Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
George’s Secret Key to the Universe
by Stephen and Lucy Hawking
ISBN 9780385612708, $27.95aud, ages 9-12
Some of my earliest defining experiences involved the planetarium. I will never forget sitting in that big round auditorium and suddenly experiencing a sense of the universe as a whole in all its beautiful, magical glory. It was an epiphany I still draw on as a writer, and one which I suspect is a motivating factor for many a scientist. That sense of ‘cosmic wonder’ is also a key theme in George’s Secret Key to the Universe by father and daughter team, Stephen and Lucy Hawking. Stephen Hawking requires no introduction. As the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics and Theoretical Physics at Cambridge, and author of a number of books and papers, including the widely read A Brief History of Time, he has changed the way we see ourselves, our world, and the cosmos. His books are written in such a way that a layperson can read them, but they’re primarily designed for adults to read, and the concepts are pretty heady. Not so with George’s Secret Key to the Universe, a funny, lighthearted book for children which nonetheless presents some of Hawkings more complex ideas in a simple way. The story works on two levels — both fictional and nonfictional.
The fictional story is fast paced and well written. George, whose heart’s desire is a new computer, is the son of activists who believe that technology is the root of all evil. They grow all their own vegetables, knit, and keep a large pig in the backyard. But when the pig escapes, George goes looking for it and finds, instead, his unusual neighbours. Annie is a girl around George’s age, and her father Eric is the classic absent-minded physicist. Eric has invented an amazing computer called Cosmos who has been able to create a portal directly into space. After Eric very patiently explains a little bit about space, technology and the good and bad ways in which it can be used, George and Lucy suddenly find themselves exploring, and what a trip it is.
In addition to being entertaining, the story was designed to illuminate real scientific principles and explore some topical issues around the uses and mis-uses of technology. But the book also contains beautiful full colour plates, charts and fact boxes which provide background and information relating to the story and the latest discoveries in the world of cosmology. The story itself is illustrated in black and white drawings by Garry Parsons, and the careful, slightly naïve and charming images contribute to the overall ease in reading and will attract younger readers to the book. George, Eric, Lucy, and to a lesser extent, George’s parents, Lucy’s mother, and bad guy teacher Dr. Reeper, are all well characterised. The relationship between George and Eric is well handled as George moves between awe, exasperation, and a kind of filial care.
What really makes George’s Secret Key to the Universe interesting is that the concepts that underpin it are quite modern. Relatively recently, Hawking has discovered the ways in which black holes emit energy and slowly disappear, and these are explained very simply and easily. There is a nice blend here between physical fact, science fiction (if only a computer like Cosmos existed), and that lovely sense of wonder that augments astronomy. The book make a refreshing change for young readers from the dark world of black magic that seems to have taken precedence in fiction for young adults. After all, what could be more magical than a star at the centre of a planetary nebula, or the Pillars of Creation? It wouldn’t surprise me if this book inspired a few more decades of physicists ready to explore the stars or the very origins of the universe we live in.