Author Darcy Pattison answers questions about writing Burn: Michael Faraday’s Candle.

Why Did You Adapt “A Chemical History of a Candle”?

Question: Burn is based on an 1848 lecture by Michael Faraday, “A Chemical History of a Candle.” Why did you choose to rewrite this famous lecture?

Since it was published in 1848, Faraday’s lecture has never been out of print. When I learned this startling fact, I was intrigued. What was it about this lecture that has kept it alive for so long? In fact, the lecture is a fascinating look at a common, everyday object of 1848, a candle. The topic is deceptively simple. Yet, Faraday managed to discuss the candle burning for six hour-long lectures. In the world of science and science education, his lecture stands as a shining example of how to make a simple subject both complex and interesting. The lecture was given as part of the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures and especially designed to teach children about a scientific topic. And yet, it has never been published as a children’s picture book. It was time.
Love this book! A fascinating look at what makes a candle burn! This book is great science and STEM reading for K-3. |

What Writing Challenges Did you Face in Writing Burn?

Question: What were the challenges in writing this picture book?

The challenge of adapting Faraday’s famous essay, “The Chemical History of a Candle,” for a picture book format was immense. The first lecture is about 6000 words, and the language used in 1848 doesn’t always translate well for 21st century students. The reading level is 1240L, which is a 9th-12th grade reading level. (See the original text on here.)

In other words, Faraday’s lecture contained complex information, complex and archaic language, and informal presentation style suitable to an oral presentation. To adapt it for a children’s book, I had to first set the scene. Peter Willis’s whimsical illustrations captured Faraday’s enthusiasm and helped to expand on the simple text on page 4.

Next, it was important to select only the most important scientific details, and to explain the concepts with simple, direct language. The constraints of a picture book meant topics had to be presented succinctly, with clarity, and be factually correct. In addition, the text had to be short, and we managed to edit it to a mere 626 words, a tenth of the original text, with a Lexile of 660L or 2nd-3rd grade reading level.

Finally, we strove to imbue the text with Faraday’s passion for the topic. As a scientist, Faraday was known for his ability to design experiments. Even in such a short book, we managed to keep the bright light experiment that shows the hot air currents around a candle. Faraday went to the heart of the scientific method with his comment, “What is the cause? Why does it occur?” We made it a prominent part of the story.

In the end, Burn: Michael Faraday’s Candle is a simple text about a simple object. And yet, I hope that in the writing I was faithful to Faraday’s passions and intelligence. Faraday was a self-taught man, and learned much by attending popular science lectures. In his early days, Faraday often attended such science lectures, made careful notes, and then published a book that recreated the lecture. It was a way for him to make money, and also spread the information to others. In a way, I’ve walked in his footsteps by taking his candle lecture and making it accessible to children. I believe Faraday would be very pleased.

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Burn: Michael Faraday's Candle book cover |

Here at Mims House, one project we’re working on this summer is MY STEAM JOURNAL: With Original Source Documents from American Scientists 1845-1996. This will be a workbook for elementary science students to record observations and laboratory notes. It features reproductions of notebooks from ten American scientists. Using those documents, MY STEAM JOURNAL lays out a simple progression of skills for recording in notebooks.

Fred Soper: The Mosquito Killer

Dr. Fred Soper, 1928.
US Library of Medicine. 1928
African-American physician, Dr. Fred Soper (1893-1977) was known for his public health work, especially in fighting malaria and yellow fever in Brazil. He was known as the Mosquito Killer.

Soper graduated from the Rush Medical College at the University of Chicago in 1918. In 1920-21, he worked in Brazil to try to eradicate hookworms form the general population. Much of the work was public health education campaigns. Essentially rural Brazil had few clean bathrooms, so hookworms were rampant in the soil and easily transmitted to others. He worked with cities and villages to build and maintain clean latrines. This photo shows a young Brazilian boy holding a board displaying all the hookworms removed from his intestines by the doctors of the Rockefeller Institute.

A Brazilian boy holds a board displaying hookworms removed from him.
National Library of Medicine.

