/ Maggie Koerth-Baker / 2 pm Wed, Nov 9 2011
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  • Science Book Club: National Geographic's The Big Idea

    Science Book Club: National Geographic's The Big Idea

    I have a weird relationship with coffee-table books. In general, I kind of think of them as clutter—like a particularly heavy and ungainly pile of junk mail that you can't just throw away. They're books to flip through and never really read again. For the rest of eternity, they just sit there, getting in your way while ostensibly telling your guests something about your personality and taste. To be quite honest, I lost most of my interest in coffee table books right around the point where I became old enough to conceivably own a coffee table.

    But when I was a kid, coffee table books were magic.

    Between the ages of 7 and 13, I owned more coffee table books than I will probably ever own again in my life. My favorite was a fat Readers' Digest tome on great disasters, full of prints of the Titanic schematics, medieval doctors lancing the buboes of plague victims, and photographs of the serene destruction at Lake Nyos. I read that thing so many times that I eventually broke the spine.

    I still think kids and coffee table books go together like peanut butter and jelly. In late grade school and junior high, you're at an age where you still enjoy picture books but are looking for a bigger, deeper view of the world than most picture books provide. Coffee table books bridge that gap, offering grown-up perspectives in kid-friendly packages. Whether the topic is art, architecture, history, culture, or science—coffee table books can be a kid's first step into a subject they'll come to love as an adult.

    Now that you know that context, let me tell you what I thought about one of National Geographic's newest coffee table books—The Big Idea: How Breakthroughs of the Past Shape the Future
    .

    The Big Idea is really about the history of scientific advancement. Working backwards from a modern technology like Linux, or gene therapy, or private manned spacecraft, the book takes you on step-by-step through all the previous breakthroughs that had to happen before our modern world could exist.

    This is all broken up by general field of thought. So the section on communications and information technology starts in 1994 with Linux and ends in 3000 BCE, with the abacus. Along the way, there are sidebars that introduce you to some key concepts and people, such as quantum computing and the great Muslim engineer Al-Jazari.

    Another example: The section on transportation starts with private manned spaceflight and ends with the wheel. There are detours along the way acquainting you with terraforming, Daniel Bernouli, and intelligent traffic control.

    The Big Idea is a big book and, as you might guess from these two chapter summaries, it's packed end-to-end with an incredible density of information. It's very pretty to look at, as something from National Geographic ought to be. If you put it on your coffee table, it will make people believe that you are smart. But I think it's real value lies in what it can do for a 7th grader.

    The concept here is a really good one. It's important to understand how a bunch of seemingly random ideas build on one another and lead to new questions and new discoveries. I've loved that way of thinking about the world since I read Peter Watson's The Modern Mind: An Intellectual History of the 20th Century in college.

    Kids on their way into teenagerhood are at just the right age when that sort of view of reality would be extremely influential, and extremely welcome. They've accumulated enough facts from school that they'll be familiar with a lot of the steps on The Big Idea's timelines. But how those events and discoveries fit together will still be an entirely new world for them.

    The Big Idea can be a bit frustrating to an adult. It's full of segments that hit all the too-expected points about well-trod ideas ... and segments that only skim the surface of confusing concepts. At the same time, though, this is a book that could totally change a preteen's life. Present The Big Idea to a younger set and, suddenly, the ho-hum parts become shiny new, and the not-quite-deep-enough explanations become intriguing jumping off points—offering just enough information that you can feel smarter than your teachers, and just enough mystery that you feel the need to explore the subject further.

    Sometimes, you can't just say a book is good or not, you have to say who it is good for. The Big Idea isn't a book that gets me really excited, as an adult. But, were I about 15 years younger, I would have already had its spine good and bendy.

    Image: Intent on Energy Expelled, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from 14945598@N05's photostream

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