Help This Reader Out: Best Science Material For Kids?


A reader writes (I’ve stripped out personal details):

Dr. Briggs, I recently came across your work on The Stream. I was hoping you could point me to a resource or two for helping educate my kids. I am a Traditional Minded Catholic. Vatican II type. I am a traditional conservative and an [city removed] police sergeant. I have two tweens in public school Name_1 12 and Name_2 10. I “afterschool” them in religion history and other subjects. I love it because I learn or re-learn also.

Can you recommend a science site, DVDs or books I can help them with in the sciences. A balanced idea of creation, astronomy, physics etc.?

Bill Nye shows?

Thanks for any ideas.

Sgt X

Not Bill Nye, Sarge. The man is a fool. He calls those who don’t agree with his proven-false views on global warming “unpatriotic.” Plus, some of his “science” experiments teach what is false. The only thing for which Bill Nye should be relied upon is how to wear a bow tie (this is a genuine compliment).

Good news is that the fundamentals of science have not changed much for the last 100 years, at least with respect to what kids should learn. That means books written before, say, the mid 1960s, still have content not polluted by ideology. Remember this old “joke” about math books?


A logger cuts and sells a truckload of lumber for $100. His cost of production is four-fifths of that amount. What is his profit?

1970s New-math

A logger exchanges a set (L) of lumber for a set (M) of money. The cardinality of Set M is 100. The set C of production costs contains 20 fewer points. What is the cardinality of Set P of profits?


A logger cuts and sells a truckload of lumber for $100. Her cost is $80, her profit is $20. Find and circle the number 20.


An unenlightened logger cuts down a beautiful stand of 100 trees in order to make a $20 profit. Write an essay explaining how you feel about this as a way to make money. Topic for discussion: How did the forest birds and squirrels feel?

Let’s update this for the 2000s, readers! Have to work racism and “gender theory” in there somehow.

Anyway, back on track. Particularly find early math books. The ones produced today are half pictures and have as much math as comic books. The calculus book used my old man in 1960—George Thomas Jr’s Calculus and Analytic Geometry—is the size of a novel. I mean the dimensions of the book are normal. The margins are normal. The typeface is normal. I love this book.

That book is still in print, but it is now a bloated mess. I recall when I was a visiting professor at a large state school, the mandated statistics book was typically over-large, with 6-inch margins, lots of useless color pictures and needless bust-out quotes, etc. What got me was the cover. It was embossed. With a pair of jeans hanging on a clothes line. If I had a gift for invective, I would tell you exactly what I thought of that book.

Now let’s see. The physicist George Gamow wrote many books aimed at general audiences, and all are recommended. But perhaps, except for Mr Tompkins, they are a little advanced for your kids.

Dover has a good selection of books for kids, and they’re cheap. But many of them might be too easy for your kids. You can never go wrong with Martin Gardner. Adult readers who haven’t read Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science must.

Believe it or not, The Chemical History of a Candle by the man himself, Michael Faraday, is fascinating. That man was so brilliant he could have drawn insight from a Womyn’s Studies course.

It’s up to you, readers. Can we help out old Sarge?

(P.S. The highest title I ever held was Staff Sergeant.)


  1. James

    If you wanted them to have a show about science, you could try Beakman’s World. It was more ‘zany’ than Bill Nye, but I loved both of those shows growing up.

  2. Gary

    There are episodes of Mr. Wizard on YouTube. Tell the kids retro is kewl.

    A former logger joins the Occupy movement to protest the logging industry’s lack of diversity. Demands a 99% share of company profits, but struggles to count to 20.

  3. Alan McIntire

    For calculus books, try “Calculus Made Easy”, by Silvanus Thompson. You can download it free at “Project Gutenberg”.

    As for mathematics in general, try Martin Gardner’s books- collections from his
    “Mathematical Games” column which ran for years in “Scientific American”.
    His column is what got me interested in mathematics.

  4. Shecky R

    Alan Sokal’s “Beyond The Hoax”

  5. Mike in KC, MO


    Here is a photo of an old logging camp. Discuss with your friends how racist white policeman Wilson was like the nature-hating loggers and the innocent Michael Brown was like the trees in this picture who are about to be murdered by white cis-men.

  6. A friend and I have a blog for children on climate change:

    It’s small right now, but we would love to have input into what people would like to see written about that would help kids understand about climate. We are avoiding political commentary as much as possible. We also welcome contributions.

  7. Sylvain

    3 very entertaining tv shows:

    Science of stupid : about physics and very funny.
    The big picture with Kal Penn
    Brain games


    Browse Amazon and you should find one that you will like

  8. DAV

    I remember first reading Gamow’s book One Two Three . . . Infinity when I was 10 or 12. It didn’t strike me as overly technical. I remember the book going from the aristocrat who had trouble counting higher than three to Georg Cantor who had trouble finding anything to count beyond Aleph-3.

  9. Evil corporation ran by greedy white men exploits white redneck men in order to make a profit (ugh, such a filthy word!) by destroying the Environment. Corporation would become Socially Responsible if it were ran by transgendered women of color. Write down five ways in which these transgendered women of color could advance the Social Justice causes if they ran the corporation.


