Smash: Highly effective meshing of text + illustration to teach a difficult-to-grasp concept

SMASHSmash by Sara Latta & Jeff Weigel

Smash, written by Sara Latta and illustrated by Jeff Weigel, is a clear and concise explanation for young people of the standard model of physics (including the newly discovered Higgs Boson) and in particular of how the giant CERN supercollider contributes to furthering the model’s accuracy/completeness. Saying the book is aimed at the young, however, does it a bit of a disservice, as it works just as well for adults looking for that same clarity and concision.

In tried and true format, Latta has much of the explanation take the form of a dialogue between one knowledgeable person (Sophie, whose parents work at CERN) explaining a difficult concept to one struggling to understand it (her cousin Nick, visiting CERN in hope of finding inspiration for a superhero comic he’s drawing for a contest). As Sophie gives Nick a tour of CERN’s more public facilities, she teaches him the basics of the standard model, describing various particles such as protons, neutrons, and electrons; the various quarks that make up those larger particles, and the several known force carriers such as the photon (electromagnetic force) and gluon (strong force). Thanks to some imagination and Weigel’s drawings, her lecture is supplemented by the appearance of some of the well-known physicists whose discoveries added to the Standard Model. These include J.J. Thomson, discoverer of the electron; George Zweig and Murray Gell-Mann, who proposed and named the quark, and Peter Higgs, who with several colleagues came up with the idea of the Higgs field and the Higgs Boson. Einstein pops in with his famous E = MC squared equation, and then, in a series of cosmic panels the two kids swirl through space as Sophie explains the creation of the universe, starting with the Big Bang, moving through the creation of matter/energy, the formation of galaxies, and eventually ending roughly ten billion years later with “our very own blue marble in space.”

At that point, Sophie’s parents enter the picture (literally), and we get a detailed tour and explanation of the inner workings of the CERN system, including how it gets the particles up to speed, what happens to the particles when they collide, and then the long and eventually successful search for the Higgs Boson. Scientists, though, are never satisfied, and so rather than end there, we learn about several of the largest unanswered questions still facing physicists, such as finding out what dark matter and dark energy are, which together make up perhaps 96% of the universe.

As mentioned at the start, Latta does an excellent job keeping the explanations clear and simple, greatly aided by Weigel’s equally clean illustrations. Latta makes use of several especially clarifying analogies/metaphors, as when she explains how the Higgs Field/Higgs Boson create mass by comparing it to Nick’s grandmother (representing a low-mass particle like an electron) walking through a crowded comics convention: “Everyone just kind of ignores her, and she passes through the crowd easily.” But when, Sophie continues, a “superstar artist” (representing a high-mass particle) walks into the same crowded room, “he’s mobbed. Everybody in the room tries to interact with him and so he moves very slowly across the room . . . because of his interaction with the field.”

Smash is a highly effective meshing of text and illustration to teach a difficult-to-grasp concept, making the story of physics and in particular of the CERN collider and the Higgs Boson compelling both visually and conceptually. Adding a bit of superhero into the mix is a nice pop culture touch (Nick comes up with a superhero team of three: Higgsmann, BottomQuark, and TopQuark) and props as well for not making a big deal of having women scientists but simply presenting the concept as a given. I wouldn’t mind seeing more science-based books from this author-illustrator team.


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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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