Unlocking the Secrets of Science Book Reviews

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VOYA, June 2003

On Joseph E. Murray and the Story of the First Human Kidney Transplant and Luis Alvarez and the Development of the Bubble Chamber

This new biographical series profiles "the 20th-century achievers in science, medicine, and technology." Luis Alvarez is written in a lively, engaging fashion, sure to capture the attention of any young science buff. It is not a particularly easy read, however, despite its brevity. The biography begins with a description of Alvarez being awarded the Nobel Prize. One of the strongest features is how well the book captures Alvarez's love of science and how that developed into a career. Throughout, both the meaning of his scientific research and the impact of it on the world are addressed. Very little is said, however, about Alvarez's personal life as an adult. The final chapter might hold the most interest for young readers; in it, the impact of the work of Alvarez and his son Walter on the theory of dinosaur extinction is explained. This excellent biography is written as simply as the subject matter will allow, and is sure to engage any reader.

Joseph E. Murray is also a lively read, immediately drawing the reader into Murray's important efforts in reconstructive surgery. The reader is given a real sense of how difficult the work was and how much time Murray and his coworkers spent weighing the ethical repercussions of their work. This fine biography is well suited to its audience and informative on a man who has otherwise not been written about for the young adult audience.

The intent here is to give young adults an understanding of the significance of these scientists in the development of modern life. Unfortunately, the thirty planned titles include only two women, a circumstance that the publisher states is because "for the greater part of the 20th century science, medicine and technology were male-dominated fields." With subseries on inventors, scientists, and pioneers are biographies of Christiaan Barnard, Jacques-Yves Cousteau, Jonas Salk, and Frederick Banting. Except for the lack of women subjects, this series appears to be one that any middle school, high school, or public library should be pleased to add to its collection

Science Books & Films, March/April 2003

On Joseph E. Murray and the Story of the First Human Kidney Transplant

One of the books in the Unlocking the Secrets of Science series, Joseph E. Murray and the Story of the First Human Kidney Transplant is an excellent example of a well-written, easy-to-understand science book. Beginning with the story of Dr. Murray's young life and education, the book quickly moves on to the considerable effort Dr. Murray put into studying and researching the body's natural reaction to reject foreign tissue. The descriptions of Dr. Murray's failed attempts and his few successes help the reader understand the quiet determination and dedication to his work that Dr. Murray exhibited.

The reading is easy, although not overly simplistic, with clear descriptions of techniques and medical situations. A glossary and list of resources, including books and Web sites, are included for readers who want further explanation or information. Although there are few pictures and diagrams, the concepts are presented in a manner such that the reader does not need them. Overall, this volume is a very good book for students who are doing basic research on the physiology of the kidney, tissue rejection, or organ transplants. Teachers could use this text as a source of additional information for classroom discussions on physiology or medicine.

Science Books & Films, March/April 2003

On Willem Kolff and the Invention of the Dialysis Machine

Willem Kolff and the Invention of the Dialysis Machine is an addition to the Unlocking the Secrets of Science series. Having worked against almost insurmountable odds during the German occupation of Holland during World War II, Dr. Kolff is an excellent example of a skillful and determined medical researcher. With limited means and lacking the support of the medical community, Dr. Kolff proceeded to design and perfect the kidney dialysis machine. Written in an easily understood manner, the text describes the mechanism of the dialysis machine without becoming too technical. Case studies add a personal touch to the story and help the reader understand Dr. Kolff's motivation for developing such a remarkable machine.

In conjunction with lessons about kidney physiology and disease, this book would be a wonderful addition to a discussion of the integration of medicine and technology, a phenomenon that is highly evident today. This book and others in this series reinforce the fact that it is the pioneers of science that make the remarkable accomplishments of today's doctors and scientists possible. The timeline, glossary, and resource lists included in this volume are very good, and the pictures and diagrams complement the text very nicely.

Children's Bookwatch, March 2003

On the Unlocking the Secrets of Science series

Mitchell Lane's biographies of famous figures will appeal to kids in grades 4-6, each providing over 50 pages of facts and coverages of individuals who normally don't receive embellishment for this age group. The 'Unlocking the Secrets of Science' series enjoys more new additions to expand upon its biographies of famous scientists… Each includes an index, chronology, glossary, bibliography, and plenty of science facts blending with biographical backgrounds.

