Sunday, 29 November 2015

Highschool Biology with Living Books: Mr Tompkins Inside Himself...

Mr Tompkins Inside Himself  by George Gamow & Martynas Ycas
274 pages
Illustrated with black pen drawings
1967 edition

This book has been part of Benj's Science this term. He's also been working through Understanding Physics by Isaac Asimov this year, which he really enjoys. He wasn't keen on doing any more Biology but I thought this book by Gamow would be an interesting and slightly different way of approaching the subject. The author contributed to the development of the Big Bang Theory and that belief is reflected in his writing. Working through selected chapters of Apologia Biology prior to reading this book helped to balance things out.

There are ten chapters to the book and he has read through a chapter per week, except Chapter 6, which he skipped. I read through the first six chapters and flicked through the rest and got together a few extra resources for interest's sake, which I include below. Gamow aquired world-wide fame as the author of scientific books and articles written for the layman, and even a cursory reading of this book helped me understand why. Benj has actually enjoyed this book after his initial reluctance, probably because Gamow has a quirky sense of humour and makes many diversions, and, being a physicist, he often diverts in that direction.

Mr. Tompkins is a teller at a city bank who likes to spend his leisure time relaxing with a book or magazine on popular science. Despite his intense interest in cosmology, atoms, and other scientific topics, he frequently nods off in the middle of his reading. As he sleeps, his vivid imagination takes over and leads him into fantastic worlds where his dreams are often strange and grotesque, but help him grasp the meaning of what he's read.

Chapter 1 - Through the Blood Stream

Cell colonies, erythrocytes, amino acids, leucocytes

Truth and beauty in the cell...

Cancer - aggressive cells

Chapter 2 - Muscle Beach

ATP actomysin, myofibrils, nerve gas, muscle fibres - contraction
The history and action of nerve agents (nerve gas).

Contents of video below:

Smooth, Cardiac, and Skeletal Muscles Create Movement 1:18
Sliding Filament Model 4:52
Skeletal Muscles Are Made of Bundles of Protein Fibers 2:40
Actin and Myosin Myofilaments 3:54
Calcium and ATP Cause the Binding and Unbinding 5:05

Chapter 3 - The Heart on the Wrong Side

Situs inversus - causes, symptoms, treatment


Möbius Strip - Benj watched this video and made one and then gave it to his sister to see what she thought of it.

 Ants on a Mobius Strip by M.C. Escher

Sola & Korob  or Scylla & Charybdis, (from Homer's Odyssey) the choice between two evils. Pg 71

Levo & dextro - this is to do with organic chemistry.

Chapter 4 - Gene's Piece of Mind

Mutations, deformity & disease - Creation Science

Radiation sickness, alcohol - alcohol is a diuretic as are coffee & tea.

Chapter 5 - The Number of the Beast

Benj has covered much of this in Understanding Physics but Gamov adds some humour and spark to this area with Mr Tompkins' adventures.

Molecular biology
Wavelengths, light - physics
X Rays

Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions by Edwin A. Abbot, is a book of mathematical fiction that Gamow mentions in this chapter. It was written in 1885 and describes a world of two dimensions. It's online at Gutenberg but I don't know anything else about it.

Double helix - James Watson: 'How We Discovered DNA' - a TED video just over 20 minutes long. Watson mentions Gamow in this video and there is a transcript you can click on to decide if it would be suitable for your student. Some mild language.
Towards the end, Watson talks about what fires him up these days - DNA biopsies to detect diseases  such as breast cancer before it becomes cancer; the loss of pieces of gene/molecules and its association with autism. Very interesting ideas.

Origin of Life -  an explanation of what is needed for abiogenseis by Don Batten of Creation Ministries. Includes an animation on protein synthesis.

There's a lot of information in the video below, presented very rapidly, but well done. It's almost 13 minutes long, but I'd suggest stopping around the 9 min 20 sec mark. There's a rude teenage boy joke just after that, but it also gets more technical. You'll cover Nucleic Acid, DNA, RNA & Replication in that time - which was what the chapter was mostly about. I don't remember any evolutionary material in the segment I watched.

