Worlds of discovery for the little ones

As both a mom and a kid at heart, I couldn't resist joining in Children's Book week (month?) started by the World's Fair.

Behind every child is a budding scientist. They approach the world with an unrelenting curiosity, testing hypothesis at every corner. They like to experiment hands-on, and they like to make a mess--and how. (For instance, I once tried to make my own paper, with pulp and bright green dye. I just didn't know you had to keep the lid on Mom's blender closed.) While some experiments might make mom mad, there is always hope--in the form of books.

Since my Dad was a chemist, many of the books which inspired me, growing up, were related to chemistry, like Science Experiments You Can Eat and an Illustrated Dictionary of Chemistry. While I spent many hours pouring over books like these, just trying to get a sense of what things were made from, my favorite books were far from reality. So, for me, the greatest book to inspire my love for science was not actually about science, but about a fantasy world.

The pages of Dinotopia are filled with drawings that look like they fell out of a naturalist's field book from the 18th century--except many of the species portrayed are long extinct. Author and artist James Gurney portrays dinosaurs and humans living alongside one another on a forgotten island. The names and descriptions of the dinosaurs have all been thoroughly researched, giving a realistic (or surrealistic) sense to the stories. While this probably fed my future love for biology, the biggest influence I gleaned from Dinotopia was somewhere between philosophy and physics.

i-1c56c8705bf8ff14b26be0607a16c062-helicoidgeochronograph.jpgShe said that she had made an appointment for me with a distinguished Stenonychosaurus named Malik, the timekeeper for all of Dinotopia. Malik would be willing to instruct me about time.... Malik began with a kind of chatter, with Bix [their Protoceratops guide] translating: You of the West think of time moving in a straight line, from past to present to future. Your eastern brothers regard the time as a circle, returning endlessly in a cycle of birth and decay. Both ideas have a dimension of the truth. If you were to combine geometrically the movement of the circle with the movement of the line, what would you have?" He snapped his mouth shut and peered at me with an uncanny resemblance to my old schoolmaster.

"The spiral?" I ventured.

"Yes, yes. Or the helix. They are our models of the passage of time."

When a curious Aurthur inquires as to what time it is, Malik answers with the prose of poet and the passion of a biologist:

"Time for Kentrosaurus to hatch. Time to plant the millet. Time for magnolia buds to open. Professor Denison, I'm afraid you persist in thinking of time as numbers. You think of meaningless units of time--weeks, hours, minutes--based on what? Movements of faraway planets? Of what use to us is that? Why not pay attention to the precise 30-year life cycle of the bamboo Guadua trinii or the exactly repeated mitotic cycle of the paramecium? The whole earth has a heartbeat."

I love that lizard. Here, some 15+ years after my parents brought me a signed copy of the book, I still think of that page when picturing the curvature of space/time.

There have been a few sequels to Dinotopia, the World Beneath and the First Flight. I guess there have also been a series of young adult novels, a television show, and a video game, as well--See what happens when you grow up? As if that isn't all enough to get a creative saurian fix, Gurney plans to release a fourth illustrated book in 2007, featuring the latest fossil finds:

The final artwork for the next Dinotopia book is now in full production. The new story follows Arthur Denison and Bix as they explore the exotic eastern realm of Chandara. In the spirit of Marco Polo and Gulliver's Travels, the book captures all the whimsy and philosophy of the original Dinotopia, and introduces us to memorable new characters and amazing new cities, and we meet exotic feathered dinosaurs based on the latest scientific discoveries.

Click here to see a breathtaking landscape from the preview.

Note: Image of the helicoid geochronograph via

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