Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Stephen Hawking's bedtime stories

Physicist Stephen Hawking, and his daughter Lucy, are writing children's books about cosmology and physics (Image: Malcolm Watson)

Physicist Stephen Hawking, and his daughter Lucy, are writing children's books about cosmology and physics (Image: Malcolm Watson)

Stephen Hawking barely needs an introduction, but his recent direction does. He is packaging the universe for the younger generation. With his daughterLucy Hawking, he has branched out into writing children's books. They tellAlison George all about it, and recount Stephen's personal alien experience.

Everyone's got a copy of A Brief History of Time, but few have finished it. If we engage children in science young enough, will this change?

Stephen Hawking: The book aroused a great deal of interest, although many people found it difficult to understand. But I believe everyone can, and should, have a broad picture of how the universe operates, and our place in it. This is what I have tried to convey in all my popular books.

It is extremely important to me to write for children. Children ask how things do what they do, and why. Too often they are told that these are stupid questions to ask, but this is said by grown-ups who don't know the answers and don't want to look silly by admitting they don't know. It is important that young people keep their sense of wonder and keep asking why. I'm a child myself, in the sense that I'm still looking. Children are fascinated by black holes and ask me questions. I find they soon get the idea if it is explained in simple language. And yes, it is nice to think a few of them might grow up and read A Brief Historyfrom cover to cover.

But are our brains sufficiently advanced to truly understand the universe?

SH: Yes, the remarkable thing is that we can understand the universe. In fact, we already know the laws that determine what happens in all normal situations. We have to go to extraordinary lengths, like build a giant particle smasher, such as the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, to create conditions in which we cannot predict the outcome. We need to know what happens in such extreme situations in order to understand the origin of the universe. We may well achieve this goal in the next 20 years.

Tell me about your latest book, George's Cosmic Treasure Hunt

Lucy Hawking: It's a physics adventure story in which our little hero, George, takes off on a journey across the solar system and beyond. He follows a trail of clues on a cosmic treasure hunt using his neighbour's supercomputer, Cosmos, which opens doorways to the universe.

Ultimately, the book addresses the question "Is anybody out there?", which Dad identified as one of three major questions he wanted to deal with in our books for children. The others are "What happens inside a black hole?", the topic of our previous children's book, and "What happened at the Big Bang?", which is what our next book will be about.

The book contains a funny description of a "come as your favourite space object" party. Did you make this up?

LH: It's not a purely fictional device! I got the idea from a New Year's Eve party that Dad had a couple of years ago with the same theme.

I have a lovely photograph of him as an alien, in a green felt suit. He had a special voice programmed into his speech machine and went around the party saying "Take me to your leader". And, just as we described in the book, there was a scientist at that party who was dressed in red and who stood next to people and then moved away before asking them to guess what he was. He had come as red shift - the effect whereby electromagnetic radiation from distant objects is shifted towards the red end of the spectrum as a result of their movement away from Earth.

Did things like black holes get discussed at the family dinner table?

LH: Yes, very much. I grew up in Cambridge and there were always physicists coming to our house for dinner and discussing their work. Even at Dad's birthday party this year, there was a scientist trying to construct a black hole from a balloon and a pair of tights.

What kind of books did your father read to you when you were small?

LH: The other day, Dad suddenly quoted from the Bible and we were all taken aback because it was so unexpected. We were discussing the slogan on a tin of golden syrup, asking why it said "out of the strong came forth sweetness". Dad said it came from the Bible, and gave us the correct chapter and verse. He said that his father used to read him stories from the Bible when he was young. I said "I'm glad you read us Paddington Bear instead."

One thought I had on religion as I read George's Cosmic Treasure Hunt is that the big questions of physics seem to be supplanting the big religious questions.

SH: Science is increasingly answering questions that used to be the province of religion. The one remaining area that religion can still lay a claim to is the origin of the universe, but even here science is making progress, and should soon provide a definitive answer to how the universe began.

Science should soon provide a definitive answer to how the universe began

Whose idea was it to branch out into children's books about physics?

LH: Mine. I'd noticed that children were coming up to Dad and saying, "So what would happen if I fell into a black hole?". He gave them good, clear, funny answers, and I also noticed that all the adults gathered round to hear the replies too. I put it to him that it would be fun to work on an adventure story about physics. It was meant to be quite small-scale at first, something for his grandchildren, but it has grown from there.

It sounds as if collaborating has changed your relationship

LH: Yes. I could never have foreseen that we would end up working together because our paths are so radically different, with him a scientist and me a creative writer. But the books gave us a lot of time together and it was a project that we both enjoyed. It was interesting how much my dad got into the creative side of it. Often I'd go to his house at mealtimes - because that's a good time to chat with him - and would read sections of the text while we had dinner. One time when I read him some of the opening chapters of the book he laughed so much that two people had to jump up and catch him because he fell out of his chair. I don't think I've ever seen him laugh that much.

He was a joy to work with because of his clarity of thought, and his ability to express things very simply. Of course, he does have to write everything via a labour-intensive process, using a communication machine.

Have you ever heard your father's real voice rather than his computer-generated one?

LH: I was born in 1970 and Dad got his voice synthesiser in 1985, so I grew up with him and his speaking voice, although even I now think of his voice entirely in terms of his familiar computerised one. I saw a BBC documentary about him a couple of years ago, which featured him speaking in his actual voice. It was a shock to hear it again because I hadn't heard it for so long - it really took me back.

Your father has famously said he believes his illness has been a blessing because it allowed him to focus on what was important. How do you feel about that, Lucy?

LH: Dad's comment there reflects how determinedly positive his attitude is towards something that most people would consider a major disadvantage. However, I think any relative of somebody with a profound disability would wish away that disability if they could, because you witness an awful lot of suffering and a huge struggle. This is especially true in Dad's case and because he is so determined to overcome his disability he's had to fight harder. Even if he thinks it's a blessing, I wish, for his sake, that he had not developed motor neuron disease.

Of all the things you could be remembered for, Stephen, what would be the most important to you?

SH: I hope to be remembered for my work on black holes, and the origin of the universe.


Stephen Hawking is famed for his work on black holes and his best-sellerA Brief History of Time. He is the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge and holds the distinguished research chair at the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo, Canada. Diagnosed with motor neuron disease at 21, he can now only communicate by twitching his cheek. His daughter Lucy Hawking is a novelist and journalist.


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