on 4 October 2011
This book is better than a brief history of time, which I also enjoyed. Here Hawking sets out the universe and it's workings in the simplest way he can, and he still baffles me. I could read this book again and again, partly because it's so interesting, partly because I don't understand most of it, and partly because I would learn something new every time.
Absolutely brilliant, I highly recommend this to anyone that has ever looked at the universe and wondered what it's all about.
on 10 November 2010
Two famous physicists set out to demonstrate that `philosophy is dead' and that physics can explain the entire universe.
This is a well-presented and beautifully illustrated book. It begins with the assertion that physics can explain all of mankind's important questions, such as `Where did the universe come from?' and `What is the nature of reality?' As a consequence, and in their opinion, philosophy is dead. Such a statement fails to recognise the significance of any questions which can't be addressed by physicists. `What is a good life?' and `How should I live?' spring immediately to mind.
I quite enjoy a bit of arrogance and dramatic overstatement sometimes but this smacks of ignorance. It dismisses the value of anything which can't be understood by physicists and diminishes the impact of the book.
The book then provides a rapid and well-written overview of our understanding of physical laws, beginning with Newton and Maxwell and moving through to Einstein, Feynman and beyond. At this point I began to lose the plot, since I'm not a physicist. For example, an explanation of Feynman's sum-over histories of particles in the two slit experiment suggested that each particle takes every possible path in the universe between the slit and the screen. How this can happen in a finite time, given that the speed of light isn't infinite, wasn't touched upon and I for one was left uncertain of how this explanation improves the understanding of Young's famous experiment.
The book then describes something called M-theory but it's done in such an opaque fashion that I was left uninformed by the explanation. The most informative passage in the book, for me, was an illustration of why time has no meaning before the big bang. Just as you can't travel further north than the North Pole on the curved surface of the Earth, so you can't look further back in curved space-time than the instant the whole thing started. Finally we move to the answer to the questions posed at the beginning of the book. There are an infinite number of universes and we just happen to inhabit one of the many in which the physical laws permit our existence. That's fine, and may well be true, but this explanation hardly constitutes the answer to all of the questions of philosophy.
This is a well produced, well written and attractive book which includes a good summary of the major physical laws of the universe.
The book failed to adequately explain M-theory and confused the inquiries of moral philosophy with those of theoretical physics. The authors demonstrate a degree of arrogance which doesn't engage the sympathy of this reader.
I enjoyed reading the book, even though I felt that it failed to achieve its purpose and convince me that physics can now provide an explanation of the universe. I think that the authors would benefit from getting out of their physics labs and maybe listening to some Beethoven.
Stephen Hawking begins 'The Grand Design' with the unscientific assertion that 'philosophy is dead'. He argues philosophy has been replaced by science in general - and physics in particular - in humanity's 'quest for knowledge'. He places his faith (and it is faith rather than reason) in M-theory as the method by which we will discover how the Universe behaves and why. He contends that empiricism is a 'naive view of reality' which is not compatible with the modern physics technique of model-dependent realism (MDR). This 'is based on the idea that our brains interpret the input from our sensory organs by making a model of the world'. Models are accepted as reality or absolute truth according to their utility in explaining the world. No single model is sufficient to explain everything hence there is no one way to recognise reality. In promoting M-theory as 'the only method that has all the properties we think the final theory ought to have' Hawking shifts from science to philosophy. If M-theory identifies reality, or even predicts outcomes, then using 'ought' instead of 'will' is little more than a cop-out on one hand and pure invention on the other. MDR is a philosophical approach to reality not a scientific one.
The philosophical foundation of Hawking's book is that of scientific determinism which admits no exceptions. He uses traditional myths as fodder for his argument inserting the claim, 'the human capacity for guilt is such that people can always find ways to blame themselves'. Unfortunately, such sloppy thinking is characteristic of the book as a whole. References to ancient Greek philosophy and the origins of Homo sapiens rest on imagination, infused with non-scientific assertions. His history is badly researched too. That Medieval scholars resolved conflicts between rationalism and faith by opting for faith is well known. However, removing science from its historical context distorts reality. In regards to Bishop Stephen Tempier of Paris and the the trial of Galileo, Hawking makes no reference to the political context in which they took place without which neither can be understood. He is apparently unaware that in 1757 the Catholic Church accepted heliocentrism and in 1822 formally approved teaching it. Both Hawking's references appear as cheap shots in the discredited science versus religion debate.
