Tag Archives: children

Considering science and children

I did my PhD on children’s science books. I happen to think children’s interactions with science – and the way adults decide to build such interactions for them – is a fascinating area of social analysis. I hope to spend much of the next few months (while I’m on research leave) going back to this work, so I thought I’d turn some of my old teaching notes into a blogpost.

In advocating research on children and science it is all too easy to fall back on overly self-important (and under-analysed) celebrations of their significance. Yes, political intersections between children and science and/ or technology can be some of the most controversial: vaccinations, digital culture, the future effects of current energy policy. As I wrote on an old blog years ago, children are at the center of an awful lot of science news stories. Yes, increasingly, science and technology is a central part of children’s lives; whether because they find themselves in front of flickering electronic screens or because various people mobilise their concern to train a scientifically literate futurepeople, plotting science into curricula the world over. But I am not in the business of repeating such rhetoric. I’d much rather have a good, hard look at it; examine it, consider what makes it tick, take it apart and see if we can’t put it together in more useful and interesting ways.

Imagining the child and science

There are many ways to define both ‘science’ and ‘the child’. Moreover, the ways we imagine what counts as either scientific and childish effect how we structure our world, and can be used rhetorically. Interestingly, both the child and science are subjects that have, at the end of the 20th century, been described as being ‘under threat’ in some way: the Science Wars (see Labinger & Collins, 2001) and a perceived End of Childhood (e.g. Postman, 1994). Arguably both were largely momentary non-events, the controversies of which have largely settled down to be unpicked by social and historical scholars (e.g. see discussion in Leane, 2007, Broks, 2006, Prout, 2005, Buckingham, 2000a). Still, notions that either science or the child might be under threat from aspects of post/late modernity remain in public discourse. Moreover, both (non)events at least underline not only a suggested ‘crisis’ in childhood/science, but also a desire to maintain a sense of singular identity for these groups.

As Anne Higonnet (1998) and Patricia Holland’s (2004) studies of iconography of the child in visual culture both emphasise, the child is often used to stand for a form of unquestioned, unsullied, pre-social ‘natural’ human state. Higonnet in particular emphasises the ways in which imagery of childhood continually depicts children as existing somehow beyond or above social life: presenting a ‘secret garden’ of classless, androgynous non-identity. Several scholars of children’s literature have argued that such Romantic imagery put the child at odds with science, placing children firmly (iconically, even) on the side of the natural. As Jacqueline Rose puts it, the child is thus ‘set up as the site of a lost truth’ (Rose 1994, 43) somehow in opposition to book-based, scientific or technical knowledge. Noga Applebaum (2006) argues that such Romanticism surrounding the child also explains a thread of anti-science/ technology she perceives in much of contemporary children’s science fiction.

However, sociologist of childhood Chris Jenks (2005) stresses that there is a diversity of ideas as to what the nature of childhood equates to: innocent, pure, pre-social, but also playful, innovative, futuristic, mischievous, even deviant. It is worth quoting Jenks at length to help us consider the range of meanings at play here:

Whether we regard children as pure, bestial, innocent, corrupt, charged with potential, tabula rasa, or even as we view our adult selves; whether they think and reason as we do, are immersed in a receding tide of inadequacy, or are possessors of a clarity of vision which we have through experience lost; whether their forms of language, games and conventions are alternative to our own, imitations or crude precursors of our own now outgrown, or simply transitory impenetrable trivia which are amusing to witness and recollect; whether they are constrained and we have achieved freedom, or we have assumed constraint and they are truly free – all these considerations, and more, continue to exercise our theorising about the child in social life (Jenks, 2005: 2)

It is important to note that when Jenks talks about ‘theorising’ about the child, he does not only mean academic work, but also refers to the quite prosaic theorising which we all do as part of everyday social life.

As Jenks acknowledges, there is a key distinction to be made between such everyday theorising of the child and similar social work we all also do around class, race or gender. Every adult has at one time been a child and every child (tragic events avoided) has the potential to be an adult. Indeed, it is what is expected of them. As Jenks puts it, children are both alien and similar to adults: ‘the child inhabits our world and yet seems to answer to another’ (Jenks, 2005: 3). James and Prout (1997) in particular draw our attention to temporal issues in terms of ideas of the child and emphasise that part of the work of the sociology of childhood is also an understanding of the social construction of time. Childhood is social identity that is, unusually, at once apparently timeless and yet also heavily reliant on ideas of change over time. Vivian Sobschack (1991) puts it well when she describes children as equally futuristic and nostalgic.

