Along with Caltech physicist Mlodinow (The Drunkard's Walk), University of Cambridge cosmologist Hawking (A Brief History of Time) deftly mixes cutting-edge physics to answer three key questions-- Why is there something rather than nothing? Why do we exist? Why this particular set of laws and not some other?-- and explains that scientists are approaching what is called "M-theory," a collection of overlapping theories (including string theory) that fill in many (but not all) the blank spots in quantum physics. This collection is known as the "Grand Unified Field Theories."
The Grand Design succeeds where that book arguably did not, and what's more, brings to a general readership the stunning implications of contemporary physics and cosmology. The book is clearly written, contains helpful diagrams, and enough corny humor to keep things light. Any difficulties in comprehension reflect the fact that the concepts themselves are counter-intuitive and far from easy to grasp. The universe turns out to be a very strange place indeed; and in fact, if the authors are correct, ours is but one of an infinite number of universes, in which every conceivable event has happened.
Given that The Grand Design removes the necessity for a divine creator, one may feel compelled to ask: what percentage of the infinite number of universes would include a god or gods? And then, an unrelated question. With an infinite number of universes (many of which apparently lasted no more than a few seconds), do we not have a process of natural selection operating on a cosmic scale, such that our universe exists because it has succeeded where others have failed? Wouldn't it be both funny and ironic if our universe's persistence for the past 13.7 billion years (just like our presence on this small planet in a tiny solar system) reflects a form of cosmic evolution and natural selection?
The Grand Design is a book that raises as many questions as it answers. It is a book that deserves to be read and understood, and if its radical implications take a while to sink in, we can take heart in the likelihood that our particular universe seems unlikely to disappear anytime soon. So far, at least, we're one of the lucky ones.
"Traditionally these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics. Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge".
Such outrageous condescension would be rude effrontery were it not so naive. There is no evidence in the text that Hawking and Mlodinow have based their conclusion on even a cursory familiarity with another academic discipline. And yet they are willing to proclaim one discipline dead, supplanted by their own. And in a bizarre twist, it turns out that they strive ultimately to draw philosophical conclusions in this book rather than scientific ones.
Hawking and Mlodinow's grand design is incoherent, biased and offensive.
The press junket for The Grand Design has tended to play up its potential for conflict with religious world-views. Strangely, though, the text actually picks a fight with philosophers. In their opening page, Hawking and Mlodinow proclaim, "philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics." But what the authors think of as "science, particularly physics" is still what used to be called natural philosophy, for very good reason. Hawking and Mlodinow are really taking the traditional philosophical side--as opposed to the theological side--in the debate about how questions about natural origins should be answered. There's no question that Hawking and Mlodinow know their physics, but they evidently don't know religion or modern theoretical philosophy, and their attempts to pass judgment on those fields are unimpressive. For instance, in what is mostly a capable dash through the history of science, they remark that "at the time the Bible was written people believed the earth was flat." But "the time the Bible was written" was roughly a millennium that coincided with some of the developments in Greek cosmology discussed by Hawking and Mlodinow. It’s likely that some biblical authors thought the earth was flat; but for most, we don’t even know.
Read charitably, the central thesis announced at the outset of The Grand Design is that physics has made metaphysics obsolete. And certainly modern physics has made many earlier metaphysical solutions obsolete. It may even have substantially transformed some questions—particularly the ones about cosmic origins at stake in the later parts of this book. But it’s not true that the natural sciences have answered all or even most metaphysical queries. And if metaphysics as a whole is a wrong turn—as it may in fact be—then that needs to be concluded on the basis of a greater understanding of the history and contents of philosophy than Hawking and Mlodinow have on display.
At its close, the book is underwhelming. We are told that M-Theory is the only current candidate for a comprehensive theory of physical forces, and this theory implies a narrative of cosmic origins. But M-Theory hasn’t been empirically verified. So what is evidently supposed to be a sweeping declaration in the final paragraph has to be stated in the subjunctive. That’s not my kind of “great perhaps.”
Unless physics is your field, you’ll need to concentrate while reading this book. That said, it’s remarkably readable. Three or so quiet hours is all you need to be appraised of the current state of (our understanding of) the universe. There’s enough humor mixed in to make your education more of a joy than a chore. (For example, apparently the answer to the question of life, the universe, and everything isn’t 42!)
