Roberta Baxter has written books about chemistry and biographies of scientists for young people as well as children’s books about American and British history . Recently, she published John Dalton and the Development of Atomic Theory, a young adult biography of English scientist John Dalton. This week, she chatted with Kidsbiographer about John Dalton’s humility and the challenges of seeing science through the lens of an earlier era.
Kidsbiographer: What sort of research did you do to write about John Dalton’s life and work?
Roberta Baxter: I read any biographies of him that I could find, including an early one written in 1895. Through interlibrary loans, I got copies of his books. There is a wealth of information about him on the University of Manchester’s website and on websites about the history of chemistry. I also read chemistry textbooks to see how his Atomic Theory is presented.
Kidsbiographer: What was the most surprising fact or anecdote you uncovered during your research?
Roberta Baxter: There are two incidents that surprised me and I always like to add those to a book because they might surprise others. Both of these relate to the fact that Dalton was colorblind. No one knew what that meant until he studied and identified the condition. It started when he bought his Quaker mother a pair of stockings for her birthday. Quakers do not wear bright colors, so she was amazed that he bought bright red ones. He told her that to him they were blue. His brother also saw them as blue, so Dalton’s curiosity was aroused. He designed an experiment to find out if others saw colors as he did and eventually found that many boys and men had the same vision. He concluded that his vision was different and he wondered if his eye had a different liquid in it that made him see that way. So he asked that after his death, his eyes would be examined. He would never know the result of the experiment, but it might help other scientists determine what caused colorblindness. His eyes were examined and looked normal, but it was years before scientists knew about rods and cones in the eye that impact how we see colors.
Kidsbiographer: Much of John Dalton and the Development of Atomic Theory concerns Dalton’s forays into meteorology, chemistry, and other sciences. You present his experiments and resulting theories with current information about each topic. What was the most challenging aspect of writing about science in this way for this book in particular and young adults in general?
Roberta Baxter: The biggest challenge is putting yourself into the level of understanding of your subject. For example, we take the idea of atoms and how they combine into molecules in distinct ratios for granted. With scanning tunneling microscopes, we can even “see” atoms. But in Dalton’s time, that was not understood. Scientists thought that some undefined matter changed into each known substance. Through Dalton’s thinking and experimenting, he began to think of atoms in a concrete way, and his work convinced others. To him, atoms were so real that he asked a friend to make some wooden ball models which he used in classes. One of his biographers wrote, “Atoms are round bits of wood invented by Mr. Dalton.”
Kidsbiographer: You’ve penned young adult biographies of other scientific pioneers. What is your background in science, and how did you come to write about scientific history for young people?
Roberta Baxter: I have a degree in chemistry and learned about some of these people and their theories in my classes. I was always intrigued by Dalton and so I proposed a biography about him to Morgan Reynolds because they specialize in biographies. As it turned out, the book about Dalton was the fifth book I wrote for them because we started with scientists who lived before him. My favorite topics to write about are science and history, so biographies of scientists fit both passions.
Kidsbiographer: What do you hope readers will take away from John Dalton and the Development of Atomic Theory?
Roberta Baxter: John Dalton faced great challenges, but accomplished great work. He was not rich or powerful enough to attend the best schools, so he taught himself. His great curiosity led him to explore so many topics—color blindness, aurora borealis, atoms, weather, etc. He spent his entire career as a teacher, doing his weather observations and science experiments on his own time. Even after he became famous, he was humble enough to see himself as a teacher. As the start of my book shows, a Frenchman came looking for the famous Mr. Dalton and thought he would find him surrounded by important people. Instead he found Dalton with one small boy. When the man asked to speak to him, Dalton said yes, once he set the boy right with his arithmetic.
Kidsbiographer: Would you like to discuss any current or upcoming projects?
Roberta Baxter: Another science biography, Ernest Rutherford and the Birth of the Atomic Age, came out from Morgan Reynolds at the same time as the Dalton book. They also will publish one I wrote about Linus Pauling sometime next year. I don’t have any other biographies in the works right now although there are other scientists who would be great subjects. In a departure from my usual projects, I have recently written two books that combine two of my favorite things—science and mysteries. The Vicious Case of the Viral Vaccine and The Harrowing Case of the Hackensack Hacker are published by Tumblehome Learning, and they include short biographies of scientists who are visited by the main characters as they travel through time solving a mystery.