How To Make Your Kid Grow Up Like Me

The other day, I realised I could only remember two of the kids' science fiction series that shaped my young mind.

First and foremost, beyond question, were the Danny Dunn books.

I loved them, not least because they made a solid attempt at getting the physics right.


When people get shrunk to the size of ants in practically any other sci-fi or fantasy story you care to name, they carry on with their lives more or less as normal in their scary new world of bus-sized cockroaches and bean-bag-sized blood cells, or whatever.

Which is wrong, for the same reason that it's wrong that Superman is so often able to take a firm grip of one end of a battleship or something and lift it bodily out of the water.

We can accept that normal physics doesn't apply to Superman himself, just as we can accept that absent-minded Professor Bullfinch in Danny Dunn and the Smallifying Machine has indeed managed to construct the eponymous Machine. But Superman doesn't magically make the battleship as tough as he is just by laying hands on it. The ship is still subject to normal physics, so when Clark grabs and lifts he should end up with two large handfuls of torn steel, and look like an idiot.

(Image Comics did this right at one point, with the new and clueless Mighty Man trying to lift a car by the bumper and, of course, just ripping the bumper off.)

Anyway, when Danny and company get shrunk, they find they can't walk any more. Because, of course, the acceleration due to gravity is still 9.8 metres per second squared, and if you're scaled down to a thousandth of what you were, that now looks like 9.8 kilometres per second squared.

So if you're standing up and tilt slightly forward with the intention of starting to walk, BANG you're on the ground. Just like an ant would be, if it tried to stand on its hind legs.

You suffer no damage, since scaling down makes you tougher in scale terms, but bipedal locomotion is completely out of the question unless your body and consciousness are accelerated by the same factor by which they've been shrunk.

Which, in the Dunn stories and in all of the crappy Incredible Voyage/Honey I Screwed Up The Physics Hollywood versions, they never have been.

So there.

(Warning! This sort of thing can lead to long conversations later in life about the stability of the Ringworld, which is even worse than prolonged Monty Python quoting when you're at a party and should be meeting girls.)

The other sci-fi(ish) series I could remember was Norman Hunter's immortal Professor Branestawm series, which takes a lot more liberties with physics but is plainly doing so in the service of humour. Branestawm is more of a wizard than a professor; he'd be perfectly at home in Unseen University.

(The Branestawm books, or at least the good editions of them, were also illustrated by nobody less than W. Heath Robinson!)

There was another series, though, that I just couldn't pin down. I could remember it featured a family adventuring around the galaxy in an old spaceship, with memory implanting machines to school the kids, and the spaceship needed its engines de-coked in at least one book... nope, no useful search strings arising from those memories.

(I include them here so that now someone who can only remember the de-coking, or indeed decoking, or decoked or decoke or coke engines spaceship books, will find this post.)

Anyway, considerable Google-bashing finally reminded me that those books were the Dragonfall 5 (or indeed but incorrectly Dragonfall Five, frustrated searchers!) series.

All three of these series are significantly dated these days, but I think that, in itself, has more educational value for the kind of nine-year-old who'll find them interesting. They're all out of print, too, but seem pretty easy to find on the used market, and should be available from any half-decent library.

17 Responses to “How To Make Your Kid Grow Up Like Me”

  1. evilspoons Says:

    For me, my very first science fiction series was Isaac Asimov's "Lucky Starr" series, starting with "David Starr, Space Ranger". Pay no heed to the fact these were penned 40 or so years before I started reading them, they still got me addicted to absolutely everything Asimov has written. (This, of course, lead me to virtually every Asimov short story in print, the Foundation series, the Robots series, and their eventual convergence...).

    I will also make sure any children of mine (haha...) are required to read the "His Dark Materials" trilogy by Philip Pullman.

  2. dmiller Says:

    I read a book when I was a kid based on people who got shrunk and had to get across a garden. Result - fights with ants, a bit in a bottle in a stream and something to do with flamethrowers... I cant find it on google...

    Anyone know what I mean?


  3. RichVR Says:

    I clearly remember Danny Dunn and the Homework Machine. As a child I was very annoyed to find out that by making the computer do his homework he had to essentially learn the subjects and learn how to program the computer as well. Thus making his original task harder instead of easier. Ripoff!

  4. RichVR Says:

    My first ever science fiction series was the Lensman series by E.E "Doc" Smith. Bad science at it's trashy best! I still love to re-read it occasionally. It made me the science fiction freak that I am today and lead me to Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven and all the rest.

  5. Jax184 Says:

    When I was quite young, I found a tattered copy of Stephen Tall's The Stardust Voyages in a box of books at a garage sale. I don't know why I wanted the book so much, but I did, so I convinced my mother to buy it for me. Despite being pretty well unknown, Stephen Tall managed to create a believable set of characters, and placed them in situations I still remember clearly. I can't say exactly what it was that made his book stand out, but he must have done something right.

  6. Dave@ Says:

    There's also the Mad Scientists' Club, which is basically a bunch of kids who use scientific and engineering principles to have fun. Kind of like a 1960s Mythbusters in some ways.

