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The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking

The Grand Design (original 2010; edition 2012)

by Stephen Hawking, Leonard Mlodinow

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1,725804,104 (3.66)36
Title:The Grand Design
Authors:Stephen Hawking
Other authors:Leonard Mlodinow
Info:Bantam (2012), Edition: Reprint, Paperback, 208 pages
Collections:Your library
Tags:non-fiction, universe, physics, astronomy, philosophy

Work details

The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking (2010)

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» See also 36 mentions

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Showing 1-5 of 78 (next | show all)
best explanation changing philosophy perspective ( )
  dendisuhubdy | Mar 22, 2016 |
Good in depth stuff about life and everything. Goes into more detail than a lot of popular physics books. I'm convinced there is no grand design. ( )
  ndpmcIntosh | Mar 21, 2016 |
The best thing about reading Hawking is that he really knows how to draw in the lay reader. He starts off in such a broad welcoming style that I always think "Hey! I'm GETTING this!" Then the science begins in earnest. I give this five because I love Hawking's writing and his broad themes/concepts/ideas, which I believe I can grasp - I just can't help you with the nitty gritty, but that's ok; this is entertaining and inspiring stuff anyway. ( )
1 vote MartynChuzz | Feb 22, 2016 |
Stephen Hawking
Leonard Mlodinow

The Grand Design

Bantam, Paperback [2011].

8vo. 250 pp. Glossary [229-33]. Index [237-50]. Illustrations by Peter Bollinger. Cartoons by Sidney Harris.

First published, 2010.


1. The Mystery of Being
2. The Rule of Law
3. What Is Reality?
4. Alternative Histories
5. The Theory of Everything
6. Choosing Our Universe
7. The Apparent Miracle
8. The Grand Design



Though never advertised as one, this book is sort of sequel to A Brief History of Time (1988, rev. 1996, ABHT for short). It picks up where the old bestseller left off and tries to build up on old concepts. The Grand Design (TGD for short) has the advantages of shorter and more lucid text, but for that very reason it sounds more dogmatic and superficial. The scope is greater, but the depth is not. On the whole, I have found TGD more readable and easier to understand, but less stimulating and less convincing, than ABHT. What is new in this book is either one-sided elaboration or far-fetched metaphysics masquerading as physics.

The structure is pretty much the same. So, unfortunately, is the scientifically crude language. There are a few large numbers written in the right way, but there also are old chestnuts like “million-millionth of an inch” or whole rows of zeros. The book starts with a broad overview and then proceeds to become more and more complex, esoteric and far-fetched. Unlike ABHT, the historical background is broader and, instead of being confined to our ideas of the universe, traces our puny attempts to explain nature in terms of laws rather than gods. This is just about the only part which I found, if not superior, at least equal to ABHT. The rest, however, was less admirable. The attempts to discuss reality and free will from a scientific point of view were commendable, but not very successful. More arcane notions like “alternative histories” and “the theory of everything” were even less convincing. The long discourse on Conway’s “Game of Life” in the last chapter was excruciatingly dull and quite irrelevant. Flashes of humour were frequent, but for the most part inane (e.g. in this universe the moon is not made of cheese, that’s bad news for the mice).

The authors propose the so-called “model-dependent realism” and argue that our former ideas of reality are naïve. That may well be. We must rely on our senses which, in Arthur Clarke’s memorable words, “have so little contact with reality”[1]. After all, a great deal of experimental evidence, especially in modern physics, is obtained indirectly. It’s good advice to keep in my mind that reality, like everything save the speed of light, is relative to the observer and that everyday common sense is not necessarily the best guide into the subatomic world – or indeed the universe on a large scale. That said, this “model-dependent realism” seems to me too vague and subjective to be of any real use. It looks like an excuse for creating all those nutty quantum models. More than once the authors address their readers with words like “That sounds like science fiction, but it isn’t.” Well, isn’t it?

There is a good deal of repetition between the books. This is expected if disappointing, but the more disturbing fact is that some of it is thinly disguised as something new, not to say revolutionary, that has been uncovered in recent years. For instance, one of the central conclusions of TGD is that the universe as it is needs no Creator to have set it into existence, much less One who intervenes later with “miracles”. But this was clearly, if less certainly, outlined in ABHT; one of its chapters concluded with the rhetorical question “What place, then, for a creator?” The idea that God is unnecessary is not scientific but philosophical and it dates back at least to William of Ockham in the fourteenth century. It has been popular in science fiction. My favourite example is Arthur Clarke’s The Fountains of Paradise (1979) where our not very bright race needs an alien explanation of its muddleheaded ideas:

''The hypothesis you refer to as God, though not disprovable by logic alone, is unnecessary for the following reason.

''If you assume that the universe can be quote explained unquote as the creation of an entity known as God, he must obviously be of a higher degree of organization than his product. Thus you have more than doubled the size of the original problem, and have taken the first step of a diverging infinite regress. William of Ockham pointed out as recently as your fourteenth century that entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily. I cannot therefore understand why this debate continues.''

So far as I can see, the only argument against the Creator in this book is the wild notion that some 10 to the power of 500 (!) universes exist, therefore there is no reason to suppose that ours is in any way special. This would be tenable if the hypothesis about the multiple universes were not so tenuous. In the penultimate chapter, “The Apparent Miracle”, the authors make a good summary of those natural forces that seem so well adjusted to produce life. Some fascinating stuff missing from ABHT is included, for instance the so-called “Triple Alpha Process” which produces carbon inside stars and is largely dependent on very precise nuclear interactions. All the same, postulating the existence of Creator on this basis is a logical fallacy, a classic example of mind seeing what it wants to see. The natural laws look “designed” only if you first accept the existence of Designer. If you don’t, they don’t either. No other refutation is needed, even if our universe is the only one out there. Of course it’s lucky for us that natural laws are what they are, but from that it doesn’t follow that Somebody wanted it that way.

Quantum theory is another example. I was looking for more information why this weird stuff is of such paramount importance on subatomic level and why we should care to apply it on macro level at all. I was told only that it “agrees with observation. It has never failed a test, and it has been tested more than any other theory in science.” Feynman’s proposal of alternative histories, namely that a particle takes not one but all possible paths simultaneously (original emphasis), “has passed every experimental test to which it has ever been subjected.” Big words like these make me wonder whom the authors try to convince, their readers or themselves? The only experimental evidence for the quantum theory discussed here is the famous two-slit experiment. It is described with tedious repetitiousness and while it does, indeed, suggest that particles may behave like waves, it says nothing about the uncertainty principle or the alternative histories.

Instead of providing further evidence why alternative histories may be true, the authors take this ludicrous idea and apply it to the largest scale of all – the universe. This is not science. This is – if it is anything at all – philosophy. This makes all the more ironic the authors’ bold claim on the very first page that “philosophy is dead”. It is not. It never has been and never will be. For better or for worse, we are a philosophical species. Some philosophers are more scientific, others are more mystical, but they all try to explain our existence on a grand scale. As for the “theory” that the universe has not one but infinite number of histories, this is yet another purely philosophical idea widely used in science fiction. Come to think of it, it is actually a logical consequence of the infinite universe. Nobody has explained this better than Arthur Clarke in his (unfortunately obscure) short story “The Other Tiger” (1953)[2].

That quantum theory explains observation is clear enough: it was designed for that. Only that’s not enough. A true scientific theory must also make testable predictions. I could not find anything in the book about that. As for applying quantum theory on the most macro of all scales, that sounds as silly as using Einstein for everyday life. What for? Newton does the job excellent well.

“Theory of Everything” sounds like something right out of Bill Bryson’s entertaining but rather forgettable books. Why should such a theory exist in the first place? Even if it does, perhaps our impotent species, which can’t even put the surface of the Earth on a single map, is not meant to discover it. ABHT argued that today we are closer to this theory than was Einstein towards the end of his life, but clearly stated that there is still a lot of work to do and that the theory may ultimately not exist at all. TGD repeats this qualification, but then all but says bluntly that the M-Theory is very likely the One, even though it never becomes clear whether it is a single theory or rather a bunch of theories that overlap. Like the model-dependent realism, I am left with the impression that it is advocated simply because it gives the opportunity for predicting the existence of multiple universes with different sets of laws.

There are plenty of questions that TGD might have tried to answer, and plenty of answers that it might have explained in more detail, and thus improve on ABHT. Why, for instance, the universe before the Big Bang is supposed to have been infinitesimal? Could it not have been the size of a tennis ball, basketball, the Earth? Wouldn’t that have been dense and hot enough? (I’m tempted to think the authors want it to be that small so they can apply their beloved quantum theories to it.) How come the universe came into existence out of nothing? (King Lear would have disagreed, but apparently he didn’t know his physics.) How is it possible for space in the very young universe to expand at a speed far greater than that of light? And so on, and so forth. (What actually is that “Great Design” from the title?)

