What do you think when you hear the word scientist? Does the phrase “space travel” seem like a pipe dream (perhaps a historic artifact of the cold war) or is it going to play a significant part in our future? There are some of the issues that come up in the book George’s Secret Key to the Universe, by Lucy Hawking and her father Stephen Hawking.
The main character of the story, George, is a young boy with environmentalist parents who reject modern technology in their efforts to save the world. George meets the scientist who lives next door and is taken on incredible adventures. Quite a bit of scientific details are worked into the story themselves, but little extra information pages are interspersed throughout the book. My children greatly enjoyed the book and we have just started reading its sequel, George’s Cosmic Treasure Hunt.
One of the themes in the book that seemed a little forced was this tension between science and environmentalism. George’s parents rejected modern technology. They used candles instead of electric lights and I found that particularly bizarre, because candles aren’t exactly carbon-free lighting. Also, most of the environmentalists I know are very strong believers in science, particularly the science of climate change, while George’s parents seemed to think all scientists were out to destroy the world. The extremism seemed forced, and yet I can recognize within my own life that there are people who are torn that way. On one hand, we have scientists who are trying to make contributions to society, and on the other hand we have scientists who are developing terminator seed places farmers deeper and deeper in the pockets of Monsanto. We have scientists trying to find the cures for cancer, and we have scientists inventing new types of questionable food additives. When people think about scientists, which do they think of? Living with a scientist, I think of the people who are trying to work towards improving things, but I can recognize that for others, the image that pops up first is not the good one. So the question would be, what percentage of scientists really are working for good and what percentage are “in the corporations back pockets”?
The other thing I found interesting about the book is that it, and its sequel, express optimism about the idea space travel and space exploration. Within the story the travel happens with the help of a magic supercomputer, but the book seems to be written with the assumption that real life space travel will be continuing to develop. It is strange to me to hear that because the world powers seem so preoccupied with other troubles it is hard to believe that we can or will continue to develop the technology necessary further space travel.
Even just thinking about space travel brings me back to the issue I mentioned already about the nature of scientists. If scientific technology is sometimes seen as pitted against environmental concerns, space travel is sometimes pitted against the potential for a poverty-free world. It is seen and portrayed at times as a waste of energy, or worse yet, a way of trying to funnel money into research whose real purpose is to feed the same big technological corporations that build weapons. In George’s Secret Key to the Universe space travel is seen as a portrayed as a potential salvation for the human race given the extent to which we are continuing to damage Earth. The sequel, George’s Cosmic Treasure Hunt, celebrates the many (peaceful) technologies that have been developed because of research into space travel and suggests that there are many great possibilities to come from it.
I will admit though that I found George’s Secret Key to the Universe a little nerve wracking. The ongoing mentions of environmental destruction left me nervous that the book would scare my children (or me). Yet my children didn’t seem unduly worried, and the reality is that we do need to be concerned about the environment. They are growing up in a world where climate change is a reality. Having a book reflect that isn’t a bad thing and the book didn’t argue that things are hopeless, only that things need to be done.
Overall, I thought the book was a good one. It kept the kids entertained while feeding them bits of information. More importantly, it is another story that helps to normalize the idea that science is important and fun. It makes me kids think it is normal to know what types of atmosphere the planet Venus has or what the life cycle of a star is. It expands their universe, and I like that.