In 1996, Stephen Hawking pointed out to his readers that one in 750 people on this planet owns a copy of A Brief History of Time. Sadly, this does not mean that millions of people have actually read the work. Hawking’s 1988 popularization, which was an overnight smash hit in the US and then hastily scrambled for by publishers around the world, is infamous for being one of those works most often left unfinished, sharing the list with monumental works such as Ulysses and Moby Dick, a surprising achievement for a 200-page popular science book. Hawking’s problem, it was soon pointed out, is that his book too rigorously condenses the extremely ambitious topic, a brief history of the 13.7 billion years since the Big Bang, and the science behind it. Hawking rushes through topics most readers will be unfamiliar with, making readers struggle to keep up.
Hawking became one of the world’s most famous science popularizers for a work very few people managed to read through to the end. What is less known, however, is that he wrote another series of popular science books that reflect a perhaps even more ambitious effort: together with his daughter, Lucy Hawking, he wrote a series of children’s books.
In 2007, the Hawkings published George and the Secret Key to the Universe, the first book about a boy named George who is introduced to the amazing and apparently limitless possibilities of science. Three more books about George have appeared since: George’s Cosmic Treasure Hunt (2009), George and the Big Bang (2011) and George and the Unbreakable Code (2014). A fifth instalment, George and the Blue Planets, is expected for 2016.
It is hard to tell to what extent each author contributed, although the marked difference in style and accessibility suggests that either Stephen Hawking has improved his writing a lot, or Lucy Hawking has contributed most of the storyline. Indeed, Lucy Hawking is a professional author with two standalone novels to her name, Jaded (2003) and The Accidental Marathon (2006), although neither work was well received.
The George books are educational and fun to read, although their plots are a little contrived, and in the case of the first book, actually quite questionable. George is the only child of the worst sort of eco-warrior parents: they have electricity for an hour a day or so, George is always given inedible home-grown food, and science and technology are utterly evil. George has a pig, though, and when this pig one day escapes through a hole in the fence, he meets Annie, whose scientist father Eric (clearly based on Stephen Hawking) just moved in next door. Eric turns out to have an amazing supercomputer, Cosmos, which can open portals to anywhere in the universe. Soon, George’s evil schoolteacher finds out about Cosmos and tries to steal him, in the meantime causing Eric to fall into a black hole. Oops.
This is where the book gets very interesting. Explaining to children what black holes are is commendable in itself: most educated adults struggle to wrap their minds around the concept. However, the Hawkings take it a step further, and also throw in an explanation of Hawking radiation.
Stephen Hawking’s fame as a scientist is based on two topics he revolutionised: the Big Bang and black holes. Regarding black holes, Hawking discovered that these slowly radiate everything they have swallowed back out again: black holes slowly shrink and will eventually disappear, long after everything else in the universe has dissipated and died. The radiation black holes emit has been named Hawking radiation, and it is this radiation that George and Annie use to get Eric back from the black hole. They simply build him back up, atom by atom, from this radiation.
When Eric is saved, unfortunately the weak plot takes over again. Eric teaches George’s parents that there are two ways to save the world: by being eco-friendly, and through science. Sure. But his next suggestion is less appetizing: science can save humankind by looking for a new exoplanet to go and live on. George’s parents happily gobble this up, but the rest of us might wonder how soon Hawking expects us to a) find a suitable exoplanet, b) invent interstellar travel, and c) transport 7 billion people over there when on Earth we need to reduce our impact on the environment within years to stand a chance of surviving.
In the following books, the plot is not much stronger, but at least it is less controversial. Still, by far the best aspect of the series is the way in which it manages to communicate cutting-edge science to children, touching on topics that have not appeared in children’s books before. These children’s books are perhaps less well known, but they are a lot more readable than that first book that made Stephen Hawking a best-selling author.