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Bookmarks Issue: 
49-Nov-Dec-2010
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A-The Grand DesignIn A Brief History of Time (1988), Stephen Hawking, who was a professor of mathematics at the University of Cambridge for 30 years, tackled general relativity and quantum mechanics for lay readers. Now, in The Grand Design, Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, an author and Caltech physicist who has also written scripts for Star Trek, address some even larger questions.

The Topic: "To understand the universe at the deepest level, we need to know not only how the universe behaves, but why," write Hawking and Mlodinow. "Why is there something rather than nothing? Why do we exist? Why this particular set of laws and not some others?" To attempt to answer these scientific and philosophical questions, Hawking and Mlodinow first lead us through a history of scientific knowledge--from the Greeks to the twentieth century's focus on quantum mechanics and relativity. They then delve into a larger discussion of why a unified field theory, such as the one Einstein posed, probably cannot exist. Examining the still-evolving concept of "M-theory" (or the "theory of everything"), the authors postulate how the universe (and possibly billions of others) emerged from nothing, each with its own laws of nature. As for the existence of God? Don't count on it.
Bantam. 198 pages. $28. ISBN: 9780553805376

Cleveland Plain Dealer 4 of 5 Stars
"The details of M-theory can be daunting, but the pair makes it as accessible as possible, leavening it with regular dollops of Hawking's droll humor. ... The Grand Design is a provocative, mind-expanding book, a window into Hawking's own restless, wide-ranging brain. It's no beach read, but then again, summer's over." John Mangels

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"While not dealing with recent developments in astrophysics or discussing chaos theory, Hawking and Mlodinow's fascinating book, with its wonderful illustrations, takes us through the various supernatural and scientific cosmological theories that mankind has developed since earliest times to explain our universe. ... This succinct, easily digested book could perhaps do with fewer dry, academic groaners, but Hawking and Mlodinow pack in a wealth of ideas and leave us with a clearer understanding of modern physics in all its invigorating complexity." Michael Moorcock

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"I've waited a long time for this book. It gets into the deepest questions of modern cosmology without a single equation. The reader will be able to get through it without bogging down in a lot of technical detail and will, I hope, have his or her appetite whetted for books with a deeper technical content." James Trefil

Philadelphia Inquirer 2.5 of 5 Stars
"For readers seeking in-depth science, the jokes fall flat, and the material feels like a tepid review of what they probably already know about how physicists engage with nature. The book is at its scientific best when explaining Richard Feynman's contributions to the understanding of quantum theory." Fred Bortz

New York Times 2 of 5 Stars
"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." Dwight Garner

Spectator (UK) 2 of 5 Stars
"Stephen Hawking has written a short, occasionally facetious, but generally reliable and informative history of classical and quantum mechanics. That is all. That he has adverted to it as an answer to the ultimate question of life is both annoying and inaccurate, but no doubt commercially sensible." Alexander Waugh

Critical Summary

Whether or not critics bought into Hawking's and Mlodinow's mind-bending exploration of "the grand design" depended to some extent on each reviewer's familiarity with physics. The Spectator thought that the authors should have provided some answers instead of just introducing mathematical concepts with "such reckless abandon," while the New York Times Book Review called the book condescending and, more seriously, M-theory "somewhat disappointing... a patchwork quilt rather than a fine, seamless garment." Yet other critics felt that the authors did a fine job of clearly explaining why modern science may soon provide answers to large philosophical questions. As one critic, a professor of physics said, "Deep stuff, indeed. Maybe in the end the whole multiverse idea will actually turn out to be right!" (Washington Post). Or, as physicist Fred Bortz claims, possibly wrong. Only time may tell. n