Friday, September 7, 2012

SciFriday reviews - Space!


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Science Fiction leads to Science Fact! (and vice versa)

Or.... "If we dream it, we can do it..."

I spent the Labor Day weekend in Washington, DC. Some of the highlights of my museum visits included seeing the Discovery Shuttle, the Apollo 11 command capsule, and the Gemini capsule. I can’t even imagine strapping myself onto an immense explosive and heading off into space. Those men and women showed courage, all right. What an example of heroism that could lead us to someday expand our reach beyond one solitary world. 

I don't know about you, but every day I'm amazed by the stunning new images from the Curiosity Rover. NASA's site about Curiosity is phenomenal. I can't wait to show my students! http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl/

I’ve also been thrilled to see several other space projects in the news. 
** NASA is running a contest for students (18 and under) to name an asteroid (http://www.sacbee.com/2012/09/04/4785082/nasa-announces-asteroid-naming.html)  Check out the plans we have for this puppy!

** Voyager 1 revealed a mind-bogglingly gorgeous Jupiter mosaic
http://www.planetary.org/blogs/guest-blogs/20120906-jonsson-voyager-1-jupiter-mosaic.html

While I realize that science fiction and science NON-Fiction include a lot more than just the world beyond our beautiful blue marble, I’m still all fired up about SPACE! So today’s Sci Friday includes one science fiction book that involves space travel and three non-fiction offerings.

Science Fiction:

The Doom Machine – by Mark Teague

Bestselling writer/illustrator Mark Teague presents a witty, vivid novel about Jack andIsadora, two kids who discover a spaceship and are taken aboard by aliens who plan to take over the Earth!

When a spaceship lands in Vern Hollow, Jack's hometown, he and his no-account inventor-uncle Bud are busy trying to fix a car driven by Dr. Shumway and her daughter, Isadora. Although Uncle Bud secretly knows the aliens are after one of his inventions, everyone is surprised when the space aliens capture seven of Vern Hollow's residents and take them into outer space on a wild adventure. (from Goodreads)

It’s more difficult than I thought to find fabulous middle grade science fiction. Many books take on relatively mature themes as they tackle the world of the future. I was excited to find a middle grades book while I was browsing at the library, but I can’t recommend it without some reservations.

The good:
While there is a slow start, by the middle it ends up quite funny. It has a silly side to it that isn’t common in science fiction for older kids.

There is a lot of science; including time, space travel, and alien life forms. I can easily see students who are already interested in these areas being intrigued by the concept of wormholes and aliens that take non humanoid forms.

The not so good:
A few things bugged me about this book. The first thing – the one that almost made me put the book right down – was when the mayor shook hands with Isadora’s mother and said, “A lady scientist! That’s something you don’t see every day.” While the book is set in the 1950s, this just put a bad taste in my mouth. After all, Wrinkle in Time was published in 1962.

It definitely took a while to get hooked into the story. Kellee mentioned that this is a frequently abandoned book in her room, and I can understand why. The characters felt flat to me, especially in the firsthalf of the book.

Overall: I think this is a book that will appeal to a narrow audience. It has a “young” feel to it, but the science and language are pretty tricky for that age range. I’d also want to be sure to balance this book choice with one where women’s role in science is seen as less “startling” and more natural.

On to the nonfiction!

My “gem of the week” is Cars on Mars: Roving the Red Planet by Alexandra Siy

Cars on Mars is a beautiful example of a nonfiction book that can have fun while imparting a ton of information. The book is structured as a set of directions, each section being a step on the journey. The title of the first section is “Go 303,000,000 miles, then stop at the fourth rock from the sun.”

This is a book you definitely want on your shelves for any middle grade or middle school classroom. Gorgeous illustrations are paired with attention grabbing headings like “If I had a hammer” and “Somewhere, over the rainbow”. It’s a perfect example of how you can build voice into informational writing.

This one was published in 2009 – so it covers Spirit and Opportunity’s first amazing years.  They were only designed to last a few months! Check out NASA’s website athttp://marsrover.nasa.gov/home/index.html for information on what these rovers are doing now.

I also read two “old” nonfiction titles.

Colonizing the Planets and Stars by Isaac Asimov (yes... THAT Asimov)

You can probably tell by the cover that this is an older title. Published in 1990, there is a lot of out of date information in it. Honestly, I find that part of the charm. I love studying how the world changes over time (yes, I adore history in addition to my science). Taking this book in to a classroom today would be a fun way to compare and contrast both the science of space AND the way that nonfiction texts have changed. 

Asimov begins with a page discussing "Why Should We Go?". This is one of the key concepts I want my students to consider, so it's a great way to get a unit on space exploration started. He also talks about asteroids (you did notice the NASA news story I mentioned above, right?) Anyone who has read Across the Universe by Beth Revis knows that it could take several generations to get to anyplace we are willing to colonize. Asimov devotes some time to that topic as well. 

So - a great book to have on hand to spark discussions and possibly ignite some fun science fiction speculation. You can even pick up a used copy at Alibris for about a dollar (plus shipping). 

Fast Forward - Exploration of Mars  by Mark Bergin

Bergin starts his book off with a spread on myths and legends about Mars. He discusses the mythology of the name, the broadcast of War of the Worlds,  and the images that seemed to show the "Face of Mars" from the 1976 Viking Orbiter. 

Published in 2001, the parts of this book that are out of date make me feel sad. Bergin goes into some detail about the plans for future missions to Mars, including manned missions hoping to get there by 2020. It would still be a valuable addition to an exploration unit, as a way to compare the plans from the past to what we currently hope we can accomplish. 





If you are as excited about Space as I am (or if you aren’t but WANT to be), check out the following amazing Twitter feeds:

@badastronomer  - otherwise known as Phil Plait - his feed is filled with excellent information about space exploration and science in general. He is an astronomer by trade, and writes a blog for Discover Magazine. Phil is great for helping debunk the rumors and false information that start to spread around the net. 

@universetoday - fills their feed with tons of recent events and space news. Fabulous finds! 

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