Myra here.

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We are excited to join Kidlit Frenzy’s Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge. We would also be linking our nonfiction choices with our reading themes throughout the year. For September-October (til first week of November), we are featuring “Black Holes and Parallel Universes: Marvels of Science and Speculative Fiction.”

Iphigene has outdone herself with this beautiful widget she created.
Iphigene has outdone herself with this beautiful widget she created.

These two picturebook biographies were wizards of their generation as they invented ways to make life infinitely easier for humankind through their infectious passion, unwavering enthusiasm, and unparalleled brilliance.

IMG_6491Electrical Wizard: How Nikola Tesla Lit Up The World

Written by: Elizabeth Rusch Illustrated by: Oliver Dominguez
Published byCandlewick Press, 2013
Borrowed from the Jurong West Public Library. Book photos taken by me.

While Thomas Alva Edison is a name that is hugely familiar to me, I knew very little, if at all, about Nikola Tesla. I was fascinated by this Serbian-American’s contributions to society and how steadfast he was with his vision and his intention to .. as the title says.. light up the world.

I particularly like the quote that was cited at the beginning of the book, as it showed how his earlier experiments, predilections, and fascinations as a young boy eventually led him to his destiny:

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“[A young inventor’s] first endeavors are purely instinctive, promptings of an imagination vivid and undisciplined. As we grow older reason asserts itself and we become more and more systematic and designing. But those early impulses, though not immediately productive, are of the greatest moment and may shape our very destinies.”

As I was reading this book, I immediately thought how appropriate this story would be – as I introduce the notion of ‘scientific revolutions’ and the power of ‘paradigm shifts’ and how political (and even petty) the scientific community can get when the seemingly-established notions are challenged – in my own higher-degree class.

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Tesla was not easily discouraged even when his hero, Thomas Alva Edison, refused to acknowledge the truth of his statements and even challenged his views which evidently threatened Edison’s existing empire. This was subsequently known as the “War of the Currents” which culminated during the Chicago World’s Fair which was the very first fair lit with electricity.

Click on the image to be taken to the websource.
Click on the image to be taken to the websource.

I was drawn by Tesla’s tenacity and the formidable strength of his vision. Dominguez’s art further illuminated this story, allowing the reader to immerse herself in the narrative. Teachers would also be very happy to note that there are detailed scientific notes found at the end of the book that breaks down the elements and magic of how alternating current works, as well as a more detailed biography of Tesla and the rivalry between Tesla and Edison. You may also want to pair this book with Michael Dooling’s Young Thomas Edison which I reviewed here.

The Boy Who Loved Math: The Improbable Life of Paul ErdósIMG_6483

Written by: Deborah Heiligman Pictures by: LeUyen Pham
Published by: Roaring Book Press, 2013
Borrowed from the Jurong West Public Library. Book photos taken by me.

Mathematics is a subject that is often hated or feared by a large number of students who may find it too complex or difficult. And so it is with great joy that I finally found a picturebook that celebrates the beauty and intricacies of math equations and fractions, the possibilities of infinity and negative numbers. I didn’t even know about this mathematician from Budapest, Hungary who fell in love with maths when he was still a very young child.

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Similar to most biographies written about eminent scientists, mathematicians, highly-creative individuals, Paul also had trouble in school. He refused to follow the rules set by his teachers and he seemed to manifest what is known in gifted and talented literature as psychomotor overexcitability:

School! Mama sent him to school, of course, when it was time. But Paul and school were not a good match. Paul could not sit still for long. So he got up and ran around the classroom. But that was against the rules.

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Paul eventually dropped out and was homeschooled by his mother who happened to be a math teacher. I was also amused when I discovered that while Paul can do lightning-speed mental calculations and solve math puzzles in a flash, he was pretty much dependent when it comes to everyday, routine tasks such as buttering his toast, cooking his meal, or tying his shoes!

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This was not much of an issue, really, until the time when he became world-famous and invitations from universities overseas started pouring in. Who will cut his meat? Prepare his clothes? Pay his bills? This conundrum was short-lived as Paul charmed all his foreign friends who welcomed him in their homes. Paul played with their epsilons (his colleagues’ children), and would occasionally make a mess in his host’s kitchen or wake them up at ungodly hours to do math because his mind was already open. One of his finest contributions was his ability to bring like-minded brilliant minds together with the force of his passion, his evident brilliance, and unceasing questions about number theories, probabilistic methods, combinatorics, and so much more!

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… Paul Erdos was a genius – and he shared his brain. He helped people with their math problems and gave them more problems to do. Plus, he was a math matchmaker. He introduced mathematicians all over the world to one another so they could work together.

It was clear from the story how highly-esteemed this man was in mathematics circles such that friends refer to the Erdos number to talk about their points of connection with him:

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Teachers would be happy to note how extensive the backmatter of this lovely picturebook biography is. In LeUyen Pham’s detailed Illustrator’s Notes, she noted how she stumbled across a sketch which inspired her to create the art seen above:

It is an early incarnation of the Erdos number in graph form and helped to turn Paul Erdos into a cult figure for the mathematical world. I found it such a lovely gesture as well, that the man whose life had been devoted to math could himself be the center of such a complicated graph, and it was the inspiration for the drawing on these pages.

This is truly a book to savor and enjoy. Find it and share it with your students and children. It is quite an experience seeing math through Paul Erdos’ eyes.

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Reading Challenge Update: 264-265 (25)

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Nonfiction PictureBook Challenge: 58-59 (25)

3 comments on “[Nonfiction Wednesday] Of Mathematicians and Electrical Wizards: Nikola Tesla and Paul Erdós

  1. I loved the Erdos book, will look for the Tesla book for my daughter, who loves his story, persistent and so wronged by Edison. It will make a fun gift for her! Thanks, Myra.

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  2. Two favourites here for me Myra! My class and I LOVED The Boy Who Loved Math – it was one of our favourites last year in my class. I also found the Tesla title fascinating. I love all of the things you highlighted in this post – both fantastic titles.

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  3. I’ll agree with everyone for the booklove of The Boy Who Loved Math. I haven’t read Electrical Wizard yet but may read that with the Carl Sagan nfpb.

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