95 of 103 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A good summary of our current cosmological understanding
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...
Published on 7 Oct 2010 by David Love
41 of 46 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Mixed content
"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...
Published on 18 Feb 2011 by CP
Most Helpful First | Newest First
95 of 103 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A good summary of our current cosmological understanding,
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.
41 of 46 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Mixed content,
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars VERY DISAPPOINTING,
Less than one third of the book is devoted to "the most recent scientific thinking about the mysteries of the universe" (ie the multiverse, top-down theory of cosmology, and unified M-theory), and there is not enough detail to get more than a vague understanding of it. Most of the book is devoted to a potted history of physics from the Greeks onwards; detailed descriptions of interference of waves (c.1800) and Feynman's "alternative histories" explanation of the famous double-slit experiment (c.1940), a description of Conway's "Game of Life" (c.1970), and discussions of what are meant by "laws of nature" and "reality." These old topics are described in detail, but their relevance to M-theory is not clearly spelt out. When we get to the complex ideas, there is far less explanation.
The book left me with many key questions unanswered. Is the "multi-verse" an infinite number of REAL universes, or just a useful IMAGINARY concept like the square root of minus one? If these universes are real, where are they, and can we detect them? What effect do they have on each other? How do the hidden ("curled-up") dimensions of the universe influence fundamental properties such as the charge and mass of the electron? If the universe has many "alternative histories", how come only one (the Big Bang story) has made it into the textbooks? How are these "alternative histories" related to the "multi-verse". This book gives no answers to these obvious questions.
And crucially, if M-theory is a scientific model of the universe (see p 68), what testable predictions does it make? None are put forward in this book. (The "test" on page 182-3 is a comparison with existing observations, not a prediction.) Consequently, the claim that M-theory is "the [Grand] Unified Theory which Einstein was hoping to find" is far from convincing.
The book is described as "lavishly illustrated", having 8 artistic plates, 38 colour illustrations and 7 cartoons. However, many of the "lavish" illustrations are poor "illustrations" of the text; some seem to have no purpose other than as "eye candy." For example: the "artist's impression" (!) of Feynman's van (page 137). (Why not a photo of the actual van, if it is really worth including?!) The book is sprinkled with humor, but this is often infantile. For example: "There might be one history [of our universe] in which the moon is made of Roquefort cheese. But we have observed that the moon is not made of cheese, which is bad news for mice" (page 179). The cartoon on page 143 is amusing ("Putting a box around it, I'm afraid, does not make it a unified theory"); it is probably directed at the Standard Model, but it could equally well apply (ironically) to M-theory as described in this book.
The best I can say for this book is that it is interesting, the language is simple and straightforward, and there are some useful insights, such as comparing rolled-up dimensions to a straw.
The blurb claims that this book is "succinct" but it certainly doesn't "get straight to the point". It also claims that it gives "new answers to the ultimate questions about the universe", but these are, in my opinion, outclassed by the genuinely succinct (and no less informative) old answer offered by Douglas Adams - "42".
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars No "New Answers" to anything here!,
If, on the other hand, you are looking for an interesting insight into the rather febrile and reality-free state of modern theoretical physics, from the point of view of a true believer in the Theory formerly known as "String" (now as "M" or "Brane"), then this is a possible starting point, but there are better ones.
The quality of writing is surprisingly poor compared to Hawking's earlier, much more convincing, popular science works - so that I wonder if Hawking actually read much of what Leonard Mlodinow wrote before signing it off with his own name prominently on the cover?
After the usual context-setting history of physics and introduction to various modern quantum concepts, all rather routine and much better done by other authors, "Hawking" launches into a long and somewhat evangelical sales-pitch for String/Brane theory, which permeates through the rest of the book; even waving the 'white flag' of the anthropic principle, when attempting to justify the theory's complete failure to produce testable predictions. To quote another well known theoretical physicist "String theorists don't make predictions; they make excuses". I have to say I'm disappointed to find such an otherwise eminent thinker apparently following the fashionable herd - I mistakenly hoped for something new and a bit more imaginative and independently minded from Hawking, but those qualities are nowhere to be found in this book.
26 of 30 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Almost back to the beginning!,
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Is philosophy dead?,
"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.
25 of 29 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Lucid and enjoyable,
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.
41 of 48 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Too simple for the scientific, probably too complex for the non-scientific; but generally well worth a read!!,
The science that Hawking and Mlodinow discuss in this book is remarkably complicated, even to the brightest of minds, and simplifying these concepts so that they can be understood by a lay reader is by no means easy! Largely they make use of everyday analogies to help in the comprehension.
Being from a medical, rather than a physical background myself, I found it particularly interesting reading "The Grand Design", as it reminded me of concepts that I had not had much chance to deliberate since I was 18. As well as this, I found the authors were actually quite amusing at times; there is a lot of subtle humour included in the text.
Unfortunately, I was also a little disappointed that M-theory was not discussed in more detail. Most of the book deals with building up a basic scientific background that is relevant to the understanding of M-theory, and can not be assumed to be had by the user, since it is aimed at people of all backgrounds.
I would also like to comment on the analogies to God that are made throughout this book. Personally, I fear that these were put in as a way of trying to sell science to the mass public. Hawking has not changed his views on religion, as some might believe, having read a recent review article in "The Times". Hawking has always spoken of God metaphorically, referring more to a unified design theory of the Universe. The concept of a personal God is discussed in this book, but perhaps is not entirely relevent. People have many different reasons for believing in a God (mostly due to the insecurities of human nature); I fear that some readers will be unhappy by the assumptions that are put forth in this book.
In summary, "The Grand Design" is well worth a read! If you consider yourself scientific, you will likely find this book amusing, interesting and thought provoking. If you consider yourself very un-scientific, I would adivise that you take your time as you read, and make sure you've got your head round each of the concepts before you move on.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Humour and Philosophy, but Ultimately Unsatisfying,
This review is from: The Grand Design (Paperback)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.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating,
This review is from: The Grand Design (Paperback)I've been reading a lot about philosophy recently and to be honest my studies of this subject seem to have led me ,almost inexorably, to study science in more detail. Science, and physics especially, seem to be at the forefront of asking the big questions traditionally asked by philosophers , such as "Does God exist ?" "How and why does the universe exist ? ,"How did the human race come about ?" and "Is there a meaning to life ?" Stephen Hawking's book uses theoretical physics to try to answer most of these questions. A lot of this book went over my head somewhat. I only have GCE "O" Level Physics , so I found much of Hawking's discussions about Einstein's Theory of Relativity, String Theory and M Theory etc. quite difficult , although I sort of got the gist of much of it. This guy(and his co-author) has an amazing intellect and knowledge of the physical world and a lot of the answers to the "big questions" are in there. I intend to re-read this book, maybe a couple more times, and try to get my head around it all and I would be surprised if the general reader with little scientific knowledge would be any different. "Philosophy is dead" states Hawking in the opening pages of this book and I can see what he's getting at, although I wouldn't be qualified to judge if he's correct or not. Theres no real place for "God" in this book as Hawking believes that life is quite capable of being generated spontaneously and he points out that the existence of any supreme "God" will always be met with the question of "Who created God ?" - ad infinitum. I personally think that interfering aliens were behind most of the world's religions, pretending to be sovereign deities who created the world a few thousand years ago ,and Hawkings book confirmed my beliefs in this respect.
Most Helpful First | Newest First
The Grand Design by Leonard Mlodinow (Paperback - 18 Aug 2011)