Monday, March 26, 2012

The Grand Design

The Grand Design
By Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow

Book review by Richard L. Weaver II

I am not a physicist, although I took physics in high school.  I am not a scientist although both of my parents were, and I pursued a pre-medicine curriculum from 9th grade through my second year at the University of Michigan.  I say this only as a preface to my review, for unlike some who have reviewed this book who have sufficient credentials to examine the argument here, and unlike others who come at it from a definite viewpoint (or even worldview), I am but a lay reader interested in science and scientific information.  I love living in the age of the Hubble telescope just because of the wonders it has unfolded and the new definitions it has forced us to formulate.

I did not read this book to get answers to the three questions the authors pose toward the beginning of the book (p. 29): 1) What is the origin of the laws (that govern nature)? 2) Are there any exceptions to the laws (i.e., miracles)? And 3) Is there only one set of possible laws?  Common sense alone serves as a guide to the answers to these questions.  1) Human beings are the originators, 2) Of course there are exceptions; however, there is no such thing as miracles — never were! And 3) There are numerous sets of laws; there have to be.  (Now you see my point of view and from where I am coming.)

I read the book with an open mind.  After all, the authors have written an incredibly accessible book about a very complex set of ideas.  It’s a picture book, too, although the pictures really add very little to the substance.

I have never been fond of the big bang theory — even though I think those who support it really don’t understand it completely.  At the AllAboutScience web site, it makes the theory simple when it says: “Discoveries in astronomy and physics have shown beyond a reasonable doubt that our universe did in fact have a beginning. Prior to that moment there was nothing; during and after that moment there was something: our universe. The big bang theory is an effort to explain what happened during and after that moment.”  To this day, I do not believe there was ever “nothing.”  That doesn’t mean I support a static theory, just that universes are ever evolving and forever have evolved — there is no specific beginning; there will be no specific ending (except for human life on this planet, which is likely to end when the precious and precarious vicissitudes that allow for our existence change). The authors discuss these conditions.

The authors’ very simple explanations of the various scientific laws that govern the universe are wonderfully described.  I liked it when they said, “Einstein didn’t attempt to construct an artificial explanation for this [time as a physical process].  He drew the logical, if startling, conclusion that the measurement of the time taken, like the measurement of the distance covered, depends on the observer doing the measuring” (p. 97).

Readers need to take note of this important statement: it “depends on the observer doing the measuring,” for this observation can serve as a template for what the authors’ have labeled “the grand design.”  There is no reason to become disturbed or annoyed by their self-anointed position of supreme scientific authority (after all, this is Stephen Hawking!) in promulgating their grand design.  Because it is a catch-all, multi-faceted, all-encompassing theory that subsumes what theories exist and what theories may come to be, it makes sense for its versatility and widely encompassing embrace.

I thought the authors were courageous to take on those who believe that “the grand design is the work of some grand designer.  In the United States, because the Constitution prohibits the teaching of religion in schools,” they say, “that type of idea is called intelligent design, with the unstated but implied understanding that the designer is God.”  It may have been courageous; however, the argument is basic, fundamental, and easy to understand.

The authors continue in the next paragraph, “This is not the answer of modern science.  . . . Many people through the ages have attributed to God the beauty and complexity of nature that in their time seemed to have no scientific explanation.  But just as Darwin and Wallace explained how the apparently miraculous design of living forms could appear without intervention by a supreme being, the multiverse concept can explain the fine-tuning of physical law without the need for a benevolent creator who made the universe for our benefit” (pp. 164-165).

For readers who have no scientific (or physics) in their background, these authors may provide challenging (even threatening) information.  But, something that these authors do, and that readers should be especially thankful for, is to strengthen our appreciation of our place as humans on earth.  My goodness, how fortuitous!

This is a well-conceived, carefully written, thoroughly explained (especially for neophytes) book that deserves consideration.  In the end, of course, it may have far greater purpose and usefulness than what may be thought about today.  It could contain the explanation — the final theory — that becomes the grand design.

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