Book review: 'The Grand Design' by Stephen Hawking & Leonard Mlodinow

 Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, in their much awaited book “The Grand Design” attempt to answer some of the toughest questions about the origin and functioning of the universe. How did the universe begin? What happened prior to the event? Why do we exist? Is reality knowable through the five senses alone? Is the universe designed and therefore the work of an intelligent being? These are only some of the questions the book addresses. The authors also devote considerable time to discussing the connections between science, philosophy and theology.

In this regard the book also examines the notion of free will. The authors conclude that we humans certainly have the semblance of choice in our daily conduct but in the ultimate analysis “it is our physical brain, following the known laws of science, that determines our actions, and not some agency that exists outside those laws”. Can criminals then be deemed responsible for their criminal behaviour and does theology miss the point when it comes to human conduct?

As a book primarily of popular science, however, the authors postulate many novel ideas about the origin and function of our universe and, in so doing, challenge several previously held views. At the outset, they draw a distinction between the realm of Newtonian physics and quantum physics. The former concerns itself with macroscopic matter while the latter explains matter at the subatomic level. While the subatomic components of objects obey the laws of quantum physics, macroscopic objects can be adequately explained by Newtonian physics. In this regard the authors state “According to the traditional conceptions of the universe, objects move on well-defined paths and have definite histories.” The authors then explain their objections to this notion in detail in chapter three, entitled “What is reality?”

They assert that the sense of reality that we develop through our five senses too must be tested through “models” that our brains create. If two models make similar predictions about reality, then we can safely assume that our perception of reality is somewhat accurate. This the authors identify as “model-dependent realism”. According to the authors, model-dependent realism has an added advantage. It need not be “real” and need only be consistent with observation.

The authors also conclude that no single theory can explain the origin of the universe and our existence in it. Instead a group of overlapping theories amalgamated as M-theory would be the “best candidate” for a plausible explanation of the above. M-theory also yields the startling revelations that “a great many universes were created out of nothing”.

In the realm of theology, this notion would be understood as “creation ex nihilo”. According to the authors, however, “their creation does not require the intervention of some supernatural being or god”.

This latter view expounded by the authors constitutes the most fascinating part of the book. Is creation ex nihilo even possible? It is indeed according to the authors’ explanation of quantum physics. In fact the authors assert that not one, but several universes or the “multiverse” came into existence due to quantum imbalances. Quantum physics believes that the position and velocity of a particle cannot be accurately known concurrently. If the position is known then the velocity cannot be known and vice versa. In the authors’ own words “an object’s position, path, and even its past and future are not precisely known”. This “uncertainly principle” explains the notion that the universe has multiple histories. Whereas in Newtonian physics, the path of a particle from point A to B is predetermined, in quantum physics, the particle explores every single path from point A to point B, hence confirming the uncertainty principle.

According to the uncertainly principle, space can never be empty because that would mean a zero value for the field and the rate of its change. There is therefore always some energy within a “vacuum” even though the “quantum jitters” force particles and fields both, to come into existence or die. It is at this point that quantum physics kicks in because matter at this stage functions at the subatomic level. The authors conclude that the creation of the universe was therefore “a quantum event”. In the early stages time-space was either stretched or compressed, resulting in “mixing”. This mixing gave rise to our universes and other universes spontaneously. Some of these universes died while others like our own began to expand at alarming rates.

At this point the authors also asked questions that concern theology: “There seems to be a vast landscape of possible universes. However, as we’ll see in the next chapter, universes in which life like us can exist are rare. We live in one in which life is possible, but if the universe were only slightly different, beings like us could not exist. What are we to make of this fine-tuning? Is it evidence that the universe, after all, was designed by a benevolent creator? Or does science offer another explanation?”

In chapter seven, entitled “The Apparent Miracle,” the authors proceed to acknowledge the several coincidences that have made the earth a habitable planet for intelligent life. The earth lies in the goldilocks zone, and the authors outline how its circular orbit is “friendly to life,” and how it is fortunately situated in the solar system. These are all lucky coincidences but towards the end of the chapter the authors conclude that this would have been remarkable if other such planets with similar hospitable environments did not exist. Similarly there are possibly several universes like ours, making the functioning of our universe less remarkable.

The authors write: “It means that our cosmic habitat –now the entire observable universe—is only one of many, just as our solar system is one of many. This means that in the same way that the environmental coincidences of our solar system were rendered unremarkable by the realization that billions of such systems exist, the fine-tuning in the laws of nature can be explained by the existence of multiple universes.”

The book is a fascinating read for theologians, scientists and philosophers alike. At times abstruse, the book nonetheless explains scientific data in an intelligible manner even for the lay reader. It includes a glossary of scientific terms at the end of the book, which can help facilitate understanding of scientific concepts and terms.

Overall, the book is one of the best in the genre of popular science.

Send questions or comments to Farzana Hassan