2011 Winner: Hands-On Science Book

The Book of Potentially Catastrophic Science, by Sean Connolly. Workman, 2010.

This book stands out from the crowd of guides to science experiments that can be performed at home. Whereas many such works present a hodgepodge of standard experiments, Connolly builds this one around the theme of major scientific and technological breakthroughs that have occurred over the past 2-plus million years of human history—arranged from the first stone tools crafted by Homo erectus to the Large Hadron Collider now being used to accelerate particles to speeds approaching that of light.

Each of the 34 chapters comprises descriptions of an advance and its context, the science behind it, and one or more experiments that demonstrate underlying principles. These are presented in a breezy and engaging style. Although calling the discoveries potentially catastrophic is sure to intrigue a certain kind of young experimenter, the author’s explanations note both the benefits and the drawbacks of the advances. Parents will appreciate the “catastrophe meter” reading for each experiment, which indicates the hazards involved and the appropriate level of adult supervision.

The experiments and their ties to the science are consistently creative: One can spool DNA onto a skewer after isolating it from a half-eaten banana. A handmade oven works because of some of the principles behind a laser beam. The speed of light can be estimated using a microwave oven, marshmallows, and a ruler. Even adults who have survived many science fairs will find themselves tempted to try some of Connolly’s experiments. 

About the Author

Sean Connolly grew up just outside of Boston, where three of his uncles worked as printers. The Connolly household was full of books brought home from one printer or another—reference books, children’s stories, first editions, textbooks for the Philippine school system, “duds” with upside-down covers—so it wasn’t surprising that Sean would be at home with the written word in later life.

With so many museums, colleges, and universities on the doorstep, Sean could pursue all sorts of interests in his free time. It wasn’t long before he found his way into the Educational Studies Program (ESP), which sees MIT students introducing middle- and high-school pupils to science and technology—all in a sense of fun and exploration.

Soon after graduating from Williams College, Sean had a chance meeting with a London publisher, leading to a career as an editor and then writer. The ESP motto, “Teach Anything, Learn Anything,” continues to inspire Sean, who has written more than fifty books, mainly for young readers, on subjects ranging from Botticelli to World War II.

Sean’s most recent books, The Book of Totally Irresponsible Science and The Book of Potentially Catastrophic Science, have enabled him to work with his three children, capturing each other’s curiosity as they uncover the rich world of science.