The Book of Potentially Catastrophic Science: 50 Experiments for Daring Young Scientists


It’s never been more important to engage a child's scientific curiosity, and Sean Connolly knows just how to do it—with lively, hands-on, seemingly "dangerous" experiments that pop, ooze, crash, and teach! Now, the author of The Book of Totally Irresponsible Science, takes it one step further: He leads kids through the history of science, and then creates amazing yet simple experiments that demonstrate key scientific principles.

Tame fire just like a Neanderthal with the ...

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It’s never been more important to engage a child's scientific curiosity, and Sean Connolly knows just how to do it—with lively, hands-on, seemingly "dangerous" experiments that pop, ooze, crash, and teach! Now, the author of The Book of Totally Irresponsible Science, takes it one step further: He leads kids through the history of science, and then creates amazing yet simple experiments that demonstrate key scientific principles.

Tame fire just like a Neanderthal with the Fahrenheit 451 experiment. Round up all your friends and track the spread of "disease" using body glitter with an experiment inspired by Edward Jenner, the vaccination pioneer who's credited with saving more lives than any other person in history. Rediscover the wheel and axle with the ancient Sumerians, and perform an astounding experiment demonstrating the theory of angular momentum. Build a simple telescope—just like Galileo's—and find the four moons he discovered orbiting Jupiter (an act that helped land him in prison). Take a less potentially catastrophic approach to electricity than Ben Franklin did with the Lightning Mouth experiment. Re-create the Hadron Collider in a microwave with marshmallows, calculator, and a ruler—it won't jeopardize Earth with a simulated Big Bang, but will demonstrate the speed of light. And it's tasty!

By letting kids stand on the shoulders of Aristotle, Newton, Einstein, the Wright brothers, Marie Curie, Darwin, Watson and Crick, and more, The Book of Potentially Catastrophic Science is an uncommonly engaging guide to science, and the great stories of the men and women behind the science.

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Editorial Reviews

Science Magazine
Winner of the 2011 AAAS & Subaru Award for Excellence in Science Books in the Hands-On Category

“This book stands out from the crowd of guides to science experiments that can be performed at home. Whereas many such works present a hodgepodge of standard experiments, Connolly builds this one around the theme of major scientific and technological breakthroughs that have occurred over the past 2-plus million years of human history—arranged from the first stone tools crafted by Homo erectus to the Large Hadron Collider now being used to accelerate particles to speeds approaching that of light. Each of the 34 chapters comprises descriptions of an advance and its context, the science behind it, and one or more experiments that demonstrate underlying principles. These are presented in a breezy and engaging style. Although calling the discoveries potentially catastrophic is sure to intrigue a certain kind of young experimenter, the author’s explanations note both the benefits and the drawbacks of the advances. Parents will appreciate the “catastrophic meter” reading for each experiment, which indicates the hazards involved and the appropriate level of adult supervision. The experiments and their ties to the science are consistently creative: One can spool DNA onto a skewer after isolating it from a half-eaten banana. A handmade oven works because of some of the principles behind a laser beam. The speed of light can be estimated using a microwave oven, marshmallows, and a ruler. Even adults who have survived many science fairs will find themselves temped to try some of Connolly’s experiments.”

Chicago Tribune
"A lot of mankind's greatest advances have been just a smidge away from disaster. The Wright Brothers' flying machine, Ben Franklin's fiddling with lightning, Enrico Fermi's chain reaction. In the book, Connolly explains these discoveries and applies the concepts to scaled-back (and kid-safe) experiments that use common household items. Each experiment gets rated on a "catastrophe meter," so adults can judge the danger quotient and how much help they need to offer."

"Budding scientists can learn about principles such as air resistance, condensation and the electromagnetic spectrum. But they learn because Connolly has them making a parachute that safely delivers eggs, crushing a can through sudden condensation or projecting an image of the bones in their hand on a wall. It's all done in an engaging, fun manner."

Children's Literature - Amy S. Hansen
While this book has some excellent science history and interesting projects, those who are truly looking for catastrophic ventures will be disappointed. Connolly starts at the beginning of human experimentation in the Stone Age and discusses the great discovery of weapons. Moving forward in history, the book explores the discovery of fire, the creation of arrows, and the wheel. Spending a chapter on each momentous change for Earth, we march past many scenes in history including the discovery that the earth is not flat; the invention of gunpowder, and nuclear explosions. The breadth of this book is amazing. Through it all, Connolly maintains a casual tone of a tour guide who assumes the reader is up to the (sometimes) complex topic. The projects, which are manageable for fairly young readers, include folding a paper helicopter, boiling water in a paper cup, and creating a chain reaction using marbles or toy cars. Each chapter is made up of a description of a particularly discovery or earth-changing experiment, an explanation of the scientific principles involved, and a short project. While the projects will be fun, they will not stand on their own as science fair projects; readers would need to come up with further questions to answer in their experiments. Reviewer: Amy S. Hansen
School Library Journal
Gr 5–10—Perhaps picking up on a trend started by Conn and Hal Iggulden's The Dangerous Book for Boys (Collins, 2007), this volume features a sensational title and lurid, retro cover art that might suggest a shallow and gimmicky package, once cracked. It's not. Instead, the content is solid and compelling. The premise is that all of humankind's greatest milestones in science and engineering have entailed risks and courage on the part of the innovators. Starting with Stone Age tools and ending with a Hadron Collider, each chapter details a historic leap forward in scientific understanding and explains what the potential downsides of those discoveries were. Potential catastrophic consequences include persecution for heresy, the very real risks of self-injury or death in the process of discovery, and the reality that almost every beneficial scientific discovery can also be tapped to create efficient means for humans to kill one another. As such, it's an illuminating survey. Unfortunately, kids who see the cover urging them to "try these experiments at home" and listing them as "smashing atoms, making gunpowder, firing rockets, and raising the dead," might be a little disappointed when the actual "experiments" turn out to be tamer—and sometimes lamer—analogous demonstrations of the concepts put forth in each chapter.—Jeffrey Hastings, Highlander Way Middle School, Howell, MI
Kirkus Reviews
Presented with humor and a bit of ballyhoo, this collection of 50 demonstrations of scientific tools, phenomena and principles includes a description of the history and science behind each topic. The chronological organization offers a nice way to chart the progress of science in many areas, from Stone Age tool-making through Zhang Heng's seismometer, Jenner's vaccine, Darwin's "revolutionary evolutionary book," Yeager's sonic boom and the science-in-process of the Large Hadron Collider. With occasional, possibly frustrating exceptions, the experiments have clear directions and helpful sketches provided by James. Presented like recipes, they require relatively easily found materials. Each includes a "catastrophe meter," pointing out difficulties and the possibility for injury, and a "Take Care!" label, identifying potential trouble spots. Occasionally, Connolly's breezy explanations are careless or incorrect: Fossils can be traces of a soft-bodied creature; ligons (lion/tiger hybrids) have occurred in nature, not just from DNA manipulation. But overall this is both entertaining and instructive, a welcome follow-up to The Book of Totally Irresponsible Science (2008) and useful for science-fair projects, classroom or recreational group activities and home explorations. (Nonfiction. 9-14)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780761156871
  • Publisher: Workman Publishing Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 5/5/2010
  • Pages: 306
  • Sales rank: 151,672
  • Age range: 10 - 13 Years
  • Product dimensions: 5.80 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Sean Connolly has written more than 50 books for children and adults. A father of three, he's ideally suited to explain the nuts and bolts of these fantastic experiments.

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