Before The World Was Ready: Stories of Daring Genius in Science | Book Review

23 August 2013 by GrrlScientist, posted in Book review

SUMMARY: this engaging children's book presents the stories of some of the men and women who went against the prevailing notions of the day to help bring their scientific ideas to light

It's rare when I learn new things in a children's book, but that is the case for Claire Eamer's newly published book, Before The World Was Ready: Stories of Daring Genius in Science [Annick Press, 2013; Amazon UK; Amazon US].

In this 128-page book, the author tells us about eight groundbreaking scientific advances and some of the men and women -- from Nikola Tesla to Rachel Carson -- who went against the prevailing notions of the day to help bring these ideas to light. All of these scientists were clearly ahead of their times -- sometimes, centuries ahead of their time. But what was the social and personal cost of their genius?

Instead of discussing the science underlying these innovations, the author presents the evolution of the ideas themselves. Each chapter focuses on one scientific theory and one scientist, how his or her ideas were built on other scientists' discoveries, why this new idea was rejected and how these discoveries came to be widely accepted now. In this book, we learn about the history and development of these important concepts and technologies:

  • the Earth revolves around the Sun
  • the continents move across the face of the Earth
  • how hand-washing prevents the spread of disease-causing bacteria
  • the theory of evolution
  • how heavier-than-air objects (aeroplanes) can fly
  • using electricity
  • the first computer
  • the toxic effects of pesticides on wildlife and entire ecosystems

Although many of these discoverers and innovators are viewed as heroes, they all endured great personal hardships for daring to think differently. Further, many of them came from "unusual" backgrounds, being girls or orphans, often growing up in poverty, or suffering from mental illnesses or having survived terrible diseases. In this book, the author brilliantly captures their life stories and brings these scientists' personalities to life.

For example, we meet: Alfred Wegener, a daredevil explorer with a fondness for exploring Greenland in the winter; Caroline Herschel, a hobbit-sized woman who survived typhus as a child to become the most famous female astronomer of her day as well as a respected singer; and Ada, Countess of Lovelace, a gifted mathematician and visionary who understood and wrote about what a computer could do -- only to tragically die before the first one was even built.

Since this book is so meticulously researched, I was surprised that no mention was made of Florence Nightingale (1820-1910), and how she fits into the story of how hygienic practices came to be applied in hospitals. And of course, when discussing the development of Charles Darwin's ideas about evolution, I was disappointed that Alfred Russel Wallace (who struggled against financial difficulties for most of his life) only received a passing mention, even though he was the co-founder of the theory. More bewildering was the complete omission of Charles Darwin's grandfather, Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802), even though he influenced Charles through his writings about evolution (and the grandfather's ensuing public ridicule likely also had a profound impact on Charles' reluctance to publish his ideas).

Despite my criticisms, this book is informative, readable and interesting. The writing is clear and the themes are carefully developed. The author takes her readers seriously: it also includes a four page index, a three page selected bibliography, a two page appendix, and further readings. Every page is colourfully illustrated with stylised cartoons that contribute to the story as well as sometimes being amusing.

Written for children aged 9 years and up, this engaging book has much to offer both children and adults and would be a wonderful personal gift or addition to any science classroom or library.

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Disclaimer: This review is based on a PDF e-galley provided by NetGalley and read using bluefire reader. GrrlScientist has no known connection to the book's author or illustrator. No compensation in any form was received from the publisher by GrrlScientist for this review. All images appear here by courtesy of the publisher.

NOTE: this piece is slightly edited from the original, written by GrrlScientist and published by the Guardian.

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Claire Eamer is an award-winning freelance science writer who has also worked at a number of jobs, including as a radio copywriter, a reporter for newspapers and radio, a trade book editor, and a university instructor. She has written numerous books for kids, including The World in Your Lunch Box and Lizards in the Sky. She lives in Whitehorse, Yukon, the largest northern city in Canada.

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Grrlscientist can also be found on on her eponymous Guardian blog, and she sometimes lurks on social media; facebook, G+, LinkedIn, Pinterest. She's quite active on twitter: @GrrlScientist

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