Non-Fiction Reviews

On the Origin of Time
Stephen Hawking's Final Theory

(2023) Thomas Hertog, Torva, 20, hrdbk, xxi +320pp, ISBN 978-1-911-70908-4


Few, and I suspect none of SF² Concatenation's core readership of scientists who are SF aficionados (and SF fans who are into popular science), will not have heard of the physicist Stephen Hawking who passed in 2018.  He was well know for his theoretical physics work especially on cosmology and black holes which he theorised 'evaporate' radiating what came to be called Hawking energy. He worked almost to the end and this book explains both his work and what his thinking was up to close to his death. He was also well known to SF fans for appearing in genre shows such as The Big Bang Theory (video here and Star Trek: The Next Generation (video here), and even genre adjacent shows such as The Simpsons (video here) let alone being name-checked in an episode of as 'The Hawk' in The I.T. Crowd as an elder of the internet.  In short, Hertog's On the Origin of Time will fascinate SF fans who are also into science: this book speaks to such folk.

Thomas Hertog is perhaps less well known to those outside of the physics community. He is currently professor of theoretical physics at the University of Leuven (Belgium) where he studies the quantum nature of the Big Bang.  More importantly, for this book, he worked with Hawking at Cambridge for twenty years on a new quantum theory of the cosmos. As their discoveries took them deeper into the Big Bang, they were started to find possible signs of a deeper level of evolution in which back in the very early Universe the physical laws themselves transform and simplify until particles, forces, and even time itself loses some of its characteristics and possibly becomes more like space.  He was even the co-author of Stephen's final paper.

In short, the author of On the Origin of Time is extremely well placed to pass on Hawking's ideas including that which was on his mind in his final days.

Now, there are a number of books on deep time cosmology and the origin of the Universe let alone titles that explore the mismatch between Einsteinian relativity and quantum mechanics. This conundrum is extremely difficult for even physicists to come to grips with: if it was not then we would have had a reconciliation between these to areas of physics by now.  Consequently many might be reluctant to get a book that may be to a non-physicist impenetrable.  Here, be reassured, this is a largely mathematical equation free text: there are literally only a couple of simple equations throughout. There are though diagrams and these are fairly simple and easy to understand. There is also a sprinkling of photographs of the author. It is therefore a qualitative discourse as opposed to a heavily quantitative one: there is now heavy algebra through which to wade.

What this book commendably does is chart the history of thinking about the origins and evolution of the Universe along with that of quantum theories.  It then goes on to explain Hawking's work and the gradual change in his thinking over the decades to end up with his final musings before his end which for science was much too soon even at the age of 76.

The problems with this book are comparatively few and minor. I would have preferred just a little more on 'no boundary theory' (especially early onn) and perhaps a table in the final chapter of the various Hawking theories and their key characteristics so we could see in one snapshot the key elements behind how Hawking's ideas were packaged in various stages over time. With regards to 'no boundary theory' do pay attention when it crops up towards the end of the book's first third as it will crop up again quite a few times including towards the book's end.

Those with a particular penchant for physics might want more detail, but then physicists working in the field will already know these and Hertog was right to omit such detail. For those with a penchant for physics, but who are not physics graduates themselves and who want more detail then I recommend checking out relevant 20 minute episodes of PBS Space Time on YouTube (though beware in recent years they have added irritating, near subliminal background music). These are more or less at a first year undergraduate physics level or a good school A-level (age 17-19 age physics pupil level).

Towards the end, Hawking seemed to be toying with the idea of their needing to be some sort of observer in the Universe that somehow relates to the way the Universe is. He also appeared to be supporting of the idea of a multiverse and that each of these various universes co-evolved with physics 'laws'; that perhaps the laws of physics are not set in stone but are born and co-evolve as the universe they govern takes shape? Perhaps it may that while the laws of physics differ in different universes, that many of them are fairly similar, which in turn suggests that life (or even conscious observers) might arise in many?

Without incurring a spoiler, and bearing in mind that I am not a physicist, I was struck with some similarities Hertog presents as Hawking's close to final thinking as how some of this echoes with certain aspects of recent advances in deep time environmental science with regards to the co-evolution of life and planet as well as the increasing information content of life and the life-bearing parts of the abiotic planet. (Here I recently teased some similarity to John Wheeler's 'it is bit', but I digress.)

So what we have with On the Origin of Time is a very readable account of the development of some of the frontiers of physics. Dare I say that it perhaps more readable than Hawking's own A Brief History of Time which was known for its considerable sales but equally that some reader feedback anecdotally suggests that a good few failed to finish reading it.

Torva is a non-fiction imprint of the Transworld publishing house. Yet his book is so good I did wonder why a major university press did not pick it up? Well, perhaps they thought it was not sufficiently academic? For sure, that's their loss. Despite it eschewing deep mathematics and complex algebra, this book works. And for those seeking some initial extra depth, there's an end-of-book appendix of chapter citations and footnotes.

If you are fascinated by questions such as where we come from but feel that a two digit number (42 anyone?) does not quite suffice, then On the Origin of Time might just be what you are looking for.

Jonathan Cowie


Addendum. For potential readers seeking some more detail and are perhaps prepared to have themselves stretched a little, then I recommend as a starting point the following PBS Space Time episodes:
Why did quantum entanglement win the Nobel Prize?
Hawking Radiation
What if Black holes are everywhere?
Are black holes actually fuzzballs
The Black Hole information Paradox
Is the wave function the building block of reality?
What caused the big bang
Secrets of the cosmic microwave background
Do the past and future exist?
Does the Universe create itself
The Anthropic principle observers and the universe
Is the Universe finite?
Does Consciousness Influence Quantum Mechanics?
What happened before the Big Bang
The Holographic Universe
How many universes are there
Physics is not describing reality
What if the Universe were maths
Mapping the multiverse

And, of course, the reverse is true. If you like these videos then you may enjoy the panoramic overview Hertog presents in On the Origin of Time.


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