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Icarus at the Edge of Time - book review

In the ancient Greek tale, Daedalus fashioned wings from wood and wax so that he and his son Icarus could escape from Crete. Daedalus warned Icarus not to fly too close to the water nor to fly too high. However, in the excitement of flying, Icarus forgot all of that as he swooped and soared. When he flew too high, the Sun melted the wax and he dropped into the sea and drowned.

The story of Icarus is one that has been told again and again throughout the ages. But how might this story be set in the future and told to a modern audience? Brian Greene - author, broadcaster, professor of physics and parent - has shown us one possibility. He's even incorporated some pretty fancy physics without there being any danger of a panic reaction from his readers.

The wings of Greene's Icarus are a little one-person spacecraft with a drive that he himself has designed. Icarus is the fourth generation of a traveling space colony on its way from Earth to Proxima Centauri to meet the intelligent civilization that has been detected there. He never knew Earth and he knows that he will not live to see their destination either. He feels like a prisoner with no escape.

When the expedition discovers a black hole, Icarus sees a chance to do something unique. He wants to explore the black hole and has calculated how close he can get to it and still return.

I should mention that black holes aren't actually holes in space. They're regions where a large volume of matter has collapsed into an unimaginably tiny space. We call them black because we can't see them. This is due to a gravitational pull so strong that not even light escapes it. They don't suck things up like a cosmic vacuum cleaner, but anything that gets too close will simply not have enough energy to escape.

Icarus's father is a concerned parent to the impetuous youth who dashes off before anyone can stop him. Is his father right, has Icarus forgotten something crucial? Or are Icarus's calculations right, so that he won't be pulled in?

I'll leave these questions with you for a bit and go to the book itself. It's an illustrated, 30-page board book (printed on thick cardboard rather than paper). I have some misgivings about its being a board book, because I associate these with young children and feel that this book seems more likely to appeal to the 7 to 11-year-old range. The book is also quite heavy to hold, which might put off some readers.

However I had no misgivings about Chip Kidd's graphics. The story isn't illustrated in a traditional way. It doesn't even show the characters or the spacecraft. Instead each spread is a Hubble Space Telescope picture. There is a black dot on one, which gets larger on subsequent pages as the black hole gets closer. I realize that I've already said that you can't see a black hole, but I still found this a very effective convention for advancing the story and increasing the tension.

Green's prose is very economical. I have read his popular science books and admire him as a writer, but this is particularly impressive. It is difficult to tell a complex story in few words and he has done an admirable job of suggesting more than he tells you. He leaves space for a reader's imagination.

By the way, both Icarus and his father are right.

Icarus zips neatly around the black hole and then pulls away. He can't wait to tell everyone, but he can't get an answer from the ship, for there was something Icarus had forgotten. Einstein tells us that gravity slows time. The stronger the gravitational field, the stronger the effect. There is even a difference on Earth between the timekeeping of a clock at sea level and one at high altitude which is farther away from the center of Earth's gravity. It's a tiny effect, but confirmed by experiment.

Icarus is not pulled into the black hole. Yet for what seems to be a short time to him, Icarus has been in a strong gravitational field. When he tries to contact the ship, it has been gone for thousands of years. Everyone he ever knew has been long dead.

The story does, in fact, end on a more upbeat note than this, but I'll leave something for readers to find out.

In the back of the book there are thumbnails of the Hubble pictures and also a brief explanation of the science behind the story.

I still wonder how older children have responded to the board format, but I guess they would find the pictures irresistible, as would younger ones. This tough format means the book can be read - or just looked at - over and over. And it probably would be. I think an inquisitive child, an imaginative child, or one already interested in space, would take to this attractive book.

NOTE: The copy of Icarus at the Edge of Time which I read was purchased by me with my own funds.

Icarus at the Edge of Time, author: Brian Greene, published by Alfred A. Knopf: 2008, ISBN: 978-0-307-26888-4

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