Lucy Hawking talks about the journey that led to Unlocking the Universe

Learning from the best Lucy with her father and co-author Stephen Hawking   | Photo Credit: A Micu

“This is all rubbish. The moon cannot support life,” said the little one, after listening to my stories about the moon. He’d got the information from the George’s Secret Key to the Universe series. And now comes a companion piece to that series. Unlocking the Universe (Puffin), by Stephen and Lucy Hawking “brings together all that amazing and inspirational science content, curated over 14 years over working on the George series. This book is the culmination of this phenomenal and unique project that I started with my father Stephen Hawking to make science entertaining and engaging for kids,” says Lucy Hawking. Among the new essays is one on climate change from the perspective of 15-year-old Nitya Kapadia. Edited excerpts from an email interview:

This is essentially a non-fiction version of the George’s Secret Key to the Universe series.

More accurately, Unlocking the Universe contains the non-fiction content from the George series gathered together in one reference volume. Most of our science authors for the series had never written for children before but were world experts on their subject! Given the enormous educational value of this material, I decided to bring all this — and some new essays on cutting edge topics and research — and make it into a companion to the series as a whole. It also felt like a fitting way to end what had been a huge adventure in terms of innovation in literature and science for kids. We set out to answer a question from a young boy ‘What would happen to me if I fell in a black hole?” and we ended up, as the title says, unlocking the universe!

Unlocking the Universe by Stephen and Lucy Hawking published by Puffin

Unlocking the Universe by Stephen and Lucy Hawking published by Puffin   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

What did it take to put this book together?

This book is the product of work over many years; it isn’t one that could be put together quickly, given the range of topics covered and the status of the contributing authors. For many years, I had been attending science conferences and festivals, meeting scientists and hearing them talk about their work in a way that was absolutely fascinating but not accessible enough for children. I had the idea to approach these scientists to ask if they would like to work with us to make their subject and their research available to young readers by contributing an essay. I am happy to say that even the most distinguished scientists agreed, as they all believe it is crucial that we engage the next generation in science. In the original series, the essays are organised by their relationship to the plot of each book — each essay explains a concept, theory or discovery that forms part of the storyline — but in Unlocking the Universe, the essays are broadly grouped by themes instead.

What does it take to make science accessible?

A leading scientist called Fabiola Gianotti told me once that ‘imagination is the fuel of science.’ I asked each scientist to imagine that they were explaining their work to their children or children of a friend. What would you say? What do you think a child most needs to know about your work in science?

I asked them to frame the essay as a story and to include points of relevance to a child’s life so that they have a point of familiarity from where to start their cosmic journey. The answer, as always, lies in the power of storytelling to help the human brain understand the extraordinary.

Favourite books
  • The Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe by C S Lewis
  • Charlotte’s Web by EB White
  • The Hobbit by JRR Tolkein
  • Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfield
  • The Borrowers by Mary Norton
  • Swallows and Amazons Arthur Ransome
  • Asterix and Obelix
  • The Little Prince by Antonie du Sainte Exupery
  • There are also some great books on science for young readers now like Element in the Room by Mark Barfield, which is about chemistry, and Kid Scientists by David Stabler tells the story of great scientists when they were children

Why do you think science is often considered difficult? What can be done to change this?

I think science is difficult and that we would mislead kids if we propose to them that it is a simple or easy discipline. The work my father did, for example, was of mindboggling complexity. However, when introducing young minds to science, it’s important to make it fun, engaging and a process of learning that keeps reminding the child or the student why they are studying this incredible subject. Too often, science is presented in a distant or irrelevant manner that leaves them confused about why they are being asked to master something complicated that doesn’t appear to have links with their daily lives.

What was the timeline of this book?

I proposed the basic concept to my publishers in London in early 2019 and we spent quite some time deliberating how to do this. I wanted to commission some new essays on topics we have never had the opportunity to include or where I had not been able to find a suitable author. This also gave me the chance to look for a young writer to cover climate change from the perspective of her generation! So it was great to be able to refresh the content by bringing the essays as a whole up to date.

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Printable version | May 18, 2021 11:25:40 AM |

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