Author Lucy Hawking teams up with her professor father Stephen to unlock the secrets of science for children. By Gaby Soutar
I’ve realised that I have an unusually effective route of access to a great deal of the world’s scientists,” says journalist, broadcaster and author Lucy Hawking, daughter of Stephen. “That was a card life had dealt me that I thought I should use.”
London-based Lucy, 43, is about to release her fourth in a series of children’s books, for ages 8-12, all of which were written in collaboration with her theoretical physicist father, the author of A Brief History of Time.
We’ve already had George’s Secret Key to the Universe (2007), which covers the birth of a star, black holes and comets, as well as its sequels – George’s Cosmic Treasure Hunt (2009) and George and the Big Bang (2011). George and the Unbreakable Code is published on 5 June, and a children’s TV programme based on the series is in the pipeline.
“The idea is to marry a human storyline with aspects of technology,” says Lucy, who has also written two novels for adults, Jaded and Run for Your Life. “Sometimes I think my job is giving machines emotions. That’s my USP. It’s fitting a human dynamic to abstract concepts like black holes.”
It’s almost as if Lucy has become a translator when it comes to scientific theories. She certainly straddles the two worlds as – though she’s had a career in arts and languages, with a degree in French and Russian from Oxford University – her upbringing has fostered an understanding of subjects that others might find tricky.
So, would she still be as interested in science without her father’s influence?
“It’s difficult to answer that question, because fundamentally you’re asking me what I’d be like if I was somebody else,” she says. “I’m always very clear that I’m not a scientist, I’m the storyteller of this project.”
Her job is to weave a narrative that engages young minds. For example, George and the Unbreakable Code is a Doctor Who-style space romp, which, like the others in the series, is punctuated by child-friendly essays from eminent scientists (in the most recent book, there is one from an evolutionary biologist) and simple graphs that illustrate sophisticated concepts.
“Before they realise that they’ve learnt something, it’s already happened,” says Lucy, the second of Hawking’s two children from his first marriage to Jane Wilde. “Also, for the age group we write for, the divisions between the sciences don’t matter so much, it’s finding out about the world in all its diversity that’s important.”
The idea for the latest read was sparked when Lucy was at a technology conference in Moscow, where the theme was quantum computing.
Most of us non-scientific techno-phobic types would have our minds boggled by the subject, yet Lucy thought she could translate this information, and the history of computing generally, into her familiar format.
“I wondered what the impact of one person having such a powerful piece of technology would be,” she explains. “Once again George and his best friend Annie are instrumental in solving an enormous problem that, obviously, only two kids could crack. And they still get home in time for tea.”
Lucy’s 72-year-old father, who is based in Cambridge, is involved in creating the books as much as is possible for someone with, as Lucy says, “a huge amount of pressure on his time”, as well as advanced Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (the most common form of motor neurone disease), which has rendered him wheelchair-bound and unable to speak.
“Obviously it’s difficult for him because of his use of computer technology in order to communicate,” says Lucy. “So we’ve been innovative in finding ways to make his collaboration very genuine. He’s contributed to all the books so far, he reads everything and he comments on everything. The fourth book ends with a lovely essay by him which sort of sums up all the diverse themes that we’ve touched on in the book.”
Prof Hawking is also enthusiastic when it comes to another facet of Lucy’s career, which involves touring primary schools to give talks on physics, astronomy and cosmology.
“I had a run of them recently, and I kept having to update the scientific information as things seemed to keep happening, like the change in the black hole paradox,” she says. “My father took time out from having a huge number of media requests and spent an afternoon with me talking about how we should present the news to primary schoolchildren aged six to 11.”
One of the characters in the book – the bespectacled, mop-topped scientist, Eric, who is also Annie’s father – is loosely based on Stephen Hawking. “He’s like an avatar of him as a younger man, before his illness,” she says.
Some of the other characters are also close to home.
“George would be my older brother, Robert, and if I was anybody I’d be Annie,” she says. “It’s not a direct translation, but everything has to come from somewhere.”
Increasingly, as the sequels roll out, George’s sidekick Annie is becoming more involved in the action.
“I’m quite proud of that, because I really wanted her to come forward and take responsibility for the impetus,” she explains. “It was important to have a sassy girl character who’s competent and able, doesn’t flinch at complex concepts and is ready for adventure.”
With luck, some of the Hawkings’ young readers, whether male or female, will identify with Annie, George or Eric.
Lucy says: “All we’re trying to do is offer an opportunity to kids, when it might not have crossed their minds, that this is an avenue they could explore.”
Lucy Hawking will take part in a live webcast with Scottish Book Trust on 22 May at 11am, funded by Creative Scotland as part of the Glasgow 2014 Cultural Programme. She will talk about the scientific theories behind the George stories, and preview George and the Unbreakable Code. Visit www.scottishbooktrust.com for more information.
George and the Unbreakable Code is published by Doubleday Childrens on 5 June, £12.99, hardback.