The scientific determinism advocated by Hawking raises the question of whether the existence of the laws of nature, confirmed by observed regularity and predictable outcomes, excludes the possibility of miracles. Do human beings have free will to make their own choices? He places his faith in consciousness studies stating, 'It is hard to imagine how free will can operate if our behaviour is determined by physical law, so it seems that we are no more biological machines and that free will is just an illusion'. This claim is a secular re-statement of Calvin's doctrine of predestination. It suggests that everything human beings do is governed by natural physical laws, a proposition so broad as to be meaningless. He acknowledges human behaviour is impossible to predict in practice but argues that this has been met by creating an effective theory of psychology to explain it. He writes, ''an effective theory is a framework created to model certain observed phenomena without describing all of the underlying processes'. Hawking approaches science as if it absolutely true whereas, at any one time, it is only the dominant paradigm.
Scientists claim to have discovered objective reality through the application of mathematics using the technique of MDR. This is an example of instrumentalism which does not require a theory to be accurate, or describe objective reality, but merely explain and predict phenomena. It depends 'on the idea that our brains interpret the input from our sensory organs by making a model of the world',which is a philosophical statement not a scientific one. Hawking suggests 'a model is a good model if it is elegant; contains few arbitrary or adjustable elements; agrees with and explains all existing observations; and makes detailed predictions about observations that can disprove or falsify the model if they are not borne out'. Truth is not absolute but can be seen differently from different perspectives. One person's terrorist is another's freedom fighter.
Hawking claims the law of gravity means the Universe spontaneously created itself. He states "Science predicts that many different kinds of universe will be spontaneously created out of nothing. It is a matter of chance which we are in." The thesis has an evangelical ring to it and Hawking believes science renders all other explanations redundant. As science versus religion is a selling technique most pre-publication publicity centred on 'Stephen Hawking says there is no God' which goes beyond what the book establishes. In his mind belief in God has been replaced by belief in science and belief in M-theory in particular. M-theory is a broad mathematical framework which Hawking considers may describe the behaviour of all fundamental particles and force, although the technology required to test it does not exist.
Hawking has provided an overview of the current state of physics as a means of expressing its superiority in explaining reality. It is a form of deductive reasoning which relies on the truth of its premises logically leading to the truth of its conclusions. For Hawking this will result in confirmation of materialism as reality. Others will regard it as a self-fulfilling prophecy and evidence of pride and arrogance. Hawking's attempts to remove metaphysics by encompassing it is no more successful that of the logical positivists for whom metaphysics did not exist. The idea of a multi-Universe may appear mathematically logical but the denial of adequate confirmation represents intellectual day-dreaming. The book is relatively (no pun intended) easy to read but somewhat repetitive. This reviewer is not convinced by Hawking's claim to provide new answers to the ultimate questions of life but would recommend it to any intelligent person to read whatever their metaphysical standpoint. Four stars.
on 25 June 2012
Firstly, I would like to say that many aspects of this book are excellent. Hawking and Mlodinow have distilled some of the most mind-blowing and complicated theories of "life, the universe, and everything" into 228 gripping pages that read like a great mystery novel, while also employing a casual tone and language that would make the book approachable to a precocious teen. Because of this accessible style I burned through the book in a couple of evenings, making it the most riveting piece of non-fiction I have read in years. I think the true test of the success of this kind of book is your ability to assimilate the broad brushstrokes that are employed throughout into a competent understanding of the material broached, while not needing to grasp any of the complicated mathematical underpinnings. In this regard the book is outstanding, and as you too find yourself explaining the Feynman sum over histories and Einstein's theory of special relativity to your friends and family, with some degree of authority, I think that you might agree.
