Book Review: Cave Discovery: When Did We Start Asking Questions?
In this delightful new children’s book, Harriet the tortoise and Milton the cat, through Schrodinger’s fictional time machine, explore some of humanity’s cultural and scientific history.
The following is a review of Julia Golding’s book, Cave Discovery: When Did We Start Asking Questions? (Oxford: Lion, 2018), which is first in the The Curious Science Quest series.
Albert Einstein once said, “I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.” Einstein identified one of the most important components in a human’s capacity to learn and discover. Curiosity has been the catalyst to some of our greatest scientific discoveries, as well as an agent of great change in our world.
Curiosity is the strong desire to learn more about something. It compels us to observe the world around us; to explore more deeply the things that intrigue us; to make connections; to innovate and create. Curiosity drives us to ask how and why and inspires us to unearth the answers to some of life’s greatest questions.
But where does our curiosity come from? Is it nurtured, innate, or both? And when did humans first start asking the big questions of life? Much research has been carried out to tackle these questions, but Julia Golding, a prolific author from the UK, takes on the challenge of answering these questions in a friendly, accessible format for kids (recommended age range 9-12).
The Curious Science Quest is a series of six books—of which three have been published—that explores the birth and development of curiosity in humans. The reader is introduced to two main characters: Harriet, a tortoise collected by Darwin from the Galapagos Islands, and Milton, a cat whose human is the German physicist Erwin Schrodinger.
When the two inquisitive friends discover a mysterious box in Schrodinger’s office, their adventure begins. With a few modifications, they transform the box into a time machine that transports them back in time. Harriet and Milton, through Schrodinger’s fictional time machine, are able to explore some of humanity’s cultural and scientific history that arose from curiosity: when humans begin asking important questions, how they understood the world around them, and what discoveries that arose from their desire for answers.
The first book in the series is Cave Discovery: When Did We Start Asking Questions? Like many good stories, this one starts with a conflict: a disagreement between two friends concerning a Bible quote and a laboratory. The reader first meets Harriet and Milton at the entrance of a famous laboratory at Cambridge University. Psalm 111:2 is displayed across the archway: “The works of the Lord are great, sought out of all them that have pleasure therein.”
Milton the cat asks, “Isn’t it odd, Harriet, to write those words over a door into a modern scientific laboratory?” (p11). This simple question, asked by a curious cat, encapsulates the apparent conflict for many Christians and non-Christians alike—how our scientific understanding of the physical world can be reconciled with a Christian worldview. Harriet doesn’t see the incongruity, but Milton can’t reconcile this potential point of conflict—yet!
With this question in mind, Harriet and Milton enter their time machine. Harriet’s intent is to try to uncover the mystery of what kinds of things early humans thought about and when they began asking questions concerning the world in which they lived.
With the push of a few buttons, the dynamic duo begins their adventure 26,000 years ago in the Chauvet Caves. It is here that the two friends witness a curious young girl and her dog examining various animals drawn on the ancient cave walls. Milton is full of questions about the girl and the paintings. Who was she and why was she there? Who created the paintings and why did they paint those particular animals? Did humans express their artistic abilities in other places and on other surfaces? And most importantly, was there meaning behind those paintings and what were the artists trying to communicate? Questions like these demanded further investigation.
So Harriet embraces her inner scientist and forms a hypothesis—or as she likes to call it, her “best guess”! She surmises the paintings do have meaning, and together the two friends set off to discover if her hypothesis can withstand a bit of testing and some time travel. The discoveries they make and the evidence they gather along the way lead them to conclude that curiosity is innate in all creatures. However, one of the important features that make humans unique to all other creatures is our ability to ask limitless questions that arise from our curiosity; to look beyond the answers we discover and ask why.
Although Golding explores a number of complex topics in this first book, Cave Discovery: When Did We Start Asking Questions, her approach to explaining scientific concepts is adolescent friendly. Most children hate the idea of being wrong, but Golding shows how mistakes and hiccups, with a good dose of curiosity, provide amazing opportunities for discovering better answers.
To illustrate this, she introduces “(Mostly) Wrong Ideas” (29). As Harriet and Milton seek to discover the meanings behind the cave paintings, they examine five different hypotheses made by scientists in the past that were mostly wrong. Harriet and Milton were able to determine why these hypotheses were mostly wrong, adjust their own best guesses and develop a more complete picture of how and why early humans created cave paintings and other artistic expressions. In the end, Harriet and Milton discover that asking questions and forming hypotheses about the whys of our world often lead to many more questions and provide opportunities for perpetual curiosity.
Harriet and Milton’s adventure continues on in the next book in the series, Greek Adventures: Who Were the First Scientists? This quest takes them to ancient Greece, where they are introduced to some of the early heroes of science and how they used their curious minds to set the stage for modern scientific inquiry.
There are a number of strengths and challenges that stood out to me while reviewing the first book in the Curious Science Quest series:
- Meet the Scientist sections introduce children to scientists who have contributed to the scientific discoveries surrounding the development of human curiosity. Golding provides facts and information on where the scientists went wrong in their research, where they went right, and interesting tidbits about them personally.
- The series provides a good mix of story and encyclopedic information that will entertain and educate children at the same time.
- The illustrations, diagrams, and maps are engaging and include a mix of humor and educational value.
- Golding includes a number of science experiments and word puzzles, which may enhance understanding of the scientific concepts.
- Even though the series is written for children, some vocabulary and concepts may be too difficult for children under 10. The large volume of facts covered can, at times, break up the storyline and make it a challenge to follow.
- Some parents may feel Golding’s explanation of the development of human curiosity, while not antagonistic to faith, lacks an explicit Christian worldview perspective. Parents may want to read the book along with their children so they can help them contextualize the science with their Christian faith.
Despite these challenges, The Curious Science Quest series is an engaging resource for teachers, parents and children to read and experience together. Golding demonstrates that encouraging and embracing the natural curiosity children possess contributes to creating lifelong learners.