"Logic will get you from A to Z: Imagination will get you everywhere."
– Albert Einstein
Science is more than a little bit imposing for me. Like most people, I love modern technology and all the gifts that come from it, but I've always felt that I just don't have the kind of mind that can easily comprehend the science behind that technology that I love. I always got rotten grades in my science classes in school. That failure has helped to build in me a real fear and dislike of pure science. Many scientific disciplines have always seemed as remote and confusing to me as a foreign language — they're mysterious and intriguing, but also baffling and intensely weird for me.
Over the years I've convinced myself that I just don't have the patience or mindset to allow myself to comprehend the strange behaviors of quarks or the amazing behavior of light beams or the almost uncomprehendingly vastness of the universe. The mysteries and complexities that come from that knowledge have been extremely daunting for me.
Thankfully Ian Flitcroft and Britt Spencer have come along, with their new book Journey by Starlight (based on the blog of the same name) to fill the gaps in my knowledge.
Journey by Starlight is a fun and often breezy survey of science. Narrated by their version of Albert Einstein — who they show as being alternatively silly, profound and extremely patient — Flitcroft and Spencer take readers through a quick 200-page survey of the mysteries of science, specifically created to be thoroughly readable and comprehensible for the average reader.
Most importantly, this book is written in a way that sparks the reader's imagination. Flitcroft and Spencer take pains to spark the reader's creative juices as they travel through space in time with interesting detours along the way. The artistic side of my brain was sparked by the clever simplicity of many of the ideas that the creators present in this book, because of the interesting way that they present the science.
For example, I thought the page above that describes terraforming was a smart, clever, concise explanation of a scientific theory that I've found confusing in other books. I especially enjoyed how Spencer uses the middle grid to show the science behind this explanation, then follows that up with clever illustrations in the third row to make his point. Finally thanks to this simple explanation, I was able to understand the fundamentals of this complicated scientific idea. I doubt I would have really gotten the concept if I hadn't seen it depicted in comics form.
Occasionally this book gets a bit philosophical, as with the small detour above, that puts the reader on a journey towards the seemingly simple question of what science actually is. There's an awful lot going on in this page, both graphically and philosophically. I wonder if the book sometimes gets too dense, tries to present too many graphical concepts on one page, for its own good. Does the complexity of the page work in favor or against the explanation that Flitcroft and Spencer are trying to show us? The ideas presented in Journey by Starlight are often challenging; pages like this one occasionally make it feel like the writer and artist trying a bit too hard to keep this story moving cheerfully along.
You can see that sometimes the team gets a little overly convoluted for their own good, like in the page above. From a storytelling standpoint, this page feels overly busy for the reader to easily focus on: the art is a bit too discursive and distracting from the main point of the page. Though the focus of this page is supposed to be on muons, a lot of the action on the page is focused on other topics — Einstein in a straightjacket, the scientists talking, the leap between relativity and space-time — with the eventual result that the description of the science is sometimes slightly lost beneath all the fluff that's intended to make this book more readable.
Other times everything seems just right. The clever and interesting page above, describing the incredibly eccentric Johannes Kepler, is filled with just the right amount of anecdote to get me to like crazy old Kepler. But how can anybody not like a guy who was thoughtful enough to bring a moose to a party and then get the moose drunk?
Journey by Starlight is a book intended for arts geeks like me. It's meant for people who want to know more about the General Theory of Relativity, or get an insight into how many stars are in the galaxy, or what makes up comets, or learn the eyepopping story about how Henry Ford wanted to use alcohol to power cars rather than gasoline. Heck, it's a great book to hear about Greek myths or learn the true story of the Jesuit priest who came up with the Big Bang Theory (not the show with Sheldon and Leonard) or the eccentric habits of slightly mad scientists.
More than anything, Journey by Starlight is also a perfect book to help spark middle- or high-school age kids with a love of science. I'm sure that's a big part of why Flitcroft and Spencer created this book. I hope this book will get more kids interested in science — or at least help kids survive their difficult science classs. Journey by Starlight could be a cornerstone of the science section of smart school libraries to help spark an interest in science among the kids who don't have an affinity for these sometimes obscure ideas. I know I wish a book like this had been available when I was struggling through my high school physics class.