Next in line in for Al’s Book Club for Kids is “George’s Secret Key to the Universe,” by Lucy and Stephen Hawking. The father-daughter team collaborated to create an adventure story for kids based on “science fact” rather than science fiction. While Lucy provided the editorial craftsmanship, Stephen helped drive the story line with true-to-life details from the world of physics. To find out more about the challenges and joys of the book project, check out these two Q & As: The first is with Lucy, the second with the famous physicist himself.
Q & A: Lucy Hawking
Q: What gave you the idea for the book?
A: I have a 9-year–old son and I thought it would be wonderful if my father and I could write something together that would explain my grandfather's work to my son. In order to explain physics to kids, we decided use the events in the story to illustrate concepts.
It was clear to me that there was a wealth of science fiction available for children but not very much “science fact.” Science fiction can be exciting and very gripping, but it doesn’t tell us anything about the universe in which we live. We wrote an adventure that is based on real science rather than on fantasy. I thought it was important to weave science into the story line because I wanted to make “George’s Secret Key to the Universe” appealing to children who wouldn’t otherwise pick up a book on physics. Obviously, we hope it will appeal to their parents, too!
Q: What is the story line?
A: The book is about this small boy called George who lives next door to the world’s greatest living scientist, Eric. George comes to the world of science with very little knowledge because his parents are fundamentally opposed to science and technology, which they blame for the problems facing the planet. Innocent as he is, George turns out to have the interest, curiosity and imagination to understand the concepts that Eric explains to him. Eric’s daughter, Annie, and his super computer, Cosmos, help to bring the world of physics alive for George and they all get drawn into the great challenge that presents itself.
Q: What was it like working together with your father on this project?
A: Integrating the physics into the story was a big challenge. We wanted to make the book flow so that it didn’t feel too didactic. It took hours of conversation to find ways to express these complicated concepts via a simple art form. I worked with both my father and one of his former Ph.D. students, Christophe Galfard, on the scientific elements in the book.
It was a fascinating process. Working with my father was a great thrill — he has the amazing ability to hold enormous amounts of information in his head, but also to pick out relevant details and make brief comments, which can completely transform your way of thinking. My father is an expert when it comes to framing difficult subjects in accessible language. He was an absolute pleasure to work with and I felt very honored to have this opportunity. Christophe Galfard also made a tremendous contribution in terms of the scientific story line, imagery and detail.
Q: How closely involved was Christophe Galfard?
A: Christophe came to the project at the end of writing his thesis. What he did so brilliantly was provide scientific content for me to translate into a story line. It helped me hugely to have someone I could consult closely throughout the process of writing this book. The grand vision of the book is based on my father’s 40-year career as a theoretical physicist — he directed, advised, corrected and wrote for the book. And Christophe worked on some of the ways to express some of these big concepts in a creative format.
Q: How did working on this book change your relationship with your father?
A: Working on this book together gave us the chance to form a relationship as adults, which was a great gift. We got to spend a lot of time kicking ideas around, so we learned so much about each other, and we had a lot of fun. It gave us something really special.
Q: What was it like growing up as the daughter of the world’s most famous physicist?
A: When I was young, he wasn’t the world’s most famous physicist. The fame didn’t arrive until the publication of “A Brief History of Time,” by which time I was in my late teens. When I was a child, he was well known among physicists, but they are a fairly select, serious bunch, not much given to celebrity idolizing.
What was most striking was the high level of attention his electric wheelchair attracted. I suppose that in the 1970s, it was quite unusual to see a disabled person drive himself around in a wheelchair. People really did stop and stare. (He did drive his chair extremely fast and sometimes in a rather perilous fashion.) I’m so glad that these days, disabled access is so much better and that disabled people are treated with more dignity by the general public. One big contribution my father has made is to show that having a disability does not bar you from leading a full and eventful life. His recent Zero Gravity flight and plans to go into space show that the sky is literally the limit, as far as he is concerned!
Q: Did you feel any pressure to become a scientist yourself?
