When thomas hertog was summoned for the first time to the office of Stephen Hawking 25 years ago, there was an immediate connection between the then young Belgian researcher and the physics genius. “There was something that clicked between us,” Hertog said.
This connection was maintained, despite the progress of the degenerative disease that Hawking suffered and that hampered his ability to communicate. But, despite the barriers, the two scientists were able to develop a new theory that seeks to change the way in which science conceives the universe.
The theory, which could be Hawking’s last contribution to science before his death in 2018, was first fully expounded in the book “On the Origin of Time” published by Hertog in 2023.
In an interview with AFP, the Belgian cosmologist spoke of their joint work that spanned 20 years.
He also recounted how they communicated with facial expressions and that in his last stage Hawking became convinced that his well-known popularization work “A Brief History of Time” was written from the wrong perspective.
The universe responds to a “design”
During their first meeting at Cambridge University in 1998, Hawking immediately posed a problem that intrigued him.
“The universe we observe appears to have been designed“, Hawking told Hertog, communicating through a machine that reproduced a voice.
Hertog explained that “the laws of physics, the rules of how the universe is governed, turn out to be perfect for the universe to be habitable, for life to be possible.”
In this sense, there is an exceptional chain of propitious elements that extends from the delicate balance that allows atoms to form the necessary molecules, to the expansion of the universe itself, which is what allows the existence of structures such as galaxies.
The observer’s point of view
Within a few years of working together, the idea “began to take shape” that there was a missing element, Hertog said.
Theories such as those that affirm that there is a multiverse and even “A brief history of time“, were “attempts to describe the creation and evolution of our universe from what Stephen would qualify as a ‘God’s eye’ theory,” Hertog said.
But “because we are inside the universe” and not outside, observing it, our theories cannot be separated from our perspective, he argued.
“That’s why (Hawking) said that ‘A Brief History of Time’ is written from the wrong perspective,” Hertog revealed.
Over the next 15 years, the two scientists used quantum theory to develop a new hypothesis about physics and cosmology from “an observer’s perspective.”
But, In 2008, Hawking’s ability to use the machine that allowed him to speak began to degrade and slow down.. “I thought it was the end,” Hertog said.
But both -says the Belgian- managed to develop a form of non-verbal communication that allowed them to continue investigating.
“He had a very wide range of facial expressions, from complete disapproval to enthusiasm,” he explained.
“It is impossible to distinguish” which parts of the final theory are Hawking’s and which are his own, explained the Belgian scientist.
“A great evolutionary process”
His theory focuses on what happened in the first moments after the Big Bang. Instead of considering an explosion that followed an established set of rules, scientists propose that the laws of physics evolved along with the universe.
This implies that if you go back in time far enough, “the laws of physics themselves start to simplify and disappear,” Hertog suggests.
“Ultimately, the dimension of time evaporates“, outlines.
According to this theory, the laws of physics and time itself evolved in a similar way to evolution in biology, which is why the title of Hertog’s book is a reference to Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.
“What we’re saying is that (biology and physics) are two levels of a great evolutionary process,” Hertog said.
The scientist acknowledged that his theory is difficult to prove because the early years of the universe are “hidden in the mist left by the Big Bang.”
One way to lift this veil may be to study gravitational waves, ripples in space-time, and another possibility is to use quantum holograms built on quantum computers, he said.
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