Friday, December 7, 2007

Physics for children

Stephen Hawking and his daughter have written a children's book: George's Secret Key to the Universe. Let's face it, there was no chance that my children would not be subjected to it. And of the past few weeks, subject them to it, I did.

It didn't disappoint. It purported to have the latest thinking on black holes. Hang on a second, didn't I already read that 20 or so years ago with Hawking's A Brief History of Time? Well, I am pleased to tell you that the latest thinking on black holes is new. For starters, apparently, theoretically you can survive an encounter with one -- so it turns out the Disney movie of 25 years ago was actually more accurate than Hawking's pop science book of a few years later. Of course, I won't be giving much away when I tell you that theory becomes practice here.

Anyhow on to the book -- which is fiction -- and despite having the latest thinking is not hard science fiction. Basically, it is set in the present day an involves a piece of technology, a laptop computer named Cosmos, who can open up portals to anywhere in the universe. This seemed a stretch on the credibility front but what can you do.

The book is about George who is a bright young kid with an interest in science and technology stuck in a family of Luddites/Hippies with practices that would have been extreme for that group in the 60s. One suspects young Stephen had some issues in college back then. There is no technology in George's house, no preservatives in his food (something my kids can identify with) and weekends spent going to environmental protest rallies.

George's only joy is his pet pig that doesn't get much of a role other than allowing George to encounter his next door neighbours, a polar opposite, academic, science family who spend their weekend traveling to comets and the like.

Anyhow this sets the stage for several adventures that allows us to cover the material of physics in a moderately interesting way -- apparently, it is not enough to just have the story, there are inserts, pop outs and pictures explaining the real science. We skipped those on the first read. But the subtext is some debate against Luddites and scientist that George eventually helps reconcile. The debate didn't seem particularly relevant in today's world but the idea of an intellectual debate underpinning a children's book was pretty interesting nonetheless.

This is no major work of literary magic but it has offsetting benefits that make it a great read for children 6 years and above.