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On the Origin of Time — Thomas Hertog on Stephen Hawking’s Final Theory

On the Origin of Time: Stephen Hawkings Final Theory (book cover)

Perhaps the biggest question Stephen Hawking tried to answer in his extraordinary life was how the universe could have created conditions so perfectly hospitable to life. In order to solve this mystery, Hawking studied the Big Bang origin of the universe, but his early work ran into a crisis when the math predicted many big bangs producing a multiverse — countless different universes, most of which would be far too bizarre to harbor life. Holed up in the theoretical physics department at Cambridge, Stephen Hawking and his friend and collaborator Thomas Hertog worked on this problem for twenty years, developing a new theory of the cosmos that could account for the emergence of life.

Shermer and Hertog discuss:

  • what it was like working with Stephen Hawking
  • why On the Origin of Time is Hawking’s last book, a sequel to The Grand Design
  • replacing the multiverse with a Darwinian model of cosmology and grand cosmic design
  • how Hawking thought about physics and cosmology
  • What is time?
  • What banged the Big Bang?
  • cosmic inflation and multiple universes
  • the problem to be solved: how to reconcile Einstein’s relativity theory of gravity and quantum theory
  • Hawking’s no-boundary theory: “The universe would be completely self-contained and not affected by anything outside itself. It would neither be created nor destroyed. It would just be. … What place then for a creator?”
  • why the universe appears designed (Hawking: “The anthropic principle is a counsel of despair. It is a negation of our hopes of understanding the underlying order of the universe, on the basis of science.”)
  • The Anthropic Principle (weak, strong, and final)
  • What are laws of nature and from where did they come?
  • Is math all there is? Is math universal?
  • Uniformitarianism and the laws of nature
  • Chains of accidents and rules of laws
  • Gould’s thought experiment of rewinding the tape of life and the universe
  • Yuval Harari’s thought experiment on the rise of Christianity: “If we could rewind history and replay the fourth century a hundred times, we’d find that Christianity will have taken over the Roman empire a few times only.”
  • Simon Conway Morris: convergent evolution
  • Double-slit experiment and what it means
  • Feynman’s sum over histories approach to quantum physics
  • God’s-eye view of the universe and scientific experiments in the lab
  • Hawking: “The history of the universe depends on the question you ask.”
  • Steven Weinberg: “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.”
  • Is there a place for God in scientific epistemology?
  • mysteries are to be embraced, but also to be solved
  • laws of nature: discovered or created or both?
  • Is there purpose in the cosmos?
  • Why is there something rather than nothing?

Thomas Hertog is an internationally renowned cosmologist who was for many years a close collaborator of the late Stephen Hawking. He received his doctorate from the University of Cambridge and is currently professor of theoretical physics at the University of Leuven, where he studies the quantum nature of the Big Bang. He lives with his wife and their four children in Bousval, Belgium.

About the Book

Peering into the extreme quantum physics of cosmic holograms and venturing far back in time to our deepest roots, they were startled to find a deeper level of evolution in which the physical laws themselves transform and simplify until particles, forces, and even time itself fades away. This discovery led them to a revolutionary idea: the laws of physics are not set in stone but are born and co-evolve as the universe they govern takes shape. As Hawking’s final days drew near, the two collaborators published their theory, which proposed a radical new Darwinian perspective on the origins of our universe.

On the Origin of Time offers a striking new vision of the universe’s birth that will profoundly transform the way we think about our place in the order of the cosmos and may ultimately prove to be Hawking’s greatest legacy.

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This episode was released on April 1, 2023.

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