However I am not here to sing the praises of this book, although there are many. I wish to point out, that while excellent, the book is deeply flawed. My main criticism is that the book completely fails to accomplish what it sets out to do, and along the ways displays more than a little arrogance by its authors. The authors drop a particular clanger on page one when they state that "philosophy is dead... (and) scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge". That's a pretty lofty assertion, and as the authors spend the next eight chapters attempting to explain how the laws of the universe disprove the existence of God, it becomes apparent that they have bitten off a little more than they can chew. While Hawking may be an eminent physicist he has little insight to the human condition, and his writings provide no answers to the metaphysical concerns of post-modern life. In a world in which neither science nor religion can claim to fully explain our origin and our purpose for being, Hawking claims certainty, but only after outlining the vast limitations of our knowledge. I think I smell a rat.
In particular Hawking sets out to answer these questions:
Why is there something rather than nothing? Why do we exist? Why this particular set of laws and not some other?
With regard to the third question Hawking succeeds, and if what we are discussing had remained solely a work of popular science, then this review would not exist. However, I was promised answers, with a certain degree of braggadocio might I add, and what was offered up by the authors falls flatly on its arse. The most spectacular stumble comes in the final chapter when the authors explain how the existence of a balance between negative and positive energies creates a degree of stability in the universe, and that enables universes to spontaneously come into being. Ipso facto there is no God, and once we prove M-Theory we'll pretty much know it all.
I really cannot believe that such crap came out of a scientific mind. I'm reminded of two things by this argument. First, regardless of whether there is research or details of which I'm not aware, Hawking's presentation of his thesis is absolutely inadequate, and I can't help but compare it to the business model of the South Park's underpants gnomes:
"Step one: steal underpants
Step two: ???????
Step three: profit"
This is not the product of rational deduction; this is dogma in its most obvious form. And it is this kind of scientific determinism which was most succinctly defined by Jacob Bronowski, my second point of reference. Is what we are dealing with knowledge or certainty? All human inquiry is the pursuit of knowledge, whether spiritual, philosophical or scientific in nature. And thus, all knowledge is fallible, as further enquiry seeks to improve upon or dismiss the theories of the past. Nothing is certain.
I find it hard to reconcile Hawking's conclusion with the content of his argument. Having been enlightened to the impossibility of measuring a space-time value of less than a planck constant, the infinite possibilities of quantum behaviour, the limitless alternative histories of our universe, as well as the unknowable spectrum of alternative natural conditions throughout the multiverse; I am not ready to accept that the existence of gravity enables the spontaneous creation of universes, just as I am not ready to accept the origin story of Genesis. Considering the patience and insight with which Hawking and Mlodinow explain some of the brain-melting concepts contained within, I find it quite strange that they would seek to tie together their argument in such a haphazard fashion. In particular, why must I accept gravity as a pre-universal constant if space-time and the other laws of physics were undefined prior to the Big Bang? If I have missed out on the subtleties of their argument, or overlooked some knowable scientific facts, then I am obviously quite willing to retract my above criticism - I am, after all, no expert.
Regardless of my own level of ignorance, my main criticism of Hawking still stands. At no stage throughout was I presented with an adequate reason for why we are here, and why there is something instead of nothing. Least of all was I presented with a valid argument against the existence of God. Bearing in mind that I am an atheist, with a healthy curiosity about our origin, I feel that modern physics can offer no insight into the greatest of philosophical dilemmas. Maybe someday this will change, but for the time being I am happy in the knowledge that further endeavours of scientific discovery have much yet to reveal, and that the greatest questions of philosophical inquiry have yet to be answered or probably even articulated.
The authors have set out to provide a scientific account of how we came to be that is not hinged upon the existence of a creator. While I am satisfied that their account of natural history contains breathtaking insights into the workings of our world, I am still none the wiser as to why we are here. As Hawking points out, we can only make deductions about the world that are dependent on a personal concept of reality. This alone should be an admission of the limits of our knowledge, and in reaching his conclusion Hawking claims to know an unknowable certainty. This is an act of intellectual dishonesty. Hawking has once again has placed human beings squarely in the centre of the universe. This is not a Copernican Revolution, it is a leap of faith.