School Library Journal, February 2003

On Luis Alvarez and the Development of the Bubble Chamber and Albert Einstein and the Theory of Relativity

Concise, yet detailed presentations about two 20th-century scientists. Students will appreciate the easy-to-read layout that includes numerous black-and-white photographs. Comprehensible narratives describe how the individuals achieved their accomplishments, despite many hardships. Allison covers the life of a Nobel Prize-winning scientist about whom little has been written for this audience. Today, new techniques using Alvarez's bubble chamber allow scientists to provide better environmental monitoring and assurance of drug quality. This book provides a more detailed presentation than Corinn Codye's Luis W. Alvarez (RSVP, 1990; o.p.). Bankston does a fine job of presenting the many ups and downs in the life of one of the 20th century's best-known scientists… These solid additions include just enough of each individual's personal travails and angst to keep readers interested.

Children's Bookwatch, January 2003

On the Unlocking the Secrets of Science series

Readers in grades 6-7 will find the 'Unlocking the Secrets of Science' series to be very appealing. Each book provides almost fifty pages of facts about an inventor or scientific researcher. The books are suitable for reports and pack in a lively tone with plenty of scientific and biographical facts. Each provides a strong profile of a major 20th century achiever.

School Library Journal, January 2003

On Francis Crick and James Watson: Pioneers in DNA Research and Selman Waksman and the Discovery of Streptomycin

Seven or eight short chapters cover each subject's childhood, education, personal and professional lives, and career accomplishments… Crick is excellent: the style is upbeat, grammatically complex, yet easy to read. The well-written Waksman imparts a sense of the mystery and delight in discovery, making this more obscure, but important, researcher accessible to students.

School Library Journal, January 2003

On Raymond Damadian and the Development of MRI, William Hewlett: Pioneer of the Computer Age and Edward Roberts and the Story of the Personal Computer

Concise series entries profiling lesser-known 20th century scientists. The emphasis is on the accomplishments of these individuals rather than on their personal lives. Each book examines the invention or development within its historical context… Students will find William Hewlett's story especially inspiring. His treatment of his employees could be a model for businesses today… These titles will fill a gap in biography collections and may lead to further reading about these men.

School Library Journal, December 2002

On Joseph E. Murray and the Story of the First Human Kidney Transplant and Willem Kolff and the Invention of the Dialysis Machine

Murray, a plastic surgeon, became interested in organ transplantation after a stint in the army treating wounded soldiers who were in need of skin grafts. He performed the first successful kidney transplant in 1954, on an identical twin. In 1962, in another breakthrough operation, the healthy organ came from a cadaver. After his forays into transplants, Murray returned to plastic surgery but also offered his expertise around the world. In 1990, he was awarded the Nobel Prize. Kolff, a Dutch doctor, was convinced that he could create a machine that would cleanse the body of wastes being retained by nonfunctioning kidneys. In the midst of the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands in 1942, he designed a dialysis machine to do just that. After immigrating to the U.S., he also helped to create the first artificial heart, among other achievements. Both books offer brief glimpses into the personal lives of these men, particularly their determination to succeed in their efforts, but the focus is on their work.

School Library Journal, November 2002

On Gerhard Domagk and the Discovery of Sulfa and Chester Carlson and the Development of Xerography

Concise overviews of lesser-known but important scientists, these titles have clear, comprehensible texts and full-page, captioned, black-and-white photographs. Domagk covers the life and accomplishments of the man whose discovery of the antibiotic properties of sulfa saved many lives before its use was overshadowed by the discovery of penicillin. Bankston does a fine job of portraying his subject's life and discoveries against the complicated backdrop of attempting to conduct research in Germany during World War I and World War II. In fact, the scientist was awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine in 1939 but was forced by the Nazis to refuse it. In Carlson, Zannos shows how her subject spent much of his lifetime struggling to invent an effective, inexpensive copy machine. Ultimately, he helped to develop the first Xerox plain-paper copier. These books contain enough anecdotal information to keep students interested and would be useful additions to most collections especially since little has been published about these two figures.

