February 07, 2019


A Ray of Light: A Book of Science and Wonder. By Walter Wick. Scholastic. $17.99.

     A gorgeously photographed book that makes science come alive with beauty and elegance – but that is marred by frequent, frustrating writing errors – Walter Wick’s A Ray of Light shows both the author’s remarkable photographic skill and flair for picture-book creation, and his need for much-improved editing or a collaborative writer. The beauties of the book abound, and are so many that very young readers can be captured and captivated by the pictures without necessarily wanting to pay much attention to the text. But the text is the reason for the photos, and it does not bode well for the writing when Wick already makes an error in his Acknowledgments: “I would also like to thank high school physics teachers Peter Moore and Joe Mancino for their experience-based wisdom and enthusiasm for the project from the very beginning; and to [thank] Bill Robertson, Professor of Physics & Astronomy at Middle Tennessee State University…” Yes, Wick forgets to thank while giving thanks.

     Few readers will likely care much about the Acknowledgments, but the very first sentence of the book itself shows that Wick has trouble with text: “Everything from the earth beneath our feet, [to] the water we drink, and the air we breathe is made of atoms.” The punctuation could be better, and the omission of that little “to” starts the verbiage in confusion – a real shame, since the words go with a photo that marvelously juxtaposes three stacked rocks with a beaker filled with water and a dish from which vapor is rising. The picture is striking and beautifully balanced, and leads naturally into Wick’s discussion of the difference between matter and energy, in which he aptly notes, “Although light is neither a solid, liquid, nor gas, all three kinds of matter can have a role in its creation.”

     Wick next moves into a brief discussion of incandescence (“light that comes from heat”), then illustrates light waves with some of his most compelling photos: beneath shots of a ball attached to a rod, vibrating at three different speeds so it produces visible waves in water, he shows the colors red, green and blue, explaining that the invisible waves of light create colors in a parallel manner. Followup pages show what happens when light enters a clear, water-filled box head on – compared with what happens when it enters at an angle and is refracted. This leads to a discussion of the color spectrum – and another of the periodic textual irritations: “It should be noted that a photograph, especially those [it should be “one,” or “photographs, especially those”] reproduced in a book, cannot fully capture the purity and intensity of color…”

     A Ray of Light contains much that is fascinating, even revelatory. One page shows a sort of Venn diagram of red, green and blue, explaining that even though red and green paint make brown, red and green light make bright yellow. This leads to an explanation, with still more excellent photos, of the way the color gray results from mixing equal amounts of red, green and blue or cyan, magenta and yellow – and that adjusting the balance of gray’s component colors produces all the colors in the book.

     Again and again, Wick’s photos wonderfully illustrate scientific concepts involving light, while his text stumbles along with greater or lesser effectiveness. In a page on iridescence, for instance, he writes, “If the double reflection of wave crests of any given wavelength perfectly align [it should be “aligns”], that wavelength’s color brightens.”

     Yet the book’s charm and informational quality transcend its verbal blunders. When Wick moves into a discussion and visual presentation of permanent colors – from pigments and dyes – his illustrations make the science come fully alive. He next discuses lenses, unfortunately again with some verbal confusion when writing about sunlight: “Streaming in a window, you’ll feel its warmth” – which would mean you, the reader, are streaming in the window; he intends to say, “When sunlight streams in a window.” Yet again, photos rescue the text, showing how lenses work and explaining that the human eye refracts light the same way simple lenses, such as magnifying glasses, do. Pictures also carry the day in discussing atmospheric light (with a neat explanation of why the sky is blue), showing the relative sizes of Earth and our moon and Earth and the sun, and explaining how sunlight is used to solve the mystery of what the sun is made of. A Ray of Light concludes with two dense, small-type pages giving greater detail on the science behind the book, and they will be welcome further reading for adults who go through the book with children – and for children who become fascinated by science thanks to Wick’s outstanding visualizations. Although it is a shame that Wick’s text does not measure up to the quality of his photographs, it is still wonderful to have A Ray of Light to capture young readers’ imagination in much the same way that, back in 1997, Wick’s A Drop of Water exposed young people to the wonders of a substance that only seems commonplace until you start examining it closely. Light is not a “substance” in the same sense as water, but it too is something we take for granted – until Wick shows, again and again, what a marvel it really is.

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