A review of George and the Big Bang by Lucy and Stephen Hawking

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

George and the Big Bang
by Lucy & Stephen Hawking
Random House
ISBN: 9780385615532, August 2011, RRP$aud24.95,

I really like Lucy and Stephen Hawking’s George books. Yes, they have all the elements of good young adult fiction: an engaging young adult hero who is simultaneously ordinary and extraordinary, a cast of quirky supporting characters including a sufficiantly flawed villain and of course the messy haired but always good father figure that supports the protagonist. Taken for its story alone, these tales are rich enough to appeal to children of nearly all ages (and that’s not a small claim). But there’s more. As you might expect from a father and daughter team with the name of Hawking, there are some super powerful physics lessons embedded into both the plot, and as added nonfiction ‘further’ information through the story. It’s written at a perfect pitch for children – neither too complex to understand, nor too ‘dumbed down’ to excite. Throughout each of the books, there’s a palpable underlying sense of wonder in the point of discovery we’re now at with physics, and children (adults too) will certainly feel that.

In this latest book, Eric and his daughter Annie have returned to England, in time for Annie (and George) to start secondary school. Eric has a job at the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland where he’s aiming to recreate the earliest seconds of the universe. It would be a dream job, but for the angry members of TOERAG (‘Theory of Everything Resists Addition of Gravity’) an anti-science group of protesters, who claim that the Collider will create a black hole and destroy the world. Sound familiar? The “false vacuum/true vacuum” dichotomy reminded me of the “strangelets” and “vacuum bubbles” that real-life protestors cited against the LHC work going on in CERN – equally wacky, unsubstantiated, and designed to work through fear. That the book is both topical and cutting edge in terms of the way it looks at very current science and scientific issues adds to its subtlety and power. Both Lucy and Stephen have great skill in making complex science simple to the layperson, even to children, and George and the Big Bang is no exception. The science is neatly embedded into the text, with George himself explaining some of the more complex subjects such as the indeterminate nature of observations in a quantum context:

A memory nagged at the back of his mind. Eric had once talked about how all observations in quantum theory were fundamentally unpredicable (‘indeterminate’ had been the word he’d used). Physicists could only calculate the probability of a particular result, and only in special situations was the probability a certainty. (268)

Interestingly Stephen Hawking spent a fair amount of the early part of The Grand Design explaining this same point to a mostly adult readership, and I think it was only when I read George’s succinct representation and then discussed it with my nine year old daughter, with whom I was reading George and the Big Bang, that I felt I truly understood it.

Interspersed between the narrative are a series of essays written by well-known scientists, including Stephen Hawking himself on the creation of the universe, Michael Turner on dark matter and dark energy, Paul Davies on the use of maths in understanding the universe and Kip Thorne on wormholes and time travel. Each of these essays are not only written in beautifully crisp, clear language, but are also absolutely up to the minute with the latest theories and ideas, and therefore rather exciting. They come into the story at exactly the point when George is dealing with these notions fictionally. In addition to the essays there are also shorter tidbits of information, as with all the George books, providing information on a whole range of topics, from the Theory of Everything to Andromeda, to singularities. There’s even a chapter on M-Theory.

The book contains charming illustrations by Garry Parsons and three sections of colour plates which make this a rather attractive gift book and add to the appeal for children. A book like this could spark a love of science that might last a lifetime, but even at its base level, it’s a great story. For those who are meeting George for the first time, the book is self-contained and provides enough background so that new readers won’t be perplexed. For those already a fan of the George stories, this new book won’t disappoint. Either way, it’s a fun filled ride full of drama, action, and above all, discovery.

About the reviewer: Magdalena Ball is the author of Sleep Before Evening, Repulsion Thrust, Quark Soup, and a number of collaborations and anthologies. Find out more about Magdalena and grab a free copy of her book The Literary Lunch at www.magdalenaball.com.

Article first published as Book Review: George and the Big Bang by Lucy and Stephen Hawking on Blogcritics.