In the latest issue of my newsletter, The Magnet, I wrote about some of my favorite old kids' science books:
A long time ago I read a good piece of advice in The Whole Earth Review: read a children's book to learn about a topic. Ever since then I've been adding kids' science books to my home library. I'm biased toward books from the 1950s and 60s because the illustrations are excellent and the writing is straightforward (though sometimes the information can be out of date). Here are some of my favorites:
The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments (1960)
I don't have a physical copy of this book because used copies sell for $200 or more, but The Internet Archive has a scanned PDF you can download for free. The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments teaches you how to set up a home chemistry lab and has recipes for chlorine, ammonia, hydrogen, hydrogen sulfide, and ethanol. Obviously, adequate ventilation is a must for doing these experiments.
Our Friend the Atom (1956)
This Walt Disney book by Heinz Haber is a companion to the film of the same name. Lavishly illustrated by Disney Studio artists, Our Friend the Atom opens with a sobering illustration of a mushroom cloud, follows with a history of humankind's quest to understand and tame the power of radioactive elements, and ends with an optimistic view of nuclear energy.
Used copies are on Amazon for $30+, and it's also available for 1-hour checkout in PDF format from The Internet Archive.
The Human Body: What It Is and How It Works (1959)
At just 140 pages, The Human Body is a detailed and fascinating physiological study of the nine major systems of the human body. Author Mitchell Wilson was an interesting person — a physicist-turned-novelist, he was Enrico Fermi's research assistant and was married to Stella Adler, the famous acting coach. His daughter, Victoria Wilson, is a vice president and senior editor at book publisher Alfred A. Knopf. The book's artist, Cornelius De Witt, illustrated many Golden Book titles and painted murals for the New York World's Fair in 1939.
Used copies are on Amazon for $5+.
The Giant Golden Book of Mathematics (1958)
This is my favorite book in my collection, not just for Lowell Hess's stunning mid-century illustrations but for author Irving Adler's engaging way of presenting mathematics as principles that govern everything in the universe. Here's Adler's surprising method for arriving at the value of π by dropping sticks on the floor:
Strange as it may seem, there is a way of calculating the value of π by dropping a stick on the floor. The floor has to be made of planks of the same width. Use a thin stick, such as a toothpick, that is as long as the planks are wide. Simply drop the stick many times. Keep count of the number of times you drop it and the number of times it falls on a crack. Double the number of times you drop the stick and then divide by the number of times it fell on a crack. The result is your value of π .
For example, if you drop the stick 100 times, and it falls on a crack only 62 times, divide 200 by 62. The result is about 3.2. This is not a very accurate value of π . The more times you drop the stick, the more accurate a value you will get. When you drop the stick, whether or not it crosses a crack depends on where its center falls, and how it is turned around its center. When a stick turns around its center, it moves around a circle. That is why π , which is related to measuring a circle, is also related to the chance that the stick will cross a crack.
Used copies are on Amazon for $30+ and it's available for 1-hour checkout in PDF format from The Internet Archive.