  10. Depending upon the childrens’ interests I would suggest these shows on youtube:

    – numberphile. My wife – who is not at all into mathematics – really enjoyed some of these shows. They can explain the fascinating world of mathematics in laymans terms. My personal favorites are the episodes about Grahams number, eg this one:

    – Ben Heck Show: While not scientific and more related to maker-stuff I think children who have a little bit of interest in making things learn a lot of entertaining stuff.

    I used to love Carl Sagans Cosmos as a child but as the world turns and I became both a catholic and a scientist I have mixed feelings about this movie series.

    As for books I liked Lee Smolins “The trouble with physics”. While the content might be a little bit too much the last part of the book (I think its called “What can we do for science”) is a truly motivating piece about scientific work itself. Every time I read this chapter again I am tempted to start working on a Paper I abandoned some years ago 😉

    Regarding temptation I am tempted to suggest “Einsteins veil” of Prof. Zeilinger. While I respect his scientific work I dislike his interpretation of quantum mechanics (or at least his expression of it). If someone really would like to learn something about the history of quantum mechanics I can suggest to read “Quantum theory at the crossroads” (here: While the latter original symposia texts of the legendary fifth Solvay conference are a little bit more hard to read the introductions are almost non-scientific and an easy and – at least for me – exciting read about the history and the persons behind our modern scientific world view.

  11. Joe Born

    I haven’t really had any experience with it myself, but Khan Academy is a site I’d look into if I had kids that age.

  12. Engineer

    Michael Faraday’s “The Chemical History of a Candle” is freaking awesome; I first read it when I was 10yrs old. Having survived the 60’s and 70’s Brownian motion phenomena AKA “Education” I can understand the gentleman’s concern for his children.

  13. This sort of teaching at home is best not done with books, other than to use as guides. Sometimes the bast way to teach is to make it look and feel like you’re not teaching at all, but just sharing. For today’s over-stimulated youth, the David Attenborough series, Cosmos (both series), and shows like Nature and Nova are great. They’re just so well-made, they capture the kids attention. I have always subscribed to Scientific American since I was a kid, so I may be biased, but I highly suggest SCIAM or Popular Mechanics or something like that. The kids will pick them up. Yes, you know where I keep mine, but I would suggest the coffee table for the kids.

    Projects are great. When I was a kid I had a working HO train set, a Cox plane, a motorized PT 109 model (yes, I know, the kid from the northeastern Catholic family get’s a Kennedy boat), all sorts of interesting stuff, ad they taught me all sorts of things about applied science. I was lucky, of course. Most kids won’t have so many nice things like that. But the idea is fun applied science. It’s the application that makes it stick. 😉


  14. JMJ, speaking as a physicist, I would not recommend any of the shows you cite–they are too politically correct and don’t tell much about science. I wouldn’t go with any of the PBS science stuff–the people who do it aren’t that knowledgeable in science, and there is too much political correctness served up with the little bit of science that’s there. Gamow’s books are great, albeit out of date: “Mr. Tompkins explores the atom”, and “Mr. Tompkins in Wonderland” (although they may be a little young for teen-agers). “Quantum Enigma” by Bruce Rosenblum and Fred Kuttner gives a fine history in non mathematical language of the development and implications of quantum mechanics. “Nature’s Imagination”, edited by John Cornwell, has a fine set of essays on the future of science by eminent scientists. Most of James Gleick’s books and John Gribbins’ also. “Is God a Mathematician?” by Mario Livio gives a good history of mathematics and its applications to science. “The Refrigerator and the Universe: understanding thermodynamics” is a readable, essential book on this foundational science. And finally, since the reader is Catholic,
    George Ellis’s fine book, “On the Moral Nature of the Universe (Theology and the Sciences)”.

  15. Larry Geiger

    Libraries often have used book sales. Older textbooks may sometimes be found there. Try to find one of the early standard textbooks.

    Physics: Halliday and Resnick
    Fundamentals of Ecology: Eugene Odum
    Art, Music & Ideas: William Fleming
    Statistics: (ask Mr. Briggs 🙂 )
    C Programming: Kernighan and Ritchie
    Art of Programming: Knuth
    Goedel, Escher and Bach: Douglas Hofstadter
    Discrete Math: Kenneth Rosen

  16. Lynn Clark

    Someone else mentioned the online Khan Academy. I spent a couple hours a year or two ago looking it over. Very well done, and highly recommended. And free.

    Many (most? all?) of the James Burke BBC/PBS series Connections from 1978-79 are on youtube. Great for tying historic events to the present time.

    My 1974-ish edition of the George Thomas Calculus textbook is one of only a half-dozen or so of my old college textbooks that I kept when I gave away the rest of them about 30 years ago.

  17. Diane Taylor (Mrs) (M.Phil)

    Your reader Sgt X, inquiring about Catholic education, needs a Resource which I has put together & has just been published. Please send him my email & I’ll give details. I have a contact in USA who will have hard copies soon. I’m in the process of completing a book on harmful education.