Newtonian dynamics gives a reasonable model of the workings of our day to day world. It falls down when one considers the behaviour of electromagnetic waves, and light in particular. This led to Einstein's theories of special and general relativity. These lead to predictions of the big bang, but also fall down on the very small scale. Quantum mechanics explains what happens at the very small scale. The fact that in the early stages of the universe things were very small leads to a need to have a quantum theory of gravity. This is supergravity, which also links to something called string theory. There were various versions of string theory, but researchers concluded that these were different facets of a single underlying theory, M-theory. M theory allows for different universes with different laws. The fact that our universe is conducive to life is a function of the fact that it is one of many universes, and is one in which the laws of physics suit life. We are in this universe because it is one that suits us, and it is one that suits use because we are in it. Universes can come into existence from nothing because in a whole universe the positive energy of matter balances the negative energy of gravity and hence a universe containing gravity and matter is also equivalent to nothing.
If I have understood this mind aching book, that is a very simplistic summary of what it is all about.
It is a relatively short book and the authors, by necessity take the reader at pretty much break neck speed through the major building blocks of modern physics, the theories of the ancients Greeks, Newtonian dynamics, special and general relativity, quantum mechanics, (including wave particle duality), string theory and super symmetry. It works very well at giving the reader a very top level view of where the search for a grand unified theory has got to. Occasionally the book takes a logical jump after which I found myself thinking "Blimey, how did it get from there to there", but that is a minor quibble, given that the book could not, and does not set out to give an in depth account.
Overall the book succeeds admirably, but my one major problem with it is the writing style. There are two aspects to this. Firstly the fact that it is jointly written by a British and an American academic gives the book a strange transatlantic accent, for example the phrase "flunking grades in maths classes". Second and more irritating, are the clunking attempts at humour. I'm afraid that the authors, when considered as comedians, make excellent cosmologists. An example of this rib tickling stuff would be the explanation of 180 degree symmetry which uses a doughnut as an illustration and ends with the words "unless it is covered with chocolate in which case you might as well eat it."
One other significant thing to say is that there was a great deal of fuss in the press about Hawking denying the existence of God. Needless to say this was blown out of all proportion by sensationalist journalists. If you are hoping for, or fearing, an anti religious tirade you will not find it here. True, the authors conclude on the basis of in depth and intelligent thinking that the universe could have been created without any need for a God, but that is as far as they go.
To conclude, if you can get past the grating attempts at comedy the book is fascinating, accessible and informative, and is therefore recommended.
on 6 October 2010
As a philosophy teacher I was a little worried about losing my job when I read on page 5 that , 'philosophy is dead'. Hawking has also been quoted as stating that, 'philosophy is for people who can't do physics', so I suppose I don't really qualify to write this review. I was a little baffled though to discover that the dead subject continued to be discussed to page 33, including many of the standard issues which still preoccupy us.
I watched the third episode of Hawking's recent TV series in which frequent references are made to just what a stroke of luck it was that certain events occurred in the evolution of the cosmos. 'Nature is not perfect' we were told and it was these multiple small flaws that determined that stars, planets and life itself happened to have the conditions in which they could flourish. Two arguments occur here:
1) If the universe is not perfect how can we systematise our knowledge into a complete theory of everything (TOE), taking into account currently unknown variables?
2) Is there not a case for giving serious consideration to the Cosmic Athropic Principle in one of its forms (weak, strong, final according to Barrow)? This suggests that the so-called Goldilocks effect, entailing that everything seemed just right to produce matter and life as we know it, may have arisen due to a design factor similar to that proposed in the teleological argument traditionally used in philosophy. A blueprint suggests an architect (or team of architects as Hume wryly proposes) and I still, as a mere philosopher, see no conclusive evidence that Hawking's view that a universe can randomly create itself is proven.
