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Wednesday, October 22, 2003

Falling to the Earth's Rubber Core

Natalie Solent kindly mentioned the email I sent her about the How and Why Wonder books. Gosh, I loved those. I have great stacks of them in storage. In storage---therefore I'm afraid I cannot look up the source of the nuclear strawberries she mentions.

But her memory reminds me of my own embarrassing encounter with the books. One of my favorites was Our Earth. Hey, who could resist exploding volcanoes? But better than that, Our Earth had illustrations of gemstones. In particular, they noted that the most valuable rubies were called "pig-eon's blood" rubies, because they were the color of the blood from a freshly-killed pig-eon. (I had never seen this word spelled before, and pronounced it in three distinct syllables, with a hard "g".) I was very dismayed to find the book talking so cavalierly of slaughtering pig-eons (which I thought might be something like pygmies), and wondered how many poor pig-eons had to die to compare their blood to the rubies. I figured this was a practice of earlier times, and trusted that this sort of thing wasn't allowed in these enlightened days.

(Mind you, in those days insects, not children, were nestled in cotton wool: Insects included information on the use of the "killing jar", and Sea Shells instructed you to kill your univalves by immersing them in boiling water, then prying them out of the shell with a wire hook. So you never knew what kind of horrors you were going to find. See below.)

But that wasn't the embarrassing part.

My grandmother gave me this book, which also included a section on the formation of the solar system. It said that the sun and planets were formed out of clouds of dust and gas which started swirling around, and formed themselves into a disk with the sun bulging at the center, and the disk eventually becoming the planets. But Grandma was a bit concerned, she said, because the book did not mention the role of God in the creation of the Earth. I assured her that God had caused the gas clouds to swirl. "After all," I reasoned, "You don't think those clouds started swirling around by themselves, do you?" St. Anselm, eat your heart out.

These days, we think gravity might have something to do with it.

But that wasn't the embarrassing part either.

No, the embarrassing part came when the book described the structure of the Earth. It said something of the nature, "The Earth is like a baseball, with its core of hard rubber, surrounded by packed string, covered in a thin layer of horsehide." It probably went on to point out that the earth has a molten core, surrounded by a thick mantle, covered in a thin crust, on which we live. Unfortunately, that wasn't clear to me. I thought they meant that the Earth was covered in a thin layer of horsehide. Disbelieving, I read it several times. This posed some problems:

  1. All those poor horseys! (I worshipped horses.)
  2. Where did the dirt come from?
  3. For that matter, where did the horses come from? Didn't the horses evolve (of course I knew about that---I read about the eohippus in Prehistoric Mammals) on the Earth? Did the horses originally come from another planet? Or, was there some other covering to the earth before horses arose?
  4. Who sewed the horsehides into the earth's covering? And why? Did God do that? What did He have against horses, anyway?

Eventually, I suppose, someone straightened me out, but I was awfully confused there for a while.

Anyhow, a check of my book list shows that I have 64 of these books, of which 49 are unique titles. The books came, not only in the paperback editions I had as a child, but in slightly fancier hardback editions with glossy covers, and also as "library editions", sturdily made with cloth covers. I have some of each of those. Most of them were collected at various book sales in the Bay Area. But my first week in Australia, the local hospital held a "fete", which included sort of a communal garage sale, and there I found a How and Why Wonder Book. It was as if a new planet swam into my ken. I had no idea that the books had penetrated into the Antipodes. Afterwards, I eagerly searched the local university book fair, bravely wading into the blood-drenched pit that was the children's section, and snatching at any blue-yellow-pink bars I saw, before the slavering mothers could find them.

In this way I found the coveted The Tower of London book, which was not published in the US, but that's the only UK-specific one I have.