Do you remember the 1966 British comedy-drama Alfie starring Michael Caine as handsome Cockney Alfred Elkins? The title song Alfie was sung by Cher over the film’s closing credits in the US release, reaching #32 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and I now have the first line of the lyrics “What’s it all about, Alfie?” rattling around my poor old noggin.
Alfie is an English name, a short form of Alfred, from the Old English “Aelfraed,” which itself is from the old English “aelf,” meaning “‘elf” and “raed,” meaning “counsel” and taken to mean “wise.”
You don’t tend to meet many people called Alfie these days, which is a shame because I really like this name. There are some names I don’t really care for, but I wouldn’t mind being called Alfie myself. The reason I mention this here is that I was just contacted by a 6-year-old boy called Alfie who has some questions about nanobots after reading my book Bebop to the Boolean Boogie (An Unconventional Guide to Electronics).
Actually, that’s not strictly accurate. If the truth be told, I received an email from Alfie’s mother, Jeanette, but—as I learned at my own mother’s knee—there’s no need to let facts get in the way of a good story. However, we digress… In her email, Jeanette spake as follows:
Hi there. My son told me this morning that what he wanted for Christmas is “a kit with nanobots that I can mix up in a barrel with chemicals in it using a wooden spoon, and when I come back later, the nanobots will have made a supercomputer in the bottom of the barrel.”
I told him this was a very fanciful idea and that he would certainly not be getting it for Christmas. He protested that he had read about it in a book and brought to me his well-worn copy of “Bebop to the Boolean Boogie,” which I bought for him a few months ago and he has been digging into ever since. Sure enough, there it was—in a jokey interstitial about an imagined 2050 edition of the book.
I suspect you never anticipated your book being read by children still young enough to believe that a book could have an interstitial from its own future self, but that’s my kid. He loves both the Bebop book and How Computers Do Math. He is six years old.
I am no slouch at math and science (spent years winning regional math & science competitions when I was a kid myself), but this kid—his name is Alfie—is just leaving me in the dust, and he does real, solid problem-solving, not just calculation. My question is: what in God’s name do I do with this kid? He reads math and science textbooks and reference books for fun—lord knows he has plenty of fun, disposable storybooks full of adventures, but he’d rather learn about making logic gates and the difference between n- and p-type MOSFETs.
So first off, thank you for creating a book that helped him delve deeper and held his interest. Second: please tell me I’m not the first mom of a first grader to be writing this type of letter to you? Tell me there’s a hidden little army of these kids, and a place he can fit in? He’s so lonely—no kids he meets have his interests, and he isn’t interested in changing his to fit those of other people. What becomes of a kid like Alfie? If you know, please tell me. Best, Jeanette.
I have to say that this tugged at my heartstrings. I was so fortunate in this regard, being blessed with a natural talent for stupidity that resulted in me having lots of friends because they looked so good when their mothers compared them to me.
I replied to Jeanette thanking her for her email and telling her that it had made my day. I also suggested writing this blog (to which she agreed), saying that we could use this as a vehicle to ask my readers (which would be you—yes, you—stop looking over your shoulder) for their (your) suggestions.
I also said that, in the meantime, I had a couple of ideas for things that might keep Alfie interested and engaged. The first is the marble-powered computer called the Turing Tumble, which was created by Alyssa and Paul Boswell who are two former teachers from St. Paul. This comes with lots of puzzles that I’m sure will keep Alfie busy (I have one here in my office and it certainly keeps me occupied).
The other AWESOME thing Alyssa and Paul are currently working on is a mechanical implementation of electronic components and systems called Spintronics. The example below shows a simple oscillator. I think this will blow Alfie’s socks off (I can’t wait to receive my unit when they start shipping).
I also mentioned that Alfie might be interested to hear about an 11-year-old kid called Zeke who is currently building a radio system to enable him to talk to the International Space Station (ISS), and I gave the links to the blogs and associated columns I’ve written about Zeke:
- Meet Zeke (blog)
- O-M-Gosh I’ve Been Zeked (Part 1)! (column)
- The Dielectric Constant of Cheese (blog)
- O-M-Gosh I’ve Been Zeked (Part 2)! (column)
While I was thinking about it, I also asked if Alfie had read The Chronicles of Narnia and the Magic Treehouse books, both of which I think are great for kids of all ages (including me). Jeanette responded as follows:
Thank you for the thoughtful suggestions, and I look forward to seeing what your readers suggest as well! The Turing Tumble sounds amazing and perfect, and the Spintronics thing is definitely mind blowing. I think my son would crown me mom of the year if I got him that! The stories about Zeke are great, too—I keep telling Alfie that there are other kids like him out there, they just probably don’t live too near us, but that someday when he ends up in a program full of aspiring engineers, he’ll meet them and find out they had a ton in common and will wish they’d met sooner.
We’ve done The Chronicles of Narnia but they’re more the preference of his 4-year-old little brother, Eddie, who is as wild about fiction and stories as Alfie is about numbers and circuits. I’ve never in my life met a kid as opposed to fiction reading as Alfie. I told him once that most grownups prefer to read stories for fun, not textbooks, and he looked at me with incredible skepticism, bordering on full disbelief.
The funny thing is that, although I love science and technology, I find a lot of the writings about these topics to be incredibly boring. Personally, I love to read science fiction. I fear that young Alfie is missing out on this one, so I replied saying she should tell him that science fiction is a great way for scientists and engineers to imagine what the future might be like by thinking of machines and technologies that don’t exist yet but that might exist one day.
I also made mention of the fact that the famous science fiction author Robert Heinlein wrote a series of books that are now called the Heinlein juveniles. As it says on the Wikipedia, “Each features a young male protagonist entering the adult world of conflict, decisions, and responsibilities.” I told Jeanette to tell Alfie that I have all of these books on the shelves in my office and I still re-read them.
Of course, it’s not all about me (it should be, but it’s not). Do you have any suggestions regarding how young Alfie can meet other kids who share his interests and enthusiasms? If so, your posting them as comments to this blog will be very much appreciated.