Some ways of framing child/science interaction

Different definitions of what it means to be scientific and a child mingle to construct a range of presumptions over how children and science should relate to one another. The following list is not exhaustive, neither are any of these categories mutually exclusive (see Bell, 2008, for development with examples. It is free to download).

Children as distinct from the scientist. This is an oppositional category that, like scientist/public or any number of other cultural dualities, draws a boundary and defines one member in comparison to another. In such a system we might imagine the child as naïve, lacking a scientist’s “mature” knowledge, and therefore work the boundary and its associated definitions of child and scientist around notions of intellectual capacity and/or learning. We might, however, equally see the child as good and science as corrupt. The cultural image of the child comes with many optimistic and positive connotations, and we should not assume that children are always placed at the bottom of the comparison.

Children as similar to the scientist. In some respects, this is the opposite of the first category in that it finds points of similarity between children and scientists. We see this both in educational theory with ideas of the child as acting “like a scientist”, and in the construction of images of the scientist where a sense of the childlike can be worked to endow science with the positive connotations of the child. For example: the idea of having “the future in their bones”; the curiosity of a child; an intuitive link to nature; or a sense of innocence which fits neatly with the scientific aim to attain the simplicity of Occam’s Razor.

Children as scientists in waiting. This is often articulated in policies stressing the need for more trained scientists to maintain the national economy. In some respects, this is to think of the children in question not as children, but as the adults they will be in the future. Thus, studies of the child and science also show us something of the (youthful) construction of the scientist, as well as ways in which science interacts with a (youthful) public. This category could be subsumed within child-as-scientist; it tends, however, to maintain a sense that children will remain distinct from science at least until they have reached a certain age. Therefore it could also be seen as a mix of the first two categories.

Children as “critical friends” (in waiting). This has a very different political history from the other three categories. Rooted in “post-PUS” calls for engagement or dialogue with science, it suggests a collaborative relationship between science and the child, in which they can work in dialogue to work out issues of science policy. I place the “in waiting” in brackets, rather than defining a separate category, because such dialogic work tends to be considered only in terms of adult relationships with science. This is not simply a science-specific issue. Opinions on current affairs and matters of public policy may be encouraged as part of personal development, but tend to be ignored substantively until individuals reach voting age. When the education community has taken on such ideas, it tends to be seen as preparation for a later, adult role.


  • Applebaum, Noga (2006) ‘The Myth of the Innocent Child: the Interplay Between Nature, Humanity and Technology in Contemporary Children’s Science Fiction’, The Journal of Children’s Literature Studies vol. 3(2): 1-17.
  • Bell, Alice R (2008) ‘The Childish Nature of Science: Exploring the child/science relationship in popular non-fiction’, in Alice R Bell, Sarah R Davies & Felicity Mellor (eds) Science and Its Publics (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing) 79-98.
  • Broks, Peter (2006) Understanding Popular Science (Maidenhead & New York: Open University Press).
  • Buckingham, David (2000a) After the Death of Childhood: Growing Up in the Age of Electronic Media (Cambridge: Polity).
  • Higonnet, Anne (1998) Pictures of Innocence: The History and Crisis of Ideal Childhood (London: Thames and Hudson).
  • Holland, Patricia (2004) Picturing Childhood: The Myth of the Child in Popular Imagery (London: IB Taurus).
  • James, Allison & Alan Prout (1997) ‘Re-presenting Childhood: Time and Transition in the Study of Childhood’, in (eds) Constructing and Reconstructing Childhood: Contemporary Issues in the Sociological Studies of Childhood, second edition (London & New York: Routledge) 230-250.
  • Jenks, Chris (2005) Childhood, 2nd edition (Routledge, Abingdon).
  • Labinger, Jay A & Harry Collins (eds) (2001) The One Culture? A Conversation About Science (Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press).
  • Leane, Elizabeth (2007) Reading Popular Physics: Disciplinary Skirmishes and Textual Strategies (Hampshire: Ashgate).
  • Postman, Neil (1994) The Disappearance of Childhood, vintage edition (first published 1982) (New York: Vintage Books).
  • Prout, Alan (2005) The Future of Childhood (London & New York: Routledge Falmer).
  • Rose, Jacqueline (1994) The Case of Peter Pan: Or the Impossibility of Children’s Literature, 2nd edition, (Macmillan: Basingstoke).
  • Sobschack, Vivian (1991) ‘Child/ Alien/ Father: Patriarchal Crisis and Generic Exchange’ in Constance Penley et al (eds) Close Encounters: Film, Feminism, and Science Fiction (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press) 2-30.

