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Lucy and Stephen Hawking: A child of science
04.07.07 | Caroline Horn
Having grown up surrounded by the world of science, it was perhaps natural that Lucy Hawking, daughter of Stephen Hawking, turned to the subject when writing her first children's book. George's Secret Key to the Universe is a fast-paced adventure with key scientific concepts at its heart.
George discovers that his new neighbour, a scientist called Eric, is hiding a wonderful secret—a computer called Cosmos that can propel people into outer space. He and the neighbour's daughter, Annie, promptly enlist Cosmos' help to embark on some dramatic (and very dangerous) escapades. They later discover that another scientist with evil ambitions wants Cosmos for himself.
As the children journey through the solar system and find out more about the nature of space, the story-line expands to include black holes, matter and even Hawking radiation (named after Stephen Hawking). Lucy collaborated closely on the project with her father to ensure that the science she wrote about was accurate.
The science, which offers a glimpse into the workings of our universe, is clearly explained in box-outs throughout the book that are intended for both adults reading to children, and child readers. Stephen Hawking once said: "Children ask how things do what they do, and why. Too often they are told that these are stupid to ask, but this is said by grown-ups who don't know the answers and don't want to look silly by admitting they don't know. It is very important that young people keep their sense of wonder and keep asking 'Why?'. I'm a child myself, in the sense I'm still looking."
While Lucy Hawking wanted, first and foremost, to write an exciting story for children, she says: "I also wanted it to have some value, to arouse their curiosity and show them that science is not boring and hard to understand. It's relevant to the world around them and exciting.
"My son is now nine and I thought it would be really nice to write a story that would help make my dad's work accessible to him and to other children. Like Narnia, the children in this book do travel into another world, but their journeys are based on the real world and what we know about the solar system and beyond.
"Physics was always there as a backdrop during my childhood but when you're looking at writing a book, it's about making very complex ideas simple. I'm not a scientist, I'm an author and a journalist, and I have an arts background. So I needed scientists to help me on this. My dad has a 40-year career in building these concepts, so I asked him and a PhD student, Christophe Galfard, to help me. We were trying all the way through to apply the real science to what the characters were seeing or experiencing. When George is falling through space, for example, he doesn't feel like he's falling—an astronaut wouldn't.
"We spent a long time talking about how to express these very complicated ideas of physics in a simple and appealing way. We didn't want people reading it and thinking: 'Oh, here comes the science.' The science and the story drove each other. I would write a bit of the story and then send it on and ask things such as: 'He's on the comet and looking to the left —what can he see?' So there was an ongoing dialogue between the three of us. I haven't seen anything else like this book, so we had to make up the model as we went along.
"There were things I could use from my own childhood and that made me smile—for example, George asks Eric, the scientist, if he's having a party and Eric says: 'I am, but everyone is a scientist so we call it a conference.' As a scientist, Eric also has some of the characteristics of my father—his general curiosity and affability and an overwhelming interest in the world around him, and not behaving quite like an adult because of this curiosity. In my experience, that's what a lot of scientists are like.
"I never really felt overwhelmed by dad's intellectual abilities, but I was surrounded by the Cambridge academic world and that probably sparked something in me, made me take more challenging options.
"I remember travelling to Russia in 1984, my father had been invited as a scientist and it was a whole different world. We stayed at the Hotel of Academy & Science, and the Cyrillic alphabet fascinated me. I decided to study Russian. I did Russian A-level and then ended up living in Moscow for seven months in 1992 while all my friends were in comfortable European cities.
"After that I decided to train as a journalist and worked in New York and then London before going freelance so I could write. My first novel for adults was published in 2004. I have very much enjoyed writing this book for children, though, and now I am focused on the follow-up—George's Secret Key to the Universe is the first of three. The first book touches on humanity's need to explore space. In the second book we take that further, looking at space exploration and space travel, and some of the 'architecture' of space travel—things that man has put into space.
"Man's exploration of space is like the final frontier. Everywhere on the planet is now covered by satellites so space remains the only real unknown. My father believes that space exploration is necessary; it is not something we do for fun but because we need to. He believes that the human race doesn't have a future if it doesn't go into space."
George’s Secret Key to the Universe (Doubleday, 6th September, h/b, £12.99, 9780385611817)