Thomas Hertog, cosmologist: “We must put science in a broader cultural context”

Belgian cosmologist Thomas Hertog collaborated on the “Imagine the Universe” exhibition in Louvain and the “Cosmos” exhibition in Grand Horno. He explains the interest of art in his specialization.

Belgian cosmologist Thomas Hertog, Professor at KULeuven and Big Bang Specialist, co-developed two new exhibitions on space: “Imagine the universe” in Leuven and “Cosmos. Design from here and beyond” At the Grand-Hornu Center for Innovation and Design (CID). For someone who worked for twenty years with the famous English physicist Stephen Hawking, it is more necessary than ever to include science in culture.

What does a cosmologist do?

A cosmologist studies the evolution and origin of the universe. I am developing physical models and laws that give a description of the universe. I am particularly interested in the laws of gravity, which are also the common thread between the two exhibits, in Louvain and Mons. The birth of cosmology arose in 1915 when Einstein developed and formulated his theory of relativity.

But haven’t men always done cosmology? After all, the word “universe” comes from the ancient Greek …

Humanity has always sought to understand the origin of the universe. But for a long time, cosmology was a branch of philosophy and metaphysics. Even for Newton, the universe remained a metaphysical framework. Physics was happening in the universe, but the universe was far from our knowledge. Space was a framework, but it wasn’t known as such. Einstein’s theory involved spacetime in physics, and that’s when cosmology was really born. So in 1915 cosmology became a real science.

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“Artists are able to create images of the universe and physical laws, which reveal its secret and beauty, far beyond scientific perceptions.”

Why did you want to participate in the development of these two exhibitions? Why create a dialogue between science and art?

I specialize in the Big Bang. However, the Big Bang represents the limits of physics. Working with Stephen Hawking for twenty years, I gradually came to the conclusion that Big Bang science has the power to change our view of the world by allowing us to better understand our place in the universe. Basic cosmology is not only scientific. This is where art comes in. Artists are able to create images of the universe and physical laws, which reveal its secret and beauty, far beyond scientific perceptions. That is why I am convinced that science must be placed in a broader cultural context: culture must nourish science and science must nourish culture. My goal is to strengthen this loop.

Can cosmology, in the same way, provide us with another approach to the environmental question?

The most important message of cosmology is: What is the relationship between the universe and our humanity? The laws that govern the universe were miraculously established for the evolution of humanity and life. These physical laws were created during the Big Bang: what explains why these laws are so detailed and precise that they still apply billions of years later? We must realize that if only one element differed in these laws, nothing would happen…These laws of physics are impersonal. These are absolute facts, but they are the basis of our existence. This is the primary link that needs to be deepened. How do we integrate our human view? Artists, who play with representations, have things to teach us about. Cosmology can deepen our way of understanding our place in the universe. It could allow us to better understand this connection that has always existed between us and the universe and which, unfortunately, is now lost. Cosmology does not tell us how to live, nor does it tell us how to do ecology, but it does provide a scientific framework From where we can begin to ask a series of existential questions. Today, unfortunately we are completely separated from science. This is why we must put science back to the core of experience.

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Thomas Hertog at the “Cosmos” exhibition at the CID du Grand-Hornu.
© Antonin Weber / Hans Lucas

What is the place of imagination in scientific research?

It is very difficult to explain. Aside from the intuition part, it is very important to understand that scholars always start from existing frameworks by trying to counter it, to push it to its limits. We are testing existing models and trying to figure out where they have broken, and where they are no longer working. However, at some point, the current scientific paradigm breaks. And when that happens, it’s so confusing…

“Cosmology can allow us to better understand this relationship that has always existed between us and the universe and which, unfortunately, is lost today.”

Which theory will end soon? What do we still lack to understand the Big Bang?

Regarding the Big Bang, Einstein’s theory will be broken. The model I developed with Hawking is based on a series of axioms that still lack a mathematical framework. We have sought to create physics that does not assume time. We tried to develop a more quantitative and more abstract framework. We often try to explain what caused the Big Bang, but it may not be the right question. With the Big Bang, time no longer has meaning. Here we are at the extremes of physics. There is another way to do it in cosmology, which is what Darwin did in biology: observe fossils, find the remains of the Big Bang. We can hope to observe the fossils of the Big Bang using super-efficient satellites that allow us to see farther than stars, farther than galaxies. The hardest today is specifically putting the puzzle pieces together.

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