The elementary school I attended hosted an annual book fair, and every year I went with my mother to browse. I would check out the sports books first, to see whether there were any books about baseball I had not already read (typically, no). There was also a small table of science books, and in 1962 when I was in the 4th grade, one of them caught my eye: a lavishly illustrated oversized “Deluxe Golden Book” entitled The World of Science.

My copy of The World of Science by Jane Werner Watson, purchased in 1962 when I was in the 4th grade.

My copy of The World of Science by Jane Werner Watson, purchased in 1962 when I was in the 4th grade.

As I started leafing through it, I noticed one of the cutest girls in my class regarding me with what I interpreted as interest. Right then I resolved to buy the book, or more accurately, to persuade my mother to buy it, as the price tag was pretty steep. Impressing girls is a great motivator.

The title page.

The title page.

As it turned out, I read the whole book, and loved it as much as my favorite baseball books. As you can see from these photos I took with my iPhone, I still have it. Though the book, originally published in 1958, has been out of print for a long time, it appears that you can pick up a used hardcover copy for 74 cents via amazon. It’s also on ebay.

Jane Werner Watson wrote many children’s books, some still in print, and mostly not about science. The World of Science is beautifully written and produced, covering a wide range of topics with admirable accuracy and clarity.

The chapter on physics includes a section on theoretical physics which opens with a story about a boy asking his father why the ball in his wagon rolls to the back when the wagon starts up and then rolls to the front when the wagon stops.

First page of the section on theoretical physics. Who's the guy in the bow tie?

First page of the section on theoretical physics. Who’s the guy in the bow tie?

Years after reading that story, when I saw the 1981 BBC interview of Richard Feynman done by Christopher Sykes (The Pleasure of Finding Things Out.), I was startled to hear the same story told in almost the same words. Listen to the part between 7:10 and 9:05 (but be warned — once you start listening it might be hard to stop).


I wondered at first what was going on … had Feynman stolen the story from the Golden Book I had read as a child?

The explanation became clearer when I opened the book for the first time in many years; now I recognized that guy in the picture wearing the bow tie. Perusing the very small print on the one page of acknowledgements in the front, I realized that most of the content of the book had been drawn from interviews with Caltech professors. The list of people acknowledged is a scientific All-Star team. For the physics chapter alone it includes Carl Anderson, Robert Bacher, Felix Boehm, Richard Feynman, Murray Gell-Mann, and Robert Walker, among others. In chemistry there’s Pauling, in biology there’s Beadle and Sperry, in geology there’s Patterson and Press, in astronomy there’s Greenstein, in engineering there’s Liepmann, etc. (Alas, I don’t see the names of any women.) Even when pictured, none of these scientists are identified in the text itself; they are listed only on the acknowledgements page, which I would have skipped over as a kid.

It seems that in 1954 Jane Werner (1915-2004) had married Earnest C. Watson (1892-1970), a Caltech physicist known for the theatrical flair of his lectures (and after whom Caltech’s Watson Public Lecture Series is named), when Jane was 39 and Earnest was 62. There must be folks around Caltech who knew Jane Watson (I did not), and I would welcome comments from readers telling us more about her. I assume that she became interested in writing a science book for children not long after she joined the Caltech family. It was a big undertaking, judging from the long list of people she talked to. Earnest, at that time Caltech’s Dean of the Faculty, wrote an inspiring foreword for the book.

I was drawn especially to the physics chapter, but there were other parts of the book that I really liked, such as a discussion of how the brain can be mapped, and an explanation of why skin grafts often get rejected. After reading the statistics section, I flipped pennies thousands of times and made histograms. I did the same thing with dice.

One particular nugget I learned from the book, though, made a notably deeper impression than any other: parity is not conserved in nuclear beta decay, hence the laws of physics make a distinction between left and right! If you think of the decaying nucleus as a spinning hand grenade, with the direction of spin indicated by the fingers of your left hand, the electron “shrapnel” prefers to be emitted along the direction of your thumb, which means you can tell whether or not you are watching the decay in a mirror (which interchanges left and right). It gave me a thrill to find out that a relatively simple experiment would reveal such a fundamental and unexpected property of matter.

The World of Science was a book for kids, and I was not quite 10 when I first read it (to within a few months, that was 50 years ago). It was published in 1958, and the first experimental result demonstrating the nonconservation of parity had been published in 1957. Watson explains the experiment quite cogently. It seems amazing to me now that a book for school children did such a fine job of conveying the excitement generated by a very recent discovery about elementary particles.

Description of experimental confirmation of parity nonconservation

Description of experimental confirmation of parity nonconservation

By the way, if the mirror had the ability to interchange matter and antimatter as well as left and right, then the decay of the nucleus and its “mirror image” would look the same. Physicists call this CP symmetry (C for charge conjugation and P for parity). But even CP symmetry is not exact, which helps to explain why we are made of matter instead of antimatter. Jane Werner Watson could not have known about that in 1958, because CP nonconservation was not discovered until 1964. There is one surviving symmetry, inviolable as far as we know, in which the “mirror” also changes the direction of time (CPT symmetry).

I read other science books at around the same age, some very good and some not so good. One I especially liked was Isaac Asimov’s Breakthroughs in Science, which told stories, engaging as well as informative, about great scientists throughout history and their discoveries. But The World of Science was special, because it provided such an accessible account of cutting-edge contemporary science. I’ve never encountered another book aimed at the same age bracket that does this as well.

Judging from the scientific sophistication and accuracy of its content, I presume that some of the scientists Watson interviewed must have been seriously involved in the production of the book. It was a highly successful outreach project over 50 years ago.

Many questions come to mind. How many other readers were as deeply touched as I was by The World of Science? Do any readers of this blog remember it from their childhoods and what did they think of it? How did Jane Watson manage to get such widespread cooperation from the Caltech faculty? Are there any comparable up-to-date books available today? Can online resources (including blogs) have the same kind of impact on today’s children? Will bow ties for professors come back anytime soon?

And … what was your favorite science book when you were growing up? Tell us in the comments.