BOOK REVIEW: Science becomes fiction in Hawking space stories
Lucy Hawking teams up with her famed physicist father to write a series of children’s books about science and space, writes Sue Grant-Marshall
GEORGE’S SECRET KEY TO THE UNIVERSELucy Hawking and Stephen HawkingJacana
Lucy Hawking and her father Stephen are taking children in more than 40 countries on the ride of their lives.
Hawking’s space thriller books, aimed at children between nine and 12 years, fulfil her dreams and those of her cosmologist father.
She’s in SA to launch the isiXhosa and isiZulu editions of George’s Secret Key to the Universe. "It’s a celebration too, coincidentally right now, of a decade of the George series of books," she says.
The books grew out of a question she heard a friend of her son (then about nine) ask her father. What would happen, he wanted to know, if he fell into a black hole?
"Spaghetti," Stephen Hawking answered. The child instantly understood that the forces of gravity would shred him.
"In that moment, I realised that this was the start of a story," says Hawking. "I could write it and my father could provide the scientific information."
Her father was initially hesitant, unsure he would resonate with young readers. Hawking assured him she had felt the palpable thrill of youngsters listening to him. He told her to "draft something", so she worked with one of his students.
Today, the journalist and author who studied English and Russian literature at Oxford University describes herself as a "creative writer who works with some of the world’s greatest scientific minds".
"I’m a conduit for geniuses. My work is to make their research and theories accessible and engaging for children."
In the book, George grows up in an eco-friendly home, lit by candles. His parents don’t allow any technology, so there are no computers. His mother bakes broccoli muffins, which causes mirth at school.
When George’s pet pig escapes, he follows it next door and arrives in a home where Annie, who is his age, and her dad show him a computer so powerful they can use it as a portal to jump into space.
It’s akin to the wardrobe in The Chronicles of Narnia — a doorway into a different world.
George and Annie leap onto a comet and ride around the solar system, passing Saturn with its dramatic rings of ice and rock.
Later, someone needs rescuing from the greatest and most powerful force in the cosmos, a black hole. There are also Earth-based villains, thieves and a bullying gang.
The book is filled with lively illustrations and glossy, full-colour pictures of the universe. Text boxes are filled with genuine scientific information about the cosmos.
Stephen Hawking agreed to the books "because nothing matters more to him than leaving a legacy of inspiration and education for a new generation", his daughter says.
In addition to writing the six-book science series, she has written two adult novels.
Hawking travels the world, giving talks on popular science to diverse audiences. She has won several awards, was a speaker at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s 50th birthday, has been awarded a grant from the UK Space Agency and is a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society.
Her passion is to make science entertaining and accessible to young people. Research shows that if there is no scientist in a family, children have no idea what a scientist does and cannot imagine becoming one.
They don’t want to grow up to be lonely with a big head, so no wonder they don’t want to be scientistsLucy Hawking
When she asks children to illustrate one, "they draw a white man in a white coat with a huge head who is always alone, has no friends and usually has some toxic bubbling experiment going on behind him".
"They don’t want to grow up to be lonely with a big head, so no wonder they don’t want to be scientists," Hawking says.
The notion of a lone genius in a laboratory is a fallacy, as "science is a collaborative process, working with colleagues and having fun".
Hawking emphasises the great need for general scientific education "because the challenges we now face are global".
"The answers to our problems, whether they’re climate change, desertification or ocean pollution will be found in science and technology."
She believes an engaged populace is needed to seek solutions to the world’s problems.
Hawking comes from a family of storytellers. Her maternal grandfather, George, "could make a simple trip to the shops an amazing tale. My father’s mother was also a witty and sharp raconteur."
She lived for a while in the Soviet Union, arriving on the day Boris Yeltsin became president.
"I witnessed its collapse," she says. The dramatic events ignited a desire in her to become a writer, "and I thought journalism would be good training because you write ceaselessly".
It turned out to be a controversial decision. "My parents asked why I would want to engage with the media when doing so had not been a straight-forward experience in terms of their portrayal of our family."
She recalls with amusement how her father’s parents were not happy about him becoming a physicist. "Back in the ’60s when my father was a cosmologist, it was a rather fringe aspect of science and not seen as respectable. ‘How will you ever get a job?’ they asked him. So, obviously, there’s a generational thing going on here."