Stephen Hawking barely needs an introduction, but his recent direction does. He is packaging the universe for the younger generation. With his daughter Lucy Hawking, he has branched out into writing children's books. They tell Alison 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 History from 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.