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Science + History = Whole Picture”

Bones in the White HouseOn my “final” draft of Bones in the White House: Thomas Jefferson’s Mam­moth, I drew a line of lit­tle mastodons troop­ing across the bot­tom of the man­u­script pages. Each ani­mal bore a date that matched a side­bar fact or ref­er­enced the main text. I thought this was a clever way to remind read­ers of the march of time. 

The first lit­tle mastodon (or “mam­moth,” as the crea­ture was called in Jefferson’s day) was labeled “700 mil­lion years ago,” the sec­ond “13,000 years ago,” the third “11,000 years ago,” inch­ing along like an Ice Age glac­i­er to the time peri­od of the sto­ry.  I did not include the mastodon time­line on man­u­script I sub­mit­ted to my agent, but the side­bars remained. How else would kids know that the shell Jef­fer­son found on a Blue Ridge moun­tain­top had once been cov­ered by an ancient ocean? Or that huge mastodons roamed North Amer­i­ca, only to dis­ap­pear a mere 2,000 years later?

Revise,” said my agent, mean­ing keep my sto­ry focused and sim­ple. With a sigh I ban­ished the mastodon parade and axed the side­bars. How would I con­vey to read­ers that my book was as much about his­to­ry as it was about the sci­ence of dis­cov­er­ing a new ani­mal in the New World, and vice ver­sa? With the empha­sis on STEM in today’s class­rooms, I wor­ry that stu­dents won’t see the entire pic­ture, won’t know that sci­en­tif­ic advances are based in history. 

mastodons

When I began research­ing Bones, work­ing back­wards from one sen­tence in a non­fic­tion book that stat­ed Thomas Jef­fer­son unpacked three crates of fos­sils in the East Room of the White House, I was keen on the sci­ence aspect. What kind of fos­sils? Where did they come from? Soon, how­ev­er, I found myself grab­bing every his­to­ry book I could find to learn more about how sci­ence was per­ceived in the late eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry.  It was new!  It was tan­gled up with reli­gion!  It was being sort­ed out by brave and curi­ous people!

I loved read­ing about nat­ur­al philoso­phers (the term “sci­en­tist” was not yet coined) work­ing in France, Ger­many, Great Britain, North and South Amer­i­ca so much that when my book was fin­ished, acquired, and at the press­es, I kept on read­ing. I’m still read­ing. It’s a huge pic­ture and I want to see all of it.

Much has been made of the viral video, “Tik­Tok Math Girl,” who asked how we know if math is real and why do we need it. Her ques­tion was defend­ed by var­i­ous experts and answered in depth by math­e­mati­cian Euge­nia Cheng. I asked my hus­band, who has a degree in math­e­mat­ics, if he stud­ied Euclid’s life or Thales of Mile­tus? He said they didn’t have much time to go into math his­to­ry as they had to con­cen­trate on prac­ti­cal applications. 

Albert Einstein E=MC2Not much has changed. Stu­dents today know Ein­stein as a twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry fig­ure famous for his the­o­ry, but on whose shoul­ders did Ein­stein stand? (Coper­ni­cus, New­ton, Michael Fara­day, among oth­ers.) Einstein’s e = mcdidn’t spring from his fore­head but was devel­oped from his stud­ies and his back­ground. These facts lend con­text and per­spec­tive to his achieve­ments, and show bud­ding physi­cists that it took years — and some mis­steps — to devel­op his theory. 

I includ­ed four pages of back mat­ter with my final man­u­script. Only two were used, due to space con­straints. I so want­ed read­ers to know where the dinosaur dis­cov­er­ies were at the time of my sto­ry. And how the con­ti­nents formed and changed. And how Dar­win set peo­ple straight — and the world on its ear — with his the­o­ry of evo­lu­tion, all part of the whole pic­ture of which my sto­ry is just a small part. But maybe that pic­ture is too big for one children’s book. I can always write another.

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