School Library Journal, October 2002

On Christiaan Barnard and the Story of the First Successful Heart Transplant, Robert Jarvik and the First Artificial Heart, and Wilhelm Roentgen and the Discovery of X Rays

These brief biographies devote six or seven short chapters to each scientist's childhood, education, personal and professional lives, and career accomplishments. Black-and-white photos are basic, serving more of an archival than explanatory function. Barnard and Jarvik trace the lives of two contemporary and very ambitious physicians, the former driven by publicity as much as by science and the latter by technological challenge more than by medicine. These two books sport a breezy, upbeat style and clear, readable texts. Roentgen is a portrait of a sad, often frustrating life, yet it opens with a disconcerting allusion to Superman and his X-ray powers. The text detailing Roentgen's brilliance and constantly thwarted educational attempts is often understatedly poignant and a little flat, with a penchant for simple declarative sentences and confusing flashes backward and forward. Also, there are occasional startling facts never elaborated upon, e.g., "[wife] Bertha's brother, Hans, sent his six-year-old daughter… to the couple in 1881 to love and raise as their own." Why? What happened to her? Flaws notwithstanding, all three books are perceptive, informative and will make good introductions to complicated lives.

Science Books & Films, September/October 2002

On Barbara McClintock: Pioneering Geneticist

This book describes the life and scientific contributions of Barbara McClintock in a very logical, easy-to-read format. To introduce the field of genetics, the book begins by discussing Mendel's early experiments. It then makes a logical progression through McClintock's early years and education to her various experiments and insights into many pioneering areas of genetics. The text flows well and contains excellent examples. As well as pointing out how science is accomplished and the characteristics of a good scientist, the book also details the problems many women had breaking through the gender barrier of scientific research.

In the early chapters, the book is easy to read, but as one reaches Chapters 4 and 5, the vocabulary and ideas presented become much more difficult to grasp. The glossary at the back of the books helps, but is incomplete. The book would have benefited from diagrams or pictures of the research that was done both by Mendel and by McClintock. Overall, this book is a solid choice to add to the biographical section of a middle school library.

Children's Bookwatch, September 2002

On Gerhard Domagk and the Discovery of Sulfa, Chester Carlson and the Development of Xerography, Paul Ehrlich and Modern Drug Development, and Godfrey Hounsfield and the Invention of CAT Scans

Four new additions to the Mitchell Lane 'Unlocking the Secrets of Science' series profile achievers in science, medicine and technology and continue to blend strong biographical and technical details in 48-page offerings designed and written for young readers in grades 4-6. John Bankston's Gerhard Domagk and the Discovery of Sulfa surveys the scientist who discovered the important applications of sulfa and Susan Zannos provides three strong biographies: Chester Carlson and the Development of Xerography, covering the inventor of the photocopier; Paul Ehrlich and Modern Drug Development covering research on bacteria, and Godfrey Hounsfield and the Invention of CAT Scans, revealing the explorer of x-rays. All are excellent, accessible biographies.

Science Books & Films, July/August 2002

On Wilhelm Roentgen and the Discovery of X Rays

This slim volume does a fine job of presenting Wilhelm Roentgen's life and work in an engaging yet thorough manner. Opening with an account of the discovery of X-rays, the story flashes back to Wilhelm's early life. By including information about Roentgen's family, his educational setbacks, and his emotional struggles, the author enlivens what could easily have been a dry depiction of an event that occurred over 100 years ago. The organization of the content is excellent. The reader is drawn into the story in large part because he or she has actually begun to care about what will happen next. Through reading this book, one encounters the confusion and ultimate resolution of a great scientific mystery of the late 19th century. It is often helpful to remind ourselves and our students that discoveries are usually the result of years of painstaking work coupled with creative insight. The story ends with a survey of how X-rays are currently used in a variety of applications. Some of the discussions may assume a level of prior knowledge that is too high for middle school and even some high school readers…the book would be a great addition to the science biography section of any library.

Children's Bookwatch, July 2002

On the Unlocking the Secrets of Science series

Each 48 page book includes an index, glossary, bibliography, black & white photographs, and plenty of detail suitable for reports. All are recommended library picks.

