children all over the world and then asked experts to answer them in a language the kids could understand.  The great minds include Mary Roach, Phillip Pullman, Sir David Attenborough and a host of other writers and scholars.  
Can animals talk?  Why can’t I tickle myself?  Are we all related?  Who invented chocolate?  Why are some people mean?  Do aliens exist?   
The editor is from Scotland, and the book originated in England, so many of the scholars are from England, Scotland, Wales, Australia and other English speaking countries. The book provides an opportunity to talk about how measurements and language differ in countries that speak “English.”
Both of these books will inspire wonder and give you a chance to think outside the electronic box.  They’re good to keep by the bed to inspire wonderful dreams.

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