Jeff Scott's Reviews > The Grand Design

The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking
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Oct 14, 2010

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bookshelves: non-fiction, science, physics
Read from January 14 to 20, 2011

Much of the book is an explanation and realization of the Albert Einstein quote:

“The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.”

The authors intend to demonstrate that there is a scientific explanation for many things we consider god-like. In the past, we have had different viewpoints of the world and how it works, often chalking up our experiences to a god-like influence or presence. The authors demonstrate how these theories have been tossed aside by scientific explanations. They don’t go as far as to say there is no God, but simply that there is often a scientific explanation for everything. If there isn’t one, we just haven’t figured it out yet. In the end they attempt to explain what is reality, how do we know what we know, and why are we here in the first place?

This is a great introduction to quantum physics with a basic walk through of how to get there. The book is very approachable and I actually understood an XCD joke without having to look to Google it afterwards (jokes about string theory begin to make sense). Starting with the basic understanding of our perception of the world, we go from Greek philosophy to belief in the divine as explanations of how the universe works. We continue with the explanation of how do we know what we know? Developing models to determine reality and what is a good model to make that determination. Moving onto forces (magnetic, electric, gravity etc.) and then explaining that these forces are primitive ways to describe how the universe works.

Ultimately we get to M-theory that would describe how everything in the universe works. I am not sure I fully understand this aspect of the book. It goes into great detail on Fenyman’s theories. The discussion of buckyballs being shot through slits and how they develop interference left me a little puzzled as what he was trying to say. Finding a way to explain all forces as one force is tricky to comprehend. The text is approachable, but it still builds knowledge like a math textbook. If at some point you don't understand something, one can get lost very easily.

It was fun to read this as my science fiction brain loves all the possible explanations of how the world works. (the part about alternative histories and different universes was fascinating even though it was difficult to wrap my brain around it.) The imagination and fun of these theories about how the world works is fascinating and drove me toward and to finish the book.

The Grand Design

...quantum theory, and in particular, the approach to quantum theory called alternative histories. In that view, the universe does not have just a single existence or history, but rather every possible version of the universe exists simultaneously in what is called a quantum superposition. p. 38

According to quantum physics, no matter how much information we obtain or how powerful our computing abilities, the outcomes of physical processes cannot be predicted with certainty because they are not determined certainty. Instead, given the initial state of a system nature determines its future state through a process that is fundamentally uncertain. In other words, nature does not dictate the outcome of any process or experiment, even in the simplest of situations. Rather, it allows a number of different eventualities, each with a certain likelihood of being realized. It is, to paraphrase Einstein, as if God throws the dice before deciding the result of every physical process. That idea bothered Einstein, and so even though he was one of the fathers of quantum physics, he later became critical of it. p. 44

Quantum physics might seem to undermine the idea that nature is governed by laws, but that is not the case. Instead it leads us to accept a new form of determinism: given the state of a system at some time, the laws of nature determine the probabilities of various futures and pasts rather than determining future the future and past with certainty. Though that is distasteful to some, scientists must accept theories that agree with experiment, not their own preconceived notions. p. 44


A Model is a good model if:

1. Is elegant
2. Contains few arbitrary or adjustible elements
3. Agrees with and explains all existing observations
4. Makes detailed predictions about future observations that can disprove or falsify the model if they are not borne out.

Strong Anthropic Principle suggests that the fact that we exist imposes constraints not just on our environment, but on the possible form and content of the laws of nature themselves. The idea arose because it is not only the peculiar characteristics of our solar system that seem oddly conducive to the development of human life but also the characteristics of our entire universe, and that is much more difficult to explain. p. 155

What can we make of these coincidences? Luck in the precise form and nature of fundamental law is a different kind of luck from the luck we find in environmental factors. It cannot be so easily explained, and has far deeper physical and philosophical implications. Our universe and its laws appear to have a design that both is tailor-made to support us and, if we are to exist, leaves little room for alteration. This is not easily explained, and raises the natural question of why it is that way. p. 162
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