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The Grand Design
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356 of 395 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon August 26, 2010
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
This book is both shorter and more clearly written than any other physics book I've read, including Hawking's other works. If you are interested in physics but don't have the patience to read something long and detailed such as Roger Penrose's "The Road to Reality" then this is a great book for you. Even if you simply want to compare "The Grand Design" to less detailed pop physics books with minimal mathematics, it holds up very well. Usually the analogies that lay physics books employ in an attempt to make intuitive sense of mathematical concepts become quite strained, but for some reason everything seems to work here and the authors don't push them too far.

I was concerned by some of the things that were said at the outset such as "philosophy is dead" - each academic discipline requires years of study and can't reasonably be dismissed out of hand by someone who is an expert in another field - but my concerns were eased by the rest of the book. The quest for a grand unified theory of physics, the ultimate topic of many lay physics books, does sound philosophical and has resulted in various theories that are currently highly speculative and difficult to test. The M-Theory discussed in "The Grand Design" sounds more reasonable than the many alternatives but all are still very weak as far as scientific theories go.

If you lack patience for mathematical formulas and want a short, clearly written physics book that minimizes the mathematics while still surveying the basic concepts of physics and introducing the more speculative current topics, I haven't read anything better than "The Grand Design".
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854 of 962 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon August 24, 2010
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
This book began not with a Bang, but with a shudder. On the first page, I read the phrase (and yes it's a proof so this may be changed in the actual version): "Philosophy is dead". No one can argue that there is a modern day philospher with the influence of Aristotle; but surely, philosophy can't be dead!?

However, reading onward, the authors made their point quite convincingly: philosophy is dead in the sense of answering the most mysterious of life's questions. It is up to science, and scientific theory, to provide clues to the true answers, as philosphy in its most ancient forms has taken a back seat, but modern philosphy, that of scientific philosophy, has taken root.

This book, you'll find as you read, is dumbed down. But it's not stupid or simple. While the math and the proofs of the math are essentially missing (a great boon for laymen like myself), the philosophical science is presented in a very interesting, detailed, and thought provoking way. It is not as difficult, and oft-maniacal, a read as Emmanuel Levinas, instead it's somewhere closer to Lucretius's On the Nature of Things (ironically).

And so the authors move on in sequential and ordered fashion, trying to answer: Why is there something? Why do we exist? Why this set of natural law? The theories they expound upon are sometimes old, and sometimes groundbreakingly new, but all will either surprise you, educated you, or both; but in the least, make you think about reality and your own existence, and the reality of your existence.

This book has illustrations every now and then. Most are of no use but to entertain you, in my opinion. Some are there to actually educate you in at least a small way. But what irked me a few times was that while I was reading a thought, I'd encounter a picture in the middle of the text that had nothing to do with the thought I was just reading about. A slight moment of confusion erupted, but was quenched right after I read the paragraph after the picture/illustration. This may be of no consequence to many, but while reading such interesting ideas, and mulling them over in my head, I certainly didn't like being interrupted by something that hasn't been discussed or processed.

Otherwise, the book is pleasent on the eyes, as it's set in what would be essentially type 14, Times New Roman. For 190 pages, and such a large font, it's a very quick read, especially once you get captivated by the arguments that are laid out in front of you. I don't want to discuss them in detail, as not only am I unable to lay out the argument as convincingly as two geniuses, but also don't want to spoil the though-provoking journey this book will take you on.

I highly reccomend this book to anyone who wants to see how modern, scientific philosophers, answer life's ancient questions and/or those who just would like a leg-up on modern physics, so that you won't be left out in the cold should you encounter a group of people conversing about the topic.

Those with scientific minds, will prosper with this book.

Those that fear God, need not look away. This book does not disparage, criticize, nor impinge. It, as with all books, simply provides a story and its lessons.
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306 of 347 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
In a mere 180 pages, Leonard Mlodinow, the author of the excellent "The Drunkard's Walk" and of debates arguing against Deepak Chopra, and Stephen Hawking, expound a subjective interpretation of quantum physics, and offer a theory to try to unify all of the underlying forces of nature. A grandiose undertaking; along the way, they revisit the philosophical questions of Free Will, the origin of the universe(s) without a creator-God, and vividly describe some of the counter-intuitive concepts generated by quantum physics' strangeness.
They believe that we inhabit one universe in a multiverse version of quantum physics, in which there are an almost infinite number of universes that can arise spontaneously from the "big bang", and which then dictate the laws of nature that follow. This promotion of the so-called "strong anthropic principle" may offend some scientists and philosophers. The role of observation in determining quantum reality, and of its ability to alter the past in events in the quantum world, are just some of the seemingly bizarre concepts elaborated. This includes even the consequences of the delayed slit-lamp experiments. The cornerstone of their approach to quantum physics utilises Richard Feynman's theory of a sum of histories. Further underlying this, is the assumption that "reality" in our world is dependent on the model we use, and that if different models can successfully explain scientific phenomena, then each model must be considered equally "real".
The clarity of the explanations are garnished with bits of humor that are tastefully incorporated without being intrusive. There is no math required, merely good use of logic in order to follow the arguments presented. There is a well-rounded historical summary of scientific discoveries, right up to and including the most recent ideas in string theory and particle physics.
But make no mistake, they are expounding one subjective view of cosmology, and this might come across as overenthusiastic, controversial, or even supercilious, by physicists, other scientists, and philosophers of science, who may not hold these views.
I found the book hard to put down. Accompanying the text are a few diagrams that are helpful in clarifying certain concepts. Overall, a nice summary of physics and cosmology, which culminates in an ambitious and highly subjective analysis/synthesis to try to explain the universe and reality.
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410 of 480 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon September 12, 2010
Format: Hardcover
This is one of the prettiest books that has come across my desk in a long time: well-bound, slick paper, gorgeous pictures. All in all, it is an excellent example of the book-maker's art. Unfortunately, the actual text is so slight that I was disappointed from cover to index.