Brownian motion (pg 127) - the random movement of particles suspended in a fluid.

Chapter 6 - An Ocean Voyage

Benj skipped this chapter. It's mostly Darwinian evolution although there are a couple of interesting digressions. Benj had already worked through some of the Apologia Biology text which covered a lot of this. The chapters in Mr Tompkins can be read independently of one another without posing a problem.
Would Darwin be a Darwinist today?

Chapter 7 - The Clock Ticks

Biological clocks in animals & humans.
Sleep & health issues;
Circadian rythym - more than you'll ever need to know.

Chapter 8 - The Maniac

Binary numbers, computers

Introduction to number systems and binary:

Nerve synapses - neurotransmitters.
Right and Left brain hemispheres - what's the difference?
Brain function & injury - progresses through the different parts of the brain, their various functions,  and what happens when those parts are injured.

Chapter 9 - Brainy Stuff

Computers and brains; quite a bit of evolutionary content in this chapter.
brain vs computer

Chapter 10 - The Lake of Dreams

Mr Tompkins talks with his son, Wilfred, who is a scientist, about biology - past, present and future.

Vis vitalis - 'an organising force of life, which opposes the tendency to disorder of inorganic materials.'
According to this article, in 1950 vis vitalis 'was sanctioned by Stalin and led the Soviet biological sciences into a blind alley.'

Other resources:

Why I Teach my Kids Evolution

If only Charles Darwin could see his descendant now - Faith reanimated through intellectual pursuit.

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

The Silver Brumby by Elyne Mitchell (1913-2002)

Once there was a dark, stormy night in spring, when, deep down in their holes, the wombats knew not to come out, when the possums stayed quiet in their hollow limbs, when the great black flying phalangers that live in the mountain forests never stirred. On this night, Bel Bel, the cream brumby mare, gave birth to a colt foal, pale like herself, or paler, in that wild, black storm.

The Silver Brumby was published in 1958 and is the first book in a series of thirteen novels written by Elyne Mitchell. It is the story of Thowra, a young colt born during that stormy night on the Australian Alps. The story follows Thowra through his early years as he learns from his mother the cunning and wisdom needed to survive in the wild. His lifelong battles with men who prized him for his silvery coat, the friction with other stallions as he comes to the peak of his strength, and later, the birth of his own daughter, Kunama, is told with vigour and close attention to detail.

 Spring comes to the Australian Alps like an invisible spirit. There is not the tremendous surge of upthrust life that there is in lowland valleys, and no wild flowers bloom in the snow mountains till the early summer, but there is an immense stirring of excitement. A bright red and blue lowrie flits through the trees; snow thaws, and the streams become full of foaming water; the grey, flattened grass grows upwards again and becomes greener; wild horses start to lose their winter coats and find new energy; wombats sit, round and fat, blinking in the evening sunshine; at night there is the cry of a dingo to its mate.

 Wildflowers on the Australian Alps in Summer

Elyne Mitchell grew up around horses and married a grazier. She had a close connection to the land, especially the Snowy Mountains area, and the places she describes in her books are those that were familiar to her.
I've visited the Snowy Mountains a few times and her writing evoked memories I have of the area. There is a ring of authenticity as well as a literary quality to her writing.

All the world was very quiet, high up there on the range. It was rarely that any other horses, except Storm and his herd, ever came as high, and most animals were already heading lower, anyway, before the snow came.
They saw dingoes, and occasionally a red fox, his pelt thick and good for winter, would show up against the grey-green grass. Thorwa noticed how busy the scurrying insects were, from the tiny ants to the great bright blue and red mountain grasshoppers - but he, too, knew that it was going to be a heavy winter.

 Summer on the Snowies

Some thoughts & comments

Brumbies are wild, undomesticated, feral horses that are not native to Australia but which have become closely identified with the Australian landscape. You only have to recall the popularity of the movie The Man From Snowy River and the opening ceremony of the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games to understand this affinity.

The Crackenback River referred to in the book is now known as the Thredbo River.

