Pondering mysteries of science

Pondering mysteries of science

One of my favorite books from 2011 was Lauren Redniss' "Radioactive" (itbooks/Harper Collins). Combining dazzling artwork with the scientific research and love story of Marie and Pierre Curie, "Radioactive" is a treat for lovers of art, science and a compelling narrative.

In somewhat the same vein, editors Jenny Volvovski, Julia Rothman and Matt Lamothe have created "The Where, The Why, and the How: 75 Artists Illustrate Wondrous Mysteries of Science" (Chronicle Books, 2012), a book that will delight lovers of both art and science.

The two books even have a similar "look" and smell — perhaps it's the ink?

The editors asked working scientists to address 75 scientific mysteries, from the profound (What existed before the Big Bang?) to the whimsical (Why do pigeons bob their heads when they walk?). The short essays occupy the left side of each spread, with illustrations, literal or imaginative, by artists on the right.

One of my favorite pairings is the essay "How does gravity work?" by Terry Matilsky, a professor of physics and astronomy at Rutgers University, illustrated by a design team called The Heads of State (the book gives websites for the artists, for those who are interested).

Matilsky begins the essay with a reference to the apple that supposedly fell on Newton's head (probably apocryphal), leading to a theory of gravity that could be used to predict the motion of planets and other bodies. He goes on to describe Einstein's theory of general relativity, the curvature of space and the remaining unanswered questions about gravity. The illustrator's answer to the essay is brilliant: a rendering of a galaxy within the curved space of a black apple.

The editors purposefully asked the authors and illustrators to address scientific questions that have yet to be fully answered. An epigraph by the late physicist Richard Feynman sums up the book's attitude: "But I don't have to know an answer. I don't feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in the mysterious universe without having any purpose — which is the way it really is, as far as I can tell. It doesn't frighten me."

We all "know" what causes us to blush — or do we? It's more complicated than you may think, and scientists are still trying to answer the question. Gilbert Ford's accompanying illustration, by the way, is particularly amusing.

"The Where, the Why, and the How" would be a great book to bring along on a family vacation or road trip. Pondering the question "What is Earth's hum?" together with family members beats the usual boredom and squabbles every day.

Sara Latta is a science writer and author of 17 books for children and young adults. You can learn more about her work and link to past reviews athttp://www.saralatta.com.

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