Russell Stannard on a non-fiction character who enjoys the popularity of a storybook hero
What gave me the idea of writing the Uncle Albert books?
I had long wanted to share with others my own excitement and sense of wonder at the extraordinary discoveries of Albert Einstein – his Theory of Relativity, and his contributions to Quantum Theory. But I found I could make little or no headway with adults. When it came to the new ideas of space and time, and the bizarre behaviour of sub-atomic particles, they would shy away from me mumbling, ‘I’m sorry, but I was never any good with physics at school.’ Or, ‘I don’t believe it. It’s against common sense.’
It was Einstein himself who once described common sense as ‘that layer of prejudice laid down in the mind prior to the age of 18’. Exactly! That’s why I resolved to try out these ideas on children instead. Children’s minds are more open than those of most adults; they are eager to learn, and still possess that precious gift of wonder. They have yet to learn that Relativity is supposed to be too difficult for them.
So it was I embarked on The Time and Space of Uncle Albert, the first in the Uncle Albert trilogy. It describes how nothing can travel faster than light; the faster you go, the heavier you become; space squashes up; and time slows down. Go fast enough and you could live forever. These ideas are wrapped up in a story – one that reads like science fiction, but is actually based on scientific fact. ‘What I like about your stories is that you learn things without knowing it,’ declared one young reader.
But do children learn from the books? An early version of each book was trialled in a number of schools on a random sample of 10-12 year-olds. Having read the book, they were asked questions, not only to do with whether they had enjoyed it and found it interesting (78% did), but they had also to sit a written exam to test their comprehension of the underlying science. The results were most gratifying.
The rest, as they say, is history. Shortlisted for both the non-fiction Children’s Science Book Prize and the Whitbread Children’s Novel of the Year, the Uncle Albert books are now in 15 translations. The third book in the series, Uncle Albert and the Quantum Quest, became the Number 1 children’s best-seller, and even got to Number 5 in the overall paperback best-seller list (for one week!).
I found my involvement with children enormous fun. There was so much I wanted to share with them. Further books followed in rapid succession: World of 1001 Mysteries; A Short History of God, Me and the Universe (a flap-book for five- to seven-year-olds); Our Universe (recently nominated for the Carnegie Medal and the Rhone-Poulenc Children’s Science Book Prize); and Here I Am!. The latter looks at religious belief and how that might be squared with the scientific outlook. Although I am myself a committed Christian, the book does not set out to make converts; rather it aims to raise questions about the meaning of life, and encourage readers to make up their own minds on the issues, based on the information provided concerning science, theology and different interpretations of The Bible. Like my other books, Here I Am! was progressively developed through trials conducted in schools, this time under the guidance of Religious Education teachers.
One of the things that has surprised me about my books is the number that are being used as a basis for school lessons. This I had not expected; one could hardly regard subjects such as Relativity and Quantum Theory as having much bearing on the National Curriculum. Their popularity with teachers appears to derive from the fact that children enjoy them; they find them stimulating. At a time when there is a marked drift away from the sciences – particularly from my own subject of physics – it makes a pleasant change. What’s more, having been fired with enthusiasm over, for example, the exotic black hole gravitational effects of General Relativity, the children appear more willing to learn other things about gravity – the aspects that do later figure in the National Curriculum. Motivation is everything!
Something else that has surprised me is the number of letters I receive from children (many of them addressed to Uncle Albert himself). Often they include some deep and profound question which, presumably, their parents haven’t managed to handle. These range from ‘How did the world begin?’ and ‘When God dies, who’ll be the next God?’ to ‘How can you be sure that the light has gone out once you have shut the fridge door?’ In my very latest book, Letters to Uncle Albert, we reproduce a first selection of these letters (complete with spelling mistakes and drawings) and I try to answer them as best I can – on behalf of Uncle Albert. I’ve heard that this book, like the others, is already finding its way into the classroom. At the back of the book there is an invitation to readers – those who are being fobbed off by parents to teachers – to write to Uncle Albert with their mind-boggling questions. Who knows, their letter might appear in a subsequent book in the Letters series!
Russell Stannard is Professor of Physics at the Open University at Milton Keynes. He has recently spent a year in America as Visiting Fellow at the Center of Theological Inquiry, Princeton. His books listed below are published by Faber, unless otherwise stated:
The Time and Space of Uncle Albert, 0 571 14282 6, £3.99 pbk
Black Holes and Uncle Albert, 0 571 14452 7, £8.99; 0 571 14453 5, £3.99 pbk
Uncle Albert and the Quantum Quest, 0 571 17066 8, £9.99; 0 571 17344 6, £3.99 pbk
Here I Am!, 0 571 16612 1, £8.99; 0 571 16829 9, £3.99 pbk
World of 1001 Mysteries, 0 571 16775 6, £9.99; 0 571 17049 8, £3.99 pbk
A Short History of God, Me and the Universe, Hunt & Thorpe, 1 85608 200 8, £5.99
Our Universe: A Guide To What’s Out There, Kingfisher, 1 85697 317 4, £9.99 (see Ted Percy’s review in BfK 92, May 1995)
Letters to Uncle Albert, 0 571 17508 2, £5.99 pbk