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The Story of Science: A Writer's Reasons

By Joy Hakim

"The sight of stars always sets me dreaming," Vincent van Gogh wrote to his brother, Theo. Somehow it consoles me to think of that tormented painter finding repose by looking heavenward. So, in a notebook I keep (don't all writers have them?), I put Vincent's words about stargazing right next to those of Huck Finn. Huck says, "We had the sky up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss about whether they was made or only just happened."

Funny thing: the Greeks asked that question, Mark Twain asked it, and we're still asking. The big questions don't seem to go away. As to stargazing, that's how science got started. Where did those stars come from? What are they made of? And where are they going? Those are questions for all of us, not just for the astrophysicists in our midst.

That's a conviction that led me to write a series of books on the story of science (this article is excerpted from the first of a projected six). The first three books in the series tell the story of physics and chemistry, from ancient Sumer to today's string theory. Which means they deal with the very big (the universe), the very small (atoms and particles), and the in-between as well. It is, I believe, an enthralling tale, and one that is basic to our human heritage. The next two books cover earth science and biology; the last will be a reader full of fascinating original documents. All the books are essentially reading books that tell the dramatic stories of the discoverers of scientific knowledge. In the sidebars and asides, as well as the coordinated teaching materials developed by researchers with Johns Hopkins University's Talent Development Middle Schools, we'll get into science's specifics.

I'm convinced, and I hope to convince you, that science is not just for scientists. In the 20th century, we compartmentalized knowledge; in the information age, that doesn't make sense. Today, you can be a hermit on a mountain peak and still have access to the world's learning. For scholarship to be so available, so democratic, is unprecedented in world history. To use that opportunity well, we all need to be generalists first (then we can find specialties). And no field of knowledge is as basic or as creative as science. That ragtag notebook of mine—cluttered with thoughts from poets, artists, and philosophers—has helped me realize that the human quest to understand the universe underlies almost all other creativity. I'm also convinced that there is no better way to learn to read critically and think analytically than by reading solid subject matter. Nonfiction is the kind of reading that stretches the mind. And it doesn't have to be dull: The real world is full of incredible stories that just happen to be true. I've tried to write vital books that will engage readers of all ages.


Joy Hakim, former teacher, reporter, and editor, writes nonfiction for children. Her latest project is a six-volume series called The Story of Science, from which this article is excerpted with permission. ©2004 The Story of Science, Smithsonian Books. Her 10-volume series, A History of US, won the Michener Prize in Writing and was made into a PBS special called "Freedom."  

The first book in Joy Hakim's new series, The Story of Science, is currently available. The next two books will be published in the spring of 2005 and the final three books are scheduled to come out during the 2005–2006 school year. The series is being published by, and can be purchased from, Smithsonian Books (800-233-4830) and is available from the National Science Teachers Association (800-277-5300) and fine booksellers.

This article is composed of excerpts, graphics, artwork, and captions from the first book in the series. The actual texts are written with middle-school students in mind; they tell the story of science in chronological order with numerous short chapters. If you are interested in the books for classroom use, please e-mail Janey Tannenbaum at tannenbaumj@sipress.si.edu.

For more information about the author, please visit www.joyhakim.com.