Science Top Trumps

This is a picture of my small collection of science-themed Top Trumps. It’s one of those things you only remember you own when you are moving house (I have just packed up my possessions to store while I spend two months in North America*).

my science-y top trumps colection

Top Trumps, if you haven’t heard of it, is a card game. Each set of cards is themed. In the picture above you can see chemistry, dinosaurs and scientific careers, but they’re more likely to be characters in a TV show, cars or footballers (yes, there is a Royal Wedding set…). Each card will have a set of values relating to that theme (e.g. height, weight). You play in rounds. Someone picks a category, and the player with the card with the highest value in that category wins the round. Popular in the 1970s and 80s in the UK, they were relaunched about ten years ago. As one might expect, there’s a detailed Wikipedia entry. Or there’s the official site, Planet Top Trumps.

I’ve written about the dinosaur set before. As I said then, it reminded me a bit of Buckingham & Scanlon’s comparison the way dinosaurs are used in non-fiction publishing with Pokémon (it’s all about collecting and exchanging facts, with the odd semi-fantastic monster thrown in).

dino top trumps

Each round of Top Trumps is very quick, but this doesn’t leave much time for considering the context of the values assigned, and we did query the scientific basis for some of these too. The ‘dinoman’ card is especially weird (I’m not the only person to have spotted this. There is a facebook appreciation page).

That old post about these was passed around a few bits of the internet, and as a result I was sent a pack of Dr Hal’s Chemistry Top Trumps. The ‘values’ here are atomic weight, danger factor, usefulness factor, melting point and year of discovery. Each card comes with a picture and a few sentences of ‘elementary facts’. I played this with some friends recently, and like the dinosaurs set, we wondered why we had to assume the biggest number is best, and there was some debate over whether it should be the biggest amount from 0 (either 0 degrees for temperature, of 0 years before common era in terms of discovery date) that won.

chemistry top trumps

Still, even our grumbles were, arguably, forms of learning about chemistry, and I do think I gained some feel for the elements as we sifted through them in the course of the game.

About a year ago I picked up a set of science career trumps card at the Science Museum shop. As a procrastination from packing I was reflecting on the chemistry pack anyway, I had a bit of a shuffle and a read.

Science careers top trumps.

Each card is carries the logo of an organsation connected to the job, and along with the values (travel, communication , numeracy, computer and technical) there are illustrations and a blurb. Here’s a picture of a few more. I was a bit surprised that the Association of British Science Writers say a qualification in a scientific subject is essential for a career in science journalism (I’m a member of the ABSW. I don’t have any scientific qualifications).

Science careers top trumps.

Playing the careers one, I really felt this was a blunt way of learning. I could see how the processes of the game could help bring some familiarity with the materials (and, as with the chemical elements, reminded me of ones I forgot I knew about), and I could imagine kids going ‘I want to be a…’ or ‘ha, I wouldn’t be a…’ off the back of one card ‘trumping’ another. Still, for me, it’s no substitute for something like the I’m A Scientist project, which connects young people to professional scientists. I’m not sure we should play games with careers. Maybe I’m being oversensitive.

I should probably note that the I’m a Scientist team do also produce debate packs structured through cards as another thread of their work. These aren’t Top Trumps though, they aren’t so competitive and don’t try to assign these odd numerical values to everything. The aim of the card-playing aspect of these packs is to prompt and help structure discussion (it’s worth looking up Democs if you are interested), which I suspect is the key way people learn from the chemistry or careers sets too.

I’d be interested to know if any science teachers have used Top Trumps though, and what the students thought.

I'm a Scientist cards

* I’ll be in the USA and Canada from the 18th of April. I’m mainly going to be in DC (at American University, School of Communication) but with some time in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Toronto and Ottawa while I’m in that part of the world.

The google-ifcation of the science fair

I’m one of the judges for Google’s Global Science Fair, something I’m rather excited about.

