Book review: The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking & Leonard Mlodinow

The inside cover of the book states that it is

“A succinct, startling and lavishly illustrated guide to discoveries that are altering our understanding and threatening some of our most cherished belief systems, The Grand Design is a book that will inform – and provoke – like no other.”

Well, it is most certainly succinct, well illustrated and thought provoking. Indeed, the book is perhaps a little too succinct. It is certainly very short, and it doesn’t take long to read. The writing style is very clear, though some of the humour does have the feeling of having been inserted periodically as an afterthought, to maintain some levity in the book.

The book is a mixture of bold statements about the current state of theoretical research and an overview of historical developments in physics over the last hundred years (with some going further back than that). One of the weak points of the book is that it lacks references. This makes it very difficult to distinguish what is widely-accepted, evidenced scientific theory and what is optimistic speculation. At one point in the book, the authors state: “M-theory is the only candidate for a complete theory of the universe.” I would certainly take issue with that, given that it is certainly not a universally accepted opinion. Any reader wanting to gain an alternative opinion on some of the bold assertions made about M-theory would do well to read Lee Smolin’s The Trouble With Physics.

Probably the most interesting claim in the book comes at the start, with the declaration that “Philosophy is dead.” This claim is never convincingly argued, and in fact the authors go on to employ certain philosophical ideas in pursuit of their goals. The entire argument of the book hinges on the acceptance of “model-dependent realism.” After a little research, it seems that this is an original term although the authors do a good job of defining it. Here, however, rhetoric has been used as a substitute for reason. There is plenty for room on this debate and so it seems that if philosophy ever had been dead, which I see no evidence of it ever having been, then this book jolts some life back into it.

There is one enormous “If” hanging over the book, which is not dealt with in sufficient detail. That is the question of experimental verifiability. M-theory is spoken of as the underlying principle behind the various string theories. Yet even these have not been confirmed by experiment. At one point, the authors state that their claims can be verified by experiment but they do nothing other than state it as though it were plain fact. No justification is given, nor experiments suggested.

It certainly well worth reading, but if anyone who has not studied the issues discussed were to read it in isolation, then they would likely end up with a highly skewed view of physics. This is a good book, worth reading, but it could have been so much better.

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