on 7 October 2010
Stephen Hawking's new book, "The Grand Design" (written together with Leonard Mlodinow), is his first popular science book for about ten years. It seems to have created quite a stir in the non-scientific press, although in reality the book is very much in line with our latest theories in cosmology. Science began with the ancient Greeks, and the book starts off with a summary of their ideas. After a gap of some 1,400 years, a scientific approach to the Universe was revived by men such as Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Descartes and Newton. Hawking goes on to describe the history of scientific advances since then, and introduces ideas of what is meant by reality and what constitutes a scientific theory. He introduces us to the mysteries of quantum mechanics and relativity, and explains how our understanding of the Big Bang is growing as a result of our studies of the cosmic microwave background radiation.
But the key part of the book comes when Hawking describes something called M-theory, the leading candidate for the "theory of everything" which it is hoped will unite the two (currently incompatible, but highly successful) theories of quantum mechanics and general relativity. Both M-theory and other strands of evidence increasingly point to the conclusion that our Universe is not, after all, the only universe. The implication of these latest theories is that there are billions - and probably an infinite number - of other universes, each with their own physical laws and physical constants. This is the theory of the Multiverse. At a stroke, the theory explains why there are features of our own Universe which make it suitable for life; this is simply because we could only ever have evolved in the tiny minority of universes with the right set of physical laws.
All in all, a fascinating read. If you want to give a mind-blowing Christmas present to somebody, this is the one.
on 18 February 2011
"Philosophy is dead", the authors declare very early on, and then roundly prove over the next few chapters why they could have done with the services of a good philosopher. Hawking is known, of course, for his ground-breaking science, but not for his analysis of the history of knowledge or the social progress of our culture. Unfortunately, a substantial part of this book is dedicated to those topics, and makes for a short-sighted and naive read. Once the writing turns to actual science, its value greatly increases: the major elements of relativity and quantum mechanics are summed up simply and clearly, then form the basis for explanations of newer work such as M-Theory. Hawking has written better about his (and others') work, but if you're looking for the most up-to-date and/or easily read version, then this book is worth its very reasonable cover price. It's a short and superficial book, however, so if you're looking for anything in-depth you are likely to be disappointed.
on 7 November 2011
If you're already familiar with relativity and quantum theory then you'll find the first half of this book is mostly a retelling of those ideas. If you're not already familiar, then you may find it extremely hard going. The authors attempt to explain in a few pages concepts that other popular science books spend many chapters trying to get across.
Interspersed with the theory are various anecdotes of ancient religious myths and some history of the development of cosmological ideas which add colour and interest.
The second half of the book brings more recent findings and ideas into the mix. They talk about M theory, strong and weak anthropic principles and how the weirdness of quantum theory can explain the existence of the universe and why it seems fine tuned for us.
Once upon a time popular science books took complicated theories and brought them to a lay audience. They still do that and I would argue, better than ever, but I've noticed a more frequently occurring dimension. That of religion. A modern day battle is being fought on that front and it seems that not even Stephen Hawking is immune from entering the fray. He argues convincingly that science does not need to postulate a deity to explain anything. Whatever your opinion on that front, I don't think they labour the point too much and I didn't feel as though it got in the way of the basic science.
So overall I would say that if you are reasonably familiar (at a lay level) with modern physics then this book is a brief but clear and easily understood update. If you're not then I imagine a lot of the book will be incomprehensible.
on 4 November 2010
The inside cover of the book states that it is:
"A succinct, startling and lavishly illustrated guide to discoveries that are altering our understanding and threatening some of our most cherished belief systems, The Grand Design is a book that will inform - and provoke - like no other."
Well, it is most certainly succinct, well illustrated and thought provoking. Indeed, the book is perhaps a little too succinct. It is certainly very short, and it doesn't take long to read. The writing style is very clear, though some of the humour does have the feeling of having been inserted periodically as an afterthought, to maintain some levity in the book.
The book is a mixture of bold statements about the current state of theoretical research and an overview of historical developments in physics over the last hundred years (with some going further back than that). One of the weak points of the book is that it lacks references. This makes it very difficult to distinguish what is widely-accepted, evidenced scientific theory and what is optimistic speculation. At one point in the book, the authors state: "M-theory is the only candidate for a complete theory of the universe." I would certainly take issue with that, given that it is certainly not a universally accepted opinion. Any reader wanting to gain an alternative opinion on some of the bold assertions made about M-theory would do well to read Lee Smolin's The Trouble With Physics.
