Lucy Hawking – “Pigs and Space”
Who wouldn’t want to interview Lucy Hawking? Ever since I picked up a copy of George’s Secret Key to the Universe, I have loved her books about George and his adventures featuring physics and space travel. And as Lucy had a free afternoon during my inter-semester, I jumped at the opportunity and got on that train to London to meet her.
Despite the snow, neither of us was late for our meeting at the Euston Ibis. After discussing how loud coffee machines can be, we settled down with juice and coffee (!) for a chat about the cosmos. Although, to begin with, Lucy interviewed me, about university, the origins of this blog and my Astronomy GCSE. And, inevitably, Brian Cox, who she thinks is “amazing”.
Lucy: I grew up with physics, so it’s something that has always been there for me. I’ve had it as a backdrop my whole life. My father is a physicist, his friends are physicists. And I grew up in Cambridge…
(Here we are interrupted by the waiter bringing Lucy’s ‘quietly made’ coffee.).
So yeah, it’s something that has always been there for me, and I just love the challenge and the mental exercise of it. The fascination for me – I’m not a natural physicist and that’s probably why this medium of writing children’s adventure stories about physics is perfect – because it gives me a way in, a way to discuss topics, and to consider them with professional scientists. It’s legitimate, and it’s fun and it’s really interesting. And I love putting it together in my own mind, and I think “how far can I actually go until my understanding falls off the cliff?”
Helen: You’ve written three books for children around current physics. Do you have any plans to continue the George series, or perhaps write something else?
Lucy: Ah yes, well, I think you’re the first person I’m going to tell this to, but I’m doing a 4th George book. Actually, I started work on it properly this morning, so this is very hot off the press, if that exists in the internet age. I’ve been thinking about this for quite a while, and I have an idea, which came from a really illuminating piece of information at a technology conference I went to last year, and I thought “well that sounds interesting; I didn’t know that” and I’ve been playing around with it and I think I’ve found a way to turn it into a story.
Lucy: And my father has approved. Dad is, well, he did raise an eyebrow this time, like “seriously?” (she laughs) and I said “yes, this’ll be good,” and so we started working on George 4. Which surprises me as well, as I wasn’t expecting that would be the direction I would take, but I’m actually really pleased now that I’ve started. I think about things for a long, long time before I commit anything to paper. The thought process was over six months, but once I start writing, then it hopefully goes quite quickly.
Helen: Well, I’m looking forward to that!
Lucy: Yeah, me too! (She laughs again.) Right! It’s hilarious, because I was quite categorical that this is a trilogy and that’s that. Then there was this nagging feeling that something was missing from my life, and that turned out to be the fourth George book.
Helen: I believe your Dad was reluctant to work with you at first with the George series. What did you actually have to say to convince him?
Lucy: First of all, I was like “I really think we should do this, it’ll be fun, I would enjoy working with you, and I think you would enjoy working with me. And you know, I think it would be a fantastic project for us to do together, that would also help us to explain the work that you’ve done to a young audience.” The first thing that Dad said was “do you think I have a young audience?” He was quite sceptical. “Do you think that young kids relate to me? As a figure, as a person, as a scientist?” And he didn’t think they did!
Helen: They definitely do!
Lucy: That’s what I said. I said that they definitely do, and I had two really good examples, that he was unable to refute. First was the one I’ve used a hundred times, about him at the birthday party with this little kid coming up to him and going “so Stephen, what would happen to me if I fell into a black hole?” I remember my Dad answering him, and literally everyone is standing there agog. All the kids, and the adults going ‘Oh?’ And then the adults going “yeah, yeah I knew that” and they didn’t. They had no idea.
The other one was an example I have quoted before, but it’s so extraordinary. We were walking with my Dad in Cambridge. It was a summer’s evening, we’d had dinner and there are two ways home; one that is a straightforward, safe smooth way with pavements, and the other is the cross country route, and of course being my Dad he had to take the cross country route (Lucy laughs) and it was Cambridge on a Friday night, after the exams when all the young people were out. Someone spotted him and goes “oh, it’s Stephen Hawking” and everyone goes “he’s a legend,” “I love Stephen Hawking” and suddenly all these boys appear out of nowhere, and they start following us like my Dad’s the pied piper, and these teenage boys, are going “oi, Steve, you is a leg!”
Eventually we passed a policeman and I said to the policeman “we’ve got these boys following us and they’re very nice, so please don’t get cross at them, but I don’t really think we can take them home” and so the policeman said “all right boys, you’ve gone as far as you can, let the professor have a bit of peace now”, and after that I was like “seriously, you don’t have a young audience? Did you see what just happened?”
So then he said, “all right go away and write me something.” And that’s why the pig appears in chapter one. It was just a blatant piece of pandering to my father. His grandparents were pig farmers and he just has this strange nostalgic fondness for pigs, so I thought “I know, I’ll put a pig in. That’ll work.” People ask “why the pig?” and I say “the whole series wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for that pig.”
And Lucy tells the story of when a wild pig in Corsica almost proved to be the end of her Dad, after which she starts getting new ideas for her 4th book….
Helen: You’ve given talks around the world, you’ve had a “writer in residence” post in the US, you were at NASA’s 50th birthday celebrations…
Lucy: That was kind of awesome.
Helen: … it feels like you’ve done everything under the sun. What’s been the highlight?
Lucy: The best thing has been when I go to schools or give a talk and you see the reaction of kids, and how genuinely interested they are in this material. All I’m doing is finding an imaginative way to present it to them, but it’s the actual information that really sparks their interest. I just try and show it to them, make it accessible to them, in a format that they can relate to. So that’s kind of amazing.
A personal highlight of my whole entire existence was I met JK Rowling quite recently.
