Friday, December 14, 2012

To Infinity ... and Beyond!

Infinity and Me
By Kate Hosford; illus. by Gabi Swiatkowsksa
32 pages, for ages 5-10
Carolrhoda Books (Lerner), 2012

When Uma looks up into the night sky, she is awed by the number of stars. Are there a million? A billion? Or infinity?

What is infinity anyway? That’s what author Kate Hosford explores through Uma’s eyes. Infinity is huge – because no matter how high you count, you can always add one. Uma thinks about writing that really really big number down: “Even if I lived forever, I would never finish.”

Hosford offers a variety of ways to look at infinity: as a family tree; using a cooked spaghetti noodle; as a measure of how much love Uma has for her grandmother. This is the sort of book that would have had my kids cutting strips of paper into ever smaller pieces until they ended up with “an infinity of confetti” – or drawing infinite iterations of a Sierpinski triangle.
So how does a nice country girl end up writing about something as abstract and philosophical as infinity?

Kate: Large numbers are difficult not only for children to conceptualize, but for adults as well. Isn’t this one of the problems with our national debt? We just can’t imagine a number that big (note: $16 trillion and growing) -  if understanding these numbers is difficult, how much harder is it to think about infinity?

Archimedes: But why infinity, as opposed to, say, a billion or a trillion?

Kate: Infinity is a whole different animal – it’s an idea, first and foremost. It can be applied to math, philosophy, science, and religion. It can take the form of a never-ending number, but it can also be used to conceptualize heaven or eternity.

When we attempt to actually think about infinity itself, we cannot do it. The best we can hope for is to imagine what infinity might be like: What would it be like to play a circular piece of music that continued forever?

I also wanted to explore the way that infinity makes us feel. At the end of the day, Uma grapples with this existential question that we all must face; if something can be infinitely large, what does it say about us and our place in the universe?

Archimedes: You must have done some sort of research for your book.

Kate:  The first thing that I did was try to research existing picture books on this topic, and ended up finding almost nothing. After writing a few rough drafts of the story, I began interviewing children. I was completely bowled over by how they defined infinity. For example:

  • Infinity is a made-up number that is supposed to be the last number, but it isn’t really the last number because numbers go on and on.
  • Infinity is when you ask what’s outside of a galaxy, and then outside of that, and on and on.

 I did a good deal of reading on infinity, not only to research the book but also for the curriculum guide. A lot of these things never made it into the book -   things like why we can have infinities of different sizes or why the Hilbert’s Hotel paradox works -  but it became vital to me to understand as much as I could about infinity.  [the Fractal Foundation’s Sierpinski triangle activities did make it into her curriculum.]

From conception to publication, I spent eight years on this book. There were definitely times when my personal definition of infinity was ‘the amount of time it takes to sell a picture book on this topic.’

Archimedes: So where did the red shoes come from?

Kate: I wanted something that would ground the story – a small concern to balance Uma’s larger concern with infinity. Shoes seemed to be the perfect counterpoint. Red is my favorite color, and I have had multiple pairs of red shoes over the years.

Archimedes: Uma cuts a cooked noodle in half and then in half again and again. Have you ever done that?

Kate. Not with a noodle, but I have cut a piece of string into bits.

Kate invites readers who want to share how they imagine infinity to write to her at .  Check out more STEM Friday resources here. Review copy provided by Blue Slip Media.

1 comment:

Jeff Barger said...

Sue, thank you so much! This was a very enlightening interview. I can't believe it took 8 years for someone to publish this wonderful book. That gives me hope. This is one of my favorite books of the year.