 Down by the Crackenback the wattles were in flower and the golden balls fell on to his back, stuck to his mane. Under foot were the little puce Black-eyed Susans. The Bitter Pea scrub was flowering, brown and gold, nearly shoulder high to a cream stallion. The mountain world was bursting into flower, everything filled with joy in living.

The book reminds me in some ways of the original story of Bambi, partly because of the style of the writing and partly the manner in which both authors depicted the animals they wrote about. The main difference between the two is that the animals in Bambi were helpless before the threat man posed, whereas the stallions in The Silver Brumby were wild, could often hold their own, and sometimes injured their pursuers. They were not hunted and killed for sport like the deer in Bambi, but admired for their strength and agility and prized for their potential if caught and trained.

Although the animals in The Silver Brumby talk to each other, it doesn't make the story less real. The animals are true to their natures; the narrative never feels false or unbelievable. The communication between the animals gives insight into how they respond in different situations and helps the reader to understand their actions and have some empathy for them.

When Elyne Mitchell published the first book in her Brumby series in 1958, there was very little Australian content to be found in children's literature. Already an established writer, she wrote this series for her daughter, Indi, to whom the book is dedicated. Below is a quote from an article written about the author:

Towong Hill was isolated and lacked access to libraries, and Elyne was not happy with the reading matter available for her daughter, especially books, with a lack of Australian content. So she wrote The Silver Brumby using the mountains and brumbies as her setting and characters and Indi at age ten was after all, ‘crazy about ponies.’ It started off as a short story but soon Indi was ‘waiting at the typewriter for the next instalment.’

Since then, these stories of the wild brumbies of the Australian High Country have been loved by readers of all ages and have been translated into eight languages.

The Silver Brumby would suit a confident reader around the age of about 10 years and would be a wonderful read aloud from around age 7. It has a good balance of descriptive writing wrapped up in an exciting adventure which keeps you wondering and hoping Thowra will come through all the danger and obstacles he encounters.
The edition below was published to celebrate the centenary of Elyne Mitchell's birth and contains the first four titles in the series - The Silver Brumby, Silver Brumby's Daughter, Silver Brumbies of the South, and Silver Brumby Kingdom. 

Some information on the Australian brumby here

Linking up with Brona's Books and Book Lovers Books Aussie Reading Challenges

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Commonplacing in the Nature Notebook

On Monday morning I went for an early morning walk and as I walked up the stone stairway through the bush I heard a butcher-bird singing up in a tree. I looked up to the sound and could see him clearly, his head tipped up, singing and welcoming a new day.

Today I was reading a chapter from 'I Find Australia' by William Hatfield, an Englishman travelling and working in the outback of Queensland just prior to World War 1. He, too, saw and heard the butcher-birds in the early morning and said that they, '...gave out their clear sweet call, on surely the most beautiful notes in the range of music.'

November and the Jacarandas are flowering and magnificent... 

The softest mauve carpet
That ever was spread,
The deepest mauve canopy
Over my head.

A haze in the warm air
Of loveliest hue
That seems to envelop
The garden and you.

A.S.H. 1931

 And so are the Hydrangeas...

This morning I had another early walk and apart from the lack of corellas (I saw crimson rosellas instead) I could have lifted Hatfield's description out of his book to recount what I saw and heard:

Butcher-birds warbling their throaty, flute-like song, magpies chortling back at them in derision, galahs screeching above the trees and down at the edge of the waterhole, pigeons cooing and yodelling back in the scrub on their dainty approach towards the water, big white cockatoos and cheeky corellas putting in their harsh screams...

From the flower in the crannied wall to the glorious firmament on high, all the things of Nature proclaim without ceasing, "Great and marvellous are thy works, Lord, God, Almighty."
Charlotte Mason, Ourselves 

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

11 Great Books for Dads to Read Aloud to all Ages

I'd Be Your Princess: A Royal Tale of Godly Character by Kathryn O'Brien, ill. by Michael Garland.

"If you were a king, I'd be your princess," said the little girl to her father.

This is a lovely book for a Dad to read to his little girl and it was one of Moozle's favourites for a long time. A little girl imagines being a princess and as she does, her Dad uses each situation to talk about the godly character he sees in his little girl. (For around ages 4 to 6)

"At night," said the girl, "we would look through our royal telescopes and you would teach me about all the stars and planets God made."

"You would listen carefully when I told you the name of each star," said her father, "because you love to learn."

Let us learn together what is good.
Job 34:4

Sarah Witcher's Story by Elizabeth Yates is based on a true incident and is the touching story of a little girl who wanders away from her home in the woods. After four days of searching she was still missing and only her father believed she was still alive. As the searching came to its close, a stranger arrived having travelled by foot from thirty miles away. He said he'd come to find the child.

Last night, when I walked into the inn at Plymouth, I heard talk of a lost child. I prayed that she would be found, and when I went to bed I dreamed of finding her.

A beautifully told, simple story of a father's unshakeable trust in the Lord. For around ages 6 to 10 years.
See inside the book here.

Little House in the Big Woods & Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder were two out of the series written by the author that Dad enjoyed reading aloud when our eldest two were about 4 and 6 years old. He brought back the boxed set from the USA when he was over there for work and the books are barely holding together after twenty years of use. Little House in the Big Woods was reminiscent of my husband's childhood growing up on a farm in the Bay of Islands in New Zealand...butchering time etc.

Farmer Boy with all its descriptions of food, farming life and deciding what direction to take in life  was another good Dad read aloud. Our children enjoyed these books as read alouds from the age of 4 years and then read them for themselves multiple times after that.

Jotham's Journey by Arnold Ytreeide is a tense, adventure filled book that Dads can read aloud with gusto and drama especially in the lead up to Christmas. It might scare some sensitive children but it didn't bother ours. After the success with this book I went ahead and bought another by the same author for my husband to read aloud but he hardly got through the first chapter before deciding it was no good. I can't remember which title it was but I didn't bother with any more after that.

In Freedom's Cause - Scotland, William Wallace, wars, adventure, historical accuracy...a great Dad hit. As was Under Drake's Flag. Henty wrote over a hundred historical fiction books for children and these are a couple that have been favourites - perhaps because Dad read them aloud.

We have a number of the Henty books in hardback but Dover has these paperback versions available  via

Sun on the Stubble is voted the most memorable read aloud from Dad of all time - probably because he thought it was hilarious and kept reading ahead and then was unable to continue until he'd had a good laugh, but also because some of our children were in their teens and so remember it well. I wrote about it here.

I ended up reading the three books below to our children but I thought they'd be a good choice for Dads to read aloud to older children around the ages of 12 years and up. The author wrote of his family's missionary experiences and his boyhood among the Machiguenga Indians in South America and although quite raw in places (the superstitious practices of the Machiguenga, their beliefs and behaviour are intertwined in the books), they are also light-hearted and very funny. My kids loved them, probably because the stories are about a very ordinary family and their very ordinary and imperfect children and have a different slant to many other missionary stories.
Wycliffe has some previews of the books here.

Friday, 13 November 2015

Bits & Pieces from a Week of a Charlotte Mason Education with a 10 Year Old

Moozle generally gravitates towards poetry when it comes to narrating either Plutarch or Shakespeare. We started Plutarch's Life of Themistocles this term and these are two poetic narrations she did relating to what we covered in our reading:

On a more lighthearted note...

Free reading this week:

The Silver Brumby, Silver Brumby's Daughter and Silver Brumby's Kingdom by Elyne Mitchell - lovely, well-written books set in the Australian Alps. Moozle loves them - they have just the right mix of nature, wild horses and adventure to satisfy her.

The Origami craze continues. This week Grandma was visiting from interstate and she joined in.

This morning we took Grandma on a nature walk and Moozle & Benj did a bit of rock hopping

"It will not go out of my mind that if we pass this post and lantern either we shall find strange adventures or else some great changes of our fortunes."