School Library Journal, June 2002

On Robert A. Weinberg and the Search for the Cause of Cancer and Oswald Avery and the Story of DNA

Solid introductions to two key scientists. Weinberg covers the life of one of the preeminent cancer researchers who has spent years searching for the genetic causes of the disease. Severs and Whiting capture the readers' attention by beginning with an explanation of how DNA fingerprinting has been used to free falsely convicted individuals from prison. The authors then go on to explain how Avery's research laid the groundwork for it. The text relies heavily on Rene Dubos's The Professor, The Institute, and DNA (Rockefeller University, 1976 ). In both books, the layout is easy to read and includes a handful of captioned, full page, black and white photographs. These titles contain just enough anecdotal information to keep students reading. Both lists for further reading are for adults. 

The Association of Jewish Libraries Newsletter, May/June 2002

On Edward Teller and the Development of the Hydrogen Bomb

Since science and war were two gods of the last century, Edward Teller should be a sure bet for hero worship. After all, his contributions to physics and weaponry earned him the moniker "Father of the Hydrogen Bomb." Instead, this Hungarian Jew remains controversial for his invention… John Bankston develops Teller's career through the lens of controversial scientist.

Teller had a major impact on the 20th century. Bankston's pro-forma chronological study introduces a brilliant man, goal driven, stubborn and angry. On the one hand, Teller is humanized by disagreements with his parents over his career dreams, by the loss of a foot while lost in thought, and by his need to flee Nazi Germany. He emigrates to America, becomes a naturalized citizen, works on the first atomic and hydrogen bombs and the Star Wars defense system. On the other hand, the author is frank about Teller's angry tunnel vision. Labs that hired him for his brilliance saw him quit when he disagreed. Teller believes his destructive discoveries made a safer world.

Bankston mixes his strong subject with background material about math, physics, earlier scientists who led the way and the differences between types of nuclear weapons. There is more science than Judaism, often the case in middle school famous lives. However, here, a little goes a long way; Jewish identity is crucial…

This text is a useful read: get in for the facts and get out. All photographs are a full page… The volume sports glossary, index, one chronology for the man and another for his bomb. Ideas for further reading include more web sites than books. Recommended for grades 5-8.

The Book Report, May/June 2002

On Alexander Fleming, William Teller, Robert Goddard, and Barbara McClintock

This factual series relates the life, education, and achievements (and disappointments) of many of the most outstanding scientists and researchers of the 20th century. An interesting feature of each title is a brief introduction that shows the relationship of the biographies to an historical forerunner of their area of interest. Each volume contains an index, glossary, and suggestions for further reading, web sites, chronology, and timeline.

School Library Journal, February 2002

On Tim Berners-Lee and the Development of the World Wide Web and Stephen Wozniak and the Story of Apple Computer

Introductory biographies of two computer geniuses. Both begin by placing the subjects in their historical and cultural milieus and include interesting anecdotes. Berners-Lee comes across as a humble man who changed our lives when he developed the World Wide Web. However, he has not accumulated great personal wealth from his seminal work. Gaines uses many quotes from her subject's book, Weaving the Web (Harper, 1999). Her title is similar in scope to Melissa Stewart's Tim Berners-Lee: Inventor of the World Wide Web (Ferguson, 2001). Riddle and Whiting describe Wozniak's successes as well as the challenges he faced after he co-founded Apple Computer. He has used his great wealth to give back to the community through philanthropy and teaching in elementary schools. The book is less detailed than Martha Kendall's Steve Wozniak (Highland, 2000). Both volumes define new words in reader-friendly terms within the text. Black-and-white captioned photos appear throughout. Useful for reports.

School Library Journal, February 2002

On Robert Goddard and the Liquid Rocket Engine and Barbara McClintock: Pioneering Geneticist

These texts provide concise, yet complete overviews of each scientist's life and work. The easy-to-read layout includes average-quality, captioned, black-and-white photographs. Bankston does a fine job of explaining the often-complicated scientific principles while telling of Goddard's lifetime efforts to build a rocket capable of leaving the earth's atmosphere. Goddard is depicted as a brilliant scientist who was torn between constantly seeking funding for his efforts and hating to have to share the results of his valuable research. Tracy's readable text recounts the life of the geneticist who spent much of her lifetime studying maize in obscurity before becoming one of the few women to be awarded the Nobel Prize. Both volumes contain enough anecdotal information to keep students reading.

