Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Bigger than a Blue Whale

I think my boys run against stereotype (and quite right too- who likes a stereotype?) in generally having a marked preference for story over non fiction in their reading choices. Nevertheless reference books are obviously important and I do my best to bring in titles that will excite us all. History gets a lot of attention; partly due to the satisfyingly large cache of dead King Bills and King Eddies that the British Royal lineage can supply and partly due to the sheer amount of exciting Doom and Weaponry on offer. The frankly terrifying Black Death exhibit at the Museum of London is a well appreciated haunt of ours.

The other  broad 'topic' that we regularly return to (other than toucans for which Eddie has something of a pash.) is Size. The bigger the better. The larger number the better. The contemplation of the infinite best of all.

This is difficult for any of us to get our heads round which I suppose is why we keep coming back to it. The Wonderwise series of reference titles is a fantastic resource. There are 20 of them, covering a wide range of topics, and in theory designed for the 3-6s or so I guess. We have them all (following a lucky find deal on the book people once), and have enjoyed them all, but our favourite is called 'Is a Blue Whale the Biggest Thing There is?' by Robert E. Wells. Here is the introduction:

'This is a book about the UNIVERSE , and other Very Big Things. So it uses Very Big numbers-even MILLIONS and BILLIONS.
To remind you just how big those numbers are, first try counting to a smaller number- ONE HUNDRED. At normal speed that should take about one minute. Keep counting, and you'll reach a THOUSAND in about 12 minutes.
If you decide to continue counting to a MILLION, don't plan on doing anything else for a while. Counting for a steady 10 hours a day, it will take about 3 weeks.
If you are REALLY ambitious and would like to count on to a BILLION, you'd better make that your career. Counting 12 hours a day, it will take you more than 50 years!
This book has some HUNDREDS and THOUSANDS, and LOTS of MILLIONS and BILLIONS. Will it give you big ideas? You can count on it!'

This is seriously useful stuff to me. I can't tell you how much time I spent on long car journeys as a child counting in my head and wondering how feasible it was to count to a million before we reached my Granny's house. Unsurprisingly, not at all as it turns out.

The book takes the starting point of a blue whale's fluke and then escalates out from there to provide visual evidence of how much bigger other things are. We move through a whole blue whale,  Mount Everest, Earth, the Sun, Antares, the Milky Way and finally the Universe. The comparisons are startling shown in this way. There is a great picture for instance, of a putative 100 whales in a jar, and then a platform of 20 of those whale jars to show the size of Everest. It's a book designed for nurseries and Key Stage 1 children and it seriously makes me a little dizzy to read.
Bill became quite obsessed with big numbers after this- so much so- that he got into his first serious falling out with his best friend in the playground about whether Googolplex was a real number or whether he'd made it up.: 'My dad says it doesn't exist'...'well my mum says it does so nyah'...Hang on boys, apparently there aren't even a googol atoms in the Universe so I'm not sure it matters. And my brother told me that so it must be true.

'Is a Blue Whale the Biggest Thing There Is?' written Robert E. Wells, pub. Franklin Watts isbn 978-0-7496-6222-6


  1. I have tried in the past and failed to get copies of this series so I'm experiencing a little bit of envy right now! Do you know Steve Jenkins - he has done some amazing NF books, including at least one on size

  2. Ah...didn't realise I was reviewing something that had gone out of annoying of me! Our library has them all at least. Didn't know Steve Jenkins and just looked him up- looks gorgeous stuff. The trouble with starting this blog (and reading others!) is just how many other books you suddenly start coveting and, ahem, investing in for research purposes..