Tag Archives: Charles Darwin

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate – Jacqueline Kelly

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Calpurnia Virginia Tate is nearly twelve and Fentress, Texas in 1899 isn’t big enough to hold all her questions. Callie Vee is right in the middle of seven children, the only girl, and her rambunctious household gives her some cover to pursue her real interests. No tatting lace and coming out parties in her imagined future. But what is it she really wants to do?

The day Calpurnia discovers that she is a naturalist she also finds her best ally in the grandfather who has retired to putter around his laboratory in an old shed out back. Walter Tate, who amassed a tidy sum innovating cotton gin systems and working the family acreage, lends Callie an original copy of The Origin of the Species, given to him by his longtime correspondent Charles Darwin. And they are off, spending long hours exploring the scrub and the river, examining plants and insects, scribbling field notes. Grandaddy is an accomplished amateur naturalist and he enlists Calpurnia to collect specimens, take notes and engage in scientific inquiry through the long, fiercely hot Texas summer and fall.

Grandaddy was an awe-inspiring figure Callie avoided for most of her life but he turns out to be a respectful mentor and partner-in-crime. She is overcome by a swig of pecan moonshine he is attempting to distill, raises a huge hairy caterpillar they find on a walk but gets more than she bargained for when it hatches, and helps him to discover an odd specimen of vetch that may be botanically significant. When Grandaddy predicts that men will someday travel to the moon, the good folk of Fentress raise their eyebrows but Calpurnia thinks events will prove him right—in about a thousand years.

Calpurnia tells the tale in a wonderful, distinctive voice at once droll, wise beyond her years and full of childlike wonder. She is such a terrific character and this is such a delightful glimpse of history and the dilemmas of a bright young girl at the turn of the last century that it is no surprise the book was a Newbery Honor pick for 2010. There are pet turkeys slated for Thanksgiving dinner and various brothers who keep developing inconvenient crushes on unsuitable young ladies. A piano recital is disastrous enough to win a permanent reprieve from future musical entertainments. Cooking lessons are sticky, gluey and unsuccessful and knitting socks is pure torture.

But the volvox in a drop of pond water under a microscope is a marvel, a telephone line connects Fentress to Austin and the rest of the world one memorable day, and the fair introduces the astonishments of a horseless carriage and a new fizzy drink, Coca Cola. Calpurnia skips in and out of trouble while she worries about how a girl could ever go to the university to become a scientist and rages at the unfairness of corsets and her Christmas book, The Science of Housewifery. You root for her all the way through that long season of discovery and suspect she will find her own clever way to realize her dreams.

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate is a middle grade book with chapters introduced by epigraphs from Darwin. I would give it to a kid in a heartbeat—after I finished reading it myself. Kelly’s book is a great example of why I love really fine children’s stories, often even better than the jaded and mannered tales aimed at adults.    

 The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate   Jacqueline Kelly  |   Henry Holt and Company  2009

Longitude — Dava Sobel

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Longitude is the story of a self-educated carpenter’s improbable invention of the marine chronometer, a saga colored by poisonously envious sabotage, heroic feats of astronomy and a lot of really bad shipwrecks. Dava Sobel has turned a dense thicket of scientific inquiry and discovery into a readable, revelatory tale of adventure that traces the interconnections of Captain Cook, Charles Darwin and Sir Isaac Newton and a number of key characters you likely never heard of. Money is a big motivator – no surprise – merchant trade and royal coffers were both impoverished by the uncertainties of the sea. Solving the navigation problem was critical enough to merit a prize worth the equivalent of millions.

John Harrison was a skilled carpenter who taught himself clockmaking and then set out to create a device that would keep such perfect time at sea that it could determine longitude. Latitude was easy enough. Star siting, sun angles, day length — even an unskilled sailor can find the distance from the fixed equator using those. But the long lines that curve from pole-to-pole were harder to pin down and a tiny mistake, an off-guess, could send you and your ship hundreds of miles off-course, onto perilous rocks in the dark or straight to the bottom of the sea.

The search for longitude inspired great observatories, led to advances in astronomy, engaged such luminaries as Galileo Galilei, Edmond Halley and Isaac Newton and produced the British Longitude Act of 1714 with its enticing cash prize. Harrison set himself to win the prize and created four separate “clocks” that were marvels of technology for his time and that still work perfectly today. He succeeded in developing a workable and elegant chronometer, the first, but not in avoiding the backstabbing and manipulation that nearly cost him the prize.

The story tacks back and forth from Harrison and his endless tinkering to astronomers charting the path of the moon and the positions of the stars. Ships are lost, treasure galleons are pirated, men die of scurvy or go blind squinting at the sun to calculate position. It seems so long ago, in this day of GPS talking cars and satellite positions, that setting out from port meant you were as likely to get lost as you were to get lucky. But one determined, unlettered visionary changed all that and Dava Sobel’s Longitude sheds light on an obscure passage in history that produced important nautical instruments we still use today.

Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time  Dava Sobel | Walker Publishing Company 1995