Lucy: I mean, by accident, we were literally walking past each other. I actually bumped into her and I got to meet her!
Helen: Wow, that’s pretty a good highlight! How do you pick the scientists who write the mini essays for your books?
Lucy: They tend to be linked in to the ideas that roughly link in to the topic of whatever is happening in that book. Then we look at people who are in the field, and it’s not a massive field. There are certain people within physics who are very good communicators, like Paul Davies, who is a brilliant writer. Most of the people who write the essays, actually all of them I think, have never written for children before, so it’s been quite intriguing for them as well.
At first they go “wow, that’s a challenge,” and putting it to Martin Rees was quite a scary moment. It’s not easy to ask the president of the Royal Society if he would like to write about whether there is anybody out there, for six to nine year olds, but he was lovely. They were all really nice.
The interesting thing is how switched on and enthusiastic they were. Geoff Marcy is one of my all time favourites. I thought he was absolutely terrific. The second book is actually based on a lecture of his that I went to, about other worlds. After that I approached him and said I loved it when he talked about that, and that it was fascinating, and was he interested, and would he help me? And he was so nice. Just straight away, because he is the planet hunter.
Helen: Did you ever consider taking the science path or did you always know that you wanted to go into the arts?
Lucy: I’ve always known that I wanted to go into the arts, from quite an early age. That was where my creative ability lay rather than in scientific discoveries.
Helen: You went with you Dad to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom. What was it like to meet President Obama?
Lucy: I know I have met him because I can see the photos, but I was so overwhelmed that I’ve actually blanked it out of my memory. (She roars with laughter.) It’s really embarrassing that I can only remember it by looking at the photos, because it was so amazing, and I have a really good memory, and a good visual memory. But that, nope. And I have no idea what I said to him. I know I spoke to him for about two or three minutes, and I’ve got a lovely photograph of me and my father sort of gazing at him adoringly, like “ah, we love you.” We’ve both got little love hearts streaming out of our eyes.
I was really struck by Michelle Obama, who I think is one of the warmest human beings I’ve ever met. There’s something about her, which maybe doesn’t come across in photographs, but when you meet her she’s got this force field of goodness and kindness and warmth. Both of them do, but I thought she was incredible.
There was a lovely moment, there was this man called Doctor Medicine Crow, who was the first Native American from his tribe to get a formalised education, and who went back as a doctor to work with Native Americans. He was receiving a medal, and he came in full headdress and then there’s my dad, who’s obviously very recognisable and iconic and unusual, and then standing next him is Desmond Tutu in purple and with the dog collar, and the three of them standing together. I’ve got a photograph and it’s kind of awesome! (She laughs.)
Helen: Your Dad was also on The Big Bang Theory. Did you get to go to that?
Lucy: No, I didn’t. He was in California and recorded it when he was in Pasadena at Caltech, and I wasn’t there, but that sounds really fun. And they said about him that he has great comic timing, which felt really cool. Mind you, I was a bit shocked whilst watching something, not perhaps very highbrow, on TV on Saturday night, and then in the ad break suddenly there was my father! Doing the Go compare advert, and I was like “busted!” (Lucy laughs.)
Helen: You’ve ridden the vomit comet. What was it like?
Lucy: It is so much fun, it’s actually like being a child again. When you’re doing things as a child, things were so fun, like the pantomime or the first time on a roller coaster, and you’re like “wow,” and “I can’t believe this, and this is so great!” It was like that. And there was a group of fairly straight-laced, boring adults like myself who went on it, and when we came off we were like a bunch of giggling school kids, like a bunch of kids at a birthday party. We were all laughing our heads off and we came down and we were all chat, chat, chat. So yeah, it was good.
Helen: Do you want to travel in space?
Lucy: Theoretically yes, but I feel quite strongly that the chances to travel in space are very limited. I don’t see what benefit there would be in sending me into space, so I would give my place to somebody who would have a more profound impact on the future of the human race through their ability to experience space travel.
Helen: That leads us nicely to my next question; what do you think of space tourism compared with scientific space exploration?
Lucy: Yes, that’s the big question at the moment, in that arena. I mean there’s space tourism, just going up to have a look. Just to be able to experience it, to have a look at the cosmos, to travel above and beyond the earth’s atmosphere, and I think if you’ve got that kind of money, and you’re fit enough to do the travel and you feel that that is something you want to do, then I think ‘why not?’ I think manned space exploration is an extremely different type of venture.
Helen: You have an interest in Asperger Syndrome and autism. In the current climate, what do you think are the biggest issues people on the spectrum, and their families, face?
Lucy: Well, my son is now 15, and he’s autistic, and I think what concerns me is the post-19 provision for him. Identifying opportunities for employment, for people with autism and people on the spectrum, and making sure that somebody like my son has a chance to have a valid life, live independently, to have the possibility of work, and the ability to reach his full potential. And it worries me that opportunities are being cut back for people, not just people with autism, not just people with disabilities, but I worry that we seem to be going backwards rather than forwards, and it’s so important.
It seems very unfair to cut people’s benefits, when there isn’t anything else, without actually providing anything else for them. I was quite upset when Remploy shut down their factories, I thought that was a shame. And – I should shut up – but I felt it showed a real lack of understanding the issues involved. I was quite horrified by what the politician involved had to say, I thought her comments just showed that she really didn’t know what she was talking about.
I’m going to stop here, because I’ll go on forever on that one!
So there you have it; Brian Cox is amazing, a pig almost killed Stephen Hawking and Lucy “has forgotten” President Obama. Never thought I would write that combination of words in one sentence…
After a few photos and discussing the difficulties of interviewing while taking notes at the same time, Lucy went off home to write some more about George.