J.K. Rowling, Kenneth Oppel … Stephen Hawking?

May 21, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

Among the stranger books to cross my desk in the last little while is a title from Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers called George’s Cosmic Treasure Hunt. At first blush, it looks like fairly typical YA fare: a gaudy cover with the title in a large, futuristic font and an illustration of an intrepid red-haired tyke in a space suit jettisoning himself from a space shuttle. Flip the book open and the jacket copy is equally unsurprising:

George’s best friend, Annie, needs help. Her scientist father, Eric, is working on a space project – and it’s all going wrong. A robot has landed on Mars but is behaving very oddly. And now Annie has discovered something weird on her dad’s supercomputer.

Is it a message from an alien? Could there be life out there? How do you find a planet in outer space? And if you could talk to aliens, what would you say?

A quick flip through the book yields dialogue-heavy prose in a kid-friendly, large-sized typeface and plenty of energetic illustrations by Garry Parsons.

So why is yr. humble correspondent agog at this book? It’s the authors. George’s Cosmic Treasure Hunt was co-written by Lucy Hawking and her father, Stephen. Yes, that Stephen Hawking. The Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge. The one who wrote A Brief History of Time, a slim bestseller that confounded minds far more brilliant than mine.

No wonder George’s Cosmic Treasure Hunt seems to evince a kind of split personality. Now, I’m all in favour of making science accessible to young readers, and books that can educate at the same time as they entertain are marvellous, even for adults. But ask yourself: What kind of writing is most likely to appeal to a young reader looking for a good, old-fashioned adventure yarn?


When George had first met Annie, she’d wanted to be a ballerina, but now she’d changed her mind and decided on being a soccer player. Instead of spending her time after school in a pink-and-white tutu, she now charged around the backyard, hammering a soccer ball past George, who always had to be goalie. And yet she still seemed to know far more about science than he did.

Or this:


The Drake Equation isn’t really an equation. It’s a series of questions that help us to work out how many intelligent civilizations with the ability to communicate there might be in our Galaxy. It was formulated in 1961 by Dr. Frank Drake of the SETI institute, and is still used by scientists today.

This is the Drake Equation:

N = N* x fp x ne x fl x fi x fc x L

To be fair, the bit about the Drake Equation is contained in a sidebar, which readers can skip over if they like. Not so the bald didacticisms that are embedded within the text proper:

“Plasma blackout!” said the controller. “We have plasma blackout! Expect signal to resume after two minutes.”

Annie squeezed her dad’s hand.

He squeezed back. “Don’t worry,” he said. “We know this happens sometimes. It’s due to friction in the atmosphere.”

Maybe the most startling thing about George’s Cosmic Treasure Hunt is the fact that it’s a sequel to the authors’ earlier book, George’s Secret Key to the Universe, described by USA Today as “A briefer history of time – for a younger audience.” Perhaps I’ll give a copy of George’s Cosmic Treasure Hunt to my young niece. Maybe she could explain the Drake Equation to me.

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