Infinity and Me: A Lovely Picture-Book at the Nexus of Science, Philosophy, and Love
By Maria Popova
By the time mathematician John Wallis pioneered the lemniscate — that familiar “napping eight” — as the symbol for infinity in 1655, the human mind had been grappling with the notion of the infinite for millennia. But if infinity occupies some of our smartest scientists and is the subject of philosophers’ most mind-bending thought experiments, how can young minds wrap themselves around this bamboozlement? That’s what writer Kate Hosford explores in Infinity and Me (public library) — an infinitely delightful parable of the inescapable humanity we bring to even the most intellectually ambitious inquiries, told in gorgeous illustrations by Polish-born artist Gabi Swiatkowska.
The book is all kinds of heartening — in a culture where great children’s books about science are hard to come by, and where only 31% of children’s books feature female protagonists and a mere 3% star people of color, here comes Uma, a little girl of multiethnic background who contemplates one of the most cerebrally stretching questions of science.
The night I got my new red shoes, I couldn’t wait to wear them to school. I was too excited to sleep, so I went outside and sat on the lawn. When I looked up, I shivered. The sky seemed so huge and cold.
How many stars were in the sky?
A million? A billion?
Maybe the number was as big as infinity.
I started to feel very, very small, how could I even think about something as big as infinity?
Animated by this unnerving question, Uma turns to the people in her life for an answer.
Her classmate imagines infinity as a number so immense that he wouldn’t be able to write it out even if he lived forever.
Her grandmother compares infinity to an enormous family tree with ancestry going back countless generations.
Her teacher likens infinity to never-ending music that loops in circle.
The more Uma ponders infinity, the more she realizes that it is inseparable from eternity — and the notion of “forever” confounds and captivates her just as much. The question of personal continuity is, after all, one of the greatest mysteries of human life.
I started to wonder, what would I like to do forever?
At first, I thought that I might like to have recess forever.
But if there’s no school before recess, and no school after recess, is it really recess anymore?
Maybe I’d like to be eight forever, but I didn’t know if Samantha would still want to be my best friend when she was eighty-five and I was still eight.
As she tussles with these grand questions through her various encounters, Uma grows increasingly disheartened that no one seems to notice her glorious red shoes. But when she returns home and grandma greets her with a favorite meal, both of Uma’s unsettlements are suddenly and surprisingly resolved as she discovers the one thread of which infinity and eternity are woven:
“Uma, I meant to tell you this morning — those are the most beautiful shoes I have ever seen!”
I didn’t hear the rest of what Grandma said. I was too busy smiling. Right then I knew — my love for her was as big as infinity.
Pair the marvelous Infinity and Me with the picture-book biography of legendary mathematician Paul Erdos. For a grownup counterpart, revisit astrophysicist Janna Levin’s letters to her mother on whether the universe is infinite or finite.
Published September 14, 2015