The Children's Bookwatch, January 2002

On the Unlocking the secrets of Science series

This set will provide outstanding biography material for grades 4-7, with each book offering almost fifty pages of facts and detail. Ann Gaines' Wallace Carothers (1-58415-097-1 $17.95) tells of the man who invented nylon, Kathleen Tracy's Barbara McClintock (111-0, $17.95) tells of the pioneering female geneticist's work in science, her Marc Andreessen (092-0, $17.95) tells of the achiever who developed the web browser, and John Bankston has a host of handy biographies to his name: Frederick Banting (094-7, $17.95) reveals the efforts of the man who discovered insulin, Jonas Salk (093-9, $17.95) reveals the man who developed the polio vaccine, Robert Goddard (107-2, $17.95) surveys the life of the man who worked on the liquid rocket engine, Edward Teller (108-0, $17.95) reveals a scientist key to the development of the hydrogen bomb, and Alexander Fleming (106-4, $17.95) surveys the discoverer of penicillin. Each blends biography with insight on the science or medical discovery involved.

School Library Journal, January 2002

On Alexander Fleming and the Story of Penicillin and Edward Teller and the Development of the Hydrogen Bomb

The child-friendly writing in these books raises them a jot above the standard science biographical fare. Fleming presents the Scottish researcher's quest in cheerful terms, detailing his sports-loving and unconventionally messy life in ways that allow his brilliance to glow without losing sight of the serendipitous absentmindedness of this particular professor. He chose his London medical school on the basis of its water-polo team (it was pretty pathetic medically) and stayed on as a researcher because he was a standout on their rifle team, which allowed him to do the work that would one day lead him to discover penicillin. Teller traces the life and accomplishments of the man who, like other European scientists, came to the United States as a refugee from Hitler and helped build the atomic bomb. Fascinated with the challenge of designing an even more powerful hydrogen bomb, Teller and others created the Lawrence Livermore Lab in California, where the H-bomb would be created. Both books maintain a breezy pace and evenhanded perspective and include interesting, unexpected aspects of the lives and personalities of these two men…

School Library Journal, November 2001

On Frederick Banting and the Discovery of Insulin and Wallace Carothers and the Story of DuPont Nylon

These…biographies portray the working lives of two 20th-century scientists. Both provide clear narratives about the way the inventors progressed from initial inspirations through many false trails to eventual success, despite certain obstacles. The black-and-white photographs are well reproduced…

School Library Journal, November 2001

On Jonas Salk and the Polio Vaccine

Bankston introduces the man credited with finding the first successful vaccine for polio. Salk's early years; his struggle to achieve success despite many setbacks, including prejudice due to his Jewish heritage and constant criticism from peers, especially Dr. Albert Sabin, are well documented. The author gives credit to the many researchers who discovered pieces of the puzzle before Salk came up with the final answer. He also discusses FDR's illness and subsequent creation of a foundation to treat polio. A sampling of black-and-white photographs and reproductions appears throughout…a great deal of information has been packed into these pages.

Booklist, October 2001

On Jonas Salk and the Polio Vaccine and Wallace Carothers and the Story of DuPont Nylon

Biographies by this publisher are routinely more than just standard-issue essays designed to give young readers role models (see "Top 10 Biography Series," elsewhere in this issue). The authors do return to the twin themes of overcoming obstacles and pursuing seemingly impossible dreams, but they also discuss in relatively specific detail their subjects' youths, achievements, and working methods, and they don't shy away from potential controversy: Bankston, for example, suggests that anti-Semitism played a role in Salk's early struggles for recognition; and Gaines doesn't gloss over Carothers' suicide. Quotes and information are drawn from diverse sources, including some unpublished material and online interviews, and each volume closes with chronologies, a glossary, and lists of print and electronic resources. As most of these figures in Unlocking the Secrets of Science series have not been featured in monographs for this audience before, the books will go a long way toward filling gaps in library collections.