Hello, science teaching friends! This month’s review/recommend pick has a little something for everyone and many, many ways in which to use it with your students. I am taking a look at the 2017 Ben Mezrich book Woolly. While you may not be familiar with the author’s name or the book, no doubt you have heard of the movies based on his other novels, including Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six MIT Students Who Took Vegas for Millions which was adapted into the movie, 21, or Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook, which was made into the movie The Social Network. Now don’t worry, Woolly has nothing to do with Blackjack, gambling, or eating very inappropriate mammals (you’ll have to read Accidental Billionaires to figure that one out). But, as with his other books, Woolly: The True Story of the Quest to Revive One of History’s Most Iconic Extinct Creatures is a page-turning tale of scientists, financiers, Siberian cowboys, and incredible characters. It was purchased by a movie studio but has been “on ice” (pun intended) since the pandemic began, but I, for one, certainly hope this gets made into a movie soon.
The premise behind Woolly is the story of Dr. George Church, a Harvard geneticist, and his lab’s quest to de-extinct the Woolly Mammoth. The twists and turns of this journey take you from the Arctic Tundra with a young man in a decommissioned Soviet Tank, to a private jet trip in Canada, to the home of a reclusive billionaire willing to spend it all to save the planet. One of the most surprising things about this quest is its intersection with the climate crisis and the unique personality that Mezrich brings to life while weaving the story. Like many of you, I enjoy non-fiction, but, by far, my favorite type of non-fiction is the type that reads just like a novel, weaving you through the tale in real-time and driven by characters and intrigue, and that is just what Ben Mezrich is a genius at. He spent hundreds of hours interviewing the scientists, funders, students, and others introduced in this book, and managed to weave those interviews into a coherent novel that puts you in the center of the action. I should point out that while this is a non-fiction book, there are parts of the story that Mezrich “imagines” into the future, and, as with any novelization of current history, there may be other liberties taken with the storytelling. However, this in no way impedes genuine science.
Now, I hope that intro encouraged you, if nothing less, to grab yourself a copy, curl up in a chair somewhere over a long weekend, or just every night for 20 minutes before bed (my new anti-stress habit attempt for the new year), and enjoy this great book. From a teaching perspective, this book offers a step into both the content we all love and an essential look into the sometimes very messy world of research science. While the easiest way to use this book is the most obvious—assign the students to read it and write or present about it, there are undoubtedly other ways to use it as well. Let me first say, I do not recommend reading this book in pieces! Honestly, it is too good of a sweeping tale to do that. There are, however, many stories within the book that could be used for multiple purposes in science classrooms, so we will take a look at a few specific ones to use as you and your students read the entire book (hopefully) or if you are short on time, look at just a part.
For a good Nature of Science lesson (how real science is done, what a lab is like, the story of a famous researcher), Chapter 3 is an excellent introduction to Dr. Church and his lab at Harvard. For a very different, non-traditional look at science, zoology, etc., Chapter 5 tells the story of Nikita Zimov, a young scientist bringing a girl home to meet his dad. But, unlike most “meet the parents” stories, this one happens on the edge of Siberia, above the Arctic Circle, at a place his dad calls Pleistocene Park (see the resources below for a link to his website—bonus points to students who email him thoughtful questions). For a quick overview of the Woolly project, Chapter 9 gives the background of how it began and why Church got involved; it also offers a unique look at the intersection between the press and science, and how and why things often go so poorly on both ends when revolutionary science breakthroughs are involved.
Venture capital (aka billionaires with money to spend) plays a prominent role in scientific research and often in what gets studied and what does not. In a growing culture of students who question the equity, equality, sustainability, and fairness of the world and the events around them, Chapter 11 could easily be used to help begin a conversation about how science is financed in the U.S. and worldwide. This chapter also tells the story of the American passenger pigeon and its journey from five billion to none as America became populated with European settlers with modern hunting weapons. The ideas about conservation, preservation, and man’s effect on the world around us could all be explored here. For a fantastic look at the discovery of CRISPR (and an excellent, understandable explanation of how it works), Chapter 17 talks about the technology and why it is critical to the Woolly project. Finally, Chapter 25 can help students understand the competitive nature of science and how sometimes intersecting goals can become barriers to moving forward. Mezrich gives us a peek into a lab in South Korea with similar but alternate plans for the de-extinction of a mammoth. The twisting nature of science is on full display as scientists race to find rare samples and be the first to succeed in their groundbreaking and, undoubtedly, financially rewarding mission.
Another advantage of this particular book is that the resources for looking at this story beyond its pages are vast. If you have future veterinarians in your classroom, researching Pleistocene Park and why the chosen animals can live in that environment, and the difficulty in repopulating what is essentially an open-air zoo, could be a great project. For kids interested in old Soviet tanks and massive cars, the Pleistocene Park webpage is like an instruction manual on how to drive through the tundra with many animals and get everyone there safely. For your future scientists, the Woolly project website takes off from where the book left off and can bring your students up to date on where the project is today. They also have several other de-extinction projects, including the passenger pigeon (see Chapter 11), coral, black-footed ferrets, and others.
Future marine biologists will also find good information about their Ocean Genomics Project, which looks at the 10 most significant threats to our oceans and how genomics or biotech might solve them. There are also many news reports on the projects, including many from 2021, when the project received a major donation to continue its work. And, of course, connecting students to primary source articles from Church, Zimov, Yang, and others from the book is a great way to introduce students to the “real world” of scientific literature. A quick Google Scholar search for any of these scientists will find you many good papers. Additionally, shortly before this article went to press, a Nature article was released about the sequencing on the oldest piece of DNA ever, more than 1 million years. Naturally, it was from a Woolly Mammoth (van der Valk et al., 2021).
For accessibility, the book is written on a 9th-10th grade reading level and is available in many languages. Audiobooks are also available; if you check with your media specialist, they may have a way to connect students to these for free. While diversity, equity, and inclusion topics are not directly addressed in the book, the story of how Church’s wife, Ting, is treated differently as a woman in academia is a good opening into this (Chapter 8). The broad international cast of characters helps show science as something other than a white male-dominated profession. One of my favorite stories (Chapter 17) is that of Justin Quinn, a community college graduate who sold used cars to pay for his bachelor’s degree that took him more than ten years to achieve. Despite the lack of a Ph.D., he is as much of the Woolly team as anyone else and can help show students that there are many paths into the field (and a little something about grit as well).
I hope you and your students enjoy Woolly as much as I did and that you find this helpful in your classroom! Questions/comments/something you love with your students you would like to see reviewed? Contact me at email@example.com. ■
•DCIs: 5 of 5 (Too many to list) 🧪🧪🧪🧪🧪
•CCs: 5 of 5 (patterns, cause and effect, structure and function) 🧪🧪🧪🧪🧪
•SEPs: 5 of 5 (asking questions and defining problems, engaging in argument from evidence, constructing explanations and designing solutions, obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information) 🧪🧪🧪🧪🧪
•Ease of Use for Teachers: 5 of 5 🧪🧪🧪🧪🧪
•Interest to Students: 4.5 of 5 🧪🧪🧪🧪🧪
van der Valk, T., P. Pečnerová, D. Díez-del-Molino, A. Bergström, J. Oppenheimer, S. Hartmann, and L. Dalén. 2021. Million-year-old DNA sheds light on the genomic history of mammoths. Nature 591 (7849): 265–269.