New Book Explains Albert Einstein and Relativity for Kids
BY KATHY CECERIEMAIL AUTHOR for Wired/Geekdad
Image: Chicago Review Press
Do kids really need to know about relativity? After all, most fourth graders are not going to have to explain the bending of space or the photoelectric test on their standardized tests.
And isn’t there all kinds of fancy math involved?
The fact is, we wouldn’t have cell phones or GPS without an understanding of relativity. Albert Einstein, the discoverer of the theory, is still the top choice in surveys of the most famous living scientist (even though he died in 1955). And E=mc2 is probably the best known scientific equation — even though most people probably don’t understand what it means. Einstein’s work led to the atom bomb, which has shaped history since World War II. In other words, not knowing about Einstein and relativity at an early age means not understanding the basis of modern science, technology, and the world at large.
Einstein and Relativity for Kids by Jerome Pohlen, the newest in the Chicago Review Press series of “For Kids” series of biographies for ages 9 and up, doesn’t worry about whether the topic of relativity is standard elementary school fare. It dives in anyway, presenting equations while assuring readers that they don’t need to know calculus to get the gist of the idea. Cleverly using Einstein’s own device of thought experiments to explain difficult concepts, Pohlen does a good job of describing both the complicated personal life and the complicated work of the man who has come to symbolize “genius” for the last century.
Pohlen employs a readable style that speaks to kids at their own level without talking down to them. It’s a story that a lot of traditional school books would rather not deal with. Einstein was a student who didn’t like to follow the rules. His family was Jewish, which meant that he was discriminated against and ultimately left Europe one step ahead of the Nazis. His schooling was often interrupted by his family’s financial ups and downs. He married against his family’s wishes, had a daughter that he and his wife did not raise, and eventually left her and his two sons to marry his cousin, adopting her two teenage daughters.
But Einstein is also a good role model for children who want to follow their own path. When he could not get into the school of his choosing, he formed study and discussion groups with friends — using them to work out his world-changing formulas. His first wife Meleva, a fellow physics student, and his sister Maja were among his closest advisors. As Pohlen describes, some of his greatest insights came from observations of everyday things like a compass or a city clock.
Like other books in the For Kids series, Albert Einstein and Relativity for Kids includes activities that build on the information in the text. In some books the relationship between the subject matter and the activities are a bit of a stretch, but given the abstract nature of the topic Pohlen does a good job of connecting his projects to the material. They include recreating blue and red “skies” with milky water, trying the bowling ball-on-rubber-sheet with a real bowling ball (or other heavy object) and a bed, a making a cardboard tube version of a toy that demonstrates the Principle of Equivalence, which says that it’s impossible to tell the difference between the effect of acceleration and gravity. He includes the microwave-and-chocolate method of measuring the speed of light (the same experiment my family contributed to one of the Geek Dad books), but also cleverly adapts the classic microwave-and-Peeps experiment to demonstrate how the universe is expanding.
For kids who are ready to start thinking about Big Ideas, Albert Einstein and Relativity for Kids is a great introduction to a man and an equation that are usually considered advanced fare — but are central to everybody’s way of life.