Somehow I’ve missed the Scientists in the Field series of books until recently. I’m not sure how I’ve missed them but if the few I’ve read are an example of the series as a whole than I’ve been missing out on some really great science writing. The book in the series all have in common an in-depth look at a real-life scientist at work but cover topics as varied as volcanoes and seahorses, black holes and tarantulas, hammerhead sharks and the Mars rover.
One of the latest additions to the series is The Tapir Scientist: Saving South American’s Largest Mammals by the award winning team of Sy Montgomery and Nic Bishop. The book follows a team lead by Pati Medici, a biologist, as they track and study tapirs in a Brazilian wetland. Tapirs are fascinating animals. They look more like hippos or maybe an elephant cousin but are most closely related to rhinos and horses. They have remained unchanged since the Miocene era, twelve million years ago. They are quiet, intelligent and not well-understood, even in Brazil where they are most commonly found in the wild.
The tapir itself makes for a great book topic. It’s weird enough (and cute enough) that you want to learn more. But Montgomery’s writing really takes this book to a level beyond simple non-fiction facts. She and Bishop were part of the team that participated in trapping tapirs (in order to put radio collars on them and study them) and the first-person account makes the reader feel as if he is there with the team. Tapirs are difficult to trap and the team suffers setback after setback. In reality, scientific setbacks are often times of frustration and tests of patience. Montgomery turns the story into almost a nail-biter of suspense as we wait excitedly to see if they will manage to have a close encounter with one of these animals. Bishop’s stunning photographs are the perfect accompaniment and make the reader feel like he is there in the Pantanal (the largest freshwater wetland in the world) with the team.
I think the biggest value of these books for kids is to see how science is done. There is a little bit of a “science is cool” factor, which can only be a good thing if it inspires some future wildlife biologist. But there is also a very clear storyline about how a scientist thinks. We see Pati and her team ask questions. We see them not know the answers. And most importantly we see things “not work” and how they deal with that. The most common complaint I hear from non-scientists about “doing” science at home is that “the experiment didn’t work”. These books are a great way of showing that sometimes in the field (or the lab) “not working” is just another opportunity to ask more questions, to think about things a different way, to find another way of approaching a problem.
I would highly recommend this book. In fact, I’m seriously considering having John read through much of this series as a good chunk of his middle school science curriculum.
This book is a nominee for a Cybils Award in the Elementary and Middle Grade Non-Fiction category for which I am a Round 1 panelist. I obtained a copy of the book from my library. My opinions are my own and don’t necessarily reflect those of the other panelists.