Hawking and Mlodinow took a couple of frustrating pot-shots at straw-man Christianity. When they offered the odd side-remark, I found myself agreeing with them—and disappointed that they perpetuated some of those irritating stereotypes about Christians.
The climax of the book is an overview of M-Theory, the leading candidate for the Theory of Everything. For Hawking and Mlodinow, if M-Theory is tested and accepted, the universe needs no designer—it’s self-replicating. That’s where I have to disagree on logical grounds.
Christian apologists have often offered the question, “If our universe began at the big bang, what or who came before it?” Hawking and Mlodinow rightly turn that logic back by asking, “If God came before the big bang, who came before God?” That response cuts both ways, though. If the idea of a self-running universe with no beginning or ending is proven true, the question still exists, “what or who came before?” In the end, that’s a question that neither science nor theology can answer. Your worldview will determine your answer: where does your faith (trust, belief) lie?
I should make it clear that the last few paragraphs about the intersection of science and religion are far from the centre of The Grand Design. The book is a brilliant example of popular scholarship that should be read by any human being who looks into the sky at night and asks questions.
The book is not perfect. Every few pages one finds a lame cartoon. These cartoons are...well: lame. They are not amusing, and are not connected to the text. The illustrations are an improvement, but even here I pause and wonder. On page 54 there is an illustration of a glass of water with a straw in it. The illustration is very nice. I particularly like the red & white tablecloth upon which the glass rests. The note beneath the photo is this: "Refraction: Newton's model of light could explain why light bent when it passed from one medium to another, but it could not explain another phenomenon we now call Newton's Rings." Now, we almost all of us have seen a straw in a glass of water. Did we need to see another? Even with a particularly nice red and white table cloth? On the other hand, how many of us have seen "Newton's Rings?" Wouldn't it have been better to have shown the readers a photo of Newton's Rings? Especially when considering that on p.117 there are three additional photographs of straws in glasses of liquid, possibly cranberry juice, which illustrate "refraction" equally well?
Well, perhaps I'm being too fussy. A bigger question is: does the book adequately answer the questions it sets out to answer? Does it explain "why there is something rather than nothing?" "Why do we exist?" "Why this particular set of laws and not some other?" I have read the book twice, and I am unsure. I have certainly had my thinking on these subjects stimulated. My brain is buzzing with possiblities. But I feel I need to know more.... which, after all, is not a bad thing.
So, Hawking and Mlodinow jaunt along, posing a few questions in the beginning, explaining some requisite science in the middle, then giving their answers in the end. Why is there something instead of nothing? Why do we exist? Why does this particular set of laws govern our universe and not some other set? I enjoyed the exploration of those questions. Some sort of multiverse concept with every universe having differing fundamental constants has long been an idea of mine, and it pops up again here. By differing constants, that refers to things like altered weight of an electron, or the strength of gravity or the nuclear forces, speed of light, whatever.
The book will pick up some controversy by the authors' replacing of any concept of God with random chance in selecting these constants, but it seemed a bit fuzzy. Staring at a chalkboard covered with arcane math can do that to you. At enough of a depth level, you think you can peer through the veil of reality and gaze upon the inner workings of the universe at a fundamental level. I've been there too. Having a multi-page calculus problem unfold in your mind in a second or so is a life changing experience.
Most of the subject matter here was not at all new to me, which left me feeling a little disappointed. I was hoping for a little less Intro to Modern Physics and a little more string theory, perhaps. The topics they do cover are presented very non-technically; there are no equations in the book, and most of the diagrams seem to be intended more to look pretty than to convey anything complicated. But while it's difficult for me to say for sure, I strongly suspect that a reader coming into this with no prior knowledge of the subject matter is likely to find the explanations a little too concise. Based on my own experience, this is stuff that you need a bit of hand-holding to process properly the first time you encounter it, and they really don't do much of that.
I've tried to read Hawking before, but I've never quite connected with him. While he appears to be patiently trying to explain some pretty heady theories in layman's terms, he always seems to not quite get there. And physics just isn't one of my specialties. Mlodinow did a fine job speaking my language, so there was hope....
