The Playful Genius, Stephen Hawking

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In his 1988 best seller A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking captivated readers with mind-bending conundrums bound to awaken childlike wonder even among the terminally unimaginative: for instance, if the universe is expanding, where is it expanding to?

Now Hawking has teamed up with his daughter, Lucy Hawking, to write George's Secret Key to the Universe, the first in a trilogy of novels directed at the fertile minds of children themselves. In an interview via e-mail, Stephen Hawking, who holds Sir Isaac Newton's former chair in mathematics at Cambridge University, explains: "The aim of the book is to encourage children's sense of wonder at the universe. We want them to look outward. Only then will they be able to make the right decisions to safeguard the future of the human race."

Those are high stakes indeed, and the Hawkings spin an apocalyptic yarn to explore them. George's Secret Key to the Universe, aimed at 9- to 11-year-olds, tells the story of a young boy, George, and a cheery astrophysicist, Eric, whose talking computer opens a portal to the known universe. The duo don spacesuits and use the portal to search for planets to which humanity can escape from the irreversible warming of the earth. Along the way, George and the reader learn the basics of astrophysics and astronomy through illustrations and captioned photographs. "You don't need an actual secret key to explore the universe," George ultimately discovers. "There's one that everyone can use. It's called physics."

Eric is a kind of avatar of Hawking himself, whose amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) has progressed to the point that he has lost control of his fingers and now communicates through a computer that converts the clenching of his cheek into artificial speech. Eric, too, is totally reliant on his computer, which also has a "mechanized voice." When the machine is taken away, Eric is left in a black hole from which he is unable to communicate or emerge. That state of being cut off often afflicts children with autism, and Lucy Hawking says she co-wrote the book to explain her father's work to her autistic son. So there are ample reasons why isolation and black holes are forces to be overcome in George's Secret Key.

Hawking established his scientific reputation by discovering that black holes don't just swallow up the light, energy and matter around them, but also leak it all back out at an accelerating pace over billions of years. This leakage, known as Hawking Radiation, is what allows Eric to be rescued, particle by particle, from his black hole, and then reassembled so that he and George can face new cosmic challenges in the sequels.

The Hawkings portray the universe as harmonious and largely benign. Super-novas are fireworks for George's entertainment; black holes are harmless. But our present knowledge of the universe suggests that it is, in fact, a desolate and often violent expanse in which humankind plays an inconsequential role. Deep study of the cosmos, while affirming the accidental beauty of life, would seem to reinforce its futility rather than its significance. So are the Hawkings concealing the true nature of the universe from their young readers?

Not by any stretch of the imagination, says Stephen Hawking. "The universe seems to have been selected from a large class of possible universes by the fact that it contains intelligent beings who can ask the question: What is the universe like?," he told TIME. "The universe is not indifferent to our existence — it depends on it."

Hawking's assertion echoes the 18th century philosophy of Bishop Berkeley, who contended that things are real only because we can perceive them. It's an extra-ordinary and unexpected view from a scientist. It would be a childish fairy tale to believe that even Hawking's mind — in which inspiration comes like exploding stars — can create its own universe to which this ailing professor can escape. The fate of his body will eventually befall his mind, and everything else in this ever-ending universe. But as Hawking's science shows, there is renewal in all these endings. Dying stars form new planets, a sick father writes a book with his daughter, and generations of children can share in its wonders.