When I told my dad I was writing a children's Science Fiction book, ever supportive he said, 'Mhhh, well I hope it's not Science Fantasy.' I said, 'Well, it's about a girl who goes to school in a satellite, and has adventures with a cowardly band of space pirates. What do you think?' He's a scientist and knows that I very much am not. And up to this point I hadn't really given the actual science behind my story too much thought. Why would I? I've got an encyclopaediac knowledge of Doctor Who, and besides, science is quite hard for me, whereas making stuff up is not.
But it took my seven year old's demand for actual facts about space to shame me into thinking a bit more about the science. Luckily I found two amazing children's books created by teams of scientists and artists that seemed pitched at my level. More than that, Professor Astro Cat and You are Stardust are packed with the sort of mind boggling facts capable of sending your mind tumbling straight into the Star Gate.
Professor Astro Cat's Frontiers of Space, from hip children's imprint Flying Eye, is a monolith sized space primer in the style of an animated US schools information film from the 1950s. It's the product of a partnership between illustrator Ben Newman and physicist Dr. Dominic Walliman. They've created a tiny-trilby wearing cat who delivers a lecture taking us from the big bang, through our solar system, diving into gas planets, plunging down wormholes and supermassive blackholes.
Perhaps inevitably my favourite bits deal with 'Life in the Unknown'. Dominic Walliman doesn't just make up weird shit like me, he uses proper scientific facts to create some really weird made up shit.
I did not know for instance of the existence of 'snotties', bogey like bacteria that can exist in extreme acid conditions. Walliman wonders whether some of the harsher planets could be home to entire species that look like snot monsters? Neither did I know that 'planets with a much lower gravity would allow for plants and animals to grow much bigger, because everything woud be so light.. the sky would be like the ocean on Earth, and you could get giant alien sky whales swimming through the air.'
The section on the Apollo moon missions is also a treat, the vast pages allowing the authors the opportunity to cover the mission in huge detail. As well as the history, we get a damn good explanation as to how rockets actually work and a parade of early space suit fashion.
This is a book to pore over and share. It's jam packed with wittily presented nuggets of amazingness but there was one particular factoid that jammed in my head.
It's the starting point of another book that takes us from space, right back down to earth, with a measure of poetry, science and art to cushion the landing. In You Are Stardust the poetry is written by environmentalist Dr. Elin Kelsey and the three dimensional pictures by artist Soyeaon Kim. But for once here's a book that isn't really best served by the dead tree format. It needs its own room at the natural history museum.
The illustrations are details taken from a set of dioramas created by mixing illustrated cut outs set agains rich, layered backdrops made from vibrant natural materials. As Kim explains, 'I used a special Japanese paper for the backgrounds in all the dioramas. It was full of little fibres from plants and also had lots of tiny gold and silver flakes. It's a lot like stardust.'
We begin with that mind-blowing fact 'Every tiny atom in your body came from a star that exploded long before you were born.' The first diorama shows a paper star splintering into dozens of chinese lanterns filled with the humans, whales and birds they will give birth to. Kim takes the star out of its hard, cold space and fills it with earthy colour, and warm organic materials. 'I used stitching to show how things grow. At first, each single cell, or egg, is fully stitched. But as the creature grows up, it also grows out of its stitches.'
Like Professor Astro Cat there are plenty of facts to impress a science idiot like myself, but dressed up in lovely hippy dippy poetry on the interconnectedness of everything. 'Your breath is alive with the promise of flowers. Each time you blow a kiss to the world you spread pollen that might grow to be a new plant.'
We learn that we are not simply born and then we die, but that our bodies are continually dying and renewing themselves. 'Your body constantly changes. New cells line your stomach every three days. You'll replace your skin 100 times by the time you turn ten. Just as forests grow new trees in place of old ones, you grow entirely new skeletons throughout your life.'
I don't suppose I'll ever really get past remedial level, but I've been inspired to look at the stars a little more closely in future. He might be a grumpy goat, but the old man was probably right about aiming to create something than is more than just science fantasy.