Potentially Catastrophic Science Is Ruinously Enjoyable

Geek Culture


“Do you remember those Magic Eye images from a few years ago?”

I’m sitting in a hotel lobby, chatting with author Sean Connolly, who’s currently on tour promoting his new book, The Book Of Potentially Catastrophic Science. He continues, “You’d stare at these stereograms and stare and stare and all of a sudden, you’d get it – you’d see that the picture was actually a sailboat or a tree or a grasshopper. That’s what I’m going after with this book. I’m trying to give kids that moment when they finally “get” science.”

The book, which is a sequel to The Book Of Totally Irresponsible Science, delivers on that account. The book is packed with 50 different experiments, each with a brief science history lesson or a “Science Behind It” explanation of why the experiment is important or the lesson it’s supposed to be teaching. “I wanted to avoid the pitfalls of some experiment books. If you don’t explain the “why”, it just turns into ‘Here’s a cool thing … and another cool thing …’ and so on. As a result, the cool things lose their value”

Most of the experiments involve regular household items, so there’s no need to run out and buy an Erlenmeyer flask or a centrifuge. The experiments differ in length though – some can be done quickly, for those with short attention spans, while others are more involved.

The book is a march through scientific history, beginning with man’s first experimentation with fire. The tour proceeds through time, touching on Galileo, Darwin, Einstein and many others. And while the title of the book may cause you to consider protective safety gear, the “potential catastrophes” refer to the daring and brave scientists who were willing to risk it all in search of answers. As Connolly points out in the book, when George Stephenson‘s steam train was introduced in the early 19th century, people were unsure if the human body could withstand speeds of *gulp* 20 miles an hour. Yes, it seems silly now, but these were real fears until these scientific heroes went first.

The experiments use unique approaches to illustrate scientific principles – popping popcorn to demonstrate radioactive decay or using a microwave and marshmallows to help understand the Large Hadron Collider. I asked Connolly what his favorite experiment was. “I write about Edward Jenner and vaccines and viruses. I was having a tough time trying to figure out how to illustrate how germs spread, but my daughter came up with a great solution. In a large group, I have a child put her hand in a plate full of glitter. She then shakes someone’s hand and so on, down a long line of kids. At the end, we look at the last child’s hand and there are usually at least a few sparks of glitter.” After this experiment, kids are sure to wash their hands more.

If you’ve got a burgeoning scientist in your family (or want to encourage one), check out The Book of Potentially Catastrophic Science – it’s fun learning first-hand!

We’ve selected a winner in our book giveaway – thanks for entering.

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