Today, a boy learns science in 1925. The University
of Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
I found a wonderful book the
other day. It's called The Boy
Scientist. It's a fat red book published in
1925. It has 340 illustrations and no equations.
The writing is simple. It's meant for high-school
boys. This, of course, was a world where science
writers didn't yet know women existed. It was the
simple world that I still knew in my own childhood.
It's clear what's really on the author's mind.
Einstein is on his mind. Chapter I explains space,
time, and the fourth dimension. Chapter II tells
about matter, force, and motion.
He gets down to brass tacks in Chapter III. The
title is "The Einstein Theory." It is, he tells us,
"a subject you ought to know about if you wish to
keep abreast of the times."
In 1925, everybody was explaining Einstein.
Everyone was dropping balls in moving trains in the
vain hope they could make us understand why we age
slowly on a rocket ship to Alpha Centauri. Modern
was the new catchword in 1925.
But now our brave new author has got Einstein off
his chest. We settle down to the real fun. Now
chapters wear titles like, "Astronomy in a
nutshell" and "Chemistry Made Easy." There are
chapters on surveying, photography,
crystallography, radio, movies, and flight.
The author fears nothing. He shows you how to make
your own spectroscope, radio, or X-ray machine. The
X-ray machine is scary. We hadn't connected X-rays
and cancer in 1925. He writes,
Now if you place your hand against the cardboard in
front of the fluoroscope, then hold it within 6 or
8 inches of the X- ray tube, . . . you will see the
bones in your hand . . .
Do that often enough and you'll end up
glowing in the dark.
That was a simpler world. I was raised on books
like this. I still carry scars that I gained in my
own half-informed scientific inquiries. I bear them
with a certain pride.
So we read on: "Sulphuric acid and how to make it."
Here's a section on experiments you can do with
radium. This was a modern, unconstrained world.
Suddenly we all drove cars. We went to movies. We
saw airplanes in the sky.
This funny off-balance book brings childhood back
to me in a rush. I really did learn how things
worked from books like this. They shaped me. They
taught me rashness and naivete, and I cherish those
lessons. I learned that what one fool can do,
another can also do. This old book may be
intemperate. But it also makes me grieve the
passing of spring.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds