Delaware author mines scientific research for books full of fun experiments with babies, preschoolers and couples
A professional identity crisis combined with a flash of inspiration while trying to get his baby to sleep resulted in a series of books by Bear resident Shaun Gallagher. The first in the series was titled, appropriately enough, Experimenting with Babies.
Gallagher is a software engineer for Monetate in Conshohocken, Pennsylvania, but he spent his early working days as a magazine and newspaper editor. “Journalism was a big part of my identity,” he says.
A few years ago, after he had been writing code for a while, he found that he missed writing words. Then one night, after experimenting with different ways to get his newborn to sleep, “the title of the book came to me,” he recalls. “Wouldn’t that [title] be funny?”
Not just the title—Experimenting With Babies—but also the book proved to be funny. And popular. Just before Christmas it was No. 273 of the 8 million books in Amazon’s rankings.
And in March it was featured on America’s No. 1 TV series. “I couldn’t have asked for a better testimonial,” Gallagher says of the enthusiasm The Big Bang Theory characters showed for his book in front of 13 million viewers on March 7.
In the “Conference Valuation” episode, Penny Hofstadter and Bernadette Rostenkowski-Wolowitz are away at a conference, leaving Penny’s husband, Howard, in charge of their two children. Howard and his besties, Leonard Hofstadter and Sheldon Cooper, and Sheldon’s wife, Amy, are fascinated with how Gallagher’s book makes science fun for families.
They perform what Gallagher calls the “Grabby Hands” experiment: Adults tie a toy on a 2-foot string and spin it clockwise and counterclockwise in front of the infant. Does the baby consistently reach for the toy with the left hand, right hand, or both? And does that choice change over time?
Gallagher’s book explains in layman’s terms the science behind the results and also cites academic papers he had read. For this one, they’re “Unimanual and bimanual tasks and the assessment of handedness in toddlers” from 2000, and the 2009 follow-up “Reaching and grasping a moving object in 6- , 8- , and 10-month-old infants: laterality and performance.” Experimenting With Babies features 49 more experiments that “demonstrate principles of infant development in a fun, easy-to-digest way.”
Pitch, Proposal, Auction
After Gallagher got the idea for the book, he searched for agents and cold-emailed a few. Long story short: a pitch, a proposal, an auction among publishers, followed by tons of research and writing.
Since its 2013 publication, the book has sold more than 50,000 copies and has made back the writer’s advance (which Gallagher says is a rarity). The books are sold online and at Barnes & Noble, and he has seen used copies at the 2nd and Charles store in Christiana.
While he is now a software engineer, Gallagher’s upbringing (“always a writer, always a reader,” says his mother, Betty), his education (a bachelor’s degree in English with a concentration in journalism from the University of Delaware) and his earlier career in magazines and newspapers hint at his true passion.
“I still think of myself as a writer on the interior,” he says, noting that he also has tried to program a computer to write a novel and contemplated writing a mystery like the novels he enjoys.
But first, he’s working on sequels: Experiments for Newlyweds came out last month (the experiments are not limited to newlyweds and can be performed by couples of any status, he writes). Experimenting With Preschoolers is due next year. “People have suggested Experiments With Teens, Experiments With Your Coworkers” as well, he says.
Gallagher works for Monetate mostly from home and writes “whenever I can fit it in. Sometimes first thing in the morning before the kids wake up, sometimes at night after I have finished chores.”
Quiet time is precious: His wife, Tanya, home-schools their children, Joel, 9; Benjamin, 7; and Grace, 4. He says his favorite activities include largely “fun kid things” like building with Legos or going to the park.
To find the 50 experiments for each book, Gallagher says, “I come up with general ideas, enter key words and pore through the literature. Often I go through a half-dozen promising experiments before I find one that I could adapt without too much special equipment and preparation.” He adds wit and insight, such as this: “Insult comedy may have its place on the stage, but when you’re spending time with your spouse, the only roasting you should be doing is preparing the main course for a romantic meal.”
“He writes from the heart,” his mother says.
In Experiments for Newlyweds, the experiments often run longer than those in Experimenting With Babies or use more complicated setups. Still, “I wanted to have experiments whose chief purpose was fun, not a big reveal of your relationship,” Gallagher says.
That said, they can be revelatory. Shaun and Tanya (“she’s willing to do fun and crazy things,” he says) did a few experiments together, and he says she was surprised by how in “Choosing Chocolates,” he chose “the best value”—the scenario in which the subjects maximized the number of chocolates they received together. “After so many years, we’re still learning things about each other,” he says.
Tanya concurs. “These experiments offer fun activities for bonding and getting to know each other in the relationship,” she says.
Gallagher has several reactions to The Big Bang Theory episode. He’s mystified about how somebody connected to the show learned about the book in the first place, excited about seeing parts of the script beforehand, thankful that it bumped up sales and hopeful that it might generate continued buzz.
The episode ends with references to how subjects sometimes don’t know the goal of an experiment—or even that they are in an experiment. When Sheldon says fondly, “We did all these experiments on them, and they didn’t even notice,” he’s referring to the babies. But the audience knows the real subject is Sheldon, because his wife, a neuroscientist, planted the book to encourage him to have kids.