GIFTED EDUCATION NEWS-PAGE
A Short History of Nearly Everything (2003) by Bill Bryson. Broadway Books/New York.
There are books that one reviews because of the need to inform colleagues about their contents. Then, others are reviewed because of obligations to certain authors and constituencies. But sometimes we review a book simply because it is so delightful, informative and well-written. Bill Bryson's book is in the last category. It is unique because it presents difficult scientific topics in a clear manner without dumbing-down technical and theoretical information. Bryson is known for his wonderful writing style which is evident in each chapter, although he is not a scientist or technology expert. Rather, he has an intense curiosity that motivated him to interview numerous experts, study scientific research, and travel across the globe to observe natural phenomena. Gifted students and their teachers will find this book to be an excellent resource for understanding the current state-of-the-art of different scientific fields. As preparation for writing, Bryson says:
". . . . I didn't know what a proton was, or a protein, didn't know a quark from a quasar, didn't understand how geologists could look at a layer of rock on a canyon wall and tell you how old it was, didn't know anything really. I became gripped by a quiet unwonted urge to know a little about these matters and to understand how people figured them out. That to me remained the greatest of all amazements-how scientists work things out. How does anybody know how much the Earth weighs or how old its rocks are or what really is way down there in the center? How can they know how and when the universe started and what it was like when it did? How do they know what goes on inside an atom? And how, come to that-or perhaps above all-can scientists so often seem to know nearly everything but then still can't predict an earthquake or even tell us whether we should take an umbrella with us to the races next Wednesday?
"So I decided that I would devote a portion of my life-three years, as it now turns out-to reading books and journals and finding saintly, patient experts prepared to answer a lot of outstandingly dumb questions. The idea was to see if it isn't possible to understand and appreciate-marvel at, enjoy even-the wonder and accomplishments of science at a level that isn't too technical or demanding, but isn't entirely superficial either." (Introduction, p. 6).
He begins his discussion with the history of astronomy and geology. In Chapter 1, How To Build A Universe, he explains how the Big Bang theory of the universe was verified by the radio telescope research of Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson who received a Nobel Prize (1978) in physics for their discovery. What is so interesting is that their findings were serendipitous. The background noise from the large communication antenna they built was first thought to be a hindrance to their work. But Penzias and Wilson eventually interpreted the hissing sounds as cosmic background radiation near the edge of an expanding universe. Bryson discusses the role of serendipity in many scientific fields. He also shows how astounding the universe and nature are when studied with telescopes, microscopes, x-rays, particle accelerators and numerous devices. Many of his examples involve the description of instruments for measuring natural phenomena, and of how scientists use various mathematical formulas to explain their results. In Chapter 1, he says:
"The Big Bang theory isn't about the bang itself but about what happened after the bang. Not long after, mind you. By doing a lot of math and watching carefully what goes on in particle accelerators, scientists believe they can look back to 10-43 seconds after the moment of creation, when the universe was still so small that you would have needed a microscope to find it. We mustn't swoon over every extraordinary number that comes before us, but it is perhaps worth latching on to one from time to time just to be reminded of their ungraspable and amazing breadth. Thus 10-43 is 0.0000000000000000000000000000000000000000001, or one 10 million trillion trillion trillionths of a second." (p. 13).
The descriptions of famous scientists who made important discoveries provide this book with a human dimension not usually found in histories of science. Bryson enhances the reader's interest by providing anecdotes about the lives and eccentricities of many renowned scientists. In his discussion of Charles Darwin, the author says Darwin became a hermit - either because of tropical disease contracted during his famous voyage to South America, or due to a psychosomatic ailment. In order to relieve his discomfort, this great naturalist used such treatments as icy baths, vinegar dousings, and "electric chains." One of the most eccentric scientists was the father of modern physics, Sir Isaac Newton. Besides developing the laws of motion, the science of optics, and calculus (at the same time as Leibniz), he was also interested in one of the most mysterious areas, alchemy. According to Bryson:
"Newton was a decidedly odd figure-brilliant beyond measure, but solitary, joyless, prickly to the point of paranoia, famously distracted (upon swinging his feet out of bed in the morning he would reportedly sometimes sit for hours, immobilized by the sudden rush of thoughts to his head), and capable of the most riveting strangeness. He built his own laboratory, the first at Cambridge, but then engaged in the most bizarre experiments. Once he inserted a bodkin-a long needle of the sort used for sewing leather-into his eye socket and rubbed it around 'betwixt my eye and the bone as near to [the] backside of my eye as I could' just to see what would happen. What happened, miraculously, was nothing-at least nothing lasting. On another occasion, he stared at the Sun for as long as he could bear, to determine what effect it would have upon his vision. Again he escaped lasting damage, though he had to spend some days in a darkened room before his eyes forgave him.
