Stephen Hawking

Mar 28, 2013

The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow

Book cover for THE GRAND DESIGN by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow
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The Grand Design aims to give readers a basic understanding of physics so they can then understand how physicists and cosmologists are answering—or at least trying to answer—some of the world’s biggest and most confusing questions.

Sometimes Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow accomplish what they’ve set out to do. They throw in an amusing historical fact to keep you interested in dry material, use basic and familiar concepts to make more difficult ones approachable, and they mostly write in a clear and concise fashion. Unfortunately, other parts of the book are bogged down by the overuse of less familiar terms or, worse, acronyms.

Hawking and Mlodinow Know Physics, but Do they Know Everything?

This isn’t purely an informational text. It’s also an argument. Hawking and Mlodinow attempt to show how the physical laws of the universe make it so that a creator, a god, is not necessary for our existence. From a technical standpoint, they argue, everything we know can and has come from nothing. Gods, therefore, are entirely irrelevant. Moreover, there are many worlds out there, some not so different from our own, so it only stands to reason that at least one, at least ours, has supported intelligent life (or mostly intelligent, anyway) at random.

As you might suspect, this idea causes controversy in some circles because it leaves little room for more literal interpretations in religion. As such, whether Hawking and Mlodinow convince you that we exist thanks to nothing and no one probably depends on whether you enter into the book as a deeply religious person or as an agnostic/atheist. That’s just the way of things. Personally, I’m holding out for the computer simulation theory because it would be hilarious.

ReBoot!

If you get this reference, I love you.

My biggest complaint with The Grand Design is its lack of source material. As much as I admire Hawking and Mlodinow and don’t at all doubt they know what they’re talking about when it comes to physics, I expect a bibliography if they’re going to talk about subjects outside of their fields (as they do). You have no idea where they get some of their historical information, and this isn’t solely a book of their theories for them not to cite sources. I expect unsourced statements from Wikipedia or in an essay written by a hungover college student (sometimes one in the same), not from a book written by some of the most respected scientists of our time. At the very least, there should be a “further reading” section.

The Grand Design is a pretty good read, but it didn’t impress me as much as I expected it to, and not merely because of a few muddled explanations or the absent bibliography. Interestingly, many of the newest, most cutting-edge theories discussed in this book were ones I was already very familiar with by way of science news articles. Whether that’s testament to Hawking and Mlodinow or the media’s growing interest in our universe, or even my own nerdiness, I’m not sure. What I got from this book was a more stable foundation with which to better understand some of the theories I read about, but it’s only a starting point, and I can’t help but think there are better “basics” books out there.

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Quotes from The Grand Design

In 1992 the Roman Catholic Church finally acknowledged that it had been wrong to condemn Galileo.

The laws of M-theory therefore allow for different universes with different apparent laws, depending on how the internal space is curled.

One thing that may have been apparent even in early times was that either the universe was a very recent creation or else human beings have existed for only a small fraction of cosmic history. That’s because the human race has been improving so rapidly in knowledge and technology that if people had been around for millions of years, the human race would be much further along in its mastery.

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