Lucy Pevensie in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis

Linking up with Weekly Wrap-up

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin (1879-1954)

Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin was nineteen years old when she sent the manuscript of My Brilliant Career to the publishing firm Angus & Robertson in 1899. Initially rejected, her manuscript was sent to another publisher in London where it was later put into print after a few revisions.

The book, set in the late 19th Century in country New South Wales, has as its main character, Sybylla Melvyn, a girl whose dream was of a brilliant career as a writer. Sybylla's parents were well thought of in their comunity and lived comfortably, but when she was about nine years old her father unwisely decided to move the family to a small farm near the town of Goulburn, in order 'to have more scope for his ability.'

This was a feasible light in which father shaded his desire to leave. The fact of the matter was that the heartless harridan, discontent, had laid her claw-like hand upon him.

Within the space of twelve months, Syblla's father had squandered his savings. His short-lived career as a stock dealer and his predilection for alcohol had ruined him.
Reduced to hard work on their property, Sybylla's once genteel mother became embittered and her relationship with Sybylla, her eldest daughter, was one of constant friction.

Dick Melvin being my father did not blind me to the fact that he was a despicable, selfish, weak creature, and as such I despised him with the relentlessness of fifteen, which makes no allowance for human frailty and weakness. Disgust, not honour, was the feeling which possessed me when I studied the matter.
Towards mother I felt differently. A woman is but the helpless tool of man - a creature of circumstances...

One day a letter came from Sybylla's maternal Grandmother suggesting she be sent to live with herself and Aunt Helen, and so sixteen year old Sybylla was unexpectedly taken from her life of drudgery into very different circumstances.
Aunt Helen was a gracious and beautiful, but firm woman, who had been deserted by her dashing husband after only twelve months of marriage. She took Sybylla under her wing, instructed and encouraged her niece, lifted her out of the gloomy introspection she was prone to indulge in, and before much time had passed Sybylla found herself the object of numerous suitors.
Harold Beecham, a wealthy neighbour and a friend of her Grandmother's family, became a regular visitor and Sybylla found herself very attracted to him. He was to be her first, her last and her only real sweetheart.
Suddenly required by her mother to leave her privileged circumstances and take a position as a governess to help the family financially, she was torn between Harold's offer of marriage (done in a no nonsense fashion, which confused Sybylla) and her own independence. Accepting Harold's offer would give her a way out of the drudgery that would otherwise be her lot, but Sybylla wanted to be a writer and why on earth had he chosen her of all women?

I had no charms to recommend me - none of the virtues which men demand of the woman they wish to make their wife...I was erratic and unorthodox, I was nothing but a tomboy - and, cardinal disqualification, I was ugly. Why, then, had he proposed matrimony to me? Was it merely a whim? Was he really in earnest?

Some thoughts:

I mentioned that Franklin was still in her teens when she wrote My Brilliant Career and that is reflected in her writing. She captures all the angst and confusion that often goes with this time of life - the sense of being ugly and different to everyone else - and Sybylla was a convincing character in that respect. Her attitude annoyed me but I remember having similar feelings and struggles when I was that age myself.  Hindsight is a very handy commodity at times.
Sybylla is idealistic and headstrong and doesn't really know what she wants. She agrees to marry Harold but then pushes him away, and totally misjudges his character. She plays with his emotions, one minute encouraging his advances and the next spurning them.

At last! At last! I had waked this calm silent giant into life. After many an ineffectual struggle I had got a little real love or passion, or call it by any name - something wild and warm and splendidly alive that one could feel, the most thrilling, electric, and exquisite sensation known.
I thoroughly enjoyed the situation, but did not let this appear.

Sybylla's attitude towards men in general is quite derogatory but she also has a very low opinion of herself and considers herself to be ugly and hateful.

'The world was made for men.'

She also knew that her thoughts were destructive:

Among other such inexpressible thoughts I got list, grew dizzy, and drew back appalled at the spirit which was maturing within me. It was a grim lonely one, which I vainly tried to hide in a bosom which was not big or strong enough for its comfortable habitation. It was as a climbing plant without a pole - it groped about the ground, bruised itself, and became hungry searching for something strong with which to cling. Needing a master-hand to train and prune, it was becoming rank and sour.

