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Author Archive: "Theodore Gray"

Show the Children the Beauty and the Power

Science is the most powerful force on earth. Science and science alone can move mountains, cure disease, land on the moon, and explain who we are and where we came from. Not love, not religion, not Zen meditation, not new age crystals, only science actually gets the job done. So why do students so often find their science class to be the most boring one of the day?

Science is an undeniable force for good in the world. It's easy to forget sometimes just how bad things were before science, and how bad they could get again if science falls by the wayside in the ebb and flow of civilizations. (And don't think for a minute that it can't happen. Assuming science will always be there is like assuming the housing market will never go down. The ancient Greeks knew the earth went around the sun; how long did it take for Kepler to rediscover that?)

If you have recently not died of a bacterial infection, and you want your children to enjoy the same freedom to not die of simple infections, you need to support robust, hands-on science education at every level, but particularly in middle and high school when students are forming ideas about what they want to do with their lives. This whole civilization thing only keeps going if every new generation grows up willing, able, and interested enough to do their part.

By robust, I mean science taught by scientists for students who want to be scientists when they grow up, or at least be people with a deep knowledge and appreciation of science.

By hands-on, I mean classes where students confront and engage the real stuff of science — chemicals, rockets, lasers, spectroscopes, and vats of goo — up close and personal.

The Danger of Not Doing Dangerous Experiments

How many children dying each year from school science experiments do you think is an acceptable number?

I recently heard a radio report on the FDA's proposal to require treatment of raw oysters to prevent the roughly 13 deaths that occur every year from bacterial contamination. A number of people were perfectly happy to go on the radio and argue, in so many words, that these 13 people dying every year was not enough of a reason to require pasteurization of oysters, because hey, they just don't taste as good if they've been irradiated or heat treated.

Can you imagine someone going on the radio and arguing that it's OK for a dozen or so students to die every year in order to ensure that we have robust science education?

Far be it from me to be that person, but seriously, how do we reconcile this disparity? Do people really think a marginal improvement in the taste of raw shellfish is more important than the future of human civilization?

Beautiful Science and the Science of Beauty

When science was first invented, its creators saw it work hand in hand with art and literature to seek out the deep truths of the world. What went wrong?

Joseph Banks, founder of the Royal Society, and Humphry Davy, prominent among the first professional chemists, were good friends with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth, and Mary Shelley. While Banks and Davy were creating the idea of science as a professional occupation, these poets and authors were busy incorporating the latest scientific discoveries into their works. Shelley's Frankenstein was the first science fiction novel, simply because Shelley was the first author who had a scientist to consult with.

Both sides of this collaboration saw the other as vital to their efforts. The poets needed scientists to enlighten them with new truths (new ideas having been in desperately short supply since the Greeks said pretty much everything there is to say about the world and human nature without the aid of science). The scientists, in turn, needed poets to make connections between their work and broader humanity, to warn them against an overly mechanical interpretation of the world, and to spread the word about new discoveries to a wider audience.

Although both sniped at each other from time to time, neither side saw a fundamental conflict or split between science and the arts: Each respected the other for its contributions. How impoverished in comparison is the current situation, with scientists viewing artists as lightweights, and artists having such distain of science that the notion of a science fiction novel winning a literary award is as far-fetched as some of that genre's plot lines.

The Importance of Speaking Truth to Ignorance

It is easy to take for granted that no matter how much we tolerate irrationality, truth will prevail and sanity will win out in the end. The history of civilizations does not bear out this optimism. Without constant vigilance and a willingness to speak out against nonsense, we will be the next major civilization phased out in favor of one more in tune with reality.

For example, it never ceases to amaze me that, of the topics I write about, the one that consistently generates the most reader mail is homeopathy . Very little of it is on my side.

For those not familiar with homeopathy, it is a system based on the idea that if you take a substance that causes a certain problem and dilute it to a preposterous degree, the resulting solution will cure that same problem. For example, if tree pollen causes you to sneeze, a homeopath will take some tree pollen and dilute it so many times that not a single atom of the pollen is left, just plain water. They will then sell you sell this plain water, which contains not a single ...

The Cornucopia of Home Science

Reading old books of science experiments for children, it's easy to become nostalgic for the days when you could buy jugs of sulfur and mercury at the corner drugstore. But what you may not realize is that we are living in an unprecedented golden age of easy access to science supplies and tools , and there is one simple reason for this: eBay.

What started out as a bazaar for Beanie Baby collectors, eBay has now become the universal marketplace through which a large portion of the world's surplus and odd-lot industrial, medical, scientific, and just plain weird stuff gets sold.

My book The Elements contains something like five or six hundred photographs of objects representing the chemical elements and their applications, and there are over 2,300 on my website, periodictable.com. At least 90% of these objects came from eBay. It simply would not have been practical to create The Elements without it (as evidenced by the fact that no book like it has been done before).

It's not just odd samples of elements you can find on eBay. You can buy complete working scientific instruments, lab equipment, and not a small number of chemicals, supplies, reagents, and exotic tools. This gives anyone, anywhere who has a shipping address and a PayPal account the same access to the tools of discovery as someone living in New York, London, or Tokyo ever had, now or in the past.

Is Science As Important As Football?

The subtitle of my new book, Mad Science, is "Experiments You Can Do at Home — But Probably Shouldn't." And I mean it! Although some of the experiments are perfectly harmless things a kid could do unsupervised (as long as you don't mind the monumental messes), others are not. Some would be very unwise for anyone but an experienced chemist to attempt. Most are in between: Potentially dangerous, but OK to try if you're a sensible person being reasonably careful.

Is it irresponsible to write a mass-market book that describes how to do dangerous science experiments? It used to be very common. I have books from the early 1800s through the mid 1900s that would make your hair stand on end. One 1930s book from none other than the Popular Science Press includes the recipe for Armstrong's mixture, a friction-sensitive explosive notorious for blowing hands off while it's being mixed.

But that's ancient history now. Books of home science, and even classroom chemistry at the high ...

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