A kid-friendly guide to “Furious Forces.”
by Matthew R. Francis
The odds are pretty good that you’ve played Angry Birds, or someone you know has. I’ve played Angry Birds, even though I have to borrow someone else’s smartphone or iPod to do it. (I’ll return it when I’ve finished this level set, I promise.) If you haven’t, it’s a simple puzzle video game, in which you launch cartoon birds from a slingshot at various obstacles, in hopes of destroying the thieving green pigs that stole the birds’ eggs. The interface is based on touch screens: you draw your finger across the screen to aim the birds and adjust the speed at which they are launched. It’s addictive, fun, and appropriate for young kids.
A game like that will inevitably attract the attention of people who love both games and physics. After all, the birds follow parabolic paths — exactly what physics predicts for motion in gravity. (There’s a follow-up game I haven’t played yet, called Angry Birds Space, which has even more fun with gravity.) Some of the birds drop egg-bombs, split into three smaller birds, or experience a boost in speed when you tap them with your finger. Those behaviors all beg the question of whether they obey the expected laws of motion, so physics writer and teacher Rhett Allain wrote a great series of posts analyzing the science of Angry Birds.
However, Allain’s recent book Angry Birds Furious Forces (National Geographic Books, 2013) takes a different tack. He uses Angry Birds as an invitation for kids (or kids-at-heart) to learn about a wide variety of topics in physics, from basic trajectories under the influence of gravity up to relativity and particle physics. The Birds themselves appear on nearly every page, but this isn’t a guide to the game or its specific mechanics — it’s an ambitious tour of the concepts you’d learn in a high school or introductory college course, distilled for a younger curious audience.
Furious Forces introduces each concept in a two-page spread, with a large illustrative picture — a skydiver, two of the Birds talking through a tin-can telephone, a magnet attracting a thieving pig — and a few paragraphs of text. While the book is designed to be read straight through, the format is such that you could use it as a kind of short-entry encyclopedia, selectively looking up concepts like phase transitions between liquid and gas or what the difference is between a permanent magnet and non-magnetic material. Each concept is introduced as slightly more than a thumbnail, so it won’t be the last reference on the subject, but it might well be the first for some important yet tricky topics.
For that reason, I think Furious Forces could be very useful for parents, teachers, or other adult types who need to answer kids’ basic questions about physics. I don’t have a 10-year-old around to test this idea on, but I suspect I could whip this book out as a way to help me bring my professional level of understanding to what a kid could handle. Allain (refreshingly in my view) doesn’t talk down to his audience, either, so a non-scientist grown-up could peruse it alongside younger readers without boredom.
It’s not a perfect book. The topics in Furious Forces are basically those covered in a standard introductory physics book, in nearly the same order. Since this isn’t a textbook, I don’t see why Allain needs to stick to that organizational scheme. (I’m critical of that slavish ordering of topics even in textbooks, but that’s a story for another day.) If you’re using the book as a reference, though, that objection carries less weight. Allain does include material beyond a normal introductory course as well, including cosmology, black holes, and dark matter — subjects that should be included early and often in science classes, since they spark students’ imagination.
Allain also intersperses two-page spreads focusing on one of the Angry Birds characters, talking about their special abilities and personality. These sections include a picture of a physicist or other real-life pioneer without any explanation of who it is and why the reader should care, occasionally with an equation without any description. As with Chekhov’s gun, it’s a bad idea to include this kind of thing without actually using it. I imagine most younger readers will have heard of Galileo by the time they’re ready for Furious Forces, but Sadi Carnot is probably not well known by most non-scientists. (He was a 19th century French engineer who helped develop the concept of entropy, the fundamental quantity describing the loss of usable energy in any realistic system like a steam engine.) If the book can spare room for a personality description of a video game character (whose name isn’t even mentioned in the confines of the game), it has space to talk a little about the people whose faces are included.
However, on balance Furious Forces is a quick, fun tour for kids, those who live around them, or anyone of any age who digs the Angry Birds game and wants to learn some physics. Now to finish this level set so I can return this iPod to its rightful owner….