Apart from thinking that Sybylla needed a good kick in the pants and wondering if Miles Franklin herself would have been of a similar ilk, I did enjoy the literary style. Considering that the book was written more than a hundred years ago and is considered an Australian classic, it was quite an achievement for a person still not out of her teen years.

My Brilliant Career was out of print for many years and the first Australian edition was published as late as 1966 by Angus & Robertson, the same firm that had rejected her first manuscript.

On the 28th September 1901, The Sydney Morning Herald had this to say of Miles Franklin's heroine:

"My Brilliant Career," by Miles Franklin (a copy of which reaches us from Messrs. Angus and
Robertson) is a creditable essay in prose fiction by a young Australian girl. 

The heroine of the story (which by the way is prefaced by a few words from the pen of Mr. Henry Lawson) is not a person whose acquaintance in the flesh it would be desirable to make.
She is thoroughly good, morally, but she has a distinctly unpleasant way of asserting herself and her goodness. It would be matter for regret if she - "Sybylla Melvyn" is her name - could possibly be taken as a type of Australian bush girl. 

Bold, forward, and selfish Sybylla is the sort of girl that is happily rare in Australia.
The story itself and Miles Franklin's way of telling it are interesting mainly as promise of better things, which should be well within the compass of the author.

Some information on Miles Franklin is here & here.

I borrowed a copy of the book from the library but I liked the look of the hardback Virago Modern Classic pictured above.
It's been a long time since I saw the 1979 movie version of My Brilliant Career. I think I liked it except that I remember I wasn't fussed on Sam Neill playing the part of Harold Beecham. Here's a trailer of the movie:

Linking this to Brona's Books Ausreading Month and the Aussie Author Challenge at Booklover.

Friday, 6 November 2015

Wrap-up of Random

Another week without a laundry - it's getting there. The washing machine was set up temporarily so I could at least use that - up until this week when we had to move it out of the way to get the tiling done. We had a day when we took our washing to my sister-in-law's place and put it through her washing machine. No one else we know has a washing machine as large as ours and it takes so much longer to get through it all in a smaller one.

Origami creations have overtaken every flat surface in the kitchen & dining area. These are some things that Moozle has made in the past two days:

Origami is so much easier for her to do using a video rather than trying to follow written instructions. She used this video to make the flower above:

Origami-fun has some good ideas which included the little boxes & 'candy dish' below:

    Amongst Lovely Things has a Free Quickstart Guide to great conversations with your kids about books - "Discover 5 questions you can use with ANY book to have a great conversation with your kids."

    More of Moozle's creations - hexagons that she wants to make into a cushion and weaving. I showed her how to make a simple loom a couple of months ago so now she whips them up herself.

    Building a base. They've been constructing up there all week and decided to put in a 'water feature.'

    Moozle's cobblestone path leading up to their base, which she must have worked on for about 2 hours...

    The finished quilt top. This was Zana's 21st Birthday present but she's 22 now and still waiting for it. It's not a great photo and doesn't show the colours well but I'm happy with how it turned out. Reminder for self - I will never do a Dresden Plate quilt again! Well, maybe if I did I'd machine sew it instead of doing it all by hand.

    I said this post was a wrap-up of random - I can't stand James Bond but I had to laugh when I read this interview with Daniel Craig:

    THE RED BULLETIN: What could we learn from James Bond that would help us in our day-to-day lives?

    DANIEL CRAIG: [Thinks for a short while.] Nothing.

    Bond has actually become a bit more chivalrous in the most recent films, hasn’t he?

    That’s because we’ve surrounded him with very strong women who have no problem putting him in his place.

    And this time you’ve gone one better, showing 007 succumbing to the charms of an older woman.

    I think you mean the charms of a woman his own age.

    I thought this was an interesting comment:

    How do you explain people’s enduring fascination with Bond?

    I guess that one of the biggest reasons why the character has endured for so long is because he represents the eternal struggle between good and evil.

    Linking up with Weekly Wrap-up