Shweta Taneja delves into inventions and discoveries by Indian scientists

Released on February 28, National Science Day, the flip book showcases the wacky side of science


Shweta Taneja is on a mission to make science fun, and she has done it in style with the flip book, They Found What?/They Made What? (Hachette ₹399). The sci-fi and fantasy author, whose short story ‘The Daughter That Bleeds’ was a finalist in the French award Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire, has put together a fun book on the inventions and discoveries by Indian scientists. The book was launched on February 28, National Science Day.

When Shweta thought of a book on science for young readers, she wanted to bring out the wacky side of science. “A creative book that talks about the imagination scientists have, exploring unknown worlds, dreaming and creating things that change societies,” Shweta writes in an email from Arunachal Pradesh where she is holidaying. “Humour and irreverence are important to me, to bring science out of seriousness, which is why this book is peppered with weird things that make children (and some adults) giggle. When I saw that there were two books in this, I suggested to my editor that we should turn it into a flipbook — again something I always wanted to write. The book introduces science, scientific concepts and processes to children, and does it with flair and lots of fun flips.”

The Ghost Hunters of Kurseong (2013), where young Kartik with his friends Tahir and Opus solve a mystery involving hauntings and a dilapidated mansion, was Shweta’s début novel. So writing for young people is not new for her. “The best thing in writing for children is that they are creative readers. Give them nonsensical rat-obsessed characters such as Batty Cat, and they love them. Give them flipbooks, and they will buy it just for the fun of it. The worst thing is, they demand a lot. They are brutally honest and have the attention span of a bumble bee. You have to be creative, concise and entertaining to keep them reading.”

The research for the book Shweta says was quite intense and exhausting but wonderful. “I wanted to create an interactive and accessible book. It had to be about science and not personal stories. I approached it as a journalist, starting with primary sources — my interviewees. I spent hours talking to the scientists, understanding their field and processes. After that there was secondary research. Researching their fields, building up boxes to talk about the bigger scientific field, or even to add facts and anecdotes I found along the way. For example, there is a box on CV Raman and his obsession with diamonds, which made him ask a king for his most precious stones!”

Shweta wanted to approach science as a creative field. “Other than hard work and talent, a scientist needs imagination and a certain ambition.” A scientist, Shweta says needs to be daring to discover something new about nature, to venture into the unknown. “ I find scientists curious and creative; I wanted to bring that out in their stories. From the beginning, as the titles suggest, this book was meant to bring a sense of wonder.”

In the author’s note, Shweta talks of her Eureka moment sitting with Batty and Foxy in her 20th floor apartment in Bengaluru. And who are Batty and Foxy? “They are wacky and can be understood only by kids and some adults,” insists Shweta. “Batty is a rat-obsessed cat who keeps asking all the scientists if they can make machines that produce fat, juicy mice. She thinks of herself as an innovator with rodent-focused research. Foxy is a fox who likes to cross her T’s and dot her I’s. She has been my fact-checker. They have both been an essential part of this book.”

Deciding who gets to be in the book and who does not was tough, Shweta admits. “When I started my research, there were so many talented scientists doing fantastic things that I was overwhelmed. The first step was to keep true to the titles and the idea of wonder that I wanted to pursue when looking at scientists and their work. Did their invention make me go ‘They Made Whaaat?’ with wonder? Did their discovery make me go ‘They Found Whaaat?’,” she adds.

The author of foul-mouthed Anantya Tantrist mysteries says she wrote the Horrible Haikus to add humour to the chapters. “You can question concepts, turn them on their head, become creative, and be irreverent. I learnt it from Arvind Gupta, that marvel of a man who creates toys from trash in Pune. Science is fun, you need to play with it, get your hands dirty. You need to fail at it, but also enjoy the process. Horrible Haikus is my stream of consciousness to bring this idea out.

The book is peppered with fun quizzes. Shweta says they were not very difficult. She had practice in the beginning of her career working on General Knowledge books for children. “I developed a lot of activities, quizzes and crosswords for them.”

Though good at science at school, Shweta says she did not think of it as a career. “I was too much of a storyteller, and I always assumed that science is serious and not for someone who laughed a little too much. My prejudice changed after I got to know researchers and scientists in real life.”

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