The Grand Design is a physics book that leads from antiquity to today, when a group of overlapping models called M-theory may be the unified theory of everything – though not as easy to write down as E=mc^2. “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.”
Stephen Hawking is, of course, a famous professor of mathematics and physics. His co-author Leonard Mlodinow is also a theoretical physicist who has written for Star Trek: The Next Generation. This happy combination produced a book that is casual in tone, with helpful diagrams and nerdy cartoons. I don’t think Mlodinow is the sole source of the book’s approach, since Hawking has appeared in many popular TV shows, including recently on The Big Bang where his sense of self-deprecating humor is evident.
The history of physics is well known and you may wonder if yet another book will add to public understanding. Remember that Richard Feynman once wrote “nobody understands quantum mechanics.” This is because quantum effects are beyond most of our daily experiences. I know intuitively that if I drop a glass it will fall and that if I leave something in a locked room it will be there when I return because of my experience. But cosmic relativity and infinitesimal quantum actions seem unfathomable. Repeated exposure to physics helps and this book, in particular, I enjoyed.
Early on, the authors list existential questions, such as “did the universe need a creator?” and make a bold declaration: “Traditionally these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead… Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery.”
You’ll find familiar historical names such as Pythagoras, Descartes, Hume, Hubble, Maxwell, Kelvin, Einstein, and Heisenberg. While some physics terms are unavoidable – bosons carrying force between fermions, for example – the book avoids a heavy dose of jargon.
The story follows humanity’s efforts from concepts built on esthetics to science based on observation; from the fixed properties of classical science to “model-dependent realism, [where] it is pointless to ask whether a model is real, only whether it agrees with observation.”
If two models agree with observation equally well, “one can use whichever model is more convenient.” This offers an unusual perspective. Ptolemy modeled the solar system with the Earth at the center and Copernicus modeled it with the sun at the center. People say “that Copernicus proved Ptolemy wrong, but that is not true.” Our observations of the heavens can be modeled either way. “The real advantage of the Copernican system is simply that the equations of motion are much simpler.”
The topics covered will sound familiar if you’ve read other popular physics books: the double slit experiment, Feynman diagrams, string theory, anthropic principle, multiverses, the Big Bang and why asking what came before it is like asking what’s south of the South Pole. And Hawking’s favored M-theory.
The pleasure is in the presentation, so I recommend you read the book for yourself. It’s short, unintimidating, and worth your time.
Of course, Hawking may be wrong. Keep in mind that quantum physics is an active field and Hawking isn’t the world’s only prominent physicist. Richard Penrose, emeritus professor of mathematics, has differing views. I’m not competent to critique Hawking’s physics and, alas, have no personal anecdotes of debating him, so take a look here.