Soper then set to work on the “jungle yellow fever” and malaria, both borne by mosquitoes. He earned a reputation as the Mosquito Killer for this work. One of his strongest skills was as an administrator in charge of officials who went out to fight the mosquitos. They searched for standing water where mosquitoes might breed, and searching rivers and streams for the mosquitoes. While they were concentrating on the Yellow Fever problem, mosquitoes arrived from Africa:

Anopheles gambiae mosquitoes, the most efficient malaria vectors, were indigenous to Africa. But in 1930, Raymond Shannon, a Rockefeller Foundation entomologist, discovered that gambiae (apparently recently arrived from Africa) were breeding in Natal, Brazil. Three weeks later, a severe outbreak of malaria was underway there. Read more.

The threat was under-estimated and it took another 14 years to eradicate the mosquito from Brazil and prevent any more malaria outbreaks.

One interesting controversy was Soper’s view on DDT. The 1962 book Silent Spring by Rachel Carson reported on the unexpected results of DDT on the environment, and eventually it was banned. Soper agreed that DDT shouldn’t be used in agricultural setting. However, he thought it had a limited but important part to play in mosquito eradication. Malcom Gladwell wrote about the controversy in a July 2, 2001 article in The New Yorker.

One single mosquito is capable of passing malaria to over 100 people.

Gladwell wrote: The idea was not to kill every Anopheles mosquito in a given area, as Soper had done with gambiae in Brazil. That was unnecessary. The idea was to use DDT to kill only those mosquitoes which were directly connected to the spread of malaria–only those which had just picked up the malaria parasite from an infected person and were about to fly off and infect someone else. When DDTis used for this purpose, Spielman writes in “Mosquito,” “it is applied close to where people sleep, on the inside walls of houses. After biting, the mosquitoes generally fly to the nearest vertical surface and remain standing there for about an hour, anus down, while they drain the water from their gut contents and excrete it in a copious, pink-tinged stream. If the surfaces the mosquitoes repair to are coated by a poison that is soluble in the wax that covers all insects’ bodies, the mosquitoes will acquire a lethal dose.” Soper pointed out that people who get malaria, and survive, generally clear their bodies of the parasite after three years. If you could use spraying to create a hiatus during which minimal transmission occurred–and during which anyone carrying the parasite had a chance to defeat it–you could potentially eradicate malaria. You could stop spraying and welcome the mosquitoes back, because there would be no more malaria around for them to transmit. Soper was under no illusions about how difficult this task would be. But, according to his calculations, it was technically possible, if he and his team achieved eighty-per-cent coverage–if they sprayed eight out of every ten houses in infected areas.

He hoped to eradicate the mosquitos by spraying only in bedrooms of infected people. That limited use of DDT, he felt was justified.

Here’s an excerpt from Soper’s diary which described a different “silence.”
. . .description of a town in Egypt during that country’s gambiae invasion of 1943–a village in the grip of its own, very different, unnatural silence:

Most houses are without roofs. They are just a square of dirty earth. In those courtyards and behind the doors of these hovels were found whole families lying on the floor; some were just too weakened by illness to get up and others were lying doubled up shaking from head to foot with their teeth chattering and their violently trembling hands trying in vain to draw some dirty rags around them for warmth. They were in the middle of the malaria crisis. There was illness in every house. There was hardly a house which had not had its dead and those who were left were living skeletons, their old clothing in rags, their limbs swollen from undernourishment and too weak to go into the fields to work or even to get food.

In the end, DDT was banned for any use, even for killing malaria-infected mosquitoes. Fifty years later, the battle against mosquito-borne illnesses still rages. Zika is just the latest in a long line of deadly diseases courtesy of the mosquito.

Egypt, 1943. Mosquito inspector checks a puddle for mosquito larvae.
National Library of Medicine.

MY STEAM NOTEBOOK will briefly set up the stories of ten American scientists, using primary source documents. Their field notebooks will be reproduced and used to describe skills that students need to write in their science notebooks. Look for more on MY STEAM NOTEBOOK in the coming months.

FALL 2016: MY STEAM NOTEBOOK. This workbook for science classes has amazing stories of 10 American scientists. Using their notebooks, students will learn how to use a science notebook for observation and reflection. |