Monday, June 15, 2009

Professor Stephen Hawking and his friend George

Recently, Kerm and I went to the library and checked out George’s Secret Key to the Universe, written by Lucy & Stephen Hawking (with Christophe Galfard). Stephen Hawking, the famous theoretical physicist, is known for expanding our knowledge of astronomy despite suffering from ALS (a neurologic disease).

Hawking is one of my favorite scientists. I am in awe of the fact that his mind soars among the heavens despite having extremely severe physical limitations. Hawking writes on his website that at one point, he communicated by "spell[ing] out words letter by letter, by raising [his] eyebrows when someone pointed to the right letter on a spelling card." Fortunately, personal computing came to his rescue and we are all richer for the experience.

Hawking has written several books for adults, including A Brief History of Time, which, according to the BBC, sold more than nine million copies. Lucy Hawking is Stephen's daughter so I was curious about the book. Since Kerm likes astronomy, I thought he would like it.

A few days later, after seeing George’s Secret Key to the Universe open on Kerm's bed, I asked him what the book was about.

“It’s about the universe and the world’s most amazing computer called Cosmos,” said Kerm. “Cosmos can make ‘portal doorways’ so his owner Eric can go through these doorways and go anywhere in outer space.” Portal doorways aren’t real, Kerm told me. “They aren’t the same as black holes. [Portal doorways] actually bring you from your house into outer space.”

What is a black hole? As defined by Lucy and Stephen Hawking in their book, “To make a black hole you need to squash a very large amount of matter into a very small space.” The resulting gravitational pull is so strong that nothing can escape, not even light. And the more matter and light that enter a black hole, the larger it gets.

Here’s what Kerm learned about black holes. “A black hole is a giant place in space where everything gets sucked inside. It [occurs when] an exploding star ... got too big and exploded into a big area in space [while the center of the star got pushed in]. Anything can be sucked [into a black hole], even light. And light [travels at] the fastest speed in the universe that we know.” Kerm also learned that scientists now believe “that it’s possible to get out of a black hole.”

It’s hard for me to imagine this, but the Hawkings wrote that, “Our own galaxy, the Milky Way, has at its center a black hole several million times the mass of our Sun.” Can you imagine that? It’s like there's an invisible gigantic vacuum cleaner slurping stuff up at the center of our universe.

Kids that are interested in science and science fiction would like this book, according to Kerm. “It is a very cool book ... My favorite character was George because he was the main character and he was a hero."

You can visit George's website to take a quiz about astronomy, check out these facts and photos about outer space, and enter this competition to win a hardback copy of the sequel, George's Cosmic Treasure Hunt!

Image Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/CfA/R.Kraft et al.;
Submillimeter: MPIfR/ESO/APEX/A.Weiss et al.; Optical: ESO/WFI

No comments: