Mike's Reviews > The Grand Design

The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking
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Aug 17, 12


I came to this book expecting a lot more. A whole lot more. Hawking's A Brief History of time is a masterpiece. While I take issue with a some points in Mlodinow's The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives, it's a great book for explaining how randomness and probability work.

This book isn't. It's shallow; if you want to understand Einstein and relativity, read the Brief History. If you want to understand String Theory and its relatives, read Greene's The Elegant Universe. If you want to understand inflation, read Guth's The Inflationary Universe. Those books are more difficult, but they're worthwhile. If you want a trivialized, jokey, half-baked explanation of all of the above, read The Grand Design.

But that's not the biggest problem. At the beginning, the authors declare that Physics has made philosophy obsolete. They don't really mean philosophy (which as far as I can tell, they've never read); they're really after theology and mythology of every sort. Every chapter begins with some bit of world mythology: some wonderful stories, but in context, it's really "see the stupid things people believe when they're not Physicists?" And the conclusion? The replacement to mythology, theology, and philosophy? M theory.

I will not do the same thing to M theory that the authors do to mythology. It's an important, and certainly intellectually serious, theory that would explain how the universe came into being. But even to many scientists, M theory lives on the boundary between physics and theology. It's a theory that is far from finished, that we don't begin to understand (and can't even state). It's a meta-theory that has 10^500 (possibly more) variations, and we can't tell which is correct, if any. It's a theory that cannot currently be verified experimentally, and may never be verifiable experimentally. M theory as a research topic, something to be explored that may eventually develop into a major part of our understanding of the universe: that's fine. That's what science is supposed to do. But M theory as established fact: that's another thing entirely.

If M theory proves to be correct, it will be the most important idea in the history of science. Hawking and Mlodinow spend a fair amount of effort arguing that M theory is the only possible theory; but without experimental evidence, I find that hard to swallow. It's easy to say that M is the only possible theory when you only have one theory. Physicists, even theoretical physicists, have to be a little bit nervous about theories that can't be verified, and that are really more a matter of faith than evidence. Is this science? Or is this mythology? In this book, I find it hard to tell the difference.

I'm not too concerned about the damage to religion; I'm very concerned about the damage to science. If we need to turn away from observational evidence and experimentation to accept the only conceivable theory, we're damaging the scientific enterprise, perhaps fatally. The debate about global warming is about evidence. The debate about evolution is about evidence. The debate about M theory is about--what? Whether evidence is necessary? At this point, all we're doing is replacing religious fundamentalists with science fundamentalists. I'm not convinced that's a gain.
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