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Surfing the solar system:
An interview with Lucy Hawking — author of George’s Secret Key to the Universe

Lucy Hawking and her father theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking have worked together to write George’s Secret key to the universe. The book takes complicated concepts and makes them accessible — it brings scientific content into the story with a natural flow and tells a story that is simple and appealing, as well as entertaining. Lucy’s son William is autistic and she thought it would be wonderful to have a book that would demonstrate his grandfather’s concepts, at whatever age he came to read it.

It is clear that the book is for kids, but adults will be keen to read it too. Stephen’s famous book A brief history of time takes commitment to read. People are so busy and are exposed to information from lots of sources, so it is a bonus to have a book that explains things in a simpler way (though Lucy admits not everything can be reduced down — some things are extremely complicated).

Theoretical physicists work in a particular way, and are able to visualise abstract concepts. Most of us need things told to us in a way we can imagine. Kids will ask things like If I fell into a black hole, what would it be like?, What does a star being born look like? In the story of George, we see everything through his eyes, and get to experience these cosmic adventures through him.

The book was not written as a textbook, but some teachers have said they are keen to use it in the classroom. While in Auckland, Lucy has spoken at King's School and Auckland Girl’s Grammar (girls aged 11 to 16). She gives a presentation — a voyage of cosmic exploration — surfing the solar system and talks about her visit to NASA when she talked to astronauts.

She noticed that the teenage girls were excited and enthusiastic about the book and her presentation, and that Year 7 students had just studied nuclear fusion so were interested in learning more. Lucy has visited schools in the UK and will be going to Los Angeles after New Zealand.

We talked about the sense of wonder that scientists feel, how they are on a quest and desire to tell people about their discoveries. Today scientists are the equivalent of the explorers of old — filled with curiousity. People originally thought A children’s book by Stephen Hawking? but this is a man with a childlike sense of wonder that translates well to writing for kids.

I asked Lucy about her writing inspirations. She paid tribute to classic children’s literature. In those great stories — The Chronicles of Narnia, the Alice in Wonderland stories, and even Harry Potter, the story starts in a recognisable world and moves out to a more fantastic one. This is what happens in George’s Secret key to the universe.

We talked about space travel and how it is tied into our view of Planet Earth. Space travel points out why the Earth matters — it gives people a chance to look at it from the outside. Astronauts can see the evidence of deforestation. Space travel is not just about going away, it is about looking back at our amazing planet.

The Hawkings are a space age family (both Stephen and Lucy have even experienced a zero gravity flight) and George’s Secret key to the universe will open up the wonders of space for those of us keen to explore.

Updated: January 2015