Tuesday, March 06, 2018

Book Review: “Richie Doodles,” a picture book about Richard Feynman by M. J. Mouton and J. S. Cuevas

Richie Doodles: The Brilliance of a Young Richard Feynman
Rare Bird Books (February 20, 2018)

I’m weak. I have a hard time saying “no” when offered a free book. And as the pile grows, so does my guilt for not reading them. So when I was offered a free copy of a picture book about Richard Feynman, of course I said “yes.” I’d write some nice words, work off some guilt, and everyone would be happy. How hard could it be?

So the book arrived and I handed it to the twins, that being my great plan reviewing a children’s book. I don’t think the kids understood why someone would give them a book for free just to hear whether they liked it, but then I’m not entirely sure I understand the review business myself.

In any case, my zero-effort review failed at the first hurdle, that being that the book is in English but the twins barely just read German. So “mommy, read!” it was. Except that of course reading wouldn’t have done because, a thousand hours of Peppa Pig notwithstanding, they don’t understand much English either.

I am telling you this so you can properly judge the circumstances under which this, cough, review was conducted. It was me translating English verse on the fly. Oh, yes, the book is in verse. Which you might find silly but I can attest, that seven year olds think it’s the best.

The translation problem was fairly easy to solve – I even managed a rhyme here and there – but the next problem wasn’t. Turns out that the book doesn’t have a plot. It is a series of pictures loosely connected to the text, but it has no storyline. At least I couldn’t find one. There’s a dog named “Hitch” which appears throughout the “Tiny Thinkers” series (so far three books), but the dog is not present on most pages. And even if it’s on the page, it’s not clear why or what it’s doing.

That absence of story was some disappointment. Not like first-graders are demanding when it comes to storytelling. “The dog stole the doodle and the cat found it” would have done. But no plot.

Ok, well, so I made up a plot. Something along the lines that everyone thought Richie was just crazy doing all the doodles but turned out he was a genius. No, I don’t plan making career with this.

The next problem I encountered is that the illustrations are as awesome as the text isn’t. They are professionally done cartoon-style drawings (four-fingered hands and all) with a lovely attention to detail. The particular headache they gave me is that in several images a girl appears and, naturally, my daughters were much more interested in who the girl is and what she is doing rather than what the boy’s squiggly lines have to do with tau neutrinos. Maybe Richie’s sister? The book leaves one guessing.

The final problem appeared on the concluding page, where we see an angry looking (female) math teacher reprimanding a very smug looking boy (we aren’t told who that is) for drawing doodles instead of paying attention to the teacher. The text says “If your teacher sees you doodling in class, and says those silly drawings won’t help you pass… You can explain that your doodle isn’t silly at all. It’s called a Feynman Diagram explaining things that are small.”

I wasn’t amused. Please understand. I have a degree. I can’t possibly tell my kids it’s ok to ignore their math teacher because maybe their drawings will one day revolutionize the world.

So I turned this into an explanation about how math isn’t merely about numbers and calculus, but more generally about relations that can, among others, be represented by drawings. I ended up giving a two-hour lecture on braid groups and set theory.

The book finishes with some biographical notes about Feynman.

On Amazon, the book is marked for Kindergardners, age 4-6. But to even make sense of the images, the children need to know what an atom is, what mathematics is, and what a microscope is. The text is even more demanding: It contains phrases like “quark and antiquark pair” and speaks of particles that repel or attract, and so on.

Because of this I’d have guessed the book is aimed at children age 7 to 10. Or maybe more specifically at children of physicists. Of course I don’t expect a picture book to actually explain how Feynman diagrams work, but the text in the book is so confused I can’t see how a child can make sense of it without an adult who actually knows that stuff.

At some point, for example, the text raises the impression that all particles pass through matter without interaction. “Things so small they pass right through walls!” You have to look at the illustration on the opposite page to figure out this refers only to neutrinos (which are not named in the text). If you don’t already know what neutrinos are, you’ll end up very confused which collisions the later pages refer to.

Another peculiar thing about the book is that besides the “doodles” it says pretty much nothing about Richard Feynman. Bongo drums appear here and there but are not mentioned in the text. A doodle-painted van can be spotted, but is only referred to in the biography. There is also what seems to be an illustration of Schrödinger’s cat experiment and later a “wanted” poster looking for the cat “dead or alive.” Cute, yes, but that too is disconnected from the text.