Alas, it just didn't quite come together. The "M-Theory", Hawking's proposal for a "theory of everything" is complex and is an amalgamation of multiple theories, not all which are equally well explained. In particular is trying to envision dimensions beyond the three that most impact our daily lives, and the incredible number of simultaneous universes the theory allows. He tries to explain how the big-bang occurred; how something from nothing COULD occur, but I'll be damned if I could relate this to someone else--especially a non-physicist type, perhaps a religious type who most needs to understand what is probably a convincing argument (Hawking does take a secular approach across the board).
Perhaps the best parts of the book dealt with the history of theories dealing with the natural universe, including such luminaries as Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Descartes, Newton, Einstein, Hubble, and Feynman. The color illustrations are nice, although some times I didn't quite get the point of the illustration. I'm pretty sure at some point, an author is going to make the concepts herein more accessible to people like me. I'll be first in line to buy it when they do.
The book suffers a bit because it's so brief. I'm still shaking my head over his explanation of the two slit experiment, the basis for Feyneman's theories. It just isn't filled out well enough to explain it. In some sense that may be a good thing because it will be an incentive to learn more, but, you know, he could have just explained it.
Deny it though they might - surely they would - Hawking and Mlodinow are really neo-pantheists. They worship in the church of scientific materialism and on their altar is gravity. For the punch-line of The Grand Design is that the law of gravity makes an otherwise improbable universe inevitable. Gravity is a priori. But while they point out that the religionist is fairly asked whence the God they worship comes from, the scientists never even feel the need to ask themselves Who authored the law of gravity.
The book itself is decent. It is well-written, concise, and beautifully illustrated. However, there is much in the substance of the science and theory that is unsatisfactory. In fairness, the only way it could be made complete in this respect while maintaining its readability were if the reader to go earn a doctorate in theoretical physics and then come back for a fuller treatment of the technical details of quantum mechanics and m-theory. But then, that would be a different, and much longer book.
Read The Grand Design for a glancing view of the picture of creation which physics and cosmology have revealed to those smart enough to design the experiments, manipulate the math, and imagine the theories. But don't get your theology from the authors. Better to read George MacDonald, G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Mother Theresa, and so on, for one's spiritual education. For while Hawking and Mlodinow may be brilliant scientists, they are mediocre atheists who believe they've evolved beyond God. In doing so, they've become mere pagans fetishizing not mountain spirits and wood demons, but rather gravity, m-theory, and all the universes they see in their equations.
“The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.”
The authors intend to demonstrate that there is a scientific explanation for many things we consider god-like. In the past, we have had different viewpoints of the world and how it works, often chalking up our experiences to a god-like influence or presence. The authors demonstrate how these theories have been tossed aside by scientific explanations. They don’t go as far as to say there is no God, but simply that there is often a scientific explanation for everything. If there isn’t one, we just haven’t figured it out yet. In the end they attempt to explain what is reality, how do we know what we know, and why are we here in the first place?
This is a great introduction to quantum physics with a basic walk through of how to get there. The book is very approachable and I actually understood an XCD joke without having to look to Google it afterwards (jokes about string theory begin to make sense). Starting with the basic understanding of our perception of the world, we go from Greek philosophy to belief in the divine as explanations of how the universe works. We continue with the explanation of how do we know what we know? Developing models to determine reality and what is a good model to make that determination. Moving onto forces (magnetic, electric, gravity etc.) and then explaining that these forces are primitive ways to describe how the universe works.
Ultimately we get to M-theory that would describe how everything in the universe works. I am not sure I fully understand this aspect of the book. It goes into great detail on Fenyman’s theories. The discussion of buckyballs being shot through slits and how they develop interference left me a little puzzled as what he was trying to say. Finding a way to explain all forces as one force is tricky to comprehend. The text is approachable, but it still builds knowledge like a math textbook. If at some point you don't understand something, one can get lost very easily.
It was fun to read this as my science fiction brain loves all the possible explanations of how the world works. (the part about alternative histories and different universes was fascinating even though it was difficult to wrap my brain around it.) The imagination and fun of these theories about how the world works is fascinating and drove me toward and to finish the book.
