Atoms and elements inspire characters in physicists's new book for elementary students

POUGHKEEPSIE, NY -- In their new physics-inspired fiction for grade 3-6 readers, Adventures in Atomville: The Macroscope, two college professors first and foremost tell a story. At the same time, their characters are hardly run-of-the-mill. The Wise Old Proton, Lord Neon, and the Royal Benzenes, for example, emulate charged particles and elements in the periodic table.

"If children come away from reading the book with certain physics terms floating around in their minds for later on, then great," said Jill Linz, a senior teaching associate at Skidmore College, in Saratoga, NY, and Cindy Schwarz, a professor of physics at Vassar College, in Poughkeepsie, NY. "But our goal was not necessarily to teach atomic physics to children. It is a story plain and simple."

Nevertheless, real world science is woven throughout the story, and Schwarz and Linz explained that, "Less than 1% of our population is exposed to this kind of material."

Both also acknowledge that a beloved literary wizard initially motivated their storytelling, which they call a new type of "science" fiction. "We decided to go for a popular media approach after learning that students of this age are more inclined to learn about characters like Harry Potter and his magic," the co-authors said.


Expected to be the first entry in a series, Adventures in Atomville: The Macroscope tells the story of best friends Livvie, an oxygen atom in the band "The 03s", and Niles, a nitrogen atom. Together they accidentally invent a "macroscope" which allows them to see into the Outer World of human beings. Their journey begins when they rescue Penelope (The Wise Old Proton) and must find a way to get her back to her home in New Clayon. Other characters include Ollie and Odetta, the oxygen twins, Ms. Na, a sodium atom and teacher, and Ol' Louie, a lead atom who is so large and immovable that the other atoms call him a tree.

Jill Linz has been developing versions of the Adventures in Atomville characters for over twenty years, as tools for teaching physics to liberal arts students at Skidmore. Cindy Schwarz proved to be a perfect partner for the book. She earlier edited Tales from the Subatomic Zoo, a compilation of short stories and poems with subatomic particles as the main characters, all written by Vassar students in Schwarz's longtime physics course for non-science majors. The co-authors chose Niles to narrate their story on the advice of Nancy Willard, who is both a winner of Newbury and Caldecott awards for her children's literature (A Visit to William Blake's Inn) and an English lecturer at Vassar.

Warren Gregory contributed fanciful black and white illustrations to the text. For the very animated full-color cover illustrations of Livvie and Niles, the co-authors worked with Hyperspective Studios of Honolulu to add another scientific touch: each character's color matches the emission spectrum of their associated oxygen and nitrogen atoms (respectively a shade of violet, and a blend of orange and green).

Schwarz and Linz have also partnered with the State of Hawaii's Creativity Academies, a standards-based curriculum initiative that fuses arts, science and technology to support STEM education (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). The initiative will not only use Adventures in Atomville to support the Creativity Academies program, it will also work with Kapiolani Community College's New Media Arts program to advance the Adventures in Atomville website and related animation. The website will address scientific terms in the book and provide further explanations.


Adventures in Atomville: The Macroscope (2009, Small World Books)

Written by Jill Linz and Cindy Schwarz

Illustrated by Warren Gregory

96 pages



Jill Linz received her master’s degree in theoretical physics from RPI in 1991 and has been a member of the physics faculty at Skidmore College since 1992. Her own experiences have been non-traditional, as she entered the field of physics with a background in classical music. In the belief that physics education should begin as early as possible, she created the Physics Outreach Project in 2000. This project has brought physics to elementary age students and culminated with the production of two broadcast quality videos

Cindy Schwarz is a professor of physics at Vassar College. She has a Ph.D. in experimental particle physics from Yale University. She has authored several books and one multimedia CD- ROM. Her first book, A Tour of the Subatomic Zoo, won the American Library Association Award for Outstanding Academic Book and is now out in a second edition. She also edited and published Tales from the Subatomic Zoo, a collection of short stories and poems written by her Vassar students where subatomic particles are the characters. Her passion is making physics accessible and interesting to all.

Vassar College is a highly selective, coeducational, independent, residential liberal arts college founded in 1861.

Posted by Office of Communications Tuesday, June 23, 2009