The Grand Design is a dashing little book, handsomely printed on deluxe paper and lavishly illustrated in full colour. The writing is superior, more concise and more lucid, than the one in ABHT, whether because Hawking learned to write better in the interim or because Mlodinow exercised some beneficial influence, I don’t know. What I do know is that I found the book rather unsatisfactory, as fascinating as it is unconvincing. If I had read it before ABHT, I would probably have found it better. Now, however, it seems rather condescending, even arrogant, and certainly lacking in depth and argumentation. The text is loosely printed and much shorter than the page number may suggest.

PS The most delightful feature of the book are the cartoons by Sidney Harris. Some of them neatly point out major weaknesses of the text. For example, this one and this one.

[1] Arthur C. Clarke, “The Winds of Space” in Voices from the Sky (1965).
[2] The story was written in 1951, first published in magazine in 1953 (Fantastic Universe, June/July) and in book form on the next year (Portals of Tomorrow, ed. August Derleth), but it had to wait until 1989 to appear in one of Clarke’s short story collections (Tales from Planet Earth). Read the complete story, together with an introduction and a postscript, here. It is reprinted in The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke (2000); the postscript is retained, but the introduction is reduced to a short bibliographical note. ( )
3 vote Waldstein | Feb 12, 2016 |
In the first few chapters, I had this amazing feeling that I just might be able to understand it all. This dissipated in the later chapters, as physics well beyond my severely limited knowledge was explored...yet it was fascinating and engaging even to this layperson. Explores the interesting nexus of the creation and implementation of scientific models (science has long ago left behind the "you have to see it to believe it" attitude) and how one creates meaning from such models. ( )
1 vote bibleblaster | Jan 23, 2016 |
Showing 1-5 of 78 (next | show all)
It is all entertaining stuff, skilfully assembled and described in a fairly droll manner. The wave-particle duality of particles is described as being as foreign as drinking a chunk of sandstone, for example. The book is also commendably brief and by and large illuminating about the complexities of modern cosmology.
It is all entertaining stuff, skilfully assembled and described in a fairly droll manner. The wave-particle duality of particles is described as being as foreign as drinking a chunk of sandstone, for example. The book is also commendably brief and by and large illuminating about the complexities of modern cosmology.

So read it to understand the universe. But if it is God you are after, my advice is to steer clear.
The real news about “The Grand Design,” however, isn’t Mr. Hawking’s supposed jettisoning of God, information that will surprise no one who has followed his work closely. The real news about “The Grand Design” is how disappointingly tinny and inelegant it is. The spare and earnest voice that Mr. Hawking employed with such appeal in “A Brief History of Time” has been replaced here by one that is alternately condescending, as if he were Mr. Rogers explaining rain clouds to toddlers, and impenetrable.

» Add other authors (8 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Stephen Hawkingprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Mlodinow, Leonardmain authorall editionsconfirmed
Bollinger, PeterIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Harris, SidneyIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Book description
In the last thirty years of his life Albert Einstein searched for a unified theory - a theory which could describe all the forces of nature in a single framework. But the time was not right for such a discovery in Einstein's day. Neither was the time right when, in 1988, Professor Stephen Hawking wrote A Brief History of Time in which he took us on a journey through classical physics, Einstein's theory of relativity, quantum physics and string theory in order to explain the universe that we live in. He concluded, like Einstein, that science may soon arrive at the long sought after 'Theory of Everything'. In this ground-breaking new work, Professor Hawking and renowned science writer Leonard Mlodinow have drawn on forty years of Hawking's own research and a recent series of extraordinary astronomical observations and theoretical breakthroughs to reveal an original and controversial theory. They convincingly argue that scientific obsession with formulating a single new model may be misplaced, and that, instead, by synthesising existing theories we may discover the key to finally understanding the universe's deepest mysteries. Written with the clarity and lively style for which Hawking is famous, The Grand Design is an account of Hawking's quest to fuse these different strands of scientific theory. It examines the differences between past and future, explains the nature of reality and asks an all-important question: How far can we go in our search for understanding and knowledge?
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Along with Caltech physicist Mlodinow (The Drunkard's Walk), University of Cambridge cosmologist Hawking (A Brief History of Time)deftly mixes cutting-edge physics to answer three key questions--Why is there something rather than nothing? Why do we exist? Why this particular set of laws and not some other?--and explains that scientists are approaching what is called "M-theory," a collection of overlapping theories (including string theory) that fill in many (but not all) the blank spots in quantum physics; this collection is known as the "Grand Unified Field Theories."… (more)

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