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20 March 2023

Thomas Hertog’s Q&A: “Stephen Hawking was the freest man I have known”

The cosmologist on learning to swim in Cambridge, travelling the Silk Roads, and why the future is bothering him.

By New Statesman

Thomas Hertog was born in Belgium in 1975 and is a professor of theoretical physics at the University of Leuven. He obtained his PhD at Cambridge, where he studied the origins of cosmic expansion under the supervision of Stephen Hawking.

What’s your earliest memory?

My first swimming lesson as a kid in the open-air pool on Fen Causeway in Cambridge. I remember huge waves, but when I returned to it 20 years later I found the pool only came to my knees.

Who are your heroes?

As a child my hero was Tintin, especially when he and the absent-minded Professor Calculus went on a mission to the moon. Later, Hawking was not only my colleague but a hero too. Though nearly immobile, he was the freest man I have known.

What book last changed your thinking?

The Human Condition by Hannah Arendt. In the second part she argues that some of the underlying assumptions in science going back to the days of Galileo and Copernicus are a threat to humanity today. 

[See also: Why Hannah Arendt is the philosopher for now]

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Which political figure do you look up to?

Yitzhak Rabin, with whom the Middle East peace process might have had a chance.

What would be your “Mastermind” specialist subject?

Cosmology, the study of the origin and evolution of the universe, with an emphasis on the first few seconds after the Big Bang. After that it gets more complicated.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

I’d have loved to be at the Solvay Conference in Brussels in 1927 to witness the debate between Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr on quantum theory.

What TV show could you not live without?

You cannot live a normal life in Flanders without watching The Mole, in which the participants must work together to meet the challenges while one of them secretly tries to sabotage the game.

Who would paint your portrait?

David Hockney. I’m intrigued by his portrait of Hawking hidden in a corner of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge.

What’s your theme tune?

Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem”. “There is a crack… in everything/That’s how the light gets in.”

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

After my PhD, Hawking told me that I should move as far away from Cambridge as possible, and I did. My wife and I went on a long trip along the Silk Roads. A few months later, on a border crossing between Uzbekistan and Afghanistan, Hawking called me up to summon me back to Cambridge… he had an idea!

What’s currently bugging you?

The future. Until humanity sorts itself out and gets a coordinated view on the future we envisage, we won’t be able to navigate our earthly home into safer waters.

[See also: Dictating the Future]

What single thing would make your life better?

The Einstein Telescope, an observatory designed to measure gravitational waves, being ready and operational.

When were you happiest?

The births of our four kids were moments of happiness that are hard to beat.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

A neuroscientist. Both the universe within and the one around us fascinate me.

Are we all doomed?

We’re not, but we need to take our stewardship of this tiny blue marble in the universe more seriously.

“On the Origin of Time: Stephen Hawking’s Final Theory” by Thomas Hertog is published by Torva

[See also: Our Fragile Future]

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This article appears in the 22 Mar 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Banks on the brink