Friday, December 28, 2007

Book Review: George's Secret Key to the Universe by Lucy and Stephen Hawking

Warning: Mild spoilers ahead

When we design e-learning programs for kids (I work for an e-learning company), often the "teach" is camouflaged within a "wrapper." The wrapper is an interesting storyline, theme, sometimes a game that is supposed to excite the curiosity of the kids and then engage them sufficiently for the giving of the "gyaan." Coming up with a decent wrapper is actually quite tough — the wrapper has to engage and then allow the interweaving of the teach in a way that the teaching doesn't overwhelm the "fun" and make the program boring. The wrapper shouldn't also smother the teach altogether lest the primary objective, the transfer of gyaan, is lost. This is a difficult to achieve balance and possibly the chief reason why gray hair, dark circles under the eyes, and a haunted look are fashionable in my office.

The reason for bringing up all that bit of the kind of work I do (as a rule, I avoid thinking about my work . . . sometimes I manage to do that in office too) is Lucy and Stephen Hawking's attempt to bring theoretical physics to kids through George's Secret Key to the Universe. The book in the guise of a space adventure story dishes out gyaan about our solar system, our galaxy, gravity, electrons, and esoteric physics concepts like black holes, Hawking radiation and the possibility of recapturing information from black holes.

The story centers primarily on young George. George's parents are rabid environmentalists and vegetarians who disapprove of modern inventions and technology, which they believe, have harmed the earth. They don't allow him a computer at home, even though he needs it for his schoolwork. As a result George dreams of owning a computer above all else.

George’s adventures begin when one day he finds his pet pig, Freddy, missing. Following the hoof-prints, George ventures into the neighbor's overgrown garden — a place his parents have declared off-limits — to find Freddy. Eventually he enters the neighbor's home where, like Alice who went down the rabbit hole, he finds himself in a wonderland. His neighbor Eric turns out to be a scientist. He also meets Annie, Eric's daughter, a precocious girl who fancies herself a ballerina. And he is introduced to Cosmos, the world's most intelligent and powerful computer. Cosmos can not only speak (and have an attitude) but can also compress and speed up time and open "doorways" to anywhere in space and transport "approved" users there. To become an approved user, George must take the oath of the Order of Scientific Inquiry for the Good of Humanity:
I swear to use my scientific knowledge for the good of Humanity. I promise never
to harm any person in search of enlightenment.
I shall be courageous and careful in my quest for greater knowledge about the mysteries that surround us.
I shall not use scientific knowledge for my own personal gain or give it to those who
seek to destroy the wonderful planet on which we live.
If I break my oath, may the beauty and wonder of the Universe forever remain hidden from me.
After taking the oath, George too, like Eric and Annie, can use cosmos for space travel. His voyages through the vastness of space help him discover the mysteries of physics, science, and the universe.

George, of course, doesn't spend the rest of the book only exploring the universe. George soon finds that the school bullies who are after him are also seeking Cosmos. The bullies are controlled and directed by an evil scientist, Dr. Reeper a.k.a. Greeper (who happens to be George's science teacher) who wants to acquire Cosmos and then use the knowledge of the universe for his own ends and benefit. Dr. Reeper manages to trick an unsuspecting Eric into a black hole and steal Cosmos. Now George not only has to get Cosmos back, but also find a way of rescuing Eric from the black hole. George knows that nothing ever escapes from a black hole.

Thanks to a simplified book written by Eric for Annie and George, he learns about Hawking radiation. He learns that contrary to what is generally known about black holes, they do disintegrate as they leak radiation and this process eventually emits anything captured in the hole. Now all that George needs to do is find a way to speed up the disintegrating of the black hole and find a way of reconstructing Eric from the information obtained from the black hole. To achieve this, he needs to first recover Cosmos from Dr. Reeper. Does George succeed?

To compound matters he also has to make a presentation at a school science program for which he was relying on Eric's help.

Read the book to find out if and how George manages to pull off the impossible.

George's Secret Key to the Universe, however, is not merely an adventure. The adventure, as pointed out earlier, provides a stage and a context to bring in all the science. As George embarks on his various travels through space, the authors furnish the readers with fact sheets about planets, scientific diagrams, and numerous color photos of the wonders found in the universe. Science forms the backbone of the story and it is the knowledge of a scientific concept that helps George to bring back Eric — the book includes Hawking's latest theories about black holes. Appropriately, they are presented as notes for a book within the book and the notes are complete with doodles and sketches and age-appropriate language for kids (in the context of the book — Annie and George.) The book is also marvelously illustrated by Garry Parsons and his playful, fresh, and funny sketches are reminiscent of yet another charming book: The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.

George's Secret Key to the Universe makes a strong case for the importance of science and the scientific way of thinking in our lives. It is also a book that has its heart in the right place — it repeatedly stresses that science is to be used for the good of humanity and the quest for scientific knowledge should not be at the cost of the planet. The book also neatly brings in the importance of scientists and environmentalists working together to save and rejuvenate the planet.

Lucy and Stephen Hawking, like the kids in their story, (though with considerably less success) manage largely to pull-off this mix of science and a children's adventure novel. While the overall book is definitely a success there are patches where the "wrapper" of the children's adventure is too weak and the "teach" overwhelms the story. The first few chapters especially, when the authors are setting up the adventure, are incredibly cumbersome. The science hardly feels a part of the story in these initial chapters. Rather like in a poor e-learning program, the story merely sets up events that offer the characters an excuse to deliver lecture after lecture of scientific gyaan. These chapters could have done with strong editing and possibly some more thinking about how the adventure was setup. Freddy, the pig, for example, plays no further role than walking across to the neighbor's home. After working as an excuse to introduce George into the wonderland of Eric, Annie, and Cosmos, Freddy more or less disappears from the story.

Considering that, the target audience of the book is kids, the portrayal of the evil teacher, Dr. Reeper, might be potentially worrying for parents and educators. Even more worrying is what Dr. Reeper does with Eric. When he tricks Eric into the black hole, he is actually committing a murder (and though the book shows how Eric can be "reconstructed" again from the black hole) the act itself is scary and deplorable. The book however expresses virtually no outrage at Dr. Reeper's deed and neither is he apprehended or punished in the end. If the reactions to the killings in Harry Potter are any indication, this incident in the book might prompt adults to reconsider before handing the book to kids.

Those quibbles apart, George's Secret Key to the Universe, does a fantastic job of invoking amazement and inspiring curiosity. It introduces kids to interesting, arcane, and mind-bending scientific concepts in a way that is easily accessible to kids (and many adults who struggled with Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time). In the process, it tells a pretty good story as well. The resultant book is highly instructive, entertaining, and infuses and enthuses readers with the wonders of the universe and science.

The companion website for George's Secret Key to the Universe is a good resource to read an extract from the book, get acquainted with the characters and try out a few fun activities based on the book. From the website it looks like this book is first of a series. Hopefully the sequels will iron out the few crinkles of the first book and be even more informative and enjoyable.

1 comment:

Ashley Mendoza said...

i have a literature group in my english class and once we saw this book we all agreed right away to choose this book!!! I recommend it!!!