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Advice from a Science Parent

It’s not just what you read, but when you read it

Mark Miodownik 31 March 2005

www.lablit.com/article/22

Miodownik, still reeling from too much Hawking

I'm taking no chances: I've buried Darwin's Dangerous Idea in the garden

Editor’s note: Mark Miodownik is a Lecturer of Mechanical Engineering at King’s College London, where he performs materials science research (especially at the micro- or nanoscale); he’s even been awarded a NESTA fellowship to help him pursue his love of collecting rare, exotic materials. He writes a regular science/art column for the journal Materials Today, and for some years now he has also been compiling a list of books that a Science Parent (as opposed to a God Parent) might give to his or her Science Child, at different ages, to encourage curiosity about the world. LabLit.com asked Miodownik why he had felt compelled to assemble this list. Here is what he had to say:

Firstly I should say that until quite recently I had identified myself very strongly with the Douglas Adam's character Arthur Dent in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Although my planet hasn’t blown up recently, many of my hard-discs have, and for someone who does computer simulations, this is practically the same thing. However, of late, I have discovered that I had misread the Hitchhiker's books and it is actually my colleague Kaspar who behaves uncannily like Arthur Dent. Imagine my surprise in finding out that it was not me who was the main character in my own life, but rather my pedantic, good-natured German office neighbour! It does explain a few things though, for instance why I get very few birthday cards.

My main problem, I have come to realise, is that I read the The Selfish Gene and Day of the Triffids too early and so became both paranoid and solipsistic at far too tender an age. While other children were laughing heartily at Terry Pratchett's bonkers prose or smiling tenderly at A Wrinkle in Time, I was pondering the implications of A Brief History of Time and trying to understand why the publishers ever went ahead with it. When I finally got round to reading the The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, I was a shocked and serious teenager, and I found the book so much funnier and cleverer than any other book I had read that I wore my dressing gown to school for a week, and would frequently burst into hysterical laughter at the mere mention of the word 'petunia'.

When I got to university I was still in the same state, and I am sure this is why I mistakenly joined the Parachute Club and the Sherlock Holmes Club. This resulted in my slight limp and my annoying habit of exclaiming "Elementary, my dear Watson!" whenever I solved a differential equation. Had I read The Periodic Table then, instead of when I was six, I am sure I would have joined the Socialist Workers Party and protested against the Poll Tax, and thus not now feel that I need to do something politically radical before I get too old.

This book list is my attempt to protect my niece and nephews from a similar fate. I am afraid the list hasn’t been road-tested, as my eldest niece is only five now. However, I'm taking no chances: I've buried Darwin's Dangerous Idea in the garden, with a map of its location in pages of the final chapter of Does God Play Dice, which is in the cellar with a "Beware of the God" sign on the door. With luck they'll have a less confused childhood than I had!

Science Faction/Fiction Books for a Scientific Child

A list of classic books which promote curiosity about the universe, categorised by reading age

Age 5-7

I Can Read With My Eyes Shut by Dr Seuss
The Little Prince by Antoine De Saint-Exupery
Comet in Moominland by Tove Jansson

Age 8-11

Only You Can Cave Mankind by Terry Pratchett
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L'engle
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

Age 12-15

War of the World by H. G. Wells
The Compass Rose by Ursula K. LeGuin
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
Brave New World by Aldus Huxley
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
Animal Farm by George Orwell

Age 16-18

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sachs
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime by Mark Haddon
Neuromancer by William Gibson
Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham
Why We Don’t Fall Through the Floor by J. E. Gordon
Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman by Richard Feynman
Brightness Falls From the Air by James Tiptree, Jr.

Age 19 and over

The Periodic Table by Primo Levi
Does God Play Dice by Ian StewartThe Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins
Evolution and the History of Life by Stephen J. Gould
A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking
Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond
Zeoes and Ones by Sadie Plant
Darwin's Dangerous Idea by Daniel Dennet

Related links

Miodownik’s academic website

Miodownik’s NESTA fellowship profile