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.
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.
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.