"Set atop these odd beliefs and quirky traits, however, was the mind of a supreme genius-though even when working in conventional channels he often showed a tendency to peculiarity. As a student frustrated by the limitations of conventional mathematics, he invented an entirely new form, the calculus, but then told no one about it for twenty-seven years. In like manner, he did work in optics that transformed our understanding of light and laid the foundation for the science of spectroscopy, and again chose not to share the results for three decades." (p. 46).
Bryson discusses all the major scientific areas including astronomy, atomic physics, geology, chemistry, evolutionary and micro biology, meteorology, oceanography, and paleontology. His curiosity about these fields is contagious. By reading A Short History of Nearly Everything, gifted students who are interested in science will be influenced by the same type of curiosity. They should then be motivated to engage in a more detailed examination of these scientific areas.
Cradles of Eminence: Childhoods of More Than 700 Famous Men and Women (2004) by Victor Goertzel and Mildred George Goertzel with updates by Ted George Goertzel and Ariel M. W. Hansen. Great Potential Press, Inc./Scottsdale, AZ.
This reviewer has many fond memories of using the original version of Cradles of Eminence (1962) in teaching graduate courses on educating gifted students. This was (and still is) one of the few books that has attempted to analyze the roots of eminence by studying family backgrounds and the early years of such individuals as Eleanor Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower and Albert Einstein. There were also villains included in the study, e.g., Adolph Hitler and Joseph Stalin.
In the original investigation, 400 individuals were selected based upon the criterion that each one had at least two biographies. A further study published in 1978 included more eminent people. The Goertzel's son, Ted, and Ariel M. W. Hansen have now updated the original work by adding approximately 200 individuals. Some current subjects are Woody Allen, George W. Bush, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Walt Disney, Jane Goodall, Stephen Hawking, Geogia O'Keeffe, and Tiger Woods. Almost every domain of creativity has been covered by the original and updated studies - writers, artists, musicians, singers, political leaders, scientists, industrialists, business people, movie actors and producers, and show business personalities.
The original findings were related to family environment and child rearing practices. For example, many of these eminent individuals lived in homes that strongly encouraged learning and achievement. A more Freudian finding was that dominating and "smothering" mothers ruled the development of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Douglas MacArthur, Adolph Hitler, Benito Mussolini and Gamel Abdel Nasser among others. Other topics (chapters) in the book are concerned with Opinionated Parents, Failure-Prone Fathers, Troubled Homes, Not-So-Troubled-Homes, Children with Handicaps, Early Agonies, and Dislike of School and School Teachers. The current authors and the publisher should be commended for revising this unique classic and making it again available to educators, parents and curious readers.
Successful People: What Makes Them That Way? (1987) by Alice R. Dunkle. Gifted Education Press/ Manassas, VA.
This is a study of forty successful individuals such as Sylvia Ashton-Warner, Isaac Asimov, Leonard Bernstein, Helen Hayes and Chuck Yeager. Some of the questions addressed by the author are: Is success a matter of being born into an already successful family? Is success related to family structure, discipline and values taught by the family? How important was education? How important was religion? How do these individuals account for their unusual success?
Statements Regarding the Impact of the No Child Left Behind Law on Gifted Education Programs
''I don't think our nation was made great by a whole bunch of people who made adequate progress. It was made great by some young people who made extraordinary progress. No Child Left Behind is a kind of a punitive program in that it does little to encourage excellence in the schools.'' Honorable Phil Bredesen, Governor of Tennessee. From TENNESSEAN.com - Friday, October 31, 2003.
"I believe we could do away with affirmative action [in college admissions] if the needs of these young, bright minority children are met at an early age. But No Child Left Behind leaves them behind, because it doesn't let us spend money on children already meeting the standards." Susan Rhodes, Gifted Education Coordinator, Springfield, Illinois School District. From The Wall Street Journal - December 29, 2003.
Maurice D. Fisher, Publisher, Copyright © by Gifted Education Press, February-March 2004