Albert Einstein's Theory of Relativity is our November Non-Fiction Book of the Month and deserves a place on every classroom and bedroom bookshelf. Find out more about the author, Carl Wilkinson, as we grabbed five minutes for a Q&A...
Albert Einstein's Theory of Relativity is your first foray into children's writing - have you found it a challenge?
Yes! I’ve worked as a journalist for 20 years, so I’m used to reading, condensing and explaining fairly complex ideas, but tackling Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and trying to make it accessible to children was a challenge. Thankfully, Einstein was very keen to explain his ideas to everyone - not just scientists and mathematicians - so his writing and the images and thought experiments he used to describe his discoveries really helped with structuring the book and combing the words with James Weston Lewis’ brilliant illustrations.
Is this the first in a series of books about scientists?
This is the first book in a series called Words that Changed the World. The next book, “Charles Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species’ ” by Anna Brett, sounds brilliant and is due to be published in February 2021 by Laurence King.
Did you enjoy STEM subjects when you were at school?
I’ve always been fascinated by how things work, why things happen and the way that science can help to answer the really big questions about the way the world is how it is. I enjoyed science and technology at school, and as a child I would tinker with bits of electrics and once even made my own electric motor with a length of wire, a cork, some pins and magnets - I think my aim was to build something that would open my bedroom curtains without me having to get out of bed! But I don’t think I really appreciated how what we were being taught at school connected with the real world and I went on to study English at university. Now, I love reading about science and scientists, learning about new discoveries and what might be possible in the future.
What sort of books did you enjoy reading when you were a child?
All sorts. I would go through phases, discovering a new series and then reading the lot whether it was The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or Tintin, Willard Price’s Adventure series or Rosemary Sutcliff’s historical fiction. My grandparents had a glass-fronted bookcase filled with old hardback books and every time we stayed, I’d discover something new: Secret Seven; Famous Five; Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island and Kidnapped; RM Ballantyne’s The Coral Island... I was slightly too old for Harry Potter when it came out - but it’s amazing to see my 7-year-old son discovering the same overwhelming pleasure I found in fiction at that age.
Any time for hobbies?
I have three young children, so I don’t have much time for hobbies at the moment - unless reading children’s books and answering lots of questions counts! But when I do have time, I like outdoor swimming and travelling.
Which invention or discovery, from any time in our history, do you think has been the most important? You can choose three...one is too difficult!
Wow! That’s a big question! I think the most important discovery has to be oil as a fuel, about 160 years ago. Following that discovery, the invention of the car and the airplane totally revolutionised the way we live our lives. They’ve shaped our towns and cities, opened up the world to more people, and made everywhere more accessible than ever before. But the burning of fossil fuels has also had a huge impact on our environment. So, I’m particularly excited to see what discoveries and inventions we can come up with in the near future to solve these problems.
Which event in history would you most like to have witnessed?
There are so many! If I had a time machine I’d love to see dinosaurs roaming the earth; walk through the giant redwood forests of north America before humans arrived on the continent; watch the construction of the pyramids in Egypt; see the Wright brothers take off for the first time and witness the moon landings. But I can be transported back to all these things quite well through books. What I’d really like to witness is a time in the far future when humans have worked out how to travel beyond our solar system and explore the universe.
Other than Albert Einstein of course, who is the genius you most greatly admire?
Leonardo da Vinci. As a child I had a book about his life and his work called The Inventions of Leonardo Da Vinci by Charles Gibbs-Smith that I was obsessed with. I used to copy his drawings of machines and strange inventions and try to work out how they could be built. Like Einstein, he was able to imagine and visualise really complex ideas that no one thought possible, and yet today - hundreds of years later - we take many of them for granted.
Music was central to Einstein's life - do you play an instrument and what sort of music do you enjoy listening to?
I’d love to say I’m an accomplished musician like Einstein was, but sadly not! I learned the cornet at school, but I was really not very good. I wish I’d learned the guitar and the piano, they always seemed much cooler; no one ever asks for a cornet solo at a party!
Do you think space travel will become more accessible...and is it something you would like to do?
I think space travel is already becoming more accessible - at least for billionaires - with private companies such as SpaceX taking astronauts to the space station and plans for space tourism. But it takes so much energy to escape Earth’s gravity that unless we discover a clean, cheap and abundant fuel, space travel is not going to be for everyone. I would love to experience zero gravity and walk on the moon, but I think the view from Earth on a clear night is pretty special.