I’ve always been a bit jealous of American kids and their culture of science fairs. As I put in a post for the Guardian’s science blog last week, there has been a fair bit of talk over the death of the science fair in the US recently, but Google’s entry into the scene promises to bring a degree of geeky glamour. Big and spectacular, this is a souped-up science fair for an online world of interconnected knowledge creation and interconnected knowledge sharing (though we might also raise a sceptical eyebrow at the project too).

For me, the most important part of the google-ification of the science fair is the knowledge-sharing; that you enter by building a website and so open it up for others to see. Science fairs have always been about communicating your project as well as doing it (indeed, we might argue this is true of science in general). In many ways, they exist as events where people can get together to share science. They are focused on the work of young people, but no child is an island, and science fairs involve family, friends, teachers and other community members too. They are social events.

Science teacher Alom Shaha wrote recently, secondary school students routinely produce original works of art, music, poems, stories and plays, why not ask them to make some science too? We should be wary of loose comparisons between subjects, but in many respects Shaha makes a key point. Not only do we ask children to make art, music and writing, we get them to share such work in concerts and displays. Through this we share an understanding and experience of such culture across generations. We should share, applaud, critique (grumble about … ) and collaboratively enjoy cultures of science too.

The international scope of the Google fair means we can’t all pour into one town hall, but I hope that the same technology that allows this event to happen will also encourage people to share its entries as widely as possible. So, keep your eyes on Google’s Science Fair blog, and I promise to post from the finals at Google HQ in July.

In the meantime, in the spirit of sharing kids’ experiences of and with science, I can seriously recommend the I’m A Scientist twitter account at the moment (or just keep a look on the latest questions bit on their website).

Children, adults and climate change media

retro moment! (Blue Peter Green Book)

The picture above is of the BBC Blue Peter Green Book. Published in 1990, following the introduction of a Blue Peter green badge in 1988. Sponsored by Sainsbury’s, it also has a forward by Lord Sainsbury, who went on to become science minister for the Labour Government. I have a copy of this book* which I have used when teaching children and the green movement, and dusted it off my bookshelf last week when I had an email from Leo Hickman at the Guardian asking me asking about the new Green Santa show from cITV (trailer here).

Go read Hickman’s piece about this on the Guardian Environment blog, which uses the Green Santa programme to talk about the ‘volatile cocktail’ of combining children and climate change in some breadth. I’m quoted in the piece and added some notes in the comments thread, but thought it was collecting these thoughts here too.

Hickman suggests Green Santa could be the first time children’s TV in the UK has explicitly constructed an entire series around the issue of anthropogenic global warming. Maybe. There is  Captain Planet, but that’s American. I have some memory of a whole series of Nina and the Neurons on climate change issues last year (?) There’s also Uncle Jack from the early 1990s, but I can’t remember the details of (any?) science in this. Blue Peter‘s move to green issues in the late 1980s is worth noting, even if it was only a part of their content. There really was a bit of a wave of this around the early ’90s (great book on the subject by David Gauntlett).

Indeed, I wonder if the slightly ironic tone of the Green Santa trailer reflects the way in which a climate message has become a well-trodden ground in children’s media. It’s one of the ways I find Green Santa‘s tone very different from the more earnest Captain Planet (which because of the fictional element, we might otherwise compare it to). Chris Ryan’s Code Red series and Saci Lloyd’s Carbon Diaries as. These both start with protagonists bored by green stuff which is largely seen as a boring old worry of their parents and then, through their involvement in a new crisis, they can re-discover the issue for their own generation.

I also wonder about the role of nostalgia here. I think EDF Energy’s “it’s not easy being green” advert (‘made entirely of recycled clips’) is really interesting, especially as the girl speaking in it must be at least 30 by now. Nostalgia has run through the green movement since its origins, but this is generally nostalgia for some sort of (imaginary?) pre-modern age before we starting polluting everything. Nostalgia for something that is quite explicitly modern (even ‘late modern’) such as advertising or earlier iterations of an organised green movement is slightly different. Re-prints of children’s green books from previous generations are also significant here (e.g. 2009 version of the Lorax, below) suggesting a multi-generational culture at work here.

