Skip to main content

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.

Paperback:  

Kindle:  
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Magicians - Marcus Chown *****

The title may seem an odd one for a popular science book, but it refers to what Chown describes as ‘the central magic of science: its ability to predict the existence of things previously undreamt of which, when people went out and looked for them, turned out to actually exist in the real universe’. That may be true of all branches of science, but physics – which is what the book is about – is a special case, because its theories are rooted in mathematical equations rather than words. This makes the matter completely black-and-white: if the equations predict something you had no inkling of, then either the maths is wrong, or that thing really does exist. This book describes some remarkable instances where the maths was right.

Actually, I’m not sure the title is strictly accurate. It’s true that it centres on people – both the theoreticians who came up with the predictions and the experimentalists who proved them right – but in most cases the ‘magic’ is something the human players simpl…

Infinity Plus: Quintet (SF) - Keith Brooke (Ed.) ****

When I was younger there was nothing I liked better than a good, deep, dark (frankly, often downright miserable) science fiction story, and this collection delivers excellent modern examples that would have fit easily into a thoughtful if downbeat 70s collection such as the 'New Writing in SF' or the Interzone magazine of the day (one was actually first published in Interzone, in 1987 - the rest date between 1989 and 2010).

If I'm honest, I prefer more upbeat fiction now, but that doesn't stop me appreciating the quality of these five stories, put together by the SF website and publisher Infinity Plus. I've rarely seen a better contradiction of Margaret Atwood's putdown of science fiction as being limited to 'talking squids in outer space.' What we have here is pure character-driven storytelling with not a mention of space, spaceships, ray guns or aliens. It's the inner world, not the outer trappings of sci fi tropes that interest these writers.

On…

Until the End of Time: Brian Greene ***

Things start well with this latest title from Brian Greene: after a bit of introductory woffle we get into an interesting introduction to entropy. As always with Greene's writing, this is readable, chatty and full of little side facts and stories. Unfortunately, for me, the book then suffers something of an increase in entropy itself as on the whole it then veers more into philosophy and the soft sciences than Greene's usual physics and cosmology.

So, we get chapters on consciousness, language, belief and religion, instinct and creativity, duration and impermanence, the ends of time and, most cringe-making as a title, 'the nobility of being'. Unlike the dazzling scientific presentation I expect, this mostly comes across as fairly shallow amateur philosophising.

Of course it's perfectly possible to write good science books on, say, consciousness or language - but though Greene touches on the science, there far too much that's more hand-waving. And good though he i…