Of course, I understand neither string theory nor M-theory beyond the very basics (and certainly not the maths) but it seems to me that 'The Grand Design' is exceptionally grandiose in its claims. My understanding is that the Heisenberg Uncertainly Principle has still not been resolved, suggesting that we are inextricably bound up with the universe in a fashion that makes it extremely difficult to obtain objectivity. It is still hard to disprove Berkeley's notion that 'esse est percipi' (to be is to be perceived) and we cannot escape our perceptual mechanisms. This led Kant to posit a noumenal world, unreachable to us, beyond the phenomena resulting from our categorisation of experience. Essentially, I am saying not only that Hawking's view is subjective but that subjectivity may well be inescapable.
I am going to a lecture by John Polkinghorne on Friday. After taking a part in the discovery of the quark and holding a post as professor of mathematical physics at Cambridge for eleven years he became a priest. He tends to agree that variants of the Anthropic Principle seem to indicate that in some way, 'the universe knew that we were coming'. These are the same reasons that led the prominent philosopher Antony Flew to reverse his positon after many years of vehement atheism. I will be very interested in Pokinghorne's view.
Verdict: A great, thought-provoking book but case not proven, m'lud.
Update: Polkinghorne chummily referred to Hawking as 'Steve' in his lecture at Lincoln Cathedral yesterday but did not seem to lend much credence to M-theory, stating that it depends upon theorising about an absolutely miniscule scale way below quark level, making it highly speculative. He also dismissed theories on a 'block universe' in which all space and time are relative, stating that the past is clearly distinguishable from the present and the future. Much of this was not substantiated at the lecture and implies that subjective viewpoints might still be at work here, as in the 1948 Bertrand Russell v Father Copleston 1948 BBC radio debate in which Copleston stated that, 'the world is intrinsically unintelligible, apart from the existence of God'. Russell maintained that he thinks '... the notion of the world having an explanation is a mistake. I don't see why one should expect it to have...' Re-reading the transcript,I wonder how far on from 1948 we are now!
on 18 September 2010
Although it could crop up on almost every page, this phrase only occurs twice in this lavishly produced book by the two eminent physicists, Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, once as they describe the double-slit experiment and later as they try to explain how it is that we "create history by our observation, rather than history creating us". It might as well apply to their main conclusion, that while "stars or black holes cannot just appear out of nothing... a whole universe can". It's hard to wholeheartedly recommend something I don't understand (my excuse is that I only got part way through a second degree in theoretical physics) to an audience who almost certainly won't understand it either. Those who need to be told that "ellipses are squashed circles" are probably going to struggle with the idea that "closed loops in the Feynman diagrams for gravity produce infinities that cannot be absorbed by renormalization". One thing is certain: few readers who make it to the end will be left unchallenged in some way.
There's a very funny entry for "science fiction" in The Dictionary of Fashionable Nonsense: A Guide for Edgy People that simply reads: "Well of course it is." If you don't get the joke, take it as a warning before exposing your brain to some of the ideas in this book. For example, in the wonderful Superstition: Belief in the Age of Science (the physicist) Robert Park quotes (the non-physicist) Rhonda Byrne: "quantum physicists tell us the entire Universe emerged from thought". She then uses this to justify a whole heap of hokum. My fear is that phrases like "lords of creation" and "a well-constructed model creates a reality of its own" will get recycled into similar self-help clichés, far removed from their serious scientific context. Only the other day I heard a woman on the radio talking about the relationship between executive pay and nuclear physics: what a physicist will tell you, she said, is that sub-atomic particles behave differently under observation and this, she concluded, was very true of chief executives. Why she didn't appeal to elementary psychology to make her point, I don't know, but this is typical of the havoc such memes cause when let loose in the environment via popular books like this.
One of my reservations with this book is that the authors are not entirely immune themselves, their symptoms being a lack of clarity when switching between literal and metaphorical language. Part of the problem is having to do without mathematical language when describing, say, how an elementary "particle" travels along a "path". More problematic is the way in which words like "design" and "creation" are used. The authors are in fact very careful when talking about "creation myths" to signal the fictional nature of these accounts, and early on they emphasize that the "creation" of multiple universes "does not require the intervention of some supernatural being or god".