  7. erikpurne Says:

    I totally see the Superman-battleship thing; it's actually something that's always annoyed me. But why do you say that the acceleration of gravity would be increased? Could you go into more detail? The way I see it, gravity is a force that, being proportional to mass, is expressed in m/s^2 instead of N, since the force varies according to the mass, while the acceleration it produces doesn't. So, assuming you shrink to 1/1000th your original size, and your mass and strength are scaled down accordingly, the force acting on you is also 1/1000th of what it was, and therefore you can walk around normally and go fight ants and whatnot. No? What am I missing?

  8. m56 Says:

    I didn't necessarily follow that argument either, but perhaps it has to do with the fact that your mass probably _wouldn't_ be scaled down with you (same number of atoms, etc) so the force acting on you would be the same. But if your strength was the same, I don't see why that would be a problem. So color me confused.

    What, no Tom Swift books in Australia? The second series (1950's?) is pretty generic (think same generation Hardy Boys books; you guys had those, right? I can't imagine a developed country not subjected to the Hardy Boys.) and not necessarily scientific (he/they tried, I think) but entertaining to a kid, and rather supportive of a science/nerd mentality over jock-ish thought processes, which was nice.

  9. shimavak Says:

    erikpurne & m56,

    I think this might help you get an idea of what Dan meant: Imagine you jump off a structure that is 10 meters tall. After the first second of your jump, you will have fallen about 4.6 meters (you've reached 9.8 m/s (9.8 m/s^2 * 1s), but you started at zero, so your average velocity is 4.6 m/s for 1s => 4.6 m). Now you are about 2 meters tall, so you've fallen roughly 2 body heights. Agreed?

    Now imagine that you are suddenly shrunk to 2mm tall, you will still (neglecting air friction) fall 4.6 meters, but now it is more like 2000 body heights. Which means if the time it took you as a normal person to fall the height of your body was .707s (x=at^2 x/2=a*(t^2)/2 => (x/2)=a*(t/sqrt(2))^2 => t=1/sqrt(2)=0.707s), your new, tiny, body would take a whole lot less time to fall a distance of one body height, to be precise: 0.014s, Your reaction time would be about 1/50th. It gets much worse the farther you fall, but you hopefully get the idea.

    The general point is that you'd be expecting to have about a second from when you lift your foot to when you might hit the ground (moment of inertia changes things, but the same ideas will apply), but you'll only have, say, a hundredth of a second. Human reaction time, by comparison, is around 200 milliseconds, or .2 seconds. You would hit the ground before you could react, in essence.

    Hope that helps!

  10. Joe Bloggs Says:

    >You suffer no damage, since scaling down makes you tougher in scale terms, but bipedal locomotion is completely out of the question unless your body and consciousness are accelerated by the same factor by which they’ve been shrunk.

    Actually Dan, I have been thinking that your consciousness at least SHOULD indeed actually speed up by this same factor.

    Your brain would be shrunk so that all distances between neurons are 1/1000th of what they were, so nerve impulses should reach their destinations 1000 times faster--just like how you can clock a processor with smaller feature size faster.

    And hey, mosquitos certain seem to have much faster reflexes than us poor humans!

  11. DBT Says:

    I have similarly vague memories of Dragonfall 5, though I clearly recall the hard faced "No Crap" temperment of the mother. To paraphrase: "Crying is stupid. If you must do it, cry in fromt of a mirror, so you can realise how stupid you are being". Powerful advice for a young introverted analytical type personality.

  12. Daniel Rutter Says:

    I have been thinking that your consciousness at least SHOULD indeed actually speed up by this same factor.

    It depends on how the writer resolves the various practical problems of the shrink ray.

    As I recall, the Danny Dunn book mentioned a few of these, like for instance the question of whether most of your molecules are being removed by the shrinking machine (in which case many important chemical reactions in your body may now work in horrible new ways) or if your molecules are just being made smaller by it (in which case your tiny-moleculed lungs can no longer get any oxygen out of normal-moleculed air).

  13. Lord Booga Says:

    Somewhat disturbingly, mine was Piers Anthonys 'Bio of a Space Tyrant'... the first real series I read anyway. Certainly not what you'd call G-rated material though...

  14. Nogami Says:

    Yup, I definitely read the Danny Dunn books when I was a kid. I remember one story in particular where there was a virtual-reality dragonfly that was being developed, and the military wanted it (Danny and the gang had to destroy the info to prevent the Govt from getting ahold of the spying tool).

    It took 30 years or so, but that kind of technology is available now.

    I'd like to read the books again (nostalgia). Hopefully they get republished eventually (or scanned).

  15. Nogami Says:

    Incidentally, for the Jay Williams fans out there, another book of his that I quite enjoyed was "The Magic Grandfather".

    I got it as part of a "book of the month club" in elementary school. It was one of the last short novels he wrote before he died, and I really enjoyed it.

  16. Matt W Says:

    What ? No votes for Heinlein (before turning into a nazi) or Harrison, AE van Vogt, even CS Lewis had a reasonable stab at the genre.
    Of course I am geologically old.

  17. cas Says:

    the first SF story i can remember reading was Andre Norton's _Catseye_ when i was in grade 3. That pretty much converted me from reading a lot of ghost & supernatural stories to reading mostly science fiction.

    i still have a soft-spot for Andre Norton's novels (preferably her SF rather than he Witchworld stuff), and tend to collect them when i see them in 2nd-hand bookshops or on ebay or whatever.

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