March 5, 2019 – The Faculty of Humanities at Notre Dame University-Louaize (NDU), in partnership with the May Chidiac Foundation, hosted English journalist, novelist, educator, and philanthropist Lucy Hawking, daughter of acclaimed theoretical physicist, cosmologist, and author of the bestselling George Series, Stephen Hawking. For many years, Hawking has been a prominent voice for science education, placing particular emphasis on children’s understanding of STEM fields. Her talk, “A Great Cosmic Adventure,” tackled some of the work her father did, the ones she did with him, and how a cosmic outlook helps maintain a sense of human connection even in the face of quite dehumanizing perspectives: “We must never forget what it means to be human. That we must never turn our back on this planet, nor the problems of this planet.”
In person, Hawking is direct and insightful, expertly weaving explanatory and narrative tones together in her discourse. An interview was conducted with Hawking to shed light on various issues pertaining to her work as a science writer and educator.
What are some of your favorite questions to answer and why?
Sometimes I get really technical questions from very young people which are quite difficult to answer. Because you can ask a relatively simple sounding question – like “what happens at the edge of the universe?” – which are actually quite involved things to answer. I think the trick is to try and give an answer that has relevance to young people, so you haven’t completely confused them. Other times I am asked questions that are just extraordinary. I was recently in China, and a young person asked me “when we die does the soul become dark matter?” I know, right?! So, I get these really philosophical and poetic questions. I get many questions about aliens, a lot of questions about black holes, questions about travelling in space, so they are very diverse. My favorites all are in the books, because what happens is, when we are planning a new book, if I get the same questions constantly, then I tend to realize that something which is universally interesting to young kids and put it in a book: time travel and wormholes for example.
What is so powerful about storytelling? What enables people to engage with stories so effectively as opposed to slightly drier, more technical writing?
Stories represent an ordering of human existence. It is the way we make sense of the world around us: we take all our experiences and we put them in a framework, and it has a narrative to it, so it is very satisfying in a way that real life is not. “Once upon a time,” has almost a magical effect. You say that to a room full of kids and they go “ahh” it gives them a context in which they feel safe to absorb what it is you are telling them. If you tell a child a story about a child, it puts them at the heart of what you are saying, and they have a frame of reference.
You have discussed in previous talks how your father presented his talks with a deadpan sense of mischief. How does mischief help get your message across?
Comedy, humor, a lightness of touch always helps, because people can be scared away by things that seem too serious, impenetrable, heavy for them, especially with something like physics. There’s always this worry that the barrier to entry is seen as unsurpassably high, and kids are just saying “I can’t understand it, I look stupid if I ask a question, I don’t want to make a fool of myself in that way.” Therefore, there is a temptation to turn away from it, and humor is a connecting device, because everyone laughs together, but most good jokes work because they have a kernel of truth to them which will all recognize.