George's Secret Key to the Universe, by Lucy and Stephen Hawking

An adventure in time and space – and what not to do when visiting a comet
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Lucy Hawking is the daughter of the more famous Stephen but, on this evidence, to the next generation he might be best known as her father. George's Secret Key to the Universe is a delightful book for young readers, a scientific adventure that mostly strikes a nice balance between the adventure and the science, although in places the action does stand still while the science is expounded.

It's hard to know what role Stephen actually played in the book's writing, as it credits Dr Christophe Galfard, one of his former students, with collaborating on "the scientific storyline, details and images". To me, that merits a proper listing as co-author. The images include a profusion of astronomical colour plates, and much of the science is put across in stand-alone boxes that are pitched at a distinctly higher level of readership than the story itself.

This is a neat idea, which means that the book will continue to be useful after the reader has grown out of the story. The topics range from exoplanets and the origin of life to – of course – black holes. There are also illustrations by Garry Parsons. The end product is both a better read than A Brief History of Time and easier to understand.

The whole package is lavish indeed by the standards of children's books and this, presumably, is where the elder Hawking comes in. Secure in the knowledge that his name will sell, the publishers have given the book every opportunity to stand out in the marketplace. The result, ironically, is a book so lavishly produced and reasonably priced that it would surely sell in truckloads even without Stephen Hawking's name attached.

Not that the book is perfect. The storytelling has some rough edges, and there are a couple of scientific inaccuracies. Most embarrassingly for the elder Hawking, when George and his friend Annie visit a comet, she uses her boot to jam a kind of tent-peg into the icy surface without suffering the sort of reaction to her action that Isaac Newton made famous. And the discussion of the origin of life is distinctly dated.

No matter: this is an excellent book for its intended audience who, with appetites whetted, might find it a little frustrating that there is no guide to further reading. It will do wonders to raise enthusiasm for physics among young readers, and even this older reader looks forward to the further adventures of George and Annie, which will surely follow.

Doubleday, £12.99. Order for £11.69 (free p&p) on 0870 079 8897