________________ CM . . . . Volume XIII Number 3 . . . . September 29, 2006


Science Detectives: How Real Scientists Solved Six Real-Life Mysteries.

Editors of Yes Mag. Illustrated by Rose Cowles.
Toronto, ON: Kids Can Press, 2006.
48 pp., pbk. & cl., $9.95 (pbk.), $17.95 (cl.).
ISBN 1-55337-995-0 (pbk.), ISBN 1-55337-994-2 (cl.).

Subject Heading:
Science-Methodology-Juvenile literature.

Grades 3-7 / Ages 8-12.

Review by Barbara McMillan.

***½ /4


Think science is a bunch of test tubes, microscopes and guys in lab coats? Think again! Science is bursting with far-out but true stories, fascinating puzzles and mind-boggling mysteries. Science Detectives follows fearless and dedicated science sleuths tracking down leads and solving cases all over the world – in cities and in deserts, deep underground, high in the sky and even in your DNA.

Children between the ages of eight and twelve may actually believe that science only occurs in rooms called laboratories that are filled with unusual pieces of equipment, bubbling solutions, and men with all the attributes of nerds who also happen to resemble Albert Einstein in his later life. The authors of Science Detectives want young readers to know nothing could be further from the truth. Jude Isabella and Megan Kopp, two editors of Yes Mag, have written narratives of six events in the history of science that help 8 - 12-year-olds to recognize types of scientific work, how research is conducted in specific areas of science, and the men and women who pose the questions and design the investigations that provide the answers.

     The book begins with “The Case of the Contaminated Cook,” a story of an epidemiological investigation. In the summer of 1906, members of the Warren family fell one-by-one into a feverish delirium accompanied by headache and diarrhea. The sickness was identified as typhoid fever. Typhoid fever was known at the time to be caused by the bacterium, Salmonella typhi, and food and water contaminated with this Salmonella species were known to spread the disease. When medical experts couldn't locate the source of the typhoid germs, Dr. George Soper, an expert epidemiologist, was called in. What follows is a fascinating account of Soper's attempt to track down, and successfully identify the human carrier, Mary Mallon. Mallon, later known as “Typhoid Mary”, happened to be one of the Warren's summer cooks on their Long Island retreat.

     The succeeding five stories are “The Case of the Vanishing Vultures,”“The Case of the Curious Corpse,”“The Case of the Hot Ice,”“The Case of the Twisted Code,” and “The Case of the Smoke-filled Cockpit.” The first of these five answers the question, What is causing the rapid decline in the vulture populations in India, Nepal and Pakistan? “The Case of the Curious Corpse” tells about the mummified body discovered by two hikers in the Alps, and the attempts by archeologists and scientists to identify the fifty-three hundred year old remains and determine the cause of death. Canadian geologist, Charles Fipke, is the focus of the “hot ice” story, and the hot ice he is trying to locate in Canada's north is the diamond. The ‘twisted code” is about the shape of the DNA molecule and the scientists who determined how this double helix allows genetic information to be copied and passed from one generation to the next. The last case answers the question, Why did the Geneva bound Swissair Flight 111 crash into the ocean on September 2, 1998? It was an airplane carrying 229 passengers and crew that had been diverted to Halifax, Nova Scotia, when the first officer smelled smoke in the cockpit just 53 minutes after leaving a New York airport.

     Each case is presented in six to eight pages. Along with the narrative are Cowles' colourful and cartoon-like illustrations, well-placed photographs, and the occasional posted note that lists probable causes of the events described or bits of factual information. The book's designer, Julia Naimska, has found an interesting way to include scientific information related to each of the cases. She uses an image of a document, attached to a numbered file folder by a red paper clip. These files, using “The Case of the Curious Corpse” as one example, provide the reader with information about the forensic pathologist who worked with archeologists on the case. They also present the modern technologies used to “unravel a mystery without destroying the evidence”, and link to two additional studies involving archeologists. The first describes the 2003 discovery of the skeletal remains of what has come to be known as a new species of humans, Homo floersiensis, on the Indonesian island of Flores. The second tells about the uncovering of a Viking settlement in L'Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland by Helge Ingstad, Anne Stine, and their research team. In addition to this written and pictorial information, five of the six cases also include an investigation for readers to carry out. These are as uncomplicated as using the Moh's Scale of Hardness to determine the hardness of a rock sample, constructing, then setting up, a milk/juice carton feeder to study the feeding habits of birds, or putting back together the pieces of the shell of a hard boiled egg - a small scale version of reconstructing Swissair 111.

     If I have any reservations about Science Detectives, it's with the first page, “The Case of the Sleuthing Scientists”. Isabella and Kopp write, “The world is a place of mystery. To unravel its secrets, scientists must think like detectives.” They then use events to illustrate how science is similar to solving mysteries. This works well for five of the six cases where science knowledge is being applied to identify a typhoid carrier, the chemical in dead farm animals causing kidney failure in the vultures that eat the carcasses, the time and cause of death of an ice mummy, the location of a kimberlite pipe with diamonds, and the cause of the smoke that led to the crash of the Swissair passenger jet. It doesn't work as well with “The Case of the Twisted Code.” Unquestionably this is one of the most interesting events in the history of cell biology and biochemistry. Rather than using science knowledge to solve a mystery, however, Francis Crick, James Watson, Rosalind Franklin and a host of others were constructing knowledge of a molecule and events they couldn't directly observe. This distinction should be made clear. Moreover, the cell and its nucleus are not topics in school science until grade 8. There is a good likelihood that the youngest of the projected readership for Science Detectives will not understand the science in this particular case.


Barbara McMillan is a professor of early and middle years science education in the Faculty of Education, the University of Manitoba.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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