A potentially key difference about the 21st century examples: I’ve read some media analysis from the 1990s cynically arguing that directing environmental campaigns at children is just a way of putting the issue off for another generation to deal with. Today, I think increasingly we see children targeted as a way to get adults to think about global warming. The Observer ran a magazine cover story last year on children pestering their parents on environmental issues. We might argue that the DECC’s Bedtime Stories campaign is indicative of this adults-via-kids approach too (albeit an allusion to kids, rather than aiming at kids directly). According to the DECC, this was based on research on how to appeal to adults (though we might ask questions about this).

I’d love someone (me, given time and resources) to do some deeper research into this. The ethics, sociology and psychology of kids and climate change, including thinking about the role of children and childhood in adults’ lives. All fascinating stuff.

* I don’t, however, have a Blue Peter badge, green or otherwise. Yes, this is something I’m slightly bitter about.

The lorax loves trees

Engaging audiences: rethinking “difference”

Steam power

I’m blogging from the Co-Curation and the Public History of Science & Technology conference at the Science Museum (picture is of an exhibit)

Saturday’s programme started with a “provocation” (or keynote talk) entitled “New Ways to engage people” from Andrew Pekarik of the Smithsonian’s Office of Policy and Analysis.

Pekarik is an exceedingly smooth speaker. He rolled off lines about the need to not only “see difference” in audiences but also “be that difference”: to embody such difference within the curatiorial team. To “See it, be it, and then use it too”. To use this difference in content, but also use it in determining display. Moreover, they need to follow this all up by testing the difference. That such testing should be about checking a team’s work, but also a way to identify new differences. As Pekarik concluded, this should become a continual cycle; one that is more important than any step individually.

All lovely sounding stuff, but what do we mean by “difference” here? What of the many possible differences are they looking for?

Answer: between “people people”, “object people” and those who are more “ideas people”. Pekarik noted most curators aren’t really “people people”, they are drawn to the job precisely because they like books and objects, and talked enthusiastically about a process of bringing in “people people” from other areas of the museum. For me, such a categorisation of “people, object or ideas” “people” didn’t ring true. Moreover, it seemed like a distraction from more important differences (class, ethnicity, gender, age).

A couple of senior Science Museum staff picked up on this in questions. One suggested that these three categories are just a 1st step which ends with 2.7 million forms of difference (i.e. as in 2.7 unique visitors). Another flagged up the difference between those who like hands-on experiences at museum. She also raised concern over Pekarik’s starting point of asking people about their most meaningful museum experience. What about people who never have museum experiences? How do you capture those who don’t already like you?

We didn’t have time for my question, but I wanted to ask whether he was still worried about class, race, age, gender, etc. Would he, for example, think about putting children in a curatorial board? I don’t necessarily mean to argue that we should categorise difference in such a way. Indeed, we might argue that limiting ourselves through these sorts of (equally reductive?) audience categories. Maybe another way of conceiving of diversity of audience is useful. It’s also worth underlining points several people made on twitter: however we choose to think about difference, identity (a) is always fluid and multiplicitous and (b) can be changed by the experience of visiting a museum (indeed, people might go to museums to be changed).

I’m sure that interesting work has come out of Pekarik’s sense of difference, and I love his point about the need to consider this as an ongoing process. Still, I worried that it’s a bit too abstract, a bit too devoid of social context (though maybe he’d say I’m just being too much of a “people person”…). Personally, I felt more comfortable with the notion of “community curation” discussed later by Karen Fort from the National Museum of the American Indian. I suspect this sort of approach captures the social and cultural diversity museums I’m worrying about and, in the process, will probably end up covering the differences Pekarik was playing with too. Similarly,  we heard about some very open and exploratory ways of involving audiences today – Denver Community Museum, Wellcome’s Things and London ReCut – I suspect there are all sorts of “differences” captured by these too. Also relevant, I think, was Nina Simon’s challenge to think about how a busy museum could, in a web2.0 sense, help make a museum better (not just break exhibits). Projects like these seemed like genuine attempts to involve more viewpoints than just those already held by a museum. In contrast, Pekarik seemed to be working from a point of view where the museum retained the power to frame and articulate its audiences.

Maybe he’s right to though. Maybe we want museums to talk to their idea of us rather than integrate audiences in the very fabric of their production. Maybe I’m just stuck in the 1980s with a focus on Big Social Issues like class. Or, maybe when it comes to communication projects, we need to think about what we have in common rather than what sets us apart; areas of similarity, not difference. (Maybe that’s just another distraction).

