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Stephen Hawking's universe ... for kids!

Zero Gravity Corp.
Lucy Hawking follows in her physicist father's footsteps on a zero-gravity flight.

World-famous physicist Stephen Hawking and his daughter Lucy have finished a fictional tale that's aimed at the middle-school set but takes on grown-up topics ranging from black holes to the origins of the universe. Lucy Hawking says the book, "George’s Secret Key to the Universe," should give kids a better grasp on the cosmic mysteries that are her father's specialties.

Has the father-daughter team come up with new scientific explanations that can turn cosmology into child's play? “There's something really great," Lucy Hawking told me, "but if I tell you, it would spoil the plot." Despite the Harry Potteresque air of secretiveness, she went on to drop a few hints about what kids will find when they crack the book open in October.

Simon & Schuster
"George's Secret Key to

the Universe" is a father-

daughter effort.

"'George's Secret Key to the Universe' is an adventure story about two children who find a sort of computer portal through which they can slip into the solar system and beyond," she explained.

Among the themes covered in the book will be "black holes, obviously stellar formation, the formation of the solar system, our place in the solar system and the way that you as a child, or a human being on this planet, relate to the universe around us," she said.

"I'm sorry to be Miss Mystery, but I can't tell you more," she said.

Her famous father's involvement in the project is obviously a powerful draw, considering that his nonfiction book about frontier physics, "A Brief History of Time," quickly became a best seller when it was published in 1988. Since then, he's coped with the progressive effects of a neurogenerative disease called amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (a.k.a. Lou Gehrig's disease) - and today he can communicate only through a computer controlled by facial gestures (or, in a pinch, through an eyeblink code).

Despite the disability, the elder Hawking played a key role in making sure the physics of "George's Secret Key" turned out just right, the younger Hawking said.

"The book was my idea, and I came up with the creative framework into which we wanted to blend the physics," she told me. "The science and the storyline depend on each other to take the book forward."

During the writing process, father and daughter bounced ideas off each other, with an extra assist from Christophe Galfard, one of the physicist's former graduate assistants.

"There was so much bouncing," Lucy Hawking said. "There were just hours and hours and hours of conversation."

She said the name of the book's main character was inspired by her grandfather on her mother's side, who died two years ago. But 65-year-old Stephen is tickled by the fact that George is also his grandson's name. Indeed, he's tickled by the mere idea that he can share his scientific vision with the pre-teen set.

"My dad's really, really excited about this book," Lucy said.

October's publication of "George's Secret Key," which publisher Simon & Schuster lists at 320 pages (with illustrations by Garry Parsons), will by no means be the end of the adventure for George - or for Lucy and Stephen, for that matter. Lucy told me she and her father are working on two more books in the series.

"We couldn't have covered everything in one children's book," she said.

For more on Stephen Hawking's scientific and personal life, check out the report from my first encounter with the physicist in April, or my coverage of his zero-gravity airplane flight later that month.

By the way, Lucy Hawking followed in her father's footsteps last weekend on a Zero Gravity excursion - which led us to compare notes on the weightless experience.

"It's like being a small child, isn't it?" she told me. "You've got that sense of exuberance and hilarity. You just can't stop laughing."