Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The Skull in the Rock: how a scientist, a boy, and Google Earth opened a new window on human origins

by Lee R. Berger & Marc Aronson. 64 p. National Geographic Society, October, 2012. 9781426310102. (Purchases.)

Double whammy here - a National Geographic publication combined with science in the real world. 

I don't know if I ever mentioned this on the blog before but, when I was young, my mother (way ahead of her time) referred to the (black and white)(Seriously! I was an adult before I learned that The Wizard of Oz turned Technicolor when Dorothy landed in Oz!) television set in our living room as "the idiot box," and my television viewing was severely rationed. Ha-ha! Epiphany moment here. Perhaps the seeds of my early-riser tendencies were born out of the need for a t.v. fix since my folks slept in on the weekends. I discovered the wonders of Davy and Goliath one early weekend morning followed by Saturday morning cartoons. Well, I think Saturday morning cartoons were allowed just so my (hung over) parents could sleep in. While I'm being confessional here, I have to apologize to my maternal grandmother. Sorry G-ma J., I was not the devoted granddaughter. You had your television on 24/7.

My point - one of the few parent-sanctioned family viewing programs were National Geographic specials. We also received a subscription to the magazine, which my brother would usually commandeer to read multiple times cover to cover. So my devotion to Nat. Geo. is visceral.

And, as I mentioned before, give me a science in the real world scenario or incorporate how childhood interests led to a career in science and I'm sold. Here we have a double whammy of science in the real world that starts with a bang in Chapter One, cleverly illustrated with hand bones missing all the phalanges save one, for chapter one, get it? Tee hee.

Matthew Berger, the nine-year-old son of co-author, Lee Berger found a fossil while out fossil hunting with his scientist dad. Apparently, he found a human clavicle from what would turn out to be a "nearly complete skeleton of an entirely new species (Australopithecus sebida) previously unknown to science." Rewind in Chapter Two to Lee Berger's own childhood in the Georgia, where the budding scientist loved to be outdoors. Insert the 1974 discovery of Lucy in Chapter Three (Don't forget the hand bones keeping count!) along with a bit more background on Dr. Berger and some action shots of paleoanthropologists in action both in the field and in the lab. 

The book zigs and zags a bit too much for my linear tastes, but the text is engaging, if a tad meandering, the photographs are numerous and well-captioned. There is plenty of white space and a neat motif decorates the bottom corner of the recto pages. A page of suggestions for further reading includes books and web sites and is followed by a two page glossary that does double duty as an index. A note from Marc Aronson describing his role in writing the book concludes this handsome volume. In addition to being an interesting addition to my school library in its own right, it fits nicely into sixth grade social studies and science curriculum and could fit into our seventh grade careers in science unit. 

One thing that shines through clearly is the passion that Lee Berger has for his subject.

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