Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Book Review: The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking

I have to admit, I was more than a bit miffed at one of my favorite scientists, Stephen Hawking, after reading a quote on God attributed to him recently,

"I am not claiming there is no God. The scientific account is complete, but it does not predict human behaviour, because there are too many equations to solve. One therefore uses a different model, which can include free will and God."

Now, I don't want to give the wrong impression. Complete agreement with those I admire is not a requirement. There are several political points that I fundamentally disagree with Christopher Hitchens on, but those beliefs of his are consistent with his own logic. I'm OK with that. He's otherwise brilliant and one of my favorite writers and thinkers. Hawking's the same for me. The above quote, however, seemed to go contrary to everything I knew of Hawking. And after reading The Grand Design, I have to feel that the quote was misleading or taken out of context. I realized quite early that my reservations about Hawking's quote were probably unfounded when I saw this in the first chapter,

" ... this book is rooted in the concept of scientific determinism which implies … that there are no miracles, or exceptions to the laws of nature"

Continuing on, The Grand Design serves as a good recap of the history of physics and scientific thought ranging from Kepler and Descartes to Newton and Laplace:

"It is Laplace who is usually credited with first clearly postulating scientific determinism: Given the state of the universe at one time, a complete set of laws fully determines both the future and the past. This would exclude the possibility of miracles or an active role for God. The scientific determinism that Laplace formulated is the modern scientist’s answer to question two. It is, in fact, the basis of all modern, and a principle that is important throughout this book. A scientific law is not a scientific law if it holds only when some supernatural being decides not to intervene. Recognizing this, Napoleon is said to have asked Laplace how God fit into this picture. Laplace replied: ―Sire, I have not needed that hypothesis.""

And we don't need it either. The Grand Design (co-written by Leonard Mlodinow) is quite a beautiful book with color artwork and photography. Far from being some dry, technical tome stretching for a thousand pages, the book is a quick moving refresher on the drive to unify the various theories of physics (gravity, electromagnetic, etc.) into one Grand Unified Theory. Besides being probably impossible, it is also untestable within our current level of understanding. But it doesn't stop people from trying. Clocking in at 180 pages, you can polish off The Grand Design in a night. There is no math and just a few Feynman Diagrams to wrap your noodle around.

Don't expect The Grand Design to provide in-depth explanations of the string theory and M-theory with mathematical proofs.  Hawking (and Mlodinow) assume the reader either already has a deeper understanding or doesn't need one.  I come somewhere in between.  I have read much deeper explanations in some of Hawking's other books and by other scientists.  But, I would be lying if I said that I completely understood them.  I don't think (and Hawking as well) that it's required to get the gist of the concepts.  The supposition, however, did give me a little pause because Hawking seems to want to wrap up M-theory as the Ultimate Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything. You're just flying along in this short book, getting whisked from the microscopic to the unbelievably humongous and all of a sudden you end up at M-theory ... answer to everything ... The End. I couldn't help getting the feeling that a few steps were skipped and that Hawking might be a little presumptuous to say that it is "the" answer.

There are other books of this nature that give an overview of modern theory. I read Brian Greene's The Elegant Universe not too long ago, just to name one. New theoretical ground is not broken in The Grand Design, and that is probably just as well, as most normal people like us wouldn't understand it. I certainly wouldn't. Science geeks are not the only ones that will get something from the book as philosophical concepts such as the anthropic principle are discussed as well. When you are getting into the field of extra dimensions, it's really approaching philosophy. Perhaps not coincidentally, scientists used to be called natural philosophers. Anyway, if you are curious about how the universe works ... or if you are just curious, The Grand Design is not a bad starting point.

Monday, September 05, 2011

Movie Review: Rise of the Planet of the Apes

My lack of movie and book reviews is not from a lack of viewing, or reading, but rather from laziness. It's time to play catch-up. I'll start with the most recent and will try to work my way backwards, one a day.

I just saw Rise of the Planet of the Apes late last night. It's nothing special but holds that elevated position of being science fiction, and as such, has to try harder to disappoint me. Because, as I've said ad nauseum, even the worst science fiction still has something to say. Where they fail in execution, they make up for in effort.

In effectively establishing how the "Planet of the Apes" came to be, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is useful. The movie's premise: development of a potential Alzheimer's cure has led to primate testing. Unintended, and unexpected, the cure (in the form of a controlled virus) actually enhances cognitive ability of the test subjects.

The virus establishes both how the primates get their intelligence and how the humans are decimated and subjugated (it appears to kill humans). The launch of a Mars mission and its subsequent loss establishes how human astronauts may, in the future, return to a vastly changed world. In their care for setting these things up, it is obvious that the filmmakers intend on making more movies (as if there was any question). It's all about the benjamins, baby.

The special effects of the primates are very good, from a technical standpoint, but are most obviously aided by the unique motion capture talents of Andy Serkis. Serkis, whose genius has been witnessed in Lord of the Rings (as Gollum) and King Kong, gives a humanity to Caesar without anthropomorphizing him. Serkis is truly a unique actor whose actual role is both hard to describe and quantify, but whose skill is obvious on screen. He is a normal actor as well, with roles in 13 Going on 30 and other films, but it was through Lord of the Rings and a position that was given larger significance because of his talent in motion capture. He'd actually do every scene both in studio for motion capture and on location for the benefit of the actors acting opposite Gollum.

The acting is nothing special, despite having some great actors in it, including Franco (as scientist Will Rodman), John Lithgow, and Brian Cox. Lithgow is really the only one that gets to show his chops. He plays Rodman's father, who is suffering from Alzheimer's, and who is Rodman's motivation for developing a cure. Freida Pinto, despite being gorgeous, does nothing to show her acting ability. I thought she was very good in Slumdog Millionaire, but she either does not get the opportunity to show her ability here, or fails to take advantage of the chances she does get. The script doesn't really give her a purpose.

Where I believe that Rise of the Planet of the Apes does itself credit is in its treatment of the role of science and ethics. It's like that quote by the Jeff Goldblum character in Jurassic Park:

"Don't you see the danger ... inherent in what you're doing here? Genetic power is the most awesome force the planet's ever seen, but you wield it like a kid that's found his dad's gun ... I'll tell you the problem with the scientific power you're using here: it didn't require any discipline to attain it. You read what others had done, and you took the next step. You didn't earn the knowledge for yourselves, so you don't take any responsibility for it. You stood on the shoulders of geniuses to accomplish something as fast as you could, and before you even knew what you had, you, you've patented it, and packaged it, you've slapped it on a plastic lunchbox, and now you're selling it ... your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could that they didn't stop to think if they should."

While it is admirable to be thinking of a cure for Alzheimer's, we have to be aware of the unintended consequences.

If I have a criticism of the movie, it is in its moral stance of the James Franco character. He seems happy, or at least content, that his pet/friend Caesar gains his freedom, which is fine. But he seems unconcerned that what has ultimately led to the intelligence leap of the primates is also the virus that will virtually wipe out the human race. No time is spent to examine whether he has any concerns of this. He is complicit in wiping out humanity. But, I guess, at the end of the movie, he doesn't yet realize the pandemic that has started. Hopefully, it's something that will be addressed in a future movie.

Anyway, not a bad way to spend a couple of hours. Grade: B-