The Grand Design
...quantum theory, and in particular, the approach to quantum theory called alternative histories. In that view, the universe does not have just a single existence or history, but rather every possible version of the universe exists simultaneously in what is called a quantum superposition. p. 38
According to quantum physics, no matter how much information we obtain or how powerful our computing abilities, the outcomes of physical processes cannot be predicted with certainty because they are not determined certainty. Instead, given the initial state of a system nature determines its future state through a process that is fundamentally uncertain. In other words, nature does not dictate the outcome of any process or experiment, even in the simplest of situations. Rather, it allows a number of different eventualities, each with a certain likelihood of being realized. It is, to paraphrase Einstein, as if God throws the dice before deciding the result of every physical process. That idea bothered Einstein, and so even though he was one of the fathers of quantum physics, he later became critical of it. p. 44
Quantum physics might seem to undermine the idea that nature is governed by laws, but that is not the case. Instead it leads us to accept a new form of determinism: given the state of a system at some time, the laws of nature determine the probabilities of various futures and pasts rather than determining future the future and past with certainty. Though that is distasteful to some, scientists must accept theories that agree with experiment, not their own preconceived notions. p. 44
A Model is a good model if:
1. Is elegant
2. Contains few arbitrary or adjustible elements
3. Agrees with and explains all existing observations
4. Makes detailed predictions about future observations that can disprove or falsify the model if they are not borne out.
Strong Anthropic Principle suggests that the fact that we exist imposes constraints not just on our environment, but on the possible form and content of the laws of nature themselves. The idea arose because it is not only the peculiar characteristics of our solar system that seem oddly conducive to the development of human life but also the characteristics of our entire universe, and that is much more difficult to explain. p. 155
What can we make of these coincidences? Luck in the precise form and nature of fundamental law is a different kind of luck from the luck we find in environmental factors. It cannot be so easily explained, and has far deeper physical and philosophical implications. Our universe and its laws appear to have a design that both is tailor-made to support us and, if we are to exist, leaves little room for alteration. This is not easily explained, and raises the natural question of why it is that way. p. 162
The author begins by stating that philosophy has not kept up with science, particularly modern physics. Hawking gives a brief history of science with an emphasis on physics and a look at how philosophy looking at science developed from Aristotle (rejected atoms b/c soulless) to Descartes (believed that the body was machine governed by laws, but the soul was not) to Newton (discovered many laws of the universe but held that God was free to intervene against them).
If there are natural laws, can/does God violate them to perform miracles? That's an important question, as is the question of free will and determinism. Where does free will come from? If physicists nail down a Theory of Everything, will everything be deterministic henceforth?
Hawking writes the laws of (this) universe arose from the big bang, and lengthily establishes what those laws are. But the universe has an infinite number of histories and contingencies. Wrap your head around this:
"the probability amplitude that the universe is now in a particular state is arrived at by adding up the contributions from all the histories that satisfy the no-boundary condition and end in the state in question. In cosmology, in other words, one shouldn't follow the history of the universe from the bottom up because that assumes there's a single history, with a well-defined starting point and evolution. Instead, one should trace the histories from the top down, backward from the present time...The histories that contribute to the Feynman sum don't have an independent existence, but depend on what is being measured. We create history by our observation, rather than our history creating us...histories in which the moon is made of cheese do not contribute to the present state of our universe, though they might contribute to others. That might sound like science fiction, but it isn't."
Hawking explains M-theory, p-branes, and other developments in quantum physics. The last pages of the book are the most important as Hawking contends that M theory explains how a universe can arise from nothing. But it does not lead to determinism in the sense that it would be mathematically impossible to calculate the movements of any one being. So, a theory of everything that is not what Hawking desired to find in Black Holes and Baby Universes.
This book seems much more consequential than Nutshell. I found it more entertaining and thought-provoking throughout. I would very much like to read Lee Smolin's The Trouble with Physics, a critique of Hawking's work. For now, 4 stars out of 5
The authors’ perception of reality is shaped by the assumptions of quantum physics as explained by Richard Feynman, whose “sum over histories” approach posits that any physical system has not one history but every possible history. In quantum theory, the unobserved past (like the future) is indefinite, and exists only as a spectrum of probabilities. To the authors, “the universe doesn’t have just a single history, but every possible history, each with its own probability; and our observations of its current state affect its past and determine the different histories of the universe.”
