BOOK REVIEW | The Grand Design

The Grand Design, by famed physicist Stephen Hawking, who sadly passed away in 2018, and Leonard Mlodinow, attempts to answer, or at least to approach, our most important questions: why is there something rather than nothing? Why do we exist? Why are the laws of nature what they are? Did the universe need a designer and creator? In the process they make an argument for a grand unified theory that will adequately take into account all the known forces of nature: gravity, electromagnetism, and weak and strong nuclear force. According to the authors, this explanation will be M-theory. That is, once it’s defined and proven.

The first section of the book deals with the evolution of scientific laws and how we can only approach reality by the use of models. Fair enough, but they begin this assessment by (crudely, in my opinion,) announcing that “philosophy is dead” because it has not kept up with the advancement of science. This is the first of many sweeping generalizations that, while meant to be approachable to a wide audience, come at the expense of presenting half-truths and historical distortions. It makes it more difficult to trust their judgments which is crucial, for we are forced by the general nature of the book to continually take the authors at their word.

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The book then goes on to explain the fundamentals of quantum physics. Though these are difficult concepts, the authors do a fine job making them as accessible as possible to the layperson reader. Truly, this is the section that makes the book worth a perusal.

Finally, the authors try to make a case for M-theory as the best candidate for what Einstein called a “theory of everything,” but while they try to explain what M-theory would cover they do not present a satisfying case as to what it would actually look like or why we should accept it. Really, just when you expect all that historical background and exploration into quantum physics that we have invested our time in to coalesce into the climax of M-theory, their purported Grand Design barely gets any treatment. While the authors caution against accepting explanations on faith or allowing miracles to fill gaps of logic, they are essentially asking us to do the same here. This left the reader unsatisfied and feeling no closer to understanding what M-theory is and perhaps forced to ask the question: “What was the point?”

Did the authors answer those important questions which they said they would answer? Not really. At least, not fully. The dissatisfaction runs deeper, as the whole book, while informative, feels like an article that has been extended too long, or a bloated introduction to a book that would have actually laid out the evidence for M-theory. Hawking was an undoubted genius and rightly valued as a physicist, but he had also proven himself to be quite good in the marketing aspects of his work and recognizable persona. Ultimately, the creeping suspicion becomes unavoidable that the rather brief project was an attempt to cash in on the Hawking brand –  the glossy pages and wide margins, and the nearly thirty-dollar price tag upon its release did not do much to quell such suspicions.

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