Friday, 10 September 2010

The Grand Design – Stephen Hawking & Leonard Mlodinow ***

Stephen Hawking has a habit of making big promises in his books that aren’t entirely delivered. In A Brief History of Time, for example, he tells us he is going to answer questions like ‘What is the nature of time?’ (the name of the book is a bit of a giveaway), yet you can scour it from end to end and not find anything that tells you what time is or how it works. In this new book co-authored with physicist, author and Star Trek writer Leonard Mlodinow he promises even more. The subtitle is ‘new answers to the ultimate questions of life’. That’s a big promise.
Amongst the questions the authors give us are:
  • When and how did the universe begin?
  • Why are we here?
  • What is the nature of reality?
  • Did the universe need a creator?
Serious questions and ones that have mostly been traditionally in the hands of philosophers – but Hawking and Mlodinow tell us that philosophy is now dead. (And religion already was.) Science, it seems, can do it all now. Or can it? We’ll see.
This is what they call a lavishly produced book. Instead of the typical rough paper, it’s on shiny gloss paper, with very arty illustrations in full colour. Usually authors are closely involved in any illustrations, but I suspect some of these have been provided by an art director without consultation with a scientist. Just after we’ve read that a solar eclipse is visible ‘only in a corridor on the earth about 30 miles wide’ we get an illustration of an eclipse where the moon’s shadow is about 18,000 kilometres across. Oops. (Similarly the picture of a ball bouncing on a plane to illustrate the relativity of simultaneity totally misunderstands what it is supposed to show, and hence is baffling.)
But lavish production and a big name isn’t enough. We need results. How do the dynamic duo do against the promises? The book concentrates on the laws of nature and makes some dramatic observations. Along the way it provides effective brief introductions to relativity, to quantum theory and Feynman’s ‘sum over all paths’ approach to quantum behaviour, to M-theory and aspects of cosmology, particularly multiverse-based concepts. Introductions is the keyword in this particular aspect – I wouldn’t recommend the book to get a grounding in any of these topics, but the coverage is fine as it goes.
What is much more suspect is the big picture and big claims. Somehow, by slight of hand we get from Feynman’s brilliant approach of taking a sum over all paths for a quantum particle to taking the same approach with whole universe – but without ever explaining how it can be applied on this scale when it doesn’t appear to apply to everyday objects around us (otherwise we should be able to get interference doing a twin slit experiment with footballs, for example). Frequently, theories that are only held by a part of the physics/cosmology community are stated as if they are facts. Susan Greenfield called Hawking’s approach Taliban-like – there are places where this book is physics by decree.
In reality, despite the claims, the book really doesn’t address philosophical questions – and certainly doesn’t dispose of the need for philosophy. Similarly, the attempts to dispose of ‘the need for God’ are sophistry. The book argues that because of the nature of quantum reality the universe could emerge on its own. But there is no attempt to explain where the underlying principle, the quantum theory that brings the other physical laws into being, comes from. All the authors do, if the tenuous ideas they put forward as near-fact are true, is push things back a level.
Fundamentally, then, this is an unsatisfying book that doesn’t do what it says on the tin. It’s very pretty, and does present some basics of physics and cosmology well, but the cod-philosophical wrapping and the vague-theory-presented-as-fact approach mean that it does more harm than good.
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Review by Brian Clegg

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