Probably the most interesting claim in the book comes at the start, with the declaration that "Philosophy is dead." This claim is never convincingly argued, and in fact the authors go on to employ certain philosophical ideas in pursuit of their goals. The entire argument of the book hinges on the acceptance of "model-dependent realism." After a little research, it seems that this is an original term although the authors do a good job of defining it. Here, however, rhetoric has been used as a substitute for reason. There is plenty for room on this debate and so it seems that if philosophy ever had been dead, which I see no evidence of it ever having been, then this book jolts some life back into it.
There is one enormous "If" hanging over the book, which is not dealt with in sufficient detail. That is the question of experimental verifiability. M-theory is spoken of as the underlying principle behind the various string theories. Yet even these have not been confirmed by experiment. At one point, the authors state that their claims can be verified by experiment but they do nothing other than state it as though it were plain fact. No justification is given, nor experiments suggested.
I was really torn between giving this 3 or 4 stars. It certainly well worth reading, but if anyone who has not studied the issues discussed were to read it in isolation, then they would likely end up with a highly skewed view of physics. This is a good book, worth reading, but it could have been so much better.
on 4 October 2010
A well written, albeit fairly short, book; it develops the currently most popular themes in string theory and cosmology. However, it suggests M thory is the answer to everything; it may be - but the theories are not yet fully developed and certainly not yet proven. The level is trivial in places (to anyone who did A-level sciences, say) but conceptually farsighted overall. It lacks any mathematics (a good thing for a popular book) and, as such, is always going to be somewhat superficial - but at this level of theory, that is probably the only approach to take. A good, thought-provoking read; thoroughly recommended.
Stephen Hawking is not only, without question, one of our greatest surviving physicists, but also, remarkably given his disability, one of the field's great communicators and educators. Having enjoyed his previous writing I was very much looking forward to his insights on the cosmological advances since "A Brief History of Time". However, although this latest book is both entertaining and thought provoking, it ultimately left me frustrated with its failure to properly explain these new scientific concepts.
This is a small and unthreatening book, especially in the Bantam edition, and nicely put together with some apposite cartoons and a series of chapter endplates which develop a recurring graphical theme in multiple contexts. However, in contrast to previous books, especially "The Universe in a Nutshell", it's very light on genuinely explanatory diagrams and equations, forcing the user to try and comprehend complex physical and mathematical concepts from purely textual explanations.
The first third of the book deals mainly with the evolution and nature of scientific "laws", and the meaning of reality relative to our various mental models. This is very interesting, but perhaps a little ironic given the authors' statement on the first page that "philosophy is dead". What other label should be attributed to this discussion?
The next section explains key aspects of quantum theory, in particular wave/particle duality, probabilistic rather than deterministic behaviour, and the effects of observation on the system. That we can now demonstrate this behaviour for relatively large objects, and affect the observed outcome from behaviour originating some considerable time before the observation, is fascinating.
Since Newton science has developed a series of theories describing the workings of our universe, and has then attempted to combine or extend them to provide an ever more comprehensive description. The next section of the book describes this progression. The descriptions of classical physics, relativity and quantum theory are fine, and don't suffer too much from relative brevity as the older theories will be broadly familiar to most readers. However the pages on M-theory are really too brief, and don't adequately explain it. Finishing that section with the fact that M-theory admits 10^500 solutions makes it sound very far from the elegant theories espoused earlier in the book.
The final section of the book attempts to describe and explain some of the most problematical aspects of current cosmology, but in my view doesn't make a very convincing job of it. Cosmological problems include both the fact that universal expansion is still accelerating, and that our current model requires the young universe to have spontaneously "inflated" from coin-sized to many times galaxy sized in less than a second. Neither of these are well explained by current theories as I understand them, and this book doesn't bridge the gap. Earlier in the book the authors pooh-pooh theories relying on "then a miracle occurs", but don't seem to be proposing something much better.
Instead of proposing a theory which explains the observations, the authors seem to be saying that under M-theory all things are possible, and we choose the set of outcomes which matches our measurements. To my mind this is perilously close to saying "God created the Universe as it is", even though the authors are at pains to refute precisely that interpretation.
It feels to me that Physics is on a threshold similar to its position in the late 19th Century, where we are creating progressively more arcane versions of existing theories in an attempt to prop them up, but what is really required is fresh new ideas - the 21st Century equivalents of Relativity and Quantum Theory. This book confirms that need, but its suggested resolution does not convince me.
on 30 December 2010
There is a trend in modern writing that 'more is more'. What I like about this book is that it takes the view that 'less is more', there are no long passages of stuffing to push up the word count to make a big hefty volume that can shift at a big hefty price. Hawkins and Mlodinow say what they need to say to get their point of view across and no more. The writing is tight and difficult ideas are conveyed in an effecient way but keep it understandable to an audience of non-professional scientists.
