George’s Secret Key to the Universe (S&S) is the first book in a trilogy co-authored by arguably the world’s most renowned theoretical physicist, Stephen Hawking, his daughter Lucy, and French physicist Christophe Galfard. Bookshelf caught up with Lucy Hawking in the midst of a whirlwind international book tour.
What was the initial spark that inspired you to write a book like George’s Secret Key to the Universe?
This idea came to me for a book about a boy called George, living with his eco warrior parents next door to the world’s greatest living scientist. Right from the start, I knew the book would be about the adventures George and the scientist could have together and that those adventures would be based on real science. The inspiration behind the idea was to work with my father to write a book that would explain some of his work to my son. I also wanted to find a way to answer the sort of questions kids were coming up to my Dad and posing—like ‘what would happen if I fell inside a black hole?’
What was it like co-authoring a book with your father?
It was a joy—he is so clear in his thought process and holds such a massive amount of information inside his head that he is very easy and very enjoyable to work with.
What were some of the most challenging aspects of the collaboration process?
Incorporating the science into the storyline wasn’t easy—there were moments when I would have loved to bend the laws of physics in order to smooth along the plot process, but that was completely vetoed.
One of the book’s young heroes—Annie—has a father who is a world-renowned scientist. How similar is the character of Annie to you when you were that age?
The book isn’t an autobiography but there are many elements in it drawn from my childhood.
Did you have a ballerina outfit like Annie's?
I wanted to be a ballerina as a child—I had a tutu and I used to stage my own ballets in our front room with my family as the audience. I was also a very imaginative child and I spent much time creating fantasy worlds. So writing George’s Secret Key felt like an extension of the childhood stories I created, with the addition of the science that surrounded me as a child as well.
Non sequitur question here: when you were growing up, did you have neighbors with a pig like Annie did?
No, we didn’t, sadly. Just lots of students—I grew up in Cambridge college accommodation because my Dad’s wheelchair meant we had to move out of our tiny house with lots of staircases. His college lent us a ground-floor apartment with graduate students living up above. Their bathroom was above our kitchen and sometimes, they would forget to close off the faucets and our kitchen would flood with water coming through the ceiling. Our apartment had very little central heating as well—I had frost flowers on the inside of my bedroom window in winter but it had the most amazing garden out the back which made up for all the other stuff. It was like a secret garden—it went on and on, and playing there certainly developed my imagination from an early age.
George’s Secret Key to the Universe is the first installment of a projected trilogy. Where will your two young adventurers be headed in the next volume?
In the second book, George and Annie will take a look at the reality of space travel and search for life in the universe.
Was it a conscious decision to have both a boy and a girl as main characters, to make the content more universal for young readers?
I hoped that by having a boy who is inquisitive but naive and a girl who is really very knowledgeable, we could both invert some gender stereotypes and broaden the appeal.
If you had access to a super-computer like Cosmos that could take you any place or any time in the universe, what are some of the sights that would top your wish list?
I would really like to take a look at this planet that some scientists call the Second Earth—Gliese 581c—to see whether it is in any way similar to the planet on which we live—before, of course, we started messing it up so badly.
What message—if any—were you trying to convey with George having parents that were such dedicated environmental activists—eco warriors as you call them?
Like Eric the scientist, George’s parents are concerned about the future of planet Earth and they are pursuing a path that they believe will save the planet. However, they are limited in their scope because of their refusal to contemplate the positive sides of technology. In a sense, their narrow-mindedness is hampering their good intentions. So the point of that is to show we all need to work together if we are going to have an impact on the global health of the planet itself.
Speaking of impact, what do you hope George’s Secret Key to the Universe and its sequels will accomplish?
First and foremost, the message of the book is that we live on an amazing planet and we should be taking better care of it. When we look around the solar system, we see other planets that are fascinating but formidable and inhospitable. By assessing what is around us, we can see how beautiful, fragile and vulnerable the Earth is and how we should be protecting it and not abusing it. Through learning about our cosmic environment, I hope we can learn to value our terrestrial one more highly.