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‘On the Origin of Time’ Review: A Spectacular Synopsis of Hawking’s Final Theory

4 Stars

On the Origin of Time
On the Origin of Time By Courtesy of Bantam
By Arielle C. Frommer, Crimson Staff Writer

Why is the world so particularly well-suited to life? What is humanity’s true purpose in the universe? How did everything really begin, and what is the nature of time itself?

Thomas Hertog considers these questions and more in his seminal work, “On the Origin of Time: Stephen Hawking’s Final Theory,” which honors the legacy of late world-famous physicist, Stephen Hawking. While he currently works at Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in his native Belgium as a theoretical cosmologist, Hertog was once a close colleague of Hawking, as well as his collaborator on quantum cosmology and string theory for many years. By adding to Hawking’s canon of pioneering works in cosmology, Hertog illustrates a more complete and elegant picture of the universe than ever before.

With bold chapter names like “Cosmogenesis,” “Lost in the Multiverse,” and “Time without Time,” one can expect their assumptions to be truly tested by the scope of this book. That is indeed the case: Hertog effectively guides the reader through mind-boggling possibilities that describe the origin and make-up of the universe, from nine-dimensional space in string theory to an infinitely diverging multiverse.

In order to trace out these steps, Hertog approaches each scientific development with academic rigor and a story-teller’s touch, often interweaving discussions of historical discoveries with anecdotes about the scientists involved and Hawking’s own character and genius. The detailed, often tender depictions of Hawking and his relationship with Hertog imbue the novel with a more heartfelt personal narrative, as one can sense both Hertog’s emotional connection as well as his scientific devotion to Hawking.

Hertog starts at the Big Bang, with an explanation of Hawking’s famous “no-boundary” condition of time folding into space and ceasing to exist at the beginning of the universe. He then describes the quantum soup of particles that emerged in the first seconds of the universe and their random, evolutionary properties, providing strong observational evidence to back up his increasingly thrilling claims about the universe.

With the idea of a quantum beginning in mind, Hertog spends an entire chapter toying with the multiverse: If the laws of the universe are determined by chance, what’s not to say there exists a sea of universes all exhibiting different properties? His prose shines here through vivid and imaginative visual imagery — he describes a bubbling sea of island universes, a gently curving spacetime that smooths out into a rounded bowl at the beginning of all things, and the “the slow fading of the suns” that one sees by gazing into the embers of our origins — according to the astronomer Georges Lemaître whom Hertog repeatedly quotes.

However, the book’s real triumph occurs when Hertog completely upends the previously-known view on cosmology by introducing the theory that he and Hawking spent decades working on — “top-down” cosmology. Rather than taking a “bottom-up” approach where the universe’s history is a series of static events, one can instead examine the universe’s evolution backward in time to achieve a much more truthful way of understanding its origins. The stunning reveal of his book, which he hints at throughout, is that humans actually have an important role to play: Our observations have a tangible influence on the universe itself.

Not only does this theory unite the frontiers of quantum mechanics and cosmology, but, in a more philosophical sense, it is a profound statement on the importance of humankind.

“Stephen's final theory,” Hertog writes, “conceives of man neither as a godlike figure hovering above the universe, nor as a helpless victim of evolution in the margins of reality, but as nothing more or less than himself.” Top-down cosmology shows that we play a vital role in shaping our past and future. Hertog does not claim to have found the answer to everything, but rather introduces Hawking’s final theory as a seed from which our complete understanding of the universe and our place in the “cosmic quilt” will blossom forth.

After introducing this revolutionary way of thinking about cosmology, Hertog attempts to underpin the theory by describing others it validates, such as string theory’s second revolution, quantum field theory and anti-de Sitter space, and holographic duality. This section suffers from overly complex and convoluted exposition — while Hertog’s enthusiasm for the subject is a driving force throughout the novel, he risks losing the reader as he becomes caught up in the intricacies of theories that twist and turn in ways that are hard to follow.

Despite some baffling explanations in the penultimate chapter, Hertog saves the novel with a brilliant conclusion. Hertog explains in his final chapter that the implications of this final theory are broader than science, guiding humanity into a new era of progress. He holds a lofty, humanistic view of the future that lies before us — by marrying the universe’s origins to observation, we not only lay a comprehensive foundation for emerging science, but also adopt a deeply meaningful perspective that once again centers our place in the universe.

While the book endeavors to be accessible, it is still a tad dense. Concepts that Hertog thinks should be easily understood are oftentimes quite complicated, and certain ideas do not feel fully explained before Hertog leaps onto the next. At times, the cyclical, metaphysical reasoning becomes convoluted, which may leave the reader feeling overwhelmed. Ultimately, readers will still walk away with an understanding of modern cosmology and a new outlook on our role in the universe, if they can avoid getting lost in the technicalities.

In a poignant twist, the end of the novel is also a beginning of sorts, as the overarching theory he introduces will generate a new way of thinking about the cosmos and propel humanity to the next scientific frontier. Ultimately, by taking a deep look at how the universe came to be, Hertog illuminates the extraordinary truth that our purpose is inextricably linked to the past and future of the cosmos itself.

Hertog’s novel is an all-encompassing, if occasionally meandering, synthesis of Hawking’s final theory, the historical context of past discoveries, and the philosophy underlying these powerful ideas. In a pioneering work that is both grounded in science and deeply profound, Hertog carefully unfolds Hawking’s final perspective and grand design for the universe in a compelling blend of science and story.

—Staff writer Arielle C. Frommer can be reached at arielle.frommer@thecrimson.com.

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