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 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.
on 11 September 2010
Having read Hawking's "A Brief History of Time" some years ago, I was excited to learn he was releasing a new (somewhat controversial) book, where he updated the discoveries that science had made since the mid-80s.
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.
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 6 July 2012
Stephen Hawking's attempt to answer the great questions about life, the universe and everything. It is co written with someone with a name I can neither pronounce nor spell, but apologies to Leonard Ml-whatever-your-name-is, for not taking the time to copy and paste it.
Plusses are that this book is a wonderful short history of the growth of scientific thought as well as a crash course in quantum mechanics, relativity and M theory.
However, there was nothing actually new here - although it brings a lot of material into one nicely accessible place. A fuller discussion of the scientific theories can be found in books such as Brian Greene's The Elegant Universe (he has a later book that probably covers any recent changes Hawking includes).
As for the history of the development of science, that can be found in many places, but at times it was reminiscent of Russell's History of Western Philosophy.
On the downside, this book does not do what it purports to do. It asks the question "why is there something rather than nothing", but cannot answer it, and the attempt to reduce it to a non question is just a fudge that admits to the unanswerability of the question.
Early on the book also simply dismisses philosophy, saying it has not kept up with the science. That statement is a bold assertion written in defiance of the clear fact that modern philosophers are well aware of the latest physics, and make good use of it. Indeed, inasmuch as this book IS a work of philosophy, the book refutes its own assertion.
In a few other places, things are asserted without evidence and which are not obviously true.
The proposal of the unmodified radical multiverse idea as a solution to the extremely unlikely balance of the laws of nature that allow our universe to exist is also written in ignorance of the work of philosophers such as Keith Ward, who make the point that this merely multiplies the improbability of the whole. There is now so much more *stuff* to explain than before. We have mechanism but no answer to the reason there is something at all.
So no answers to the big questions in this book. I liked the physics, which is nicely described, but other books do that more thoroughly.
on 5 March 2011
After having read all other Stephen Hawking books I was looking forward to reading this. Unlike the other books, Brief History of Time, Universe In A Nutshell, I wasnt learning anything new. Despite the books views on religion and philosophy, I found that the book spent most of its time, asking questions and not supplying answers, which is philosophy.
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 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.