ADDED 25/10. At the end of the final day, Elizabeth Anionwu from the Dana Centre’s African-Caribbean Focus Group argued she shouldn’t have to be there: the  museum shouldn’t have to go to a special focus group for that sort of perspective, it should it be part of conversations happening already. It should be woven into the infrastructure of the museum.

I couldn’t agree more. I heard the line “but the Science Museum is this great big oil tanker of an institution, it takes ages to change” three times over the course of the weekend. I also heard complaints that I heard 10 years ago when I first started working there. And complaints about problems from the 80s I only learnt about in my history of science degree. It’s time to decommission that bloody oil tanker. The museum is, at least in part, its staff. The crowdsourced grass-roots innovative bottom-up change people were banging on about at the conference applies within the institution too. Don’t like it? Do something.

Miracle Mineral Solution

If you keep an eye on the UK skeptic media you will have probably already heard the story of 15 year old Rhys Morgan and Miracle Mineral Solution (“Bleachgate”). If not, let me share it with you.

Crohn’s disease is horrible. Being a teenager is horrible. Have a read through The National Association for Colitis and Crohn’s Disease pages for 16-29 year olds to get an idea of what it’s like when both happen at once. Welsh teenager Rhys Morgan was diagnosed with Crohn’s a few months ago. He did what a lot of people with similar conditions do and joined some online support groups.

It’s probably worth repeating that Crohn’s is horrible. I should also stress that it’s a complex and unpredictable condition, the details of which medical science is still unraveling. Such support groups are not only an emotional support, but can be great for sharing information, knowledge and experience. They can also be ways of spreading things that aren’t so helpful, and they can emotionally difficult places too (I can recommend this book for some discussion of issues surrounding this).

Rhys was sceptical of one of the treatment being pushed on a forum, something called “Miracle Mineral Solution”. Very sensibly he did a bit of digging, and sound found that the FDA describes it as industrial bleach. Rhys shared his concerns with the forum, and a whole story of internet community nastiness followed. Watch Rhys’ videoblog for the full story, as he tells it himself so well (or see transcript on his blog).

When the story first broke about a month ago, it was covered extensively by skeptics bloggers, but no where else much. This week, there was an overview of the story in the Guardian, via a column by skeptic-blogger Martin Robbins. It’s great that Martin’s connection there gets the story into such a high profile site (and, as Paul Bradshaw says, it’d be good if lots of people link to Robbins’ piece with the words Miracle Mineral Solution…). Still, I’d have loved to see it covered by, for example, reporters on education or health beats too. Not just for the extension of coverage, but because I think it’s worth reflecting on the story from more than just a skeptic perspective.

There has been a move in recent years to make UK science education more about public engagement, designing curricula that not only train the next generation of scientists, but equip young people to use and critique claims to scientific authority as part of their everyday lives (see this GCSE for example). However, a lot of this sort of work seems to see the process as preparation for later life, as if active engagement is something adults too whereas kids are simply passive. Similarly, I’ve heard activists in young peoples’ health complain that under 18s are too often seen as “human becomings” rather than “human beings” when it comes to medicine; that teens are simply taught how to prepare for a healthy adult lives as if they have little role in their current existence.

I can see why people have been celebrating and supporting Rhys on this issue, but he’s not the only teenager to take such a sensible and active role when it comes to their health (e.g. the trustee of Body and Soul featured in this podcast). I suspect a lot of young people hope to get the best possible information about health; that they will spend time looking for such information and will be sceptical about what they find. Also that the care that others get good information too, and so share it about, and that they will get into fights with other young people and adults while they do so.

That’s why, for me the tale of Rhys Morgan and Miracle Mineral Solution isn’t just a story for or about skeptics. It’s a genuinely interesting, concerning and illuminating story of inter-generational health communication in a digital age, and one I’d have love to see talked about more.

EDIT: 19/9/10 changed reference to Martin’s piece in Guardian which was initially down as a blogpost rather than a column. See my comment on Paul’s blogpost for context. Also, look – the story has been picked up by a Kenyan newspaper and on the PLoS blogs.

Mechanical metaphors in kid’s body books

This is the cover of Usborne’s classic kid’s book How Your Body Works. The book has been around in some form since 1975, so you might have seen it before. I’m interested in it for many reasons, but this blogpost is going to focus on the way it reflects an oft-used metaphor when it comes to explaining the human body, that of a machine.

