Books for Children: Making the smallest matter to the small: Russell Stannard's new book makes fun of mind-boggling theories of the physical universe - Michael Glover reports

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The Independent Culture
THERE are several books around at the moment which seem to establish, once and for all, that physicists and novelists are not engaged in totally different kinds of activity; that there is as much daring and beauty, as many bold flights of fancy, in the ruminations of a scientist as in the work of the so- called creative writer. For adults, Alan Lightman's novel Einstein's Dreams re-creates the circumstances in which Einstein, a young patents clerk marooned in the sleepy Swiss-German town of Basle in 1905, might have conducted his gedanken experiments, those flights of imagination in which he speculated upon the nature and activity of time, space and matter, gradually groping his way towards his Special and General Theories of Relativity in 1905 and 1907 respectively.

And this month Russell Stannard, Professor of Physics at the Open University, publishes Uncle Albert and the Quantum Quest (Faber pounds 9.99), the third in a continuing series of books for children about the eccentric scientist Uncle Albert and his teenage niece Gedanken; books in which Stannard has tried to explain such matters as slow-motion time (The Time and Space of Uncle Albert), the nature of black holes (Black Holes and Uncle Albert), and the physical structure of the universe (World of 1001 Mysteries).

Stannard is a benign pedagogue who has proceeded from the assumption that children of 10 and above not only need to know about Einstein's theories of relativity, but can be made to understand them in some of their awe-inspiring complexity. What matters, of course, is the way in which they are explained, and Stannard's explanations generally proceed from the concrete to the abstract because, as he has himself explained, that is consistent with the way in which a child acquires information. There is no provision that requires the theories of relativity to be taught in schools - and, in Professor Stannard's view, this is both a tragedy and an act of supreme irresponsibility. Why? Because if Einstein's intellectual comprehensiveness is ignored - or deemed to be too difficult or abstract a subject to broach - what hope can there be of explaining the physics of the universe in its entirety? What is left is so much intellectual flotsam and jetsam, often learned by rote: the periodic table, the nature of the atom, and so on.

The latest book by Stannard explores the physics of the very small. What are the smallest constituent parts of matter? The only way to find out is for Uncle Albert to shrink Gedanken until she becomes as small as, or even smaller than, the atoms themselves. Gedanken, who in her fictional past has been catapulted into the outer galaxies by means of her uncle's astonishing thought-bubbles, is more than willing to play the guinea pig once again in this new pursuit of the tiny world of jumping quarks and electrons.

To be Gedanken's companions in her pursuit of the near-invisible Stannard borrows various characters from Alice in Wonderland - a bemused and unhappy White Rabbit, recently appointed Chief Scientist to the Queen of Hearts, who is Gedanken's assistant when she experiments with the diffraction of light; a skittish pack of cards who help to sort out the atoms into their correct piles. One of the most difficult challenges concerns the nature of light itself, whether it consists of waves or particles, or both. As with the earlier Albert books, this one concludes with a quiz to test how much of the message has been absorbed.

Stannard's success in making the science itself comprehensible to the age-group seems confirmed by the flood of enthusiastic correspondence received by his publishers. Especially commended by his young readers are some of his simple, telling comparisons between everyday and scientific objects. But, as a fictional device, Alice is perhaps a little too juvenile for children of 10 and above. Earlier books have sometimes lacked imaginative variousness - in spite of the author's belief in the concrete presentation of theoretical matters, too much has been explained by the vehicle of conversation alone, and the conversations themselves have had a habit of becoming too densely packed with abstruse facts. Nor has Stannard succeeded in breathing much imaginative life into the characters of Uncle Albert and Gedanken themselves. His prose makes the strange seem mundane; perhaps a little too mundane.

These small criticisms apart, there is no denying the great value of the enterprise. Anyone who examines recent books about the sciences for children of eight and above - The Dorling Kindersley Science Encyclopaedia ( pounds 25), Kingfisher's Science and Technology; a Visual Factfinder ( pounds 7.99) or Eyes on the Universe (Joy Richardson, Hodder pounds 8.99), for example - will immediately see how little attempt is being made to describe the nature and scope of Einstein's breathtaking achievements. And for all the bold strides that have been taken by graphic artists in recent years, there is seldom any effort made to represent visually what Stannard can tell us in a few more words: the fact, for

example, that the galaxies in our universe and all the stars within those galaxies are moving away from each other in all directions simultaneously because the space itself is expanding in all directions - like a rubber sheet being pulled at all four corners, the rubber sheet that Gedanken happens to spot tucked away in the corner of the laboratory of Imaginary Universes . . .

(Photograph omitted)