Sunday, September 11, 2016

61 Books: #44

The project: to read 61 books, of whatever sort—short, long; literature, schlock; prose, poetry: you name it—before December 4, 2016.

The first ten books can be seen here. The second ten are here. Nos. 21–43 are below this post.

44. Jennifer Berne, On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein, with illustrations by Vladimir Radunsky (2013) (9/10/16)
It is admittedly difficult to distill history and science into a picture book intended for young children. I found this book to be an unsatis- fying mishmash of sophisticated ideas, way oversimplified, and "quirky," "endearing" traits that somehow help to define Einstein as the genius he was.

On the one hand, we have the young Einstein "zipping through the countryside on his bicycle," when he looks up and sees beams of sunlight "speeding from the sun to the Earth." What would it be like to ride one of those beams, he wonders. "And in his mind, right then and there, Albert was no longer on his bicycle, no longer on the country road . . . he was racing through space on a beam of light. It was the biggest, most exciting thought Albert had ever had. And it filled his mind with questions."

Okay, fair enough: he was full of curiosity, and started to read: about light and sound, heat and magnetism, and "gravity, the invisible force that pulls us down toward our planet, and keeps the moon from floating away into outer space."

But then we see a man who, having graduated from college in physics and math, sits around pondering how sugar dissolves in tea or smoke dissipates into the wind. Those are such basic, elemental, nonatomic processes: do they really lead to the next statement: "He began to figure it out. He thought about the idea that everything is made out of teeny, tiny, moving bits of stuff—far too tiny to see—tiny bits called 'atoms.' Some people didn't believe that atoms existed, but Albert's figuring helped prove that everything in the world is made of atoms . . . even sugar and tea, even smoke and air. Even Albert and you."

This is what I mean by oversimplification. The existence of atoms had been philosophically proposed since Greek times, and was well accepted by the early 1800s, "when the blossoming science of chemistry produced discoveries that only the concept of atoms could explain" (Wikipedia, q.v. "Atom"). Granted, Einstein's theoretical work helped the scientist Jean Perrin to experimentally determine the mass and dimension of atoms, thus verifying those important 19th-century theories. So the above statement isn't exactly false. It just strikes me as misleading, suggesting that Einstein himself somehow "came up" with the idea of atoms.

Perhaps what I object to is making a picture book about Einstein in the first place. This book caused me to look him up in Wikipedia, and it's astonishing how complicated and rewarding his life was: something one fails to appreciate from a simplified notion of him as an eccentric who liked to think while sailing in his little sailboat, who would play his violin when having a tough time with a tricky problem, and who was known "in the town where he lived" (he actually lived lots of places, including Princeton, N.J., for the last 22 years of his life, a refugee from Nazi Germany) for "wandering around, deep in thought. Sometimes eating an ice-cream cone," and typically wearing no socks. "He said now that he was grown up, no one could tell him to put on his socks."

Of course, one of the points of this book is to present someone who thought big, "until the very last minute of the very last day of his life. He asked questions never asked before. Found answers never found before. And dreamed up ideas never dreamed before"—and to encourage young readers to do the same. As the author's dedication puts it: "To the next Einstein, who is probably a child now." That's a worthy message.

My first thought is, I should just stay away from biography picture-books, real life being too messy to distill into a few broad strokes. But I have another one on my stack, devoted to
e. e. cummings. Let's see how that one fares in my estimation. Coming up soon!

No comments:

Post a Comment