BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

Notes on the Universe ...

I was very excited to “win” this book through the LibraryThing “Early Reviewers” program, as there were only a few copies in play and a vast lot of folks requesting it. Given that popular physics books are one of my favored genres, I wasn't particularly surprised, just very pleased that the L.T.E.R. “Almighty Algorithm” saw fit to match my library with this title (and I felt “special” getting a pre-publication ARC paperback). I don't know what I was expecting from Stephen Hawking (whose A Brief History of Time has become a classic on the Science shelves), but The Grand Design, (at first blush, at least) oddly enough, wasn't it.

This is certainly a different book, looking at laws, and models, and what might or might not appear as “design” (and what that could suggest), and Hawking (with his co-author Leonard Mlodinow) walks the reader from the star-watchers of the ancient world, to the earliest stirrings of the scientific worldview in the Ionian culture, where the first concept of physical “laws” (as we would think of them today) were formulated. Once one has “laws” one can use these to model reality … although the particular model one derives might be quite variant from the next guy's. An example is given of the world view of a goldfish in a round bowl … were the fish equipped for philosophic contemplation, they would notice that everything beyond their bowl appeared to move along curved paths, and from these observations formulate laws which would allow for models of reality which would be, within their context, sufficiently predictive. The first part of the book continues looking at how the various different “threads” of reality evolved over the past couple of thousand years, up till the modern era.

The next section of the book looks at experiments and theories that have come to provide the basis of the modeling which is moving towards the “theory of everything” … a vast lot of stuff is covered here, from the slit experiments which show the dual-nature of light (and other particles), and experiments which show what Einstein referred to “spooky action at a distance”, time within Relativity, and on through Quantum ElectroDynamics, Feynman diagrams, Quantum ChromoDynamics, the structure of subatomic particles and the forces involved, to get to “M-theory” with multi-dimensional structures and alternative universes.

Once I got through this part, I realized what was bothering me about this book. I have read many volumes on these subjects, individually and collectively, and what was showing up here was a skimming (albeit quite informative) overview of all these things. Obviously, were one to hit this book without the background I bring to it, this would likely be a “down the rabbithole” experience of strange (but true) scientific thought. Somehow, I guess I was expecting, being that this is by Stephen Hawking, something that was going to amaze me, and instead it was more of a “CliffsNotes” on a dozen or so books that I'd already read.

Hawking spends most of the rest of the book trying to fit various cosmological data in with the structure of “M-theory” which he appears to favor as a framework for an over-all model for reality (although, oddly enough, he's not sure where the M term came from … I'd always assumed it was the “membrane” of various “brane” models), which includes multiple universes, string theory, etc., etc., etc. Frankly, it seems to me that some of the “pulling together” here is a bit tenuous, almost as if Hawking was, faced with the continuing deterioration of his physical state, trying to force a unified theory out of the the available bits and pieces of advanced work currently being done. Here's the closing paragraph of the book:
M-theory is the unified theory Einstein was hoping to find. The fact that we human beings – who are ourselves mere collections of fundamental particles of nature – have been able to come this close to an understanding of the laws governing us and our universe is a great triumph. But perhaps the true miracle is that abstract considerations of logic lead to a unique theory that predicts and describes a vast universe full of the amazing variety that we see. If the theory is confirmed by observation, it will be the successful conclusion of a search going back more than 3,000 years. We will have found the grand design.
Of course, who am I to second-guess the likes of Hawking? I just felt that he gave a bit short-shrift to the multiverse theories and the related “Copenhagen interpretation” which suggests that all possible universes occur and that we're here simply because we couldn't exist in the vast majority of alternate universes (although he does certainly “go there”, but somewhat in passing in discussing a wide range of cosmological factors, noting that, within M-theory “there are probability amplitudes for perhaps as many as 10500 different internal spaces, each leading to different laws and values for the physical constants”), his discussion of this “Anthropic principle” is fairly brief, and primarily serves as a pivot into discussing stellar chemistry.

Again, if one hasn't read a wide array of material on the cutting edges of physics, The Grand Design is likely to be a “WOW!” experience for you. My disconnection with the book is due to there being very little “new” in here from what I've previously read (the experience was somewhat like that of reading a travel book about one's own city, interesting, but not necessarily eye-opening). However, taken on its own merits, it's an amazing book, especially given the sheer volume of discreet bits of scientific thought, historical as well as up-to-the-moment, crammed into a book that barely clocks in at 200 pages.

As this book is just out this month, all your local book vendors should have it (I'm writing this in a B&N Cafe, and there's a big display of the hardcover edition right up by the entrance!) but Amazon (at this writing) has it at a rather whopping 45% off, which is quite a deal (a few copies have surfaced in the "used" market, but at this point they're going for more than the new). I really did like this book, it was just that I was waiting form some "fabulous new thing" pay-off, which (given my interest in this area) it wasn't set-up to deliver. However, if you've not been paying attention to physics over the past decade or so, this will catch you up on quite a lot of what's been happening on the "cutting edge", as filtered through one of the great minds of the age!

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Tags: book review
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