A brief history of time is ‘wrong,’ Stephen Hawking told a contributor

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In 2002, Thomas Hertog received an email summoning him to the office of his mentor Stephen Hawking. The young investigator ran to Hawking’s room in Cambridge. “His eyes were beaming with emotion,” recalls Hertog.

Typing into the computer-controlled voice system that allowed the cosmologist to communicate, Hawking announced: “I have changed my mind. My book, A brief history of timeIt’s written from the wrong perspective.”

Thus, one of the best-selling scientific books in publishing history, with credited worldwide sales of more than 10 million, was thrown away by its own author. Hawking and Hertog then began working on a new way to encapsulate their latest thinking on the universe.

The next month, five years after Hawking’s death, that book… On the origin of time: Stephen Hawking’s latest theory – will be published in the UK. Hertog will describe the origins and themes of him in a Cambridge festival lecture on March 31.

“The problem for Hawking was his struggle to understand how the universe could have created conditions so perfectly hospitable for life,” says Hertog, a cosmologist currently working at KU Leuven University in Belgium.

Examples of these life-sustaining conditions include the delicate balance that exists between the forces of particles that allow chemistry and complex molecules to exist. Also, the fact that there are only three dimensions of space allows stable solar systems to evolve and provide homes for living creatures. Without these properties, the universe probably would not have produced life as we know it, some cosmologists argue.

Hertog and Hawking set out to elaborate explanations for this state of stellar uncertainty after the latter had decided that his earlier attempts were inadequate. “Stephen told me that he now thought he was wrong, so he and I worked together for the next 20 years to develop a new theory of the cosmos, one that could better explain the emergence of life,” Hertog said. . .

It was a remarkable collaboration, but not an easy one. When he was 21, Hawking had been diagnosed with a form of early-onset, slow-progressing motor neurone disease that gradually paralyzed him.

When he began working with Hertog, he had been appointed Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University, one of the most prestigious academic posts in the world (Isaac Newton was a previous incumbent), and had produced a number of remarkable theories of general relativity, black holes and the origin of the universe as well as his best-seller A brief history of time. However, his condition had deteriorated. She was in a wheelchair and could only communicate using a small computer from which he selected words emitted by a voice synthesizer.

“Halfway through our collaboration, he lost any remaining strength in his hand to press the clicker he used to chat,” says Hertog. So Hawking switched to a sensor mounted on his glasses that could be activated by moving a cheek muscle, but eventually even that became too difficult.

It slowed down from a few words per minute to several minutes per word, Hertog said. In the end, the communication stopped. “I used to stand in front of him and throw questions and look him in the eye to see if he agreed or disagreed. In the end, I was able to detect several levels of no and several levels of yes with a few in between.”

It was from these “conversations” that Hawking’s final theory was born and, along with Hertog’s own analysis, they form the basis of About the origin of timea book that takes its title from Charles Darwin On the origin of species. “In the end, we both came to think about physics much more like we think about biology. We have put physics and biology on the same plane.

According to Herzog, About the origin of time deals with questions about our place in the universe and what makes our universe suitable for life. “These questions have always been in the background in our scientific publications. What I have done for this book is make these questions central and tell our story from that perspective.

“Stephen and I discovered how physics itself can disappear in the Big Bang. It is not the laws as such but their ability to change that have the last word in our theory. This sheds a new light on what cosmology is ultimately all about.”

According to Hertog, the new perspective he has achieved with Hawking reverses the hierarchy between laws and reality in physics and is “deeply Darwinian” in spirit. “It leads to a new philosophy of physics that rejects the idea that the universe is a machine governed by unconditional laws with a prior existence, and replaces it with a view of the universe as some kind of self-organizing entity in which all kinds of things appear. emergent patterns, the most general of which we call the laws of physics.

About the origin of time is published by Penguin Random House on April 6

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