Most of all what I liked about this book is that Hawkins made his view on god clear, in previous books (I've read) he has fudged the issue with vague references to a god of an unknown theology. This straight down the line honesty is to be commended, people uncomfortable with books that clearly express atheism should not read science books. Science above all must be honest, if a scientist speaks of the origins of the universe they must be able to express their opinion on the ultimate question with the same freedom of opinion we'd expect in a discussion about 10 dimensional space. You do not have to agree with the writer about 10 dimensional space or god, but the scientific writer must be free to discuss it honestly; the days of excommunicating Galileo should be firmly in the past.
If you expect the book not to be opinionated, or be understandable to an readership with no scientific/mathematical knowledge at all, or help you with your post-graduate studies in quantum physics don't buy this book (actually don't buy any books they'll all disappoint you). For all other people with an interest in the ideas of why we are here, this is one of many books well worth putting on your reading list.
on 25 October 2010
It's fascinating to read how one of the greatest minds of our time thinks. This is why I bought and read this book, hoping to discover a revolutionary theory that would replace God with something else, something explainable by science - as Mr. Hawking boldly asserted.
It's elegantly written and it carries you through all the theories and discoveries that led mankind to ask and try to answer to the most important questions regarding our existence. As such, it is an informative read. Unless, of course, you already are accustomed with these theories, because there is very little new information brought up in the book.
I appreciated the occasional humor and the illustrative manner in which Mr. Hawking delves into very complicated theories and I also enjoyed the final chapters in which it sums up why our Universe is so finely tuned for life to appear.
But I find this ultimately disappointing because the theory that Mr. Hawking is promoting, the M-Theory, doesn't get anything new from him in this book. Replacing God with gravity as a creative force in an ever reproducing Universe describing a never ending loop is a nice idea, but it is really a shame it only covers two pages in an entire book dedicated to describe what's behind The Grand Design.
I understand that this final chapter was written in such a way to spark debates in the scientific community, but I find that this is somewhat misleading for the reader, who expects that a 7 Chapter introduction is followed by at least some chapters dedicated to describe, explain and prove (or at least try to prove) the theory that you put forward. Instead, we get 7 introductory chapters with very little new information, and only 1 chapter that summarizes Mr. Hawking's idea and then lets us staring at the Sun.
I will not discuss the validity of this idea - it's up to the scientific community to delve in it. I would only say that this book is recommended for those that don't have a strong grasp on the current scientific theories and for those that have a basic understanding or interest in cosmology. Everybody else will find it a bit lacking.
It is, however, a good and enjoyable read, which I clearly cherished. Now let's hope Mr. Hawking will have the time and energy to develop the final chapter into a complete new book that will really explain how we got here.
on 24 October 2010
Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow have made yet another stab to popularise the exploration of how the universe began. I read it interspersed with Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw's book "Why does e=mc2" which I found as a lapsed mathematician to be much more readable, understandable and less opinionated than the Hawking/Mlodinow text, which left me feeling strangely empty towards the end, as if they couldn't quite reach the final point they were trying to make: is it because that point is beyond mathematical comprehension? Read both and decide!
on 20 September 2010
"Philosophy is dead", Hawking and Mlodinow proclaim on the first page, ending the book by stating that, if M-theory is confirmed by observation, "We will have found the grand design."
M-theory turns out to say that we actually live in a ten-dimensional universe (plus time), but we don't notice the extra seven dimensions of space because they are curled up into an infintesimally small size. They precise way they are curled up defines the laws of nature, or at least the laws the govern sub-atomic particles out of which everything else is constructed. There are, it seems, 10 to the power of 500 ways that this could have happened - in other words, a nearly infinite number of possible universes with different laws of nature to ours.
The authors point out that the laws of nature seem to be tuned incredibly precisely to allow life to exist. Tweak them every so slightly, and there might not even be suns and planets, let alone living things. So the vast majority of those different universes would be uninhabitable.
There are two ways you can react to this. One is to declare it as open and shut evidence of God. That is not Hawking and Mlodinow's view. Instead, they follow the idea that in some absolute sense all these possible universes "exist". Quantum theory suggests that what we think of as reality is the result of observation. Without observation, all possibilities exist equally. By being here, by observing, we selected one of the very few universes that could have given rise to us.
This is a lucidly written book, not over long, nicely illustrated with some witty cartoons and sprinkled with impish humour. Books about cosmology and quantum theory are never going to be easy for the general reader, but Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow do a creditable job.