  18. I have agonized over the same problem. My kid is in Grade 7 at what passes for a Catholic school here in Alberta, but my overall impression is that school, for him at least, is about socialization – learning to get along well with people representing the full human range from educational administrators to smart kids.

    My answer has been to hope the school knows what it’s doing because I don’t; while, at the same time, encouraging him to make increasing use of internet resources in place of textbooks and the opinionated. Many frustrated teachers maintain useful sites – for example Ken Ward’s math pages (e.g.: ) and the site both seem worthwhile.

    I have read six of the 7 books (and actually have 3 of them here) Larry Geiger lists above, but think that having the kid browse sensible teaching sites works better first because it’s easier to choose content appropriate to his level of understanding and, second, because most of the better sites are in rebellion against the replacement of fact by opinion common in schools today – and while that is an opinion, it is much more practical for him to review multiple sites to get a broad understanding of what is widely agreed and what isn’t, than it would be for him to work through multiple textbooks.

  19. Ye Olde Statistician

    a) Ooh, Thomas! That was my text. Ran through Calculus 101, 102 and 103!

    b) Cosmos: the errors in the history parts are enough to make me wonder about the rest.

    c) Ingram, The Science of Everyday Life and Bohren, Clouds in a Glass of Beer are nice, although the beer may be contraindicated.

    d) The essays of Loren Eisley in e.g. The Immense Journey et al. are nice intro for biology.

    e) Sheffield, The Borderlands of Science and Schmidt, Which Way to the Future? on edgey, futuristic stuff.

    f) Campbell, Fads and Fallacies in Statistical Thinking was a pretty good self-defense book.

  20. Richard Lorenzen

    From a “fundamentalist,” “dinosaur” math and physics and engineering and computer “science” teacher, two books from Harold R. Jacobs:

    Elementary Algebra, and
    Geometry (first or second edition, NOT third edition)

  21. KuhnKat

    Compared to Bill Nye, Flash Gordon would probably be an improvement…

  22. Briggs


    Alan sent this (the spam filter is acting up again):

    Check out Bill Beatty’s site for tons of info/experiments/videos on electricity
    Videos of professor Miller – physics is his business!

    Links to James Burke’s series mentioned above by a a commenter:
    Also check out
    4. for a load of essays on creation(ist)-type questions (may not be to everyone’s taste)

  23. Scientific American is the pop-science equivalent of the National Enquirer.

  24. Francois

    Carl Sagan had a knack for hooking one onto science, Cosmos was a great TV show, and I liked reading his books too as a kid.

  25. Sengendragon

    Guess my childhood has been ruined by finding out how much of a shyster Bill Nye is. I liked his show as a kid.

  26. Lynn Clark

    Briggs: the link you posted for James Burke’s series is broken.

    It is easy to go to and type “James Burke Connections” in the youtube search box.

  27. Vince

    When I was a kid, James Burke’s “Connections” and “The Day the Universe Changed” got me excited and interested in science. I realize he’s not actually as accurate as I once thought. My only point is that excitement and sparking interest in science is fundamental to a science education. Caveat: Only the first season of each is worth anything. The later efforts are severely dumbed down. It must have worked since I got my degree in synthetic organic chemistry.

  28. Eric Brown

    Robert Bruce Thompson has a number of books available from O’Reilly Press, notably the Illustrated Guide to Home Biology, Home Chemistry, and Home Forensic Science, that are *very* hands-on and without any political correctness.

  29. My interest in science fiction got me fascinated with science in general. More than, I suspect, any science textbook would.

  30. João P

    Not quite on topic, but “Economics in one lesson” by Henry Hazlitt is a good suggestion as well.

  31. Joe Born

    Although as a general proposition I would heartily recommend the books Larry Geiger listed above and would keep the list for future reference, I question their suitability for junior-high or even non-stellar high-school students.

    For example, Kernighan & Ritchie is probably the best programming book I’ve seen, but even college introductions to programming often avoid C; referencing and heap allocation are needless (for the tyro) barriers to understanding algorithmic thinking. The edX introduction-to-programming MOOC that’s an MIT course based on Python may be better. If the kid then shows an aptitude, he can always drill down to C later.

    (Paradoxically, having Knuth on the shelf may come in handy right away.)

  32. Gavin

    Math in the 2000s:

    An archaic lumber company from the caveman era employs 100 privileged white cisgendered males. Come up with an essay that details your strategy to promote diversity within this company without increasing the number of jobs. Bonus points will be given for detailing the benefits of diversity by getting rid of racist white males.

  33. K.Kilty

    I have found about three dozen of the old “science study series” in bookstores or at They are paperback and almost all are exceptionally readable, written between 1958 and maybe 1968 or so–all written by accomplished scientists. Koestler’s book “The Watershed” is one member of the series. Even those a bit dated, such as the one on TV and another about radar observing the weather make great science history books. I have no idea how many make up the full set but I know of number S71. Check out a few at

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