Scientific Rivalries and Scandals

Lynn:  Who doesn’t love a good scandal?  Hey – history is full of them and even scientists have joined in with their share of bad behavior.  History is about the stories of people’s lives and I’ve always been happy to use those stories to get kids interested in what has come before.  The Scientific Rivalries and Scandals series does just that too.  Despite having somewhat sensational titles, these books do an excellent job of presenting important scientific and historical events in a very kid-friendly way.  The short length and very accessible writing make these ideal for luring reluctant readers too.  Cindy and I are going to talk about two of them today.

I get to start with Battle of the Dinosaur Bones:  Othniel Charles Marsh vs Edward Drinker Cope (Lerner/Twenty-First Century 2013). These two remarkable men met in Berlin in 1863, just a few years after Charles Darwin had published his landmark work, On the Origin of Species, and the science of paleontology was wide open.  Enthusiastic, dedicated, hard working and ambitious, both men were rising stars in their field but their ambition led them into a fierce and often nasty rivalry that lasted for twenty years.

Rebecca Johnson chronicles what came to be called the Bone Wars, following the two men and their frantic efforts first to out-do each other and later to undermine each other.  The story is a fascinating one and along the way readers learn a lot about the history of American paleontology and the scientific climate of the time.  Johnson asserts that the Bone Wars had both good and bad effects and readers are left with much to think about.  The text is lively and Johnson does an excellent job of explaining the science and also bringing these two remarkable men to argumentative life!  Excellent back matter includes a timeline, glossary, source notes and an extensive bibliography.  Enjoyable and informative and I learned why the brontosaurus, the star of many of my childhood books, is never mentioned any more!

Common Core Connection:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RST.6-8.1 Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of science and technical texts.

Johnson states that the Bone Wars had both good and bad effects.  Cite the evidence she uses to support that statement.  What do you think?  Using supporting text, write what you think was the biggest result of the dispute between Marsh and Cope.

Cindy: My sixth graders research scientists and inventors every year so I grabbed the War of the Currents: Thomas Edison vs. Nikola Tesla by Stephanie McPherson. A strong rivalry existed between these two men–who at one time worked together. Tesla left Edison’s employ over Edison’s refusal to consider alternating current as a viable way to distribute electricity to the masses. Edison was a proponent of direct current and thought AC was too dangerous to pursue. The Edison Electric Light Company evolved into General Electric and Tesla ended up working for Westinghouse. By the time the switch was flipped to light up the world’s fair in Chicago in 1893 the rivalry between the men was bitter and heated. Westinghouse won the bid to provide the electricity for the fair and seeing the 700 acre site lit up was one of the main attractions.

Both men were successful in producing light bulbs and the power to illuminate them…the difference came down to providing the infrastructure to sufficiently meet demand. Edison’s direct current did not have the power to travel more than a mile, limiting its installation. Tesla’s alternating current had more power to push it longer distances but Edison thought it was more dangerous. In fact, Edison finally agreed to support a Buffalo dentist’s idea of replacing hangings for the death penalty with a death by electricity. At first he turned down a request to help, wanting nothing to do with killing, but then proposed that his rival’s AC electricity would be perfect for this application. Edison hoped that the connection with killing would make the public more resistant to AC.

As it turns out, in the 21st century we are benefiting from both types of current. The book ends with an epilogue that presents the “rest of the story” in how AC and DC electricity is being used today, despite Tesla’s AC winning the original war of the currents.

Common Core Connection:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.6.1 Write arguments to support claims with clear reasons and relevant evidence.

The books in this series will make great fodder for argumentative writing. For this one, students could defend Edison and DC or Tesla and AC over the other to provide household electricity citing evidence from the text to support their position.  Or they could write an argumentative essay about patents and respecting intellectual property…or focusing on the epilogue, which type of current is most important to them…AC or DC…citing the devices/appliances/benefits/limitations of that source.





About the Author:

Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan are Booklist reviewers and middle-school librarians who have chaired both ALA’s Best Books for Young Adults and the Michael L. Printz Award for YA Literature committees. Follow Bookends on Twitter at @BookendsBlog. You can also find Cindy at @cdobrez and Lynn at @482april.

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