By Lisa Guernsey
When taught badly, physics and astronomy can become dull and lifeless, weighed down by the regurgitation of facts and theories. George's Secret Key to the Universe is the opposite - a wild ride through outer space that makes learning science feel like going to the movies.
Written for young readers by Lucy and Stephen Hawking - a duo featuring the world-renowned physicist and his novelist daughter - the book follows the adventures of George, a curious boy who discovers some strange and interesting activity happening just next door. George's neighbor, Eric, is a scientist with a powerful computer that can open up windows onto the Universe and even enable people to step through doorways into the cold vastness of outer space. With a little push from Annie, Eric's headstrong daughter, George finds himself going through one of those doorways himself. Soon he is riding a comet, zooming past the planets in the Solar System, experiencing weightlessness and being pelted with asteroids. Back home, on Earth, life is getting more interesting too, as a villainous teacher named Mr. Reeper corrals a few school bullies to help him with a treacherous plan that puts Eric - and, to a certain extent, humanity - in real danger.
George's Secret Key harnesses several mind-blowing, "no way!" moments of scientific discovery, puts them in easy-to-understand language, and then uses them to propel readers through the story. Take, for example, black holes and the latest ideas on how one might eventually get out of them. It's awe-inducing to even consider a place where gravity is so strong that even light makes no escape. But the characters in George's Secret Key don't just talk about that wonderment, they experience black holes first-hand, and readers get to go along. To drive home how real these adventures might someday be, the book includes color photographs taken by roving robots and space vessels that are still whizzing away from Earth this very moment.
Once in a while the book starts to moralize a little much about the virtues of technology. It also paints a picture of a vast schism between environmentalists and physicists that doesn't ring true. But those bumps are worth riding out in this book that could inspire a host of new questions -- and real-world adventures -- from tomorrow's young scientists.