Cover of How Your Body Works

Comparisons of the body to machine are sometimes seen in a negative light; endemic of a mechanistic worldview which is overly-reductive approach to something as complex and beautiful as the human body.


Ok, a “yawn” is over-trivialising the anti-mechanist critique, but I want to argue that kid’s body books employing robot metaphors are a bit more complicated than that (personally, I think you can say the same of Blake’s Newton, but that’s another story). My central point is that mechanical analogies provide a diverse set of cultural referents. Machines comes in a range of sizes, shapes and styles, and people use and think about them in a range of ways. Further, both machines and the way cultures have understood them has changed over time.

Perhaps a mechanical analogy allows some form of abstraction, providing some distance from specifics when handling issues like reproduction, infection and digestion. For example, the section outlining what happens when a blue robot loves an orange robot very much.

how (robot) babies are made
Such abstraction may also provide an expository role. Yes, the human body is a lot more than, for example, a set of bellows (below), but the image filtered down the multitude of things going on inside a person’s chest so we can learn about one thing at a time. Reduction for explanatory purposes isn’t (necessarily) to say the world really is that simple.


Mechanical analogies for specific systems (e.g. lungs as bellows) is one thing, but when it becomes a matter of depicting the whole body, we start moving towards associations with robots. The metallic skeleton on the cover of the Usborne book isn’t necessarily a robot, but there is something robot-like about him.

There are a wide range of cultural associations that might come with such allusions. Think of Dr Who, and robots are nearly always symbols of what is inhuman or a lost humanity (e.g. their nod-to-Metropolis Cybermen, or hide-behind-the-sofa Daleks). But think of Wall-E, or these smiling robot tshirts I spotted recently, or these robot cookies. Robots can be your friends. At the Science museum this week you can “meet Kaspar the friendly humanoid robot”.

There’s a nice study of robots in children’s literature by Margaret Esmonde in this 1982 collection of essays on machines in science fiction. According to this study, the robot or cyborg is generally a benevolent character in children’s stories, often acting in loco parentis or as a reasonably sympathetic step-brother. Even where there are “bad” robots, they tend to be destroyed with the aid of “good” ones. Her only example otherwise being Dr Who. Interestingly,  such child characters tend to be boys – a robo-brother, not sister – though she does mention one, it is very much an exception to the rule. I also wonder if there is something to be said about the childlike representation of robots in not only fiction, but news stories (even research projects) too; that we take the sometimes limited abilities of robots as a reason to pat them on the head and go “aww”.

The gender and generational points are just as an aside though, my main reason for mentioning Esmonde’s study is that the robot of children’s popular culture may well be a very sympathetic, even empathetic, character. Just because it is not human, doesn’t mean it is inhuman. Esmonde describes a few fascinating case studies. For example, a picture book produced to illustrate the UN declaration on rights of the child: a little boy lives a secure and caring life under the love and protection provided by his robot guardian. ‘Nosey’ people intervene and separate them, so the robot returns, disguised as a human and takes the boy back and they live happily ever after.

Esmonde traces mechanical characters in children’s fiction back to  L. Frank Baum’s Oz series. There is Tik-Tok, pictured, who you might know from the 1985 movie (see also this io9 piece on Pre-Golden Age SF Robots), and possibly the most straightforwardly mechanical man, the Tin Woodman, who everyone knows from the musical (“if I only had a heart”). Esmonde also discusses the lesser-known Chopfyt, a fascinating character made from cast-off “meat” parts of the two other men. She stresses these characters were all relatively ambiguous in their humanity, there isn’t the humans vs robots distinction which is so often played out in Dr Who. She also argues that Baum is content to leave these questions unanswered.

In my introduction I stressed that technologies and our cultural ideas about them have changed over time.  With this in mind, it’s interesting to see a very Tik-Tok style robot re-used in Phillip Reeve’s steampunk-ish Larklight books which self consciously re-uses old futuristic tropes of the robot to play with hopes, fears and other aesthetics surrounding them. Reeve is an extremely complex writer when it comes to images of technology, I haven’t space to discuss it here, but there are some brief notes on him buried in this paper. Or just read his books (the Mortal Engines series too, and do it before they are all movies).

