Monday, March 4, 2013

Forests and trees

Last week Brian Greene, the physicist and mathematician, gave a lecture at the University of Colorado in Boulder. Greene is the author of several books about relativity, quantum mechanics, string theory, parallel universes, and other fields of contemporary physics. He’s also hosted two Nova series dealing with the same subjects on PBS. Several members of my family attended his presentation, including my 14-year-old son Jamie.

Greene talked about string theory, multiple dimensions, and the multiverse. The hall, which holds more than 2,000 people, was completely full (apparently that many more people showed up but couldn’t get in, which struck me as pretty remarkable).

The audience included lots of physicists — even a few Nobel laureates. But many of us were non-scientists, so the talk, which presented mathematical, theoretical, and observational arguments for the existence of multiple universes, had to accommodate a wide range of educational backgrounds. Greene managed this by placing his main points in a linear historical context and by using stories, analogies, and images rather than advanced math to explain his hypotheses. He’s quite good at this. When I talked to Jamie afterward, I found that he’d understood the essential points of the lecture even though his freshman physical science course hasn’t progressed beyond Newton’s physical laws.

There’s an obvious connection here to writing nonfiction picture books about subjects like evolution, geology, and astronomy for an audience with a limited scientific vocabulary. Before I go there, however, one more story.

When I was a graduate student in design school, I taught an introductory photography course for four semesters. This was in the pre-digital era, so in addition to the aesthetics of the medium the class covered many of the technical  aspects of B&W photography: the relationship of f-stop and shutter speed, the process and chemistry of film development and printing, and so on. The first two times I taught the class, I just turned the students loose to make images, and we covered the technical issues as they arose. The quality of the final product — a B&W print — was pretty abysmal, at least for a while. But the class was having fun making pictures. As an experiment, I decided to try a different approach during the third semester. I spent the first few weeks of class explaining the technical side of the process before we started making images. Depth of field, freezing motion, reciprocity failure, the chemistry of film, that sort of thing. And the students were bored to death. I can’t ignore the possibility that my limitations as an instructor were at least partly to blame. But it was pretty clear that jumping right into the heart of the process — making images — was much more rewarding.

Based on own experiences as a student — and on those of my three children ­— something similar often happens in school science classes. The beautiful, awe-inspiring parts — the power and elegance of Darwin’s theory, the way Einstein changed our fundamental understanding of the world, Watson and Crick’s incredible discovery of the digital nature of life — get buried in an often intimidating deluge of formulas and facts to be memorized. It’s a forest and trees problem. This isn’t intended as a criticism of science teachers, who have a prescribed — and, sadly, often circumscribed — curriculum to get through in a short period of time.

Instead, it’s another way to think about what we do as authors. We know that children — even very young children — can often understand complex scientific concepts as long as they are presented in a context and with a vocabulary that makes use of what they already understand about the world. A 32-page book (I’m talking picture books, but these ideas are just as applicable to longer chapter books for older children) presents the same sort of challenge that Brian Greene faced in explaining a significant chunk of  modern physics to a lay audience in an hour and a half. Children’s book authors also use stories, analogies, and images to make complex concepts understandable. We have no choice but to skip over many of the technical details and get right to the heart of an idea.

1 comment:

Vicki Cobb said...

I found this post fascinating, Steve. I'd love to hear Greene talk, myself. You have very nicely stated exactly how I construct my books. My Science Play series for preschool kids is an inquiry-based sequence of questions that lead to very exciting, non-intuitive conclusions using empirical evidence and reasoning that even young children seem to have in abundance. My book, I See Myself, which is why you see yourself in a mirror, teaches three concepts: everything we see due to reflection of light, the angle of incidence of a light beam equals the angle of reflection, in mirrors light beams are not scattered but are reflected perfectly. Of course, I never use these terms in my book but I've seen how kids internalize these concepts and exhibit their comprehension in sometimes startling and brilliant ways. We may be depriving children by not exposing them to intellectual challenges. Burdening science students with TMI is one way to turn them off before they ever experience the rush of pleasure that comes from grasping a BIG idea.