Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Real Professors of the Far North

My son and I just finished reading The 7 Professors of the Far North, John Fardell’s 2005 arctic adventure romp. We really enjoyed the Tintin-esque vibe of the exotic setting, the even more exotic methods of transportation, and series of narrow escapes. (In this undated interview, circa 2006, Fardell cites both Tintin and Narnia as influences, and it shows. You quite easily could imagine these kids slipping through the wardrobe into Narnia, and Fardell’s illustrations pay homage to the late, great HergĂ©). Much as I enjoyed it, I closed the book wishing Fardell had added a tad more actual arctic science to the mix.

Well, over the next two months we'll all have the chance to follow the progress of some real-life professors of the far north, members of the NASA-sponsored ICESCAPE mission to study the effects of climate change on pack ice and the arctic ecosystem.

Don’t you wish you could tag along? Then be jealous—very, very jealous—of Karen Romano Young—children’s book writer and science explainer extraordinaire. Karen is the author of many books, including Across the Wide Ocean, four titles in National Geographic's Science Fair Winners series, and the forthcoming novel Doodlebug: A Novel in Doodles. She's been to sea before, and down to the bottom of the ocean in the submersible Alvin. So it's not suprising that she landed the gig of accompanying the ICESCAPE crew to the Arctic Sea on the Coast Guard icebreaker Healy this June and July. Karen will be checking in with Science + Story off and on while she's at sea as a guest blogger.

Science + Story: First, I'm unspeakably jealous! What will you actually be doing on board?

Karen Romano Young: Drawing, photographing, bothering, interviewing, looking over shoulders, asking questions, observing...I am writing a series of books about science notebooks--[a method being used in K-12 education in the lower grades to teach kids the method of observing and recording data scientists use]. The first book will be a science notebook about an investigation in the Arctic. The working title is Wren's Science Notebook: Investigating the Arctic. I published another book, Arctic Investigations, in 2000, but over the last decade the science has changed radically because of climate change.

S+S: It sounds fantastic. Why is NASA interested in the Arctic?

KRY: Previous research missions have usually included either open-ocean scientists or ice scientists. NASA is bringing them together in order to create dialogue and-- ultimately--a new discipline in science, focused on the sea-ice-air interface called the cryosphere.

S+S: So, in a way, you will be present at the birth of a new science?

KRY: Yes.

S+S: How did you convince NASA to save a berth for a children's book writer?

KRY: I can't think of a better place for a children's book writer to be than at a scientist's elbow as the discovery happens. On her blog, Melissa Stewart writes about research that shows that some huge percentage of scientists can trace their career choice back to an experience they had or mentor they knew when they were 7, 10 years old. For some kids, that experience may be a book.
Karen's ICESCAPE mission sets sail from Dutch Harbor, in the Aleutians, on June 15. Stay tuned for a schedule of her blog posts. I hope she will be able to tell me she saw a narwhal, if not a villain’s narwhal-shaped submarine. And maybe she will be able to tell me what “eddy chasing” involves.

For more about Karen, visit her website, For more about ICESCAPE, visit the mission website.