Sunday, January 24, 2010

What are the instructions for making me ME? Viruses? Really?

Well, we are even stranger than we think we are. Apparently upwards of 8% of our genome can be traced to viruses that infected our ancestors millions of years ago. And not just the retrovirus kind, like HIV, that are specifically made to insert themselves into our DNA and often stay for good. Recently a group of Japanese virologists from Osaka found a different sort of virus lurking in our genome - one called the borna virus that seems to have hung around in the nucleus and been hijacked into our DNA. This means that much more of our DNA may be cobbled from viral invasions than we think! Now the borna virus in particular has been found to cause crazy fits in horses and its elements in our DNA are somehow indispensable for the development of the placenta and therefore human fetal growth. Makes you wonder if we can blame it for the all out, lie on the floor screaming kicking episodes that kids sometime have (not ours of course but other people's kids). "Its the borna virus in his DNA honey, Jimmy can't help it!" Well, interesting news for a sequel to Instructions for ME. What are the instructions for making me ME? For making me do what I do and....

You can check out the original borna virus paper here and an article about it in the New York Times called 'Hunting Fossil Viruses in Human DNA'.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Can you catch a ray of light?

Here's a cool and fortuitous article we found on Science News for Kids. Here's an excerpt:

"It’s easy to imagine catching a ball, holding it for a moment and then throwing it in the air again. It’s also easy to imagine scooping up a handful of water — say, from the ocean — and then releasing it again. But what about light? Is it possible to “catch” light — and then let it go?

Scientists from Harvard University recently demonstrated a way to catch and release light—but it’s not easy. In other words, no one will be using the new method to play a game of catch with flashlight beams anytime soon."

Cool because light is cool and very mysterious, and fortuitous because we have a fun book in the works called 'Can you catch a ray of light?' Won't be out for some time but it is about a little girl who tries all sorts of home grown experiments to catch light and understand what it is. Thinking how we might incorporate this....

Sunday, December 6, 2009

DNA video for kids

We've been looking for videos that can help teach young kids about DNA, sort of supplementary material for our book. Unfortunately, so far we haven't found any we really like (and believe me we've looked). Many animations that talk about how DNA is replicated or proteins are synthesized but never tell you for what or why. Anyway, here is one short clips that we think has kid-friendly elements although a little confusing in the way it starts with genes and moves to DNA rather than the other way around.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

NPR animation of viral infection

Here's a cool animation of viral infection and contagion by NPR. Maybe more realistic looking than the pictures in Jig, Jiggle, Sneeze but you can see all the parallel components. Check out the macrophage extending a long white arm.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

License to Wonder by Olivia Judson

In a very nice post yesterday, NY Times science writer Olivia Judson talks about the importance of speculation and imagination in science and the problems with teaching science as facts. We couldn't agree more and this is largely what motivates our effort to change the way children view science. We quote (you can read her whole post here)

"One of my favorite things to do is to take a set of facts and use them to imagine how the world might work. In writing about some of these ideas, my aim is not to be correct — how can I be, when the answer isn’t known? — but to be thought-provoking, to ask questions, to make people wonder.

I mention this because science is usually presented as a body of knowledge — facts to be memorized, equations to be solved, concepts to be understood, discoveries to be applauded. But this approach can give students two misleading impressions.

One is that science is about what we know. One colleague told me that when he was studying science at school, the relentless focus on the known gave him the impression that almost everything had already been discovered. But in fact, science — as the physicist Richard Feynman once wrote — creates an “expanding frontier of ignorance,” where most discoveries lead to more questions."

Monday, October 19, 2009

The history and the mystery

We were thinking recently that part of being inspired to science is having an inkling about the history of discovery. Not that ABC discovered XYZ in 1892 but knowing about the passionate lives behind the discoveries and the politics and pain of ideas battling for acceptance. One author that does this beautifully (for grown-ups) is David Bodanis. Hear him speak about his book E=mc2 here. Another writer that always throws in a smattering of animated history is Julie Rehmeyer. Here's one of her posts in her column MathTrek on

Can we find ways to bring the stories of scientific lives to kids?

Classifying our books

One of the things we hope to do is to create something of a new genre of book: science through picture book fiction. It’s not exactly ‘science fiction’ since it’s not so much futuristic as much as it is science told through stories with fictional elements. We’re not really sure yet what to call it. Every one of our books, however, needs to meet at least one out of two scientific criteria (preferably both): introduce a concept beyond our sensory experience and/or touch on the unknown. They also need to meet at least one out of two literary criteria (again preferably both): strong characters and/or story line. We also ensure that our books have high quality illustrations comparable to main stream picture book fiction. The bottom line is that given that fiction is not generally divided up based on the topics it covers, we are hoping over time to convince booksellers and libraries to classify our books as fiction rather than science on the basis of their literary quality. After all, if a book about a talking animal that teaches the child about good behavior is fiction, why not a book about a mischievous virus that teaches you something about infection and contagion? Fiction has long been accepted as a medium to help children understand how to relate to other people and understand societal norms. Why not as a means to understand our relationship to the microscopic and physical world as well? In the greater context both science and humanities encompass themes that impact our view of the world and our role in it. Classifying our books as fiction and not relegating them to the one ‘science’ shelf at the back that barely anyone visits will widen the audience. We really want to reach children who would otherwise not be exposed to science outside the classroom either because they think they don’t like science or because their parents are science phobic. We believe that every child is born with curiosity about their world and, in the end, understanding ourselves and our relationship to the universe is what science is all about. So ‘science’ or ‘fiction’? Tell us what you think.