April 23rd, 2012

Books!

Holey moley!

I suppose that I really should read the descriptions of the books being offered in the LibraryThing.com “Early Reviewers” program more carefully, but in my defense, the only indication that this was a kids' book was an offhand thing saying “children and adults alike”, so I was surprised to find that it was a book targeted for the 9-12 age range. Ooops. I suppose that I have looked at other science-books-for-kids previously, so the “Almighty Algorithm” might have taken that into consideration when matching me with this, but frankly, I think there were better matches among the several I'd requested in the February batch.

Fortunately, I happen to have a 12-year-old handy, and cajoled her into reading the book, and providing me with her review of Carolyn Cinami DeCristofano's A Black Hole Is Not a Hole, which follows below. I must admit, however, that I found the book delightful, even from a perspective of having read numerous books which have dealt with the subject. At no point was the science trivialized, although being brought down into language and “idea units” targeted for a Junior High audience. One of the great strengths of the book is its gorgeous and quite informative illustrations, helping to envision some of these difficult concepts much better than most of the “general reader” books on black holes have done.

Before I end up “stealing her thunder”, let me plug in here the review that my daughter Claire wrote about this, as it's, obviously, more germane to the book than my opinions:

A Black Hole is NOT a Hole
By Carolyn Cinami DeCristofano
Reviewed by Claire Tripp
     “A Black Hole is NOT a Hole” is all about explaining the qualities of a black hole. Although it may sound like you are about to read a text book, that is not true! The author was very uplifting and explanatory on the topic. She kept the reader informed and entertained by being very creative in her writing. She also balanced the book out with the history of science and how people approached the topic of outer space, stars, gravity, planets, etc.
     One of the main qualities that surprised me was that not for one minute was I bored or, well, reading a science textbook! I do not really enjoy science, but this book was very enjoyable and fun! The way she approached the topic was clear and kid-friendly, she also included connections to our day-to-day lives as kids! The illustrator, Michael Carroll, also did an amazing job at creating clear and beautiful pictures. They were very accurate to the book.
     The author also had little “chat bubbles” that had little sayings such as “Then what is it?” in reference to the title. This was another example of her creativity in her writing. Overall, the book was very fun and exciting while it was still educational and informed me on the topic.
While I wish she was more interested in Science, I think it's telling that she was as enthusiastic about A Black Hole Is Not a Hole, and I was pleased and surprised that she got her review written up and into my hands with only the barest minimum of reminding (she had put it off until her History Fair project was presented at the Regionals).

Anyway, as I said, this is a remarkably informative and comprehensive look at the current theories involving black holes. Obviously, the author was challenged by the nature of her target audience to step things back to very basic levels, and so the book starts with looking at the Solar system, and the concepts of really big numbers, then comes up with a parallel of a black hole and a whirlpool, and explains that it's “kind of” like that, but not exactly … which then sets up a discussion about gravity (complete with a sketch of an apple bouncing off of Newton's head), with the basic concepts spun out along with some tables of how much various things of a particular size would weigh (a “snowball-sized” black hole would weigh more than 10 earths!). This leads to the very difficult concept of the “event horizon”, which then proceeds into a look at the life cycle of stars, and how stars of various sizes end up doing quite different things when they die.

At this point the book shifts a bit back to some basic astrophysics, looking at how light behaves in assorted contexts (and why it can't get out of a black hole, thus making it “black”), how we can find black holes out in the universe, and lots of pictures of galaxies, etc. in which they've determined there are black holes. Finally, they get to the “thought experiment” part with the obvious question about “what happens to stuff falling in?” and getting into Relativity and non-Newtonian space. I had sort of expected them to get into the “hole in space/time” diagram earlier, but it comes in at this point as a final look at “a hole”. The book concludes with a very interesting timeline (from Newton on), an illustrated glossary, and the author presenting (in a very conversational mode) her sources for the information in the book, along with a more standard list of resources.

Considering the difficulty and complexity of the subject, and the age of its audience, A Black Hole Is Not a Hole does an amazing job of making this understandable, while not (in my daughter's words) making it like reading a textbook. While I might not have learned anything new per se here, I certainly picked up good “images” of how to frame the concepts (like the snowball-sized chart noted above), and I can appreciate the efforts of the illustrator to make these things visible to us terrestrial-bound life forms!

This has only been out a couple of months, so it should be available in the bigger book stores, but (of course) the on-line guys have it, with a discount that would make it cheaper (assuming you add it to other stuff to get free shipping) at this point than getting it from the new/used vendors with their shipping add-on. Again, this is a really remarkable book, and a tour de force in making something very challenging both accessible and entertaining. It's a volume every kid (especially those with an interest in science) should get a hold of!


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