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.


wunelle said...

I've added it to my list.

I expected that something like your explanation was at root of what I agree was a very disappointing quote on the On Faith piece. Seemed very un-science.

I've been away from cosmological theories for a while; perhaps this will make a good re-introduction.

dbackdad said...

I've really been concentrating on setting aside more time to read lately. You and CK generally put me to shame in volume.

All of our local Borders' stores (actually all Borders stores) just went out of business and I've been using the opportunity to stock up. As if I didn't already have a huge backlog of things I need to read.

CyberKitten said...

I'm cutting back a bit at the moment. My bastard so-called 'friends' have got me into World of Warcraft!

dbackdad said...

What ... cutting back to "only" 6 books a week? :-)

Aren't friends great? I've successfully resisted WOW so far.

wunelle said...

I'm actually not very voracious. I read on commutes, and I've taken to listening to audiobooks on my long drives and daily walks. I also tend to read a few pages on the iPad over lunch, but I've been working on Chris Hedges' Death Of the Liberal Class for about three months (while tackling a few audiobooks in that time).

So let's not feel bad from my doings!

I do love the iPad tho for making it so easy to try things. I often pick up books at bookstores that end up being not terribly interesting, and I don't finish them. With the iPad I bet I've downloaded free samples of 20 things so far which I've rejected after a closer look (and as many or more that I've kept). I love a bookstore, but I also love laying in bed and flipping through the iBooks store too.

dbackdad said...

I am like you ... not very voracious. I believe I have been reading Naomi Klein's Shock Doctrine for almost two years. :-)

Some books I'll blast through in a couple of days.

I bought my wife a Kindle for her birthday a few days ago and all of us are using it a lot. We absolutely love it. It's kinda cool that we can check out digital books at our local library as well.

I will always love physical books, but I'm all in on the digital front as well. They are not mutually exclusive. I just love people that like to read. It means they are curious.