A: No. From an early age, it was clear that my interests lay in the arts. My earliest ambition was to be a ballerina, but I was a bit small and round and prone to giggling too much — I lacked the necessary elegance to pull that one off! I think my dad would have been pleased if I had turned out a scientist because he truly believes that is the most interesting career open to anyone. But he also believes that you have to follow your own path in life and so he certainly wasn’t going to push me toward theoretical physics when it didn’t look like I was going in that direction naturally.
Q: You’ve recently had some exciting experiences on a tour of the U.S.?
A: I’ve just been on a research trip to the U.S., looking into ideas and material for the second book. I was very lucky to have some great experiences — I watched the space shuttle launch in Florida, which was just extraordinary. As you watch the shuttle lift from the ground, you see this incredibly bright light underneath it, brighter than anything you’ve ever seen before. But for the first few seconds, the launch seems to be completely silent and it’s such a serene event. Then the noise comes toward you and it’s so intense that your chest pounds, buildings shake and the air crackles. I was surprised by how emotional I felt afterward. I looked up into the sky and there was a very strange heart-shaped cloud formation, way up high. It made me want to cry but not from sadness, just from feeling overwhelmed.
As if that wasn’t enough, the next day I took a zero gravity flight with the Zero Gravity Corporation (who else?) from the Kennedy Space Center. It was the most fun I’ve had since I was 5 years old — floating in zero gravity is just hilarious — you cannot stop laughing! Somehow, you think it might be quite scary to go from zero gravity to high gravity within seconds. But it felt so natural and was so much fun! They gave me a blue flight suit to take home with me. I’m going to be wearing it to parties.
Q: What’s next for you and your father?
A: Next for me is writing the second book, which will focus on space travel. For my dad, a ride on Virgin Galactic! So you could say we are a pretty space-age family these days.
Q & A: Stephen Hawking
Q: You have just written a science book for children that will explain the universe — and black holes. What made you write this book and how do you explain black holes in a way that children can understand?
A: Children ask how things do what they do, and why. Too often, grownups — who don't know the answers and don't want to look silly by admitting they don't know — tell children that these are stupid questions to ask. It is very important for young people keep their sense of wonder and keep asking why. I'm a child myself, in the sense that I'm still looking. Children are fascinated by black holes and ask me questions. I find they soon get the idea if it is explained in nontechnical language.
Q: Will we ever be able to travel through time?
A: We are all traveling forward in time anyway. We can fast-forward by going off in a rocket at high speed and returning to find everyone on Earth much older or dead. Einstein's general theory of relativity seems to offer the possibility that we could warp space-time so much that we could travel back in time. However, it is likely that the warping would trigger a bolt of radiation that would destroy the spaceship, and maybe the space-time itself.
Q: What were you like as a child? What were your interests?
A: As a child, I wanted to know how things worked and to control them. With a friend, I built a number of complicated models that I could control. It was a natural next step to want to know how the universe works. If you understand the universe, you control it, in a way. I was never top of the class at school, but my classmates must have seen potential in me, because my nickname was Einstein.
Q: Do you believe we need to spread into space in order for the human race to survive? Will you travel into space yourself?
A: I think the human race doesn’t have a future if we don’t go into space. We need to expand our horizons beyond planet Earth if we are to have a long-term future. We cannot remain looking inward at ourselves on a small and increasingly polluted and overcrowded planet. We need to look outward to the wider universe. This will take time and effort, but it will become easier as our technology improves. I therefore want to encourage public interest in space. I have never let my condition stop me. You only live once.
Q: In your children's book, you describe the universe without a creator. Does this reflect your personal beliefs?
A: The lesson of the book is that the universe is governed by the laws of science. One could regard these laws as the work of God but discussion of such theological issues is not appropriate in a children’s adventure story.
Q: Did you enjoy your zero gravity experience?
A: Being confined to a wheelchair doesn’t bother me as my mind is free to roam the universe, but it felt wonderful to be weightless.
“George’s Secret Key to the Universe” (Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing) is out now.