The human mind is addicted to teleological explanations, however, and cannot help but imagine there must be a designer and a creator, if there is design and creation. The authors resist this reading, but the use of such loaded terms, together with their insistence on framing their scientific questions as "why" questions, is misguided. To understand the universe at the deepest level, they claim that we need to know not only how the universe behaves, but why, and they ask three big questions. "Why is there something rather than nothing? Why do we exist? Why this particular set of laws and not some other?"
The problem with "why" questions is that they can trigger our intuitive agency detection mechanisms. Our minds have evolved to seek out agents who make things happen. Asking how the undergrowth rustles probably didn't occur to our ancestors. Asking why it rustled, however, might prompt the useful answer that there is a tiger in there looking for lunch. Attributing agency to animals and objects in the natural world is an important cognitive skill that is most highly developed in our species (see The Prehistory Of The Mind: A Search for the Origins of Art, Religion and Science). Less beneficial is our runaway tendency to dream up supernatural agents who answer these "why" questions with their inscrutable purposes.
The authors introduce the idea of adopting "an effective theory" to deal with situations in which we have no hope of accounting for every detailed atomic process. One example is the effective theory of free will, which allows us to predict human behaviour. Why no mention of the intentional stance? As a steadfast monist and reductionist, I have no problem with the likelihood "that we are no more than biological machines and that free will is just an illusion" but I do have a problem with this way of putting it. That single word "just" is telling: of course free will is an illusion, but there's no "just" about it! How the illusion of free will operates is a fascinating scientific question, and by denigrating "how" questions the authors are in danger of devaluing a whole area of scientific enquiry.
The scope of the book takes us to the limits of what is known about the universe and probably beyond, with occasional diversions along the way, such as John Conway's Game of Life, which shows how a universe with simple rules can "contain objects complex enough to replicate". What Hawking and Mlodinow do very well is defend "scientific determinism" - "the basis of all modern science, and a principle that is important throughout this book". One of the consequences of adhering to this principle is the impossibility of miracles and the lack of "an active role for God". (Incidentally, anyone who imagines there is no conflict between science and religion either doesn't understand what a miracle is or is not committed to scientific determinism.)
"The Grand Design" has the production values of a coffee table book, without the unwieldy dimensions, which is appropriate given the idea of extra dimensions curled up so small that they can't be seen. It's full of glossy illustrations, and is as unencumbered as Heat magazine by references or footnotes or equations (except for the odd stunt integral that has a cameo in the Sydney Harris cartoons). It's as tempting to consume as a cream cake, but it may leave your brain feeling ever so slightly queasy.
on 8 January 2016
Moderately well written book with little to offer in terms of facts and science, focusing too much on partially logical philosophical arguments. Better and more informed material is generally prefered from such great scientific personalities.
on 18 November 2013
I borrowed this from the library. It's a very readable, and reasonably short, book on the origins of the universe - and, it has to be said, an eloquant argument against creationism. Hawking walks the reader through physical concepts, building upon those previously discussed in a way that is easy to follow, with a certain amount of humour (although this is more evident at the beginning of the book than the end) and provides some excellent diagrams that aid in understanding theories that are fundamentally a little tricky to grasp/explain. It's an excellent place for someone with merely GCSE physics to start reading about the big questions and will certainly be able to point you in the direction of further reading if a certain area peakes your interest.
on 17 June 2015
A bit of a "curate's egg" - some parts are well explained and easy to follow while others are obscure and difficult. This is probably because M-theory cannot be explained in simple English and requires complex mathematical formulation to really comprehend (assuming you can understand highly complex formulae!) One criticism is that, despite statements early on in the book about theories being representations of possible truths and not necessarily correct, once we get into M-theory it is presented as being THE TRUTH, albeit with possible refinements still to come. And this despite that fact that many eminent mathematicians and theoretical physicists believe it is anything but the truth. Reader beware, this is metaphysics, not physics.