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26 July 2017Last updated
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Lucy Hawking shoots for the stars in Dubai

The daughter of physicist Stephen Hawking to discuss her children’s books at the Literature Festival

By Suparna Dutt D’Cunha
1 Mar 2017 | 11:09 am
  • Lucy Hawking with her father, Prof Stephen Hawking, at the EE British Academy Film Awards in 2015.

    Source:Doug Peters/EMPICS Entertainment

‘I watched Theory of Everything. It’s like seeing your family photo album come to life.’

‘I cried buckets the first time I saw it,’ says Lucy Hawking about the profound experience of seeing her father, theoretical physicist professor Stephen Hawking, on screen.

Hawking, the London-based children’s author, says the Oscar-winning 2015 film, which starred Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones, mirrored their lives. ‘It is a beautiful film and has a great quality of authenticity about it.’

Marking a new chapter in their relationship, Lucy teamed up with her professor father to unlock the secrets of science for children in the George series. The cosmic adventures of a little boy called George are global bestsellers that have been translated into 37 languages.

‘My father had never tried to write a story before and I had not written about science. It was very exciting to see the first book take shape. We are now on the sixth and final volume of George’s adventures.’ The first book was published in 2007.

Now, she wants to see George and his best friend Annie travel across the universe as an animated television show. ‘Our stories would work so well visually and it would give us a chance to really show young viewers what an extraordinary place the universe is.’

The idea for the books, Lucy says, arose at a party when one of her son’s friends asked her physicist father a question. ‘When the little boy said “So Stephen, what would happen to me if I fell into a black hole?” I realised this was the start of an adventure story. The idea was to describe what we know about the universe in the form of a roller coaster cosmic story for kids.’ The result was George’s Secret Key To The Universe, the first in the series.

Apart from her father, Hawking worked with a wide range of scientists on the books.

‘Black holes hold huge power over the imagination of young readers. Space travel has the same effect. Many adults currently working in science or the space industries were inspired by the moon landings as children. In the book series, we use these topics to draw young readers in and fire their curiosity,’ says Lucy, who has been recognised with a fellowship from the Royal Astronomical Society of London. She also tours primary schools to give talks on physics, astronomy and cosmology.

Working with her father, she says, was an “enormous privilege and a joy”. “But it was also a learning experience for us both.”

Growing up, Lucy says, she took science somewhat for granted, living in a house where scientists were constant visitors, dinner guests, holiday companions and great friends. “As children, we were able to ask lots of questions and get real answers from actual scientists who didn’t consider that we should be talked down because we were kids. This gave me a very good grounding in science even though I didn’t choose to study it at a higher level,” says the 46-year-old writer matter-of-factly.

She was a devoted reader as a child, and still is. ‘I wanted to study literature with the aim of becoming a writer. Which is what I have done!’ She went to Oxford to read Russian and French, then became a journalist.

Apart from the George series, her adult novels Jaded (2004), Run For Your Life (2005) and The Accidental Marathon (2006) were also well received. Did being the daughter of a genius put her under a pressure? ‘No,’ says Hawking, who is often asked if she had considered becoming a physicist.

‘I was lucky to grow up in Cambridge where many of my peers also came from academic families so I didn’t count as anything unusual. The wider world is more complex, especially as my father’s fame has grown. I think there are expectations of the children of very notable people, although no one seems quite sure what they should be…’

Reflecting on the highs and lows of being the scientist’s daughter, Hawking says she admires her father greatly for excelling in a very difficult field — theoretical physics — and managing an exceptionally challenging physical condition. He has been wheelchair-bound for decades owing to motor neurone disease, requiring round-the-clock care.

‘As a family, we have all been impacted by both my father’s genius and his physical condition. We celebrated his astonishing achievements but I wish that my father had been spared the rigours of his condition.’

Undoubtedly, her father made a big impact on her life, but credit for her normal, happy childhood goes to the heroic efforts of her mother, she says. “My mother is a brave and resourceful woman. She brought up three children while looking after my father who had profound health problems throughout my childhood.”

Her mother, Jane, professor Hawking’s wife for 26 years, is a talented musician. ‘Her courage and commitment made a big impact on me as a child. My own experience as a mother has been a very rewarding one. Despite the challenges — my son has autism — being his parent is a wonderful experience,’ Lucy adds.

This March, Lucy will be sharing some of that experience, of life and writing, at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in Dubai.

She just finished the final George book, George And The Ship Of Time. And like many others in creative field, she’s often plagued by doubts. ‘It goes with the territory,’ says Lucy, who had her own troubles — the breakdown of her marriage, the discovery that her son has autism, drink problems and depression. However, her self-assurance coaxes her not to dwell on the past. ‘Looking back is not something I do very often. I tend to look forwards rather than back.’

Currently, on a break from writing, Hawking is devoting new-found free time in performing arts, cinemas, concerts and theatre. ‘I also like skiing and I do a lot of yoga. It’s a nice change from sitting at my computer, typing.’

Lucy Hawking is at the Emirates Literature Festival on March 3 at 1.30pm in a session called George and the Blue Moon. Tickets are Dh50. She joins authors Ashlee Vance and Peter F Hamilton for Journey to the Stars: Space Colonisation in Fact and Fiction, on March 4 at 1.30pm (Dh75).

By Suparna Dutt D’Cunha

By Suparna Dutt D’Cunha