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Book Review: The Grand Design: New Answers to the Ultimate Questions of Life by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow

The Grand Design is not really a book for those that obtain their scientific information from peer reviewed scientific journals. It isn’t a breakthrough so much as an explanation for the non-physicist, and a beautifully presented one at that. For those, like me, who felt the ground beneath their feet move after reading A Brief History of Time, and Black Holes and Baby Universes and Other Essays, The Grand Design won’t disappoint. As with its predecessors, the book is written in clear, simple, but never condescending language.

The authors never make the assumption that the reader is intellectually disabled due to a lack of mathematical or scientific knowledge. Instead the reader is invited into the inner-circle – to begin contemplating the same questions, with the same (quantum) quirks and issues, as those who spend their lives steeped in cosmology and quantum physics. The excitement and almost childlike joy that the authors have in their subject matter is infectious. The book presents a cumulative, historical perspective, moving from Greek philosophy through alternative pictures of reality, to early quantum mechanics, to current cosmological theories, bringing the reader to speed, before providing the denouement.

The Grand Design is printed on thick, glossy paper, with stitched binding, and full colour artwork, photography, diagrams and cartoons, making it an appealing artefact in and of itself. The text is further lightened by quotations, anecdotes and a number of accessible analogies to help make the concepts clear. The book presents its evidence using simple words and logic, with no jargon and no mathematics (there’s a basic glossary at the back, but all terms are explained as they appear). However, the book still demands clarity and deep thought from the reader – and perhaps the ability to get outside one’s own skin – to see a bigger picture than here and now:

“Because gravity shapes space and time, 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.” (180)

The overarching premise of The Grand Design is that the universe we perceive is merely one of many, and that the best, most scientifically provable theory to describe these is M-theory. I’m not a physicist, so my understanding of M-theory is poetic, rather than mathematical, but Hawking and Mlodinow do an excellent job of explaining this rather oblique theory and making it appear reasonably plausible and even evocative. Using the term “model-dependent realism,” the authors posit that we are limited in our perspective because the reality we’re testing is different depending on where we’re standing and the models that we create of the world – models that create a reality of their own. Nevertheless, and I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say this, the ultimate message from this book is that M-theory is not only the ‘theory of everything’ that Einstein and many others spent their lives in search of, but that it’s the only solution that works as a good scientific model, e.g., is elegant, contains few arbitrary elements, agrees with all existing observations, and makes provable predictions.

M-theory itself is used to show how a “brane” universe can create itself out of nothing. Whether or not you accept this may depend on how much it matters to you and whether this conflicts with some other theory (including that of a human styled divinity) that may have been working for you most of your life. From what I’ve been able to glean, much of the criticism of this book comes from either those who have spent their lives working in this area, or those to whom a theory like this poses a personal threat. From a practical point of view, for the layman to whom the book appears to have been written, it probably doesn’t matter one bit whether the “truth” lies with M-theory or a theory of stacked turtles. However, the spare beauty and at times raucous wit that strikes me as very Hawking-like, can’t be denied, nor, to me at least, can we discard the elegance of a theory that posits something so elegant as supersymmetry between forces of nature, uniting general relativity/gravity with quantum physics.

About Magdalena Ball

Magdalena Ball is the author of the novels Black Cow and Sleep Before Evening, the poetry books Repulsion Thrust and Quark Soup, a nonfiction book The Art of Assessment, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Sublime Planet, Deeper Into the Pond, Blooming Red, Cherished Pulse, She Wore Emerald Then, and Imagining the Future. She also runs a radio show, The Compulsive Reader Talks. Find out more about Magdalena at www.magdalenaball.com.
  • http://www.iampleasant.com Pleasant

    Simplicity is what I liked in the book. But I found the first part more entertaining than the second. The brane concept though bizarre is still interesting. But I think the universe will be more elegant without extra dimensions and multiverses.

  • http://www.suprarational.org Ron Krumpos

    In “The Grand Design” Hawking says that we are somewhat like goldfish in a curved fishbowl. Our perceptions are limited and warped by the kind of lenses we see through, “the interpretive structure of our human brains.” Albert Einstein rejected this subjective approach, common to much of quantum mechanics, but did admit that our view of reality is distorted.

    Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity has the surprising consequences that “the same event, when viewed from inertial systems in motion with respect to each other, will seem to occur at different times, bodies will measure out at different lengths, and clocks will run at different speeds.” Light does travel in a curve, due to the gravity of matter, thereby distorting views from each perspective in this Universe. Similarly, mystics’ experience in divine oneness, which might be considered the same “eternal” event, viewed from various historical, cultural and personal perspectives, have occurred with different frequencies, degrees of realization and durations. This might help to explain the diversity in the expressions or reports of that spiritual awareness. What is seen is the same; it is the “seeing” which differs.

    In some sciences, all existence is described as matter or energy. In some of mysticism, only consciousness exists. Dark matter is 25%, and dark energy about 70%, of the critical density of this Universe. Divine essence, also not visible, emanates and sustains universal matter (mass/energy: visible/dark) and cosmic consciousness (f(x) raised to its greatest power). During suprarational consciousness, and beyond, mystics share in that essence to varying extents. [quoted from http://www.suprarational.org on comparative mysticism]