[Book Review] The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking

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Introduction

There was once a time where science and gods flourish together, perhaps not in harmony, but individuals devoting themselves to either fields are held in high regard. Boundaries were set: scriptures don’t talk about exact quantitative values of the physical world as we know from science, science don’t delve into the existential matters of gods, belief systems, and sacred texts.

We have came a long way since then. Hawking and Mlodinow are here to talk about more than just physics. They want to show that how theoretical physics, seemingly lacking in meaningful depth and practical applications, can help us shed light on our ultimate answers for some of the hardest questions of mankind.

Why is there an universe?

Why is the universe the way it is?

Why are we here?

Why does the universe have laws?

Why something exists instead of nothing?

To be honest, I was not expecting a conversation about gods in general as I always thought Hawking to be more of an apatheist or pantheist. On the other hand, I am not familar with Leonard Mlodinow works. In fact, this is the first popular science book that I picked up in a long time (since the encyclopedias when I was much younger….and high school texts don’t count). I was merely expecting the book to be about the big bang, string theory, multiverses, quantum mechanics and so on. The list of long tough words that a psychology major can not normally comprehend, and hopefully without the equations reminiscent of ancient runic patterns.

Turns out there were more than that to it. Coming from a psychology background, what caught my eye the most was the amount of mention about human perceptions, behavior, and neuroscience, in relation to philosophical matters about reality and nature. This includes the history and development of scientific thought: from primitive gods that embodies phenomenon that our ancestors were not able to comprehend, to the recognition of laws within the universe, to developing methodologies that help mankind recognize truths and model dependent realism. This is easily my favorite part of the book: it starts by acknowledging that our acknowledgement of reality and nature are psychological in nature and full of human errors, and proposes the ways we could to minimize errors about reality. 

After that, the books starts venturing into the real goods, most prominently the rise of quantum theory and its relation to classical physics, that our universe does not have a single history, that time and space are deeply intertwined to the point that they are one, that something can indeed come from nothing, that our universe is unlikely to be intelligently designed, and the disappointing answer that the search for a single theory of everything was not a success. The book concluded that most theories proposed and accepted could not extend to every aspect of the universe and failed to make predictions on different levels, but a model dependent realism can get us as close as possible. By uniting theories and adjusting them into a single mysterious model, currently labeled as the M-Theory. If successfully backed with empirical observation, the writers concluded that “We will have found the grand design.”.

What I Enjoyed

The book wasn’t difficult to comprehend. It is short and uses concise language, and has interesting everyday examples, like how cosmic microwave background radiation (radiation left over from the extremely hot early universe right after the big bang, the hand of god) can be observed by tuning television to an unused channel: some of the snow are caused by it.

I have to admit that the second half of the book became a little tedious to read. The writers were extremely into giving a literature review about the development of modern physics that it became very reminiscent of physics classes at college level: “Remember what we said in class last week? That was all wrong!”. It is true that using a bottom-up approach helps gives readers a better and more accurate overview of the development, but as a layperson (I can comprehend theoretical physics only because I took a course on Coursera), I would have preferred the conclusions first, followed by the methods others took to get there. Every time I encountered new concepts in the book I often pause and take time to digest it, only to flip the page and find out that it was no necessary because it had failed and has been improvised. What a kick on the balls…  

Last but not least, I really enjoyed the conversations about gods. Although few chapters in I could establish that both writers are not at all religious, their writing tone was pretty neutral and focused on the science and explanations rather than attacking religion. I can imagine that both writers may have been snide when remarking on the adjustments of religions and the apologetic nature of divine faith. The fact that our knowledge about physics can be invoked to answer the toughest questions of life, that something can actually come from nothing, without having to resort to using god (again). Now that’s something, right there.

Recommendations

Overall, I rate this book 7.5/10 as a whole. Could have done better in the explanation about quantum mechanics and used better analogies. It has to be noted that a decent understanding of sciences is needed to even comprehend the writings. I would recommend this to those who are interested in a mix of modern physics and philosophy of mind, and above all interested in honest answers about the origins of our being and universe, and could see meaning in existence without a divine being. However, if one is already an avid pop science reader, I imagine there are better books out there, unless if one is interested in the philosophy surrounding metaphysical questions.

Oh, and it has one line saying philosophy is dead, while continuing to be philosophical nearing the end of the book. I thought that was an interesting statement. I can imagine people getting riled up at that, but it probably refers to the fact that philosophy on its own and as a profession is no longer relevant to the world. It doesn’t mean: ignore philosophy, its pointless. If anything, it is the only field that can tell us what is meaningful.

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