Alfred A. Knopf
|"Icarus at the Edge of Time" features
text by Brian Greene and images from
the Hubble Space Telescope.
Physicist Brian Greene usually writes about string theory and other stuff most adults can't understand, but his latest book is a black-hole tale for kids - and he hopes the idea of turning cutting-edge science into gripping tales will catch on.
"If you had fantastic films like 'Star Wars' that were based on real science - where you go into the film, you get excited about the story, but you leave with an appreciation of some real science - that's a wonderful package," the Columbia University string theorist told me this week. "This book is a very first step in that direction."
The book, "Icarus at the Edge of Time," re-imagines the Greek myth of the boy who flew too close to the sun on waxen wings. Greene has updated the tale with a black hole, spaceships and imagery from the Hubble Space Telescope, combined in a 34-page cardboard storybook that's built to stand up to the worst a preschooler can dish out.
"Icarus" had its genesis in a bedtime story Greene told his 2½-year-old son, about space travelers moving near the speed of light. Afterward, his son began telling his own tales about dinosaurs and monsters outrunning the "speed of dark" - which sparked an inspiration for Greene, author of "The Elegant Universe" and "The Fabric of the Cosmos."
"Since having kids, I've felt more of a need to connect with readers on a more emotional, visceral level," Greene explained.
In recent years, Greene has branched out from his research in theoretical physics to focus also on public understanding of science, through his books as well as through the World Science Festival, which he co-founded. The challenge of getting kids interested in science is particularly acute nowadays, when so many kids get their thrills from movies and video games rather than chemistry sets and electronics kits.
Scott Gries / Getty Images
|Physicist Brian Greene is co-founder of the World Science Festival.
"If science was dealing only with the things that Newton dealt with - flying through the air, or the motion of the moon - that's great stuff, but it doesn't really have a chance of competing with all the distraction and noise of the 21st-century world, " Greene told me.
"But the physics of black holes, the quantum physics of elementary particles, the possibility of extra dimensions, maybe black holes at the Large Hadron Collider ... all of those do have the capacity to have a powerful grip on kids and adults, as long as it's presented in a way that doesn't get them bogged down in details that they don't need to know to get excited about the science," he said.
"Icarus" plays off the mystery of black holes and the implications of Albert Einstein's general theory of relativity. Black holes are chunks of collapsed matter so dense that not even light waves can escape their gravitational pull. But that's not the only weird thing about them: Such concentrations of mass distort space and time if you get too close - and that's what causes all the trouble for Greene's space-age Icarus.
"Rather than fashioning wax wings and flying too near the sun, a boy in essence takes a spaceship of his design and flies near a black hole," Greene said. "Just as in the original Icarus tale, his father warns him against doing that. He is as headstrong in this version as he was in the original. The main difference is in the end. Rather than paying the ultimate price for not heeding his father's warning ... Einstein's general relativity kicks in, and gives a twist to the ending that in some ways is more startling but in other ways is more hopeful."
Greene said other out-of-this-world scientific subjects could well benefit from the storybook treatment - such as his own work in string theory and extradimensional physics. "People really light up when I talk about extra dimensions, possibly more than the three we experience," he observed.
"With the LHC coming around, there's a chance it could change everything, and that is where many of us are mentally at the moment," Greene said. "We're waiting for whatever comes out, and if it suggests that there are vast new realms that need to be investigated, we're ready to jump in and do that."
Do you have an extradimensional plot line worthy of a children's storybook tale? Feel free to provide a quick outline below (no more than 200 words, please). The story that gets the best review (from me and other commenters, but mostly from me) will earn its author a copy of a black-hole book for grown-ups, "The Black Hole War" by Leonard Susskind.