For the past century, scientists have attempted to articulate a single theory that encompasses both special relativity (which accurately describes observations of large systems like galaxies) and quantum physics (which describes events on an atomic or nuclear scale). Although special relativity and quantum theory are both very powerful in their respective domains, they appear logically inconsistent with one another. String theory and M-theory are attempts to resolve the inconsistencies. Both require the existence of multiple dimensions of space-time (10 and 11, respectively), only four of which are observable, time being the fourth. The other dimensions are tightly “curled up” in the visible dimensions. M-theory allows for “different universes with different apparent laws, depending on how the internal space is curled.”
Modern cosmology infers that there really was a “big bang,” and attempts to describe the state of the universe in its first nanoseconds of existence when it may have been as small as the Plank size: a billion-trillion-trillionth of a centimeter. The authors state, “So though we don’t yet have a complete quantum theory of gravity, we do know that the origin of the universe was a quantum event.”
In the early universe, quantum theory tells us that time would have been “warped” to such an extent that it behaved like “another dimension of space.” There were effectively four dimensions of space and none of time. Time as we know it did not exist. “That is beyond our experience, but not beyond our imagination, or our mathematics.” It’s beyond my imagination, but I trust it is not beyond Hawking’s mathematics.
At this point in the argument, the authors pull a little intellectual sleight of hand. I have to quote extensively here because their argument is quite arcane and don’t want to misstate it:
“If in the early universe all four dimensions behave like space, what happens to the beginning of time? The realization that time can behave like another direction of space means one can get rid of the problem of time having a beginning, in a similar way in which we got rid of the edge of the world. Suppose the beginning of the universe was like the South Pole, with degrees of latitude playing the role of time. As one moves north, the circles of constant latitude, representing the size of the universe, would expand. The universe would start at the South Pole, but the South Pole, is much like any other point. To ask what happened before the beginning of the universe would become a meaningless question, because there is nothing south of the South Pole….The realization that time behaves like space…removes the age-old objection to the universe having a beginning, but also means that the beginning of the universe was governed by the laws of science and doesn’t need to be set in motion by some god.”
The authors then apply Feynman’s sum over histories technique to the entire universe, a tricky proposition to say the least. They “add up all the histories that satisfy the no-boundary condition [described in the previous paragraph] and end at the universe we observe today….In this view, the universe appeared spontaneously, starting off in every possible way. Most of these correspond to other universes.” [!!!] Those other universes are “out there” so to speak, but they are not observable, even in principle, from this universe.
We do not know anything about the laws of nature that apply in those other universes, but there is no reason that they have to be similar to our own. There is a vast landscape of possible universes, but ones in which life like ours can exist must be quite rare. In fact, ours seems extremely fine tuned to make life possible. The authors conclude that this extreme fine tuning “can be explained by the existence of multiple universes.” We just happen to be in one where life is possible. This reasoning is sometimes called the “anthropic principle.” The existence of life does not require a designer because “a very simple set of laws can produce complex features similar to those of intelligent life.”
But why is there something rather than nothing? Well, “gravity shapes space and time [so] it allows space-time to be locally stable but globally unstable. On the scale of the entire universe, the positive energy of the matter can be balanced by the negative gravitational energy, and so there is no restriction on the creation of whole universes. Because there is a law like gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing….Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing….It is not necessary to invoke God to…set the universe going.” So there! The authors seem to answer the question of how the universe came to exist by saying that it was nothing special: it happens all the time—naturally.
The first three times I read this conclusion, something seemed very fishy to me. The authors seemed to assume that because they can treat a no-boundary condition mathematically, the beginning of the universe had to be just such an event, and to ask about what preceded that event is a “meaningless question.” But isn’t it also possible to describe mathematically a universe bounded by time? If so, the authors have not given an explanation that can claim to be unique. In fact, I think the authors’ ambitions were more modest: they had not attempted to provide a unique or necessary account or the origin of the universe. Rather, they attempted (and I think succeeded) to show that their account is plausible and sufficient. In so doing, they have argued cogently that it is not necessary to posit a pre-existing creator.
Evaluation: This book is written for a broad audience, including those who are mathematically illiterate. It contains no equations, although it does discuss probability amplitudes and the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. Nevertheless, it manages to elucidate some pretty recondite concepts. I recommend it highly for the scientifically and philosophically curious.