The Grand Design

No one can accuse famed physicist Stephen Hawking and his co-author Leonard Mlodinow of pussyfooting around their controversial beliefs: “Philosophy is dead,” they bluntly proclaim in the opening pages of The Grand Design, and only science can possibly offer any solace or solutions to a perplexed humanity scratching their heads over the great intellectual and spiritual conundrums that have eternally plagued us. The two writers do not even bother to dismiss religion as an alternative font of wisdom, and the reader quickly intuits that this is because Hawking and Mlodinow consider theology merely a subset of philosophy, and an uninteresting branch at that. So much for Stephen Jay Gould’s famous peace-making gesture between science and religion, when he designated the rivals as “non-overlapping magisteria.”

Hawking and Mlodinow boldly promise in their opening salvo to answer three central ontological questions: Why is there something rather than nothing? Why do we exist? Why this particular set of laws and not some other? By my lights, they eventually do succeed, within the limits of current knowledge—a comprehensive if not fully plumbed framework called M-theory. But the trip is somewhat tedious going till near the end. It requires a long runway for this craft to achieve takeoff.

Chapters 2 through 5 inclusive constitute a survey of physics and cosmology so very similar to the literally hundreds of others that have preceded it. The ancient Greeks, Galileo, Newton, Einstein, Feynman—the litany is as codified now as some Victorian tour of European capitals. Oh, don’t mistake me: Hawking and Mlodinow do a superb job of compacting the essential information down into a remarkably small space, employing crystal-clear language and apt metaphors. Perhaps this will be somebody’s eye-opening first experience with the history of these concepts. But I suspect that for many readers drawn to the Hawking byline it will be old news indeed, and skimable.

But finally, in Chapters 6 through 8, Hawking and Mlodinow hit their stride, teasing out the deep “philosophical” implications of multiple universes, cosmic inflation in the aftermath of the Big Bang, and the strong anthropic principle. Having mortared up a strong although staid foundation, they erect a structure atop it which is indeed worthy of being called “the grand design.” Whether it has the beauty and majesty and compulsive awesomeness of pre-scientific worldviews depends, I think, on your susceptibility to logic and aesthetic principles over sheer emotional reactions.

And might I add in closing that the geek humor on display in this book is so endearingly lame? “Today we know that, while perhaps offering great tanning opportunities, any solar system with multiple suns would probably never allow life to develop.” Don’t quit your day jobs for comedy, boys.


The Speculator

Paul Di Filippo’s column The Speculator appears monthly in the Barnes & Noble Review.  He is the author of several acclaimed novels and story collections, including Fractal Paisleys, Little Doors, Neutrino Drag, and Fuzzy Dice.

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