A review of The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking & Leonard Mlodinow

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

The Grand Design
New Answers to the Ultimate Questions of Life
Stephen Hawking & Leonard Mlodinow
Bantam Press
ISBN: 9780593058305, September 2010, aud$32.95, trade paper

The Grand Design is not really a book for those that obtain their scientific information from peer reviewed scientific journals. It isn’t a breakthrough so much as an explanation for the non-physicist, and a beautifully presented one at that. For those, like me, who felt the ground beneath their feet move after reading A Brief History of Time, and Black Holes and Baby Universes and Other Essays, The Grand Design won’t disappoint. As with its predecessors, the book is written is clear, simple, but never condescending language. The authors never make the assumption that the reader is intellectually disabled due to a lack of mathematical or scientific knowledge. Instead the reader is invited into the inner-circle – to begin contemplating the same questions, with the same (quantum) quirks and issues, as those who spend their lives steeped in cosmology and quantum physics. The excitement and almost childlike joy that the authors have in their subject matter is infectious. The book presents a cumulative, historical perspective, moving from Greek philosophy through alternative pictures of reality, to early quantum mechanics, to current cosmological theories, bringing the reader to speed, before providing the denouement.

The book is printed on thick, glossy paper, with stitched binding, and full colour artwork, photography, diagrams and cartoons, making it an appealing artefact in and of itself. The text is further lightened by quotations, anecdotes and a number of accessible analogies to help make the concepts clear. The book presents its evidence using simple words and logic, with no jargon and no mathematics (there’s a basic glossary at the back, but all terms are explained as they appear). However, the book still demands clarity and deep thought from the reader – and perhaps the ability to get outside one’s own skin – to see a bigger picture than here and now:

Because gravity shapes space and time, it allows space-time to be locally stable but globally unstable. On the scale of the entire universe, the positive energy of the matter can be balanced by the negative gravitational energy, and so there is no restriction on the creation of whole universes. (180)

The overarching premise of The Grand Design is that the universe we perceive is merely one of many, and that the best, most scientifically provable theory to describe these is M-theory. I’m not a physicist, so my understanding of M-theory is poetic, rather than mathematical, but Hawking and Mlodinow do an excellent job of explaining this rather oblique theory and making it appear reasonably plausible and even evocative. Using the term “model-dependent realism”, the authors posit that we are limited in our perspective because the reality we’re testing is different depending on where we’re standing and the models that we create of the world – models that create a reality of their own. Nevertheless, and I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say this, the ultimate message from this book is that M-theory is not only the ‘theory of everything’ that Einstein and many others spent their lives in search of, but that it’s the only solution that works as a good scientific model, eg is elegant, contains few arbitrary elements, agrees with all existing observations, and makes provable predictions. M-theory itself is used to show how a ‘brane’ universe can create itself out of nothing. Whether or not you accept this may depend on how much it matters to you and whether this conflicts with some other theory (including that of a human styled divinity) that may have been working for you most of your life. From what I’ve been able to glean, much of the criticism of this book comes from either those who have spent their lives working in this area, or those to whom a theory like this poses a personal threat. From a practical point of view, for the layman to whom the book appears to have been written, it probably doesn’t matter one bit whether the ‘truth’ lies with M-theory or a theory of stacked turtles. However, the spare beauty and at times raucous wit that strikes me as very Hawking-like, can’t be denied, nor, to me at least, can we discard the elegance of a theory that posits something so elegant as supersymmetry between forces of nature, uniting general relativity/gravity with quantum physics.

If I understand correctly, and it’s more than likely that I don’t, this is a book that doesn’t provide all the answers any more than Douglas Adam’s 42 – a joke that the authors nod to at the start. After all, no matter how good the maths, there’s really no material way to move beyond the theoretical when it comes to universe sized membranes – we’re trapped in our universe or our relative positions, and that’s that (though who knows what the future will bring – superpartners and squarks are yawning at the horizon). But what it does do is to open a door to the non-physicist that was previously kept closed, allowing us to perceive, at a surprisingly high level, a macro perspective on the universe we live in that is reasonably scientifically acceptable. That’s good enough for me, especially when presented in such an aesthetically pleasing, and intellectually stimulating form. If Hawking and Mlodinow are proved to be utterly wrong within the next decade, then I’m sure that, being the consummate scientists that they are, they will thrill to the answer and accede to those that will have used their theories to step up to the next level. In the meantime, I’m all for cracking the champers and toasting the multiverse. There’s so much more to love.

About the reviewer: Magdalena Ball runs The Compulsive Reader. She is the author of the poetry book Repulsion Thrust, the novel Sleep Before Evening, a nonfiction book, The Art of Assessment, Quark Soup, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Cherished Pulse , She Wore Emerald Then , and Imagining the Future. She runs a monthly radio program podcast The Compulsive Reader Talks.

Article first published as Book Review: The Grand Design New Answers to the Ultimate Questions of Life by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow on Blogcritics.