We started them with the book What’s the Matter with Albert Einstein? by Frieda Wishinsky and then without mentioning the connection I brought out The Time and Space of Uncle Albert by Russel Stannard and waited to see how long it would take for the children to figure out that the scientist uncle Albert of the second story was the same as the character in the first.
Russel Stannard’s book is a chapter book, probably meant for older children or young teenagers. My four year old quickly lost interest. My seven year old gobbled it up. The story itself is of Albert helping his niece, named Gedanken (German for thought or mind), do a project for school. He imagines up a magical spaceship which Gedanken then travels in, chasing light, testing clocks and generally learning about the special theory of relativity. The attempts to give Einstein’s Gedankenexperiment a personal story seemed a little strained. There was not enough detail for my children to be able to relate to her and just enough detail to make her seem like she was definitely from a different time and place than them. Yet the science was so easily presented that the book is well worth reading and the children could relate to it. It used things they are familiar with, like escalators and sailboats, to explain relativity.
The third book on our little exploration of relativity doesn’t actually mention Einstein. The book is called Icarus at the Edge of Time by Brian Greene, and the copy we have is a board book such as one would give to little children. The pictures show scenes of space with a big black circle growing bigger and bigger. The story is a retelling of the Greek legend, where Icarus flies to close to a black hole without calculating the effects of the slowing of time. As a result when he moves away from the black hole thousands of years have past and everyone he knew is long gone.
Mr. Greene’s version of Icarus reminded me of an Irish story where a warrior travels into fairy-land only to return to find his father and everyone he knew long dead. So I challenged the children to try to rewrite the story as a space-travel story, where perhaps a long-lived alien species takes the prince off to a different planet forgetting to warn him that time would be passing more quickly on Earth than while they travel. This becomes a Gedankenexperiment of our own. When does time seem to go faster? From the point of view of the time-travelers, wouldn’t it be life on Earth moving slower? Can we do a rewrite of the story, or not?
Next we turned to Albert Einstein, A Life of Genius for a history of Albert’s life. I choose this book from the pile of library books because it looked like it contained the types of little details that would attract the children’s attention. They laughed over the image of Albert having water gun fights with neighbouring children. They talked about how Albert felt responsible for having encouraged the Americans to build the atomic bomb, and I suggested that the Americans might have built it anyway, without his encouragement. They speculated over whether it was a genetic mutation, expression of recessive genes, a birth injury or the way in which he kept using his brain that resulted in his brain being slightly different. They liked hearing that he loved cookies and that he would concentrate so hard on what he was working on that he’d leave dishes undone and forgot his apartment keys on his wedding day.
Yesterday one of my sons told someone that Albert Einstein hadn’t died all that long ago. “Wasn’t it in the fifties?” the person said. “Yes, just fifty years before I was born,” my son answered. I realized that the two people had different concepts of what “not long ago” means. Strangely it was the older person thinking fifty years is along time ago, and it was my son who thought its quite recent. I suspect that comes partly from us spending so much time studying ancient history. Fifty years is a drop in the hat when you know the names of 6,000 year old Pharaohs. Later in the day we were talking about another event and the same son could recognize that the event was after Einstein had died. Einstein’s death has become a marker, at least for us for the next while, by which we can measure time. How fitting!
Affiliate links to the books mentioned above:
What’s the Matter with Albert?: A Story of Albert Einstein
The Time and Space of Uncle Albert
Icarus at the Edge of Time
Albert Einstein: A Life of Genius (Snapshots Images of People & Places in History)