Your name is often linked to that of Stephen Hawking, who was your PhD supervisor at Cambridge for six years. Tell us about your background and how you met.
As a child I was fascinated by the stars, which is not in itself unusual. But while other stargazers fall by the wayside over time, my passion remained firmly fixed on the stars. At school, I wasn’t particularly brilliant either. It was only when I got to Sixth Form that I really started to shine as an “A” student. After that, it just snowballed: first I went to a specialist engineering school in France, and then went on to Cambridge to study advanced mathematics. At the end of the course, the students had to sit a competitive exam and the top ten highest performing candidates could win a scholarship and the opportunity to meet leading professors to support them through their studies. And I was fortunate to be among the top ten students, and incredibly, it was Stephen Hawking who approached me to work with him and supervise my thesis on information loss in black holes. We spent six years in total working together, and travelling from one lecture to the next. It was perhaps at this point that I realised the importance of imparting knowledge.
You could have had a brilliant career as an astrophysicist, but you are currently a writer and full-time lecturer. Why this change of direction?
I caught the writing bug with my first novel. It was a children’s book entitled George’s Secret Key to the Universe which I co-wrote with Stephen Hawking and his daughter Lucy. I always enjoyed explaining science to children and I absolutely loved it! A few years later, I released a trilogy entitled The Prince of the Clouds, on the subject of climate. With The Universe in Your Hand, I focused my writing on an adult audience, not that this changed my narrative style in any way.
And do you not miss black holes?
I have to admit that I do sometimes miss the research, but I don’t have the time! In fact, making science more accessible is much more complicated than you think. It is not easy to be accessible, interesting, easy to read and scientifically correct. But I do get a real sense of worth from what I do. I think it is really important to do your bit to share scientific culture to as wide an audience as possible. It’s our future at stake!
This particular magazine is devoted to effervescence. Do you think this word suitably captures the nature of the universe?
You don’t know how right you are! In fact, for some physicists, the cosmic inflation phase that came after the Big Bang never stopped, giving rise to multiple bubble universes. This is what we call the theory of eternal inflation…
Born in 1976, after graduating from Ecole Centrale Paris, he completed a PhD at Cambridge University working with Stephen Hawking. Now a writer and lecturer, he has published various children’s books including George’s Secret Key to the Universe and The Prince of the Clouds trilogy. Published in France in 2015, The Universe in Your Hand has been translated into 20 languages. Recently he has been delivering monthly public lectures in a Paris Cinema.
With The Universe in Your Hand, you have everything it takes to travel to the ends of the universe on board this unique piece of writing, which is a welcome breath of fresh air compared to traditional scientific literature. A real space opera with the reader featuring centre stage, if that sounds tempting…
The Universe in Your Hand,, Flammarion (2017).