Getting back to non-fiction, let me introduce you to The Body Owner’s Handbook (Nick Arnold & Tony De Saulles, 2002). This is part of Scholastic’s Horrible Science series, and structured out under the narrative conceit an instruction manual for the human body. In some respects, this is quite straightforward body as machine stuff. As are later points in the text which refer to the digestive system as a ‘fuel storage tank and conveyor belt’ and a ‘body repair shop’ is used to discuss cell replacement (The Body Owner’s Handbook, 2002: 22, 28). It is quite self-aware about this, and seem to expect the audience to be as well. As mentioned in my post about poo books, in some respects make fun of the distance provided by the mechanistic imagery (whilst also applying the convenience of it).

However, I think The Body Owner’s Handbook is slightly different from How Your Body Works in the way it conceives of its technological metaphor. For a start, it combines it with a loose narrative of a childlike Frankenstein monster. I’m drawing a line under the Shelly comparisons now. It is fascinating and arguably key to understanding the book, but a whole other blogpost. Suffice to say this is a slightly more “meaty” approach to (bio)technology and a (post)modern critique.

Monsters aside, The Body Owner’s Handbook seems to be applying a machine metaphor rooted in consumer technology. As with a lot of the books in Horrible Science, the language and imagery is heavily influenced by advertising styles (though, it should be noted with their tongue firmly in cheek):

Looking for a new body? Why not choose the real McCoy – the one and only Human Body. It’s Planet Earth’s most advanced living machine! It’s built of the finest material to a tried and tested design that’s over two hundred thousand years old! (The Body Owner’s Handbook, 2002: 8 )

This is a technology you would buy. It is not one that powers the “dark satanic mills”. Neither is it one you’d build yourself. It is ready made, just for you. This is not a Fordist form of mass production where the mechanical body is available in any colour as long as it’s black. This body is available in a variety of colours; “light brown, dark brown, pink, beige and yellow” (The Body Owner’s Handbook, 2002: 9).

In some respects such a contemporary consumer-tech model of the body allows for a connection with a sense of individualism: note the location of the apostrophe in the book’s title, it is body-owner singular. Yet, this note on race is emphasised by arguing that bodies are all the same underneath; the sense that everybody’s body is the same is very important to the scientific stories of the book. Perhaps this is the curtailed (and occasionally illusionary) individualism of interaction with branded technology. To some extent such identities come, to some degree, pre-packaged. Pink microscope anyone?

Moreover, such pre-packaged advanced tech comes with a greater degree of ineviable black-boxing. There are right and wrong ways of interacting with its surface, but its internal workings are a relative mystery to users. As many writers on technology have argued – indeed many writers on post/ late modernity have argued – the quantity of specialisation that goes into producing much contemporary means they come with greater mystery. Personal computers make one of the nicest examples of this. In the early 1980s, many personal computer users not only programmed but actually made their own kit. By the early 1990s, even the professionals could only produce one small aspects. Perhaps then, mechanical metaphors no longer provide simplicity? (if they ever really did)

Significantly, The Body Owner’s Handbook warns: “The body isn’t designed to be opened by non-experts and this can result in serious body breakdowns” (p12). In some respects this is in some contrast to a line in one of the first Horrible Science books, also about the body:

[science] belongs to everybody, because everybody’s got a body – and you’ve got every right to know what’s going on in yours (Blood, Bones & Body Bits, 1996: 5).

That said, perhaps back in those golden years of hobbyist tech and meccano collections, when kids built their own crystal radios (grew their own computers, spewed out their own difference engine, etc etc), no one told them to “tinker” with their physiology. Or maybe they did (um, maybe let’s not go too far with this tinkering analogy…). As The Body Owner’s Handbook‘s use of Frankenstein reflects, biotech has always been a slightly different matter.

Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind is that they are only interesting as examples of what adults choose to produce for children. Personally, I think this is fascinating in itself, but it isn’t necessarily a sign of what children themselves think. In the light of a spate of “wrong superheroes” stories last week, this is something to keep in mind. If you want to know what children think, ask them. Musing about the media presented to young people is interesting and worthwhile when understood on it’s on terms, but it doesn’t tell us what is going on in the heads of actual children.

My main point, however is that if we do want to think through some of the symbols involved in technologically informed explanations of bodies, is pays not be reductive/ simplistic about machines.