Friday, May 14, 2010

Take It to the Limit: Extreme Scientists by Donna M. Jackson

"A third massive blow, almost six times the force of gravity, staggers the airplane.... The aircraft lurches out of control into a hard right bank; we plunge toward the ocean, our number three engine in flames. We fall into the eye of Hurricane Hugo.

I watch the massive, white-frothed waves below us grow close."

For kids who think science offers a dry, bloodless life pouring over tables of minutiae, Donna M. Jackson's Extreme Scientists: Exploring Nature's Mysteries from Perilous Places (Scientists in the Field Series) (Houghton Mifflin, 2009) offers an up-close and personal look at the deep passion with which scientists approach their work.

NOAA hurricane hunter Paul Flaherty traces his drive to unlock the secrets of big storms to his youthful experience with Hurricane Gloria:

"Although my parents told me not to go..., I headed to Wallaston Beach. I couldn't believe how hard the wind was blowing there. The sand blinded me and it was the first time I saw the waves crashing over the seawall."

His fascination for weather has led Flaherty to lead NOAA's probes into the hearts of many famous hurricanes, notably Hurricane Katrina. Although there have been moments when his quest has led him face-to-face with death, as in the failure of two engines while flying into the huricane's core above, the pursuit of the secrets of these big storms has also produced those significant tables of data which enabled him and his fellow meteorologists to meet their true objective--predictions which save human lives. He says

"The big reason [people survived Katrina] is because we were out there flying in the storm, doing our job. We were told by the National Hurricane Center that if you run the [computer] models and remove the data we collected in Hurricane Katrina, the landfall forecast is of by two hundred miles. The loss of life most likely would have been many times worse. the reason why I'll be ready to go back out there each and every season."

Author Jackson also traces the career path of "cave woman" Hazel Barton, whose passion for "extremophiles," hardy single-celled microbes which survive in the extreme environments inside Earth's caves has driven her to master rock and ice climbing to probe the depths of glacial ice caves in Greenland and donned scuba gear to explore the most dangerous of caves in deep-water dives off the Yucatan peninsula. Plumbing the secrets of extremophiles means going into thrillingly beautiful but heart-poundingly dangerous locations, but despite occasional scares and injuries, Barton continues to pursue her "community driven" energy hypothesis which hopes to describe the amazing survival of extreme microbes in such locations. As one of her colleagues puts it,

"You always have to do what your heart says. Microbial organisms basically run the planet, yet we know so little about them...and cave microbiology."

From the unseen "underneath," Jackson then turns to a third scientist, "skywalker" Stephen Sillett, whose childhood love of treetop nature led him to scale the world's highest trees, including the redwoods of California to study life in the canopy of these twenty-five-story skyscraper trees. Like that of Flaherty and Barton, it's risky business scaling these giants, his life depending on the soundness and support of a limb twenty stories above the ground. Some ventures require Stephen to spend several nights in an arboreal hammock, tethered to a limb as he sleeps. But the rewards are great as he and his colleagues even find new forms of life--salamanders who hatch, not as tadpoles, but with fully grown legs and tails. As he muses,

"It's become such a passion to do scientific work in the forest canopy. If I go without tree climbing for a few weeks, I definitely crave it."

The compelling feature of Extreme Scientists: Exploring Nature's Mysteries from Perilous Places (Scientists in the Field Series) is indeed the insight young readers can get into the passion that drives many adults in their work. While most of us don't dangle 350 feet above the ground or ride 150 mph winds into the sunlit eye of great storms in our daily grind, this passion for what they do should help enable readers to recognize what will inspire them in their life's work.

Included are amazing color photographs which show these scientists in dramatic moments of their work, question-and-answer interviews with each, a multimedia bibliography ("Want to Dig Deeper?"), a glossary for each science ("Trailblazing Terms"), and an index to tie it all together. As a reviewer in School Library Journal puts it, "This exemplary title is just the thing for those who think that all scientists are sedentary."

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