September 6, 2012

The Heart of Matter

It’s back-to-school season, and as emerging minds get to work across the world, it's time to once again laud the physicists who make an effort to reach out to non-scientists: only by corresponding across the esoteric boundary, I think, can the reverberative effects of new information--even new facts--make an impact at a sociological level. Knowledge, after all, doesn't do much in a vacuum; any epistemological system needs feedback and impact and even collapse in order to thrive. Think about classical mechanics, and the ways in which different theoretical evolutions tested and pushed at its tenets: some survived, others were rejected, and still others were incorporated into quantum mechanics but understood as part of an altered paradigm. Entanglements and transfigurations work at a particular level, but also at a discursive one: and my favorite form of discourse, the kinds of texts listed in the library on this site, are often purposefully inclusive, and allow anyone curious enough to participate in the larger social-scientific conversation.

Because of the highly complex and abstract nature of new physics, though, an important sector of the world's population is often overlooked: kids. Can concepts like decoherence or string theory be explained using simple language? It would be tough, because the metaphorical and analogical tools so often relied on by scientists would have no referent to someone in grade school; and moreover, it would be boring. The books I love don't have photos, they don't have texture, and they're not LCD screens. Even though the Higgs boson is the most exciting thing happening in the world right now, it's a tough sell to a person with a 20-second attention span.

Luckily, the folks at Papadakis Publishing have provided us with a clever and charming solution: the gorgeously detailed pop-up book Voyage to the Heart of  Matter: The ATLAS Experiment at CERN by Anton Radevsky and Emma Sanders. From time travel to particle collisions to a history of the universe, the many details of the LHC come to life in colorful and interactive ways. Accompanied by accurate, actual photos of the collider and its parts, and featuring big and intricately constructed cardboard pop-up designs, it's the perfect kid-friendly introduction to our universe's mysteries. After all, future Einsteins are out there, they just need to be inspired; and what better way to catapult young imaginations to new heights than building a miniature version of ATLAS at home? 

And: once the spark is ignited, the World Science Festival, New York Hall of Science, and Brookhaven National Laboratory are all enchanting and engaging places to introduce someone small to the wonders of physics. 

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