I got the impression the book is really aimed at children of physicists – or maybe just physicists themselves? – who can fill in the details. And no word of lock-picking!

As you can tell, I wasn’t excited. But then the book wasn’t for me. When I asked the girls for their impression, they said they liked the book because it’s “funny.” Further inquiry revealed that what’s funny about the book are the illustrations. There’s a dog walking through a bucket of paint, leaving behind footprints. That scored highly, let me tell you. There’s a car accident (a scattering event), an apple with a worm inside, and a family of mice living in a hole in the wall. There are also flying noodles and even I haven’t figured out what those are, which made them the funniest thing in the world ever, at least for what my children are concerned.

The book has a foreword by Lawrence Krauss, but since Krauss recently moved to the sinner’s corner, that might turn out to be more of a benefit for Krauss than for the book.

In summary, the illustrations are awesome, the explanations aren’t.

I feel like I should be grateful someone produces children’s books about physics at all. Then again I’m not grateful enough to settle for mediocrity.

Really, why anyone asks me to review books is beyond me.

16 comments:

JimV said...

***** (for the review, not for the book)

John Winward said...

Fairly perfect review.

Euphonium said...

A book in verse?
Can things get much worse?
Super-symmetry and WIMPS may abound
But Bee has treasures which may be found
'Tween the crannies of spacetime
And the folds of the mind --
Which you might find silly but I can attest,
that all us readers think it’s the best.

Uncle Al said...

Social Intent is the triumph of ideas over facts, a Potemkin village. A belly bulging with Social Intent is starvation. "I’d write some nice words, work off some guilt, and everyone would be happy."

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=woY9Vzp40HQ
... Social intent.

Tanner said...

Of course, the excellent and very readable review demonstrates why you get books to review.

Louis Tagliaferro said...

Sabine Said, "Krauss recently moved to the sinner’s"

Would you mind pointing me to what that's about?

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

Louis: This will bring you up to date.

John Anderson said...

You had me laughing my head off. If you were any drier, you would be British.

Perhaps the lesson is the old Redensart "what you don't know won't hurt you" =
Remaining ignorant or uninformed about something will allow you to not have the sense of responsibility to worry or think about it.

Or an obvious alternative explanation is that the book is a prank which is making fun of parents who think 4 to 6 year olds will absorb path integrals subliminally.

Zafa Pi said...

"I wasn’t amused. Please understand. I have a degree. I can’t possibly tell my kids it’s ok to ignore their math teacher because maybe their drawings will one day revolutionize the world."
That was highly amusing.

joneall said...

Could the noodles be the Flying Spaghetti Monster? Don't know what that would be doing in there. In any case, thanks for the review. It's always nice to find a book I don't feel the need or desire to read!

Sadovnik Socratus said...

  '' . . . you can accept nature as She is - absurd.”
 / Richard Feynman /
Why?
Because:
“ We have the laws, but we are not aware what the body
of reference system they belong to, and all our physical
construction appears erected on sand ”.
/ Einstein and Infeld, the book “Evolution of Physics” /
===

wereatheist said...

The reason for you being asked to review books is your perfection of book-reviews. This one was great. May you review many books to come (especially, to help me to avoid them).

Luca said...

Perhaps flying noodles are "cosmic strings"?

Anonymous Snowboarder said...

Bee - A bit off topic, but I know it is something dear to your heart. A man claims to have solved the issue of potholes in Toronto! From the sounds of it, I'm sure the asphalt paving industry would be dead set against anything prolonging the life of the roads but maybe government is tired of spending too? Story is here
Best, AS

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

Snowboarder,

You are alive! Good too hear from you :) Thanks for the link, which I will study with interest, because, look, we have the most giant pothole ever!

Anonymous said...

Hmm, the overall description seems to be a running theme.

I recently was enthusiastic to get a comic book about Freud's life and work, written for adults (no matter I first saw it promoted at a kids' section although it's as explicit as it sounds).

The phrase that better turned out to describe it is exactly "is really aimed at [someone] who can fill in the details". Disconnected plotless incidents that could only be understood by someone already familiar with Freud, in order to understand what the references referred to and what the missing explanations were. I hope that the medium of comics will start offering better services to popular science. Feynman diagrams out of context and phallic symbols out of context can be fun, but only for the first nanosecond.