Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘children’s books’

13 JANUARY, 2014

Weight and Weightlessness: The Science of Life in Space, in Charming Vintage Illustrations

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An impossibly lovely primer on how gravity works and why we don’t fall to the center of the earth daily.

As a lover of vintage children’s books, especially ones about science and space, I was thrilled to chance upon the 1971 gem Weight and Weightlessness (public library; Abe Books) by science writer and then-director of Hayden Planetarium educational services Franklyn M. Branley — which renders him cultural kin to Neil deGrasse Tyson. Written less than two years after the historic Apollo 8 moon landing and featuring impossibly lovely Gorey-esque illustrations by British-born, Canadian-raised, California-based artist Graham Booth, this out-of-print charmer tackles the scientific puzzle of what weightlessness actually is through examples from both everyday life and the fascinating world of space exploration — a subject at once of enormous cultural importance and suffering tragic political neglect at the moment.

When you weigh yourself, you step on a scale. The gravity of the earth pulls you down onto the scale. Suppose you weigh sixty pounds. That means gravity is pulling you with a force of sixty pounds.

The scale tells how strongly gravity is pulling you down toward the center of earth. If there were a deep hole under the scale, gravity would pull you all the way to the center of the earth.

The scale and the floor beneath you keep you from being pulled to the center of the earth. They push up against gravity as gravity pulls down.

You can feel the pressure on the soles of your feet. That’s what a scale really measures. It tells how much push upward there is against the pull of gravity downward.

Suppose, all of a sudden, there was a deep hole under the scale. And suppose you and the scale fell into the hole. You would not feel any push upward on the soles of your feet. There would be nothing pushing upward against the downward pull of gravity. Now the scale would read zero.

As long as you keep falling you would be weightless.

That’s why astronauts in spaceships are weightless. They are falling. Nothing is pushing back against them. They are falling around the earth. The astronauts are falling, the spaceship is falling, and so is everything inside it.

They do not look as if they are falling. But they are.

If the rocket went up straight and then changed direction, gravity would still pull it back to the earth. But now the rocket would not come straight down. It would move in a curved path.

Astronauts like weightlessness for a while. It’s fun to float in space. And it’s funny to see things floating around you.

But after a while, an astronaut gets tired of being weightless. He likes to feel something solid under his feet when he stands up. And he likes to feel a bed under his back when he lies down. Also, it’s nice to have food served on a plate, instead of squeezing it out of a tube.

Weight and Weightlessness is well worth the hunt for a surviving used copy. Complement it with Isaac Asimov on the value of space programs, an illustrated chronicle of the Space Race, and Neil deGrasse Tyson’s moving Senate testimony on the spirit of space exploration.

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10 JANUARY, 2014

Alice in Wonderland Illustrated by Ralph Steadman: A 1973 Gem

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Down the rabbit hole of creative magic, one truly mad hatter at a time.

In the century and a half since Lewis Carroll met little Alice Liddell and imagined around her his Alice in Wonderland, the beloved tale has inspired a wealth of stunning artwork, ranging from John Tenniel’s original illustrations to Leonard Weisgard’s mid-century masterpieces to Salvador Dalí’s little-known heliogravures to Robert Sabuda’s pop-up magic. But among the most singular and weirdly wonderful is the 1973 gem Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland Illustrated by Ralph Steadman (public library; Abe Books). Barely in his mid-thirties at the time, the beloved British cartoonist — best-known today for his collaborations with Hunter S. Thompson and his unmistakable inkblot dog drawings — brings to Carroll’s classic the perfect kind of semi-sensical visual genius, blending the irreverent with the sublime.

(Because, you know, it’s not a tea party until somebody flips the bird.)

Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland Illustrated by Ralph Steadman is an absolute treat in its entirety. Wash it down with The Alice in Wonderland Cookbook.

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08 JANUARY, 2014

Stephen Hawking’s Charming Children’s Book about Time-Travel, Co-Written with His Daughter

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A pig and a supercomputer walk into a black hole…

It’s not uncommon for famous authors of “adult” literature to have also penned lesser-known but no less lovely children’s books — take, for instance, those by Mark Twain, Maya Angelou, James Joyce, E. E> Cummings, and Sylvia Plath. Famous scientists, on the other hand, are more likely to become the subject of a children’s book rather than the author of one. But not so with Stephen Hawking, one of the great geniuses of our time, born on this day in 1942.

In 2007, Hawking wrote George’s Secret Key to the Universe (public library) — a charming, imaginative story about the mesmerism of space and the allure of time-travel, featuring lovely semi-Sendakian crosshatch illustrations by Garry Parsons. What makes the book especially endearing is that Hawking co-wrote it with his daughter Lucy.

One morning, George — a little boy raised by lo-fi, bookish parents who believe technology is evil — discovers that his pet pig Freddy has disappeared. Befuddled, he traces Freddy’s hoofprints to the neighboring house, where he meets a scientist named Greg and his daughter Annie.

Greg warms George up to science — “Science is a wonderful and fascinating subject that helps us understand the world around us and all its marvels,” he says as he shows the boy the enchanting science behind everyday phenomena in the kitchen — and introduces him to his own “pet” of sorts, Cosmos. Cosmos is the world’s most powerful computer and not only speaks but can also empower approved users to travel across space-time.

George is enormously excited about the prospect of time-travel, but he first needs to take the Oath of the Scientist — a promise to only use scientific knowledge for good — in order to become approved.

And so begin the adventures, on which George encounters black holes (and learns — of course! — about how Hawking radiation makes them slowly disintegrate) and floats across four billion years.

George’s Secret Key to the Universe is bound to tickle curious young readers into falling in love with science. Complement it with Hawking’s theory of everything, animated in 150 seconds, then revisit this fantastic 1991 Errol Morris documentary about Hawking.

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