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Grand Design

Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow's book The Grand Design is a fast-reading general-audiences discussion of modern physics. It's rather off-putting, however, in its dismissal of philosophy on the first page when, introducing questions surrounding existence and the universe, the authors pronounce, "Traditionally these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics. Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge. ..."

Well, no one said physicists suffer from low self-esteem! Hawking and Mlodinow are confident that humanity's current understanding of Nature is essentially complete, and all that is left is a bit of filling in details. Many scientists have said so in years past. All have been wrong. Perhaps the end of scientific discovery is near, but I wouldn't bet on it. More likely something new will turn up in an experiment or an observation within the next decade and all bets will be off yet again.

Grand Design is reasonably well-written but the prose is far from poetic. A rather striking stylistic break happens around the midpoint (Chapter 5) after which dry humor begins to appear every few pages. Based on the jokes that Stephen Hawking loved to make in the mid-1970s when he was a visiting scholar at Caltech (I was a grad student in the astrophysics/relativity group there at the time) my suspicion is that Hawking wrote most of the second half of the book, and Mlodinow mainly did the first half in which the asides are less evident. Maybe I'm wrong.

A major conclusion of the book is nicely stated at the end of Chapter 6:

We seem to be at a critical point in the history of science, in which we must alter our conception of goals and of what makes a physical theory acceptable. It appears that the fundamental numbers, and even the form, of the apparent laws of nature, are not demanded by logic or physical principle. The parameters are free to take on many values and the laws to take on any form that leads to a self-consistent mathematical theory, and they do take of different values and different forms in different universes. That may not satisfy our human desire to be special or to discover a neat package to contain all the laws of physics, but it does seem to be the way of nature.

Hmmmm. like most things involving cosmology, I'd give that judgment a definite "maybe" ...

(cf. OnSomethingness (2000-01-17), AntiAnthropism (2000-05-26), No Concepts At All (2001-02-22), Standard Model (2008-09-06), ,..) - ^z - 2010-11-26