Friday, April 25, 2008

Hawking Science for the Kids

Stephen Hawking was in the news recently for a speech on the importance of space for the future of mankind. While reading and writing about that, I noticed a link to a children's book Hawking had published last year with his daughter Lucy Hawking. I hadn't heard about it before, so I ordered the book from Amazon the other day, and I read it last night.

George's Secret Key to the Universe
is intended for kids 9-12, but I found it quite enjoyable as an adult reader with an interest in physics and astronomy. It's written as a sort of science fiction adventure story about a fairly ordinary boy (George) and his rather less ordinary scientist neighbor, Eric. The physics and astronomy bits are blended into the story and are scientifically accurate and clearly explained without being greatly dumbed down (there are photos and side bars to further explain astronomical facts). Eric's mode of space transportation - an intelligent laptop supercomputer named Cosmos who can open up a portal to any known part of the universe - is not very realistic. But that's OK - it's a concession that allows comets, planets, stars, and even black holes to be quickly accessible, though not completely safe. In the story, Cosmos is not simply creating a convincing virtual reality simulation of space (though he can do that too), he's really sending people there, and if they aren't careful, they may not come back!

There's even a bad guy in the story to add some plot tension. It's a fun and easy read, and somewhat of an eye-opener for me. I have often promoted the benefits of the first-person approach of the Orbiter space flight simulator - "you are there" as a simulated astronaut in a game-like program with realistic physics and realistic 3D depictions of things in the solar system. Fun, but also pretty complicated. This book isn't first person, and it's not a simulation - but it sort of feels like one, because you can really imagine being in George's place. Of course that's one of the roles of fiction, to provide such vicarious experiences by stimulating your imagination, and if it's done well, this can be exciting and fun. The Hawkings do a great job with this book, where the adventure involves real-world space, astronomy, and physics rather than the magical world of (say) Harry Potter. I think kids and adults who like reading books with a substantial story line will find the adventures of George and his friends to be quite a good ride.

No comments: