Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Thoughts | The Grand Design - Stephen Hawking & Leonard Mlodinow

Phew! It's done. I have read something by Stephen Hawking and I survived. Notwithstanding the numerous times I had to reread pages, it's one of the most absorbing books  I've read in a while. Being able to spend my whole day reading it justifies, for most part, why I quit my Investment Banking career. The fact that it also helps as research for a new novel is just icing on the cake.

At the outset, this is not a traditional review because I can't comment on the subject matter. So I will focus on the writing and the effect it had on me. The former is brilliant, the latter is somewhat ambivalent. I also want to apologize in advance for getting it all topsy turvy. I am pretty sure I have got the wrong end of the all the natural laws of nature as a lot of it went over my head. It's a miracle, pardon the blasphemous term, that I was able to enjoy it in the first place; god and miracles have no place in Stephen Hawking's world.

The Grand Design seeks to answer three questions.

Why is there something rather than nothing?
Why do we exist?
Why this particular  set of laws and not some other?

He starts by saying that these questions were initially attempted by philosophers, but since philosophy hasn't kept up with science, philosophy is now dead. Which begs the question, why it makes up a third of the most popular degree program at Oxford, but that debate is for another day.

The book begins with a brief but enlightening introduction to the evolution of human understanding of the Rules of Law and how those laws have evolved in the last 3000 years upto the time of Einstein and Newton.  He breaks down the various early theories that helped explain the creation of the universe beginning with Aristotle- who Stephen Hawkings does not care for much and the Greek Ionions like Pythagorus, whom he seems to respect. I recognized some of it from school, but nothing was ever put this beautifully when I was a child. He spends a lot of time on Newton- make sure you read this because it's important further on. He also stresses on  how much all of these theories were bent and adjusted to account for God and free will.

The first big statement Hawking and Mlodinow (henceforth known as H&M) make is that there is no free will. That one thing that supposedly makes us unique doesn't exist because "our behavior is determined by physical law, so  it seems that we are no more than biological machines and that free will is just an illusion." The effective theory that does predict human behavior is Psychology after which he takes a cop-out by saying the inability of psychology to effectively predict human behavior is why the world is such a mess. Typical Scientist! This was too complicated for me, so I have taken it at face value.

The next chapter was about reality and was also lost on me for most part. He uses the goldfish in a bowl and The Matrix as analogies to help us understand relative reality. Are you a part of someone else's dream? But really what he wants to say is what a good model should do. And then he goes into all why all the models in Classical Physics fail because Classical physics only works on a model where the universe has one defined history. Now here is where he introduces  M-theory which forms the backbone of his book.

"According to the M-theory, ours is not the only universe. Instead the M-Theory predicts that a great many universes were created out of nothing. Their creation does not require the intervention of some supernatural being or God rather just Physical law. Predications of science. Our universe has many possible histories and many possible states at later times. "

Think of alternative universes. Another Reshma writing this blog post at the very same time, only she got the book. No, that is not what the Multiverse theory is. What he says is that the physicists traditional expectations of a single theory is unteneble. There exists no single formulations to explain the universe. We have to employ different theories, some of them overlapping, at different situations. And you wonder why people liked the idea of God; it was useful and easy to understand.  But he says, the problem with God is then you have to ask, who created God. It's unending. Which is why only science can explain how something came from nothing. But you say, something can't come from nothing because of time. Where has time gone? Time had to have come from somewhere. Who set the clock off?

So follow me if you can. 13.7 billion years ago we had the big bang, H&M say there was no time because in that Space Time Warp that was created, the early baby universe had no concept of time. Baby universe started out a few millimeters long. This created a no-boundry condition - they lost me here, and so using the laws of nature- gravity in particular, the Big bang essentially exploded from nothing. Now how could it explode out of nothing when energy cannot be created or destroyed? Because it's the universe silly. I quote the paragraph.

"Empty space is unstable.But if it costs energy to create an isolated body such instability cannot happen because as we have said the energy of the universe must remain constant. That is what it takes to make the universe locally stable- to make it so that things don't just appear everywhere from nothing. If the total energy of the universe must always remain zero, and it costs energy to create a body, how can a whole universe be created from nothing?"

Laws of gravity. I say no more, because it's stretches my limited faculties. All of it would have made perfect sense if I understood the workings of laws of gravity and positive and negative displacement of energy and gravity.

All right you say. The universe exploded out of nothing, but how did we get here. Well he also says that during the Big Bang, multiple universes were created with a million histories, and ours happens to be the one with laws of nature that could sustain life as we know it. So here is the million dollar question. How did that happen? Serendipity he says at one point, which is when I was like what!!! After all this, you put it down to luck. He says no. He puts it down to the millions of universes and their
trajectories and the fact that this one took that particular course and created laws that made us possible. The fine tuning was a result of the M-Theory.

"Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists and why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe." 

 Did you get all of this? No? Read the book and make sure you read it in one sitting because it needs concentration. H&M are also witty (in that nerdy sort of way)  and try to down play the seriousness of it all by talking about aliens with seventeen arms and the possibility of the moon being made of cheese. I think this is essential reading for anyone who looks up at the stars and wonders how we came about. If you are a curious one, then this book is for you. Forget about all the jaded people who mock you when you read this because you have way too much time. After all, this is the stuff that we're made of, quite literally and isn't this what you would want to use your time to find out in the first place?

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