National Writing Project

Why I Write: Arvind Gupta Plays with the Words of Science

Date: October 7, 2011

Summary: Arvind Gupta, an Indian toy inventor and popularizer of science for kids, is known for turning trash into seriously entertaining, well-designed toys that kids can build themselves—while learning basic principles of science and design. He brings a similar spirit of exploratory playfulness to writing about science.

 

I primarily write because there are readers. In 1986, I wrote my first book—Matchstick Models & Other Science Experiments. It was translated in 12 Indian languages and sold close to a million copies. I was flooded with letters from children, teachers, and parents who liked the science activities. This inspired me to write more.

I also write because I have something to say. In India, rare is a school which has a science lab. All science is learned by rote. Children mug up definitions and formulas and spit them out in exams. The government hasn't the money to put science labs in schools. Labs with burettes, pipettes, and kids in white coats are expensive. So the science equipment is permanently locked in cupboards to gather dust. People forget that the most precious and sacred piece of apparatus in the whole lab is the child's mind!

People forget that the most precious and sacred piece of apparatus in the whole lab is the child's mind!

Unlike disciplines like literature and civics, science lends itself to learning through experiments. Children are born experimenters and they learn a great deal without being taught. And this they do by using the humblest materials. In India it's amazing to see the number of toys children make using leaves, broom sticks, crown caps, match boxes, old pens, and cycle tubes. Our consumerist society produces mountains of junk—plastic bottles, ice-cream sticks, cardboard boxes, straws, tetrapaks—an endless list. Being a tinkerer I share my own passion of making toys from trash through my books with children.

Writing to Flying Fish

Science becomes alive only when children do things. They make a flying fish by making two opposite cuts on the ends of a paper strip and interlocking them. When chucked in the air it tumbles down in circles to their utter delight. This makes it fun. Next they draw little sequential pictures of the fish and write short how-to-make-it instructions. And because children wrote them, they can read them too.

Frank Smith in his seminal book Reading gave a profound slogan: "Reading is learned by reading." I suspect the same to be true of writing. The more the children write, the better they get at it.

Isaac Asimov remains my favorite science writer. Before introducing a technical term he first teaches you to pronounce it. He then explains its genesis so that you understand it better. And soon you become good friends with it. Asimov confessed that he was in the business of rewriting, and only after reading ten boring books could he churn out a lucid masterpiece!

Soap Bubbles by C. V. Boys remains my favorite science book. It is much more than science. It is poetry in words. We have gotten this book translated in several Indian languages. Sometimes I write poems because I feel they convey more intensely and passionately than prose. I wrote a poem on Vitiglio (PDF) for a support group, which gave me deep inner satisfaction.

After the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster in Japan, I was depressed and swore to do something positive. I think my best book is the Story of Solar Energy (PDF)—a non-technical picture book which brings about the possibilities of this amazing, non-polluting perpetual source of energy.

Lastly, I translate a lot of books in my language—Hindi. There is terrible dearth of good material in Hindi, which is spoken by 400 million Indians. I endeavor to bring the best world literature in Hindi. Over the years I have translated over 140 books on education, peace, anti-war, environment, science, mathematics, and also great children's books from all over the world. Sometimes I find a publisher but most times I don't. But that doesn't deter me. I make a pdf document of my translation and upload it on my website: Arvind Gupta Toys .

Everyone is a writer—and everyone can also be a publisher and find readers to hear why you have to say.

Watch Arvind Gupta's TED Talk

About the Author Arvind Gupta is an Indian toy inventor and popularizer of science for kids. Creating simple toys out of trash and everyday goods, he illustrates principles of science and design in a memorably hands-on fashion. He works at the Children's Science Centre in Pune, India.

He's the author of numerous books available in English, Hindi and other Indian languages, including Little Toys, Science from Scrap (PDF), and Science Skills & Thrills: The Best of Arvind Gupta (PDF). His Low-Cost Equipment for Science and Technology Eduction is available as a PDF download through UNESCO. Many of his toy designs are explained in one-minute films.

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