Book review – The Grand Design

By Peter Dearden 22/03/2011

The Grand Design – by Stephen Hawking & Leonard Mlodinow


Reviewed by SM Morgan.

I love it when things are so profound, so amazing that they bend your mind. Things so great and incomprehensible that you just stare, slack jawed into the ether whilst the gears in your brain frantically try to process the new thought, sight, theory or fact.

I call this state mind blow. And indeed, to quote from an expert: ’Good luck getting your mind un-blown!’ (Sheldon – you knew that).

I am struck with this mind state far less often that I would like — I love finding out new things. Truly amazing, beautiful, wondorous new things. Or seeing something you have always known, in a completely, crazy new light.

Imagine, for a moment, a phylogenetic tree. This is a tree-like diagram used by evolutionary biologists to show the lineage of species back through time. The tree shows points where common ancestors converge and the relationships between vastly different current species are shown to be cousin-like in nature – if you trace back far enough. These trees are made with computer programs and mathematical equations of probability from data like mitochondrial gene sequences.

Simple tree example
Figure 1. A simplified phylogenetic tree.

For a broad example, the last common ancestor of species A and B, in Figure 1, can be calculated to fall between 40 and 52 mya. This is totally acceptable for an estimate and further knowledge can be sought using this tentative age. Read it again though — between 40 and 52 million years ago. Try and imagine for a second the number of years since the current calendar started counting — two thousand and eleven years ago. Now picture, if you can, one million years. Now note that there is a difference of 12 million years within the estimated age range. 12 million years difference, at least 40 million years ago. That is one massive, massive time scale. It blows my mind to think about the time since common ancestry between species existed.

My most recent mindblow experience came as I read Stephen Hawking’s (and Leonard Mlodinow’s) new book, The Grand Design. This is Hawking’s first book in a decade and luckily – it’s not too long, and it took me only two days to finish (with massive sewing breaks), but I think it could comfortably be done in one. With several pots of tea, of course.

The book is a complete delight to read. I shall admit, to my shame, it being the first of his works that I have opened, but it was full of dry wit and droll quips. I never would have imagined him to be such a funny fellow, and none of the ‘official’ book reviews say anything about this element of the book. There was a lot of (unnecessary) fuss and bother about the book’s release and how Hawking was giving the finger to theists and the concept of intelligent design. One particular sentence was taken from the last chapter of the book as proof of his ungodliness and I find the fuss made completely out of context — and completely irrelevant.

The book itself is quite beautifully illustrated (Peter Bollinger and cartoons by Sydney Harris). Chapters are begun with a beautiful rendition of some topic covered in the chapter, incorporating the nautilus spiral, most often with great subtlety. The concepts within each chapter are illustrated with beautiful artwork, rather than stark diagrams. Think ‘artists rendition’ of stereotypical black and white scientific diagrams. Quite lovely.

Figure 2. The Nautilus shell shape.

Hawking discusses the concept of reality in the beginning of the book and how our view of reality might be different to that of a goldfish restricted to a single spherical bowl — but both views of reality are valid, and any laws calculated from within those realities, are accurate for situations also measured within. He runs through the basic natural laws and discusses how they are laws only up to a certain point — introduce extraneous circumstances to the situation and the rules need to be changed. This is relevant at a quantum level for example — the theory of gravity, becomes the theory of general relativity, with the delightful spacetime inclusion.

So — the book is short enough to imagine being able to wade through it, nary an equation is written, except in cartoons, and the dry wit and simple language makes it a complete delight to read. Do it.

0 Responses to “Book review – The Grand Design”

  • Portland, Oregon 31 March 2011
    I agree that Professor Hawking, collaborating with Professor Mlodinow, has given everyone interested in an accessible, profoundly significant text, accented by some wry wit, that will seize the attention of serious readers about the structures/dynamics of space, time and matter worldwide! Yes, the book is surprisingly short; however, the intellectual (and emotional) impact/s will be felt for an indefinite period. I savored the nautilus images by Mr. Bollinger, by themselves worth reaching for this book. May I add that I am still quaking in my proverbial boots since I had the chance to attend a presentation by Mr. Hawking here several years ago. What a phenomenal man: he radiates wisdom, insight and a true explorer’s search for what matters — the pun accidental but one he might find amusing. With luck we will hear/read more from a man of the caliber of Einstein,aptly quoted on p. 87: “The most incompre-
    hensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.” Mr. Hawking, devoid of arrogance, comprehends it. F. G. R.

  • “Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist.”
    – Stephen Hawking in “The Grand Design”
    “As recent advances in cosmology suggest, the laws of gravity and quantum theory allow universes to appear spontaneously from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.”
    – Stephen Hawking in the same book.

    Here three questions can be asked:
    1) Which one came first, universe, or laws of gravity and quantum theory?
    2) If the universe came first, then how was there spontaneous creation without the laws of gravity and quantum theory?
    3) If the laws of gravity and quantum theory came first, then Hawking has merely substituted God with quantum theory and laws of gravity. These two together can be called Hawking’s “Unconscious God”. Therefore we can legitimately ask the question: Who, or what, created Hawking’s unconscious God?
    Not only this, but there are other problems also. If the laws of gravity and quantum theory allow universes spontaneously appearing from nothing, then initially there was nothing. Then wherefrom appear those laws of gravity and quantum theory to allow universes appearing spontaneously from nothing? In which container were those two laws of nature?
    Now regarding the M-theory: I have already written something on multiverse theory in Bengali. There I have come to the conclusion that if there are an infinite number of universes, then only within that infinite number of universes there will definitely be at least one universe in which life will emerge. If the number of universes is only 10 to the power 500, then it is very much unlikely that any one of them will support life, because no universe will know which set of values the other universes have already taken, and if everything is left on chance, then there is every probability that all the universes will take only those set of values that will not support life. There will be no mechanism that will prevent any universe from taking the same set of values that have already been taken by other universes. There will be no mechanism that will take an overview of all the universes already generated, and seeing that in none of them life has actually emerged will move the things in such a way that at least one universe going to be generated afterwards will definitely get the value of the parameters just right for the emergence of life. Only in case of an infinite number of universes this problem will not be there. This is because if we subtract 10 to the power 500 from infinity, then also we will get infinity. If we subtract infinity from infinity, still then we will be left with infinity. So we are always left with an infinite number of universes out of which in at least one universe life will definitely emerge. Therefore if M-theory shows that it can possibly have 10 to the power 500 number of solutions, and thus there might be 10 to the power 500 number of universes in each of which physical laws would be different, then it is really a poor theory, because it cannot give us any assurance that life will certainly emerge in at least one universe. So instead of M-theory we need another theory that will actually have an infinite number of solutions.