My first disappointment was right on the cover. I understand that Stephen Hawking is a world famous scientist (and one whom I admire) but was he the primary writer of the text? I hope so, because why else does Leonard Mlodinow have his name in one-third the font size? Mlodinow's book on geometry (Euclid's Window) is a truly great book while Hawking's books, though interesting, are not nearly as well written. I understand that this likely has much to do with marketing but I'm always put off by "ghostwriting."

Then there's the fact that we're being fooled into thinking this is a full-sized hardcover when, in fact, at normal font size and spacing, this book would be a third of its size. Essentially, it is nothing more than a longish essay. As a teacher, I couldn't help but be reminded of students who play around with font size, spacing, and picture inserts to try to appear to reach the required length of an assignment. Disappointing.

Most importantly, however, is the fact that the argument these two highly intelligent men are trying to make is simply unconvincing. Joining the ranks of scientists out to convince everyone that there is no need for god, they are arguing that "M-theory is the only candidate for a complete theory of the universe" which means (among other things) that there are multiple universes that can spontaneously generate from nothing. Beyond that fact that I'm always cautious when any scientist proclaims absolutes and predicts the end of science, as this has happened as often as pastors predicting the end of the world with the same result, there's not enough depth to their development here to make their sweeping conclusions plausible.

In fact, I couldn't help feeling that this was something of an exercise in ego. That Hawking, in particular, is relying on the power of his fame to be convincing rather than the power of his argument. This book simply isn't detailed enough to be a fully-formed argument. I have a degree in physics, know its history, am familiar with Feynman's work, and understand the basics of string theory, but I couldn't see how someone without this kind of background would be able to follow much of this. I don't feel I came away with a clear view of what they were trying to say.

Still, they deserve credit for promoting their atheism without being strident or condescending to believers, and there are some interesting things here. I like some of the history, particularly in the early parts of the book. I like the hints at the difference between model-independent and model-dependent theories, though I thought they could have made more of this. I like the description of the "Game of Life" and what it might mean for the development of a "universe" based on a set of simple rules, though this seems to contradict the main assertion of the book, that an entire sequence of complicated theories is necessary to describe the universe.

In the end, however, it suffers from the same problem as many books of this type. In its most important conclusions, it is all speculation masquerading as certainty. I don't mind speculation, and Hawking and Mlodinow may turn out to be perfectly correct in many or all of their conclusions. But I think the door is a long way from being closed on the debate here, and this book didn't bring me any closer to being convinced.
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47 of 56 people found the following review helpful
on September 26, 2010
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
While there is beginning to be a build up of negative reviews for this book, I want to preface my review by saying that Dr. Hawking is still one of the top players in his field and that his views hold considerable weight given his track record. That being said, I found this book to mirror what most of the reviews have already noted. Nothing new is presented here that wasn't already said in Hawking's earlier book A Brief History of Time. Hawking begins the book by saying that philosophy is dead and that scientists must answer the tough questions about life....then launches into philosophy for a good part of the book. While Hawking has done much work with quantum mechanics, there are reasons to be skeptical of his conclusions given what other prominent people in his field have to say and the current state of knowns and unknowns about quantum mechanics. The best I can say is that the book is interesting at times but highly speculative and the conclusions drawn are questionable. I would suggest reading Roger Penrose's review of the book to get an idea of what his colleagues (Penrose is certainly of the same stature as Hawking, just not as much of a name outside of the scientific field) had to say. Hawking so far as I know, has not really responded to some of the challenges from those within his community.

Conclusion: Don't buy the book unless you're a really big Hawking fan or are doing research on the subject and want Hawking's thoughts on quantum mechanics and scientific determinism. The book is rather short and can be read in just a few days. Perhaps there was a letdown because people expected more from a Stephen Hawking book ( I may be guilty of this )but it feels like Hawking is going over familiar territory and did not do enough to substantiate his position on the subject. Regardless of your feelings about Hawking's atheistic conclusions I would say that theists, agnostics, and atheists alike will not find the challenging, cutting edge book that many had hope for or expected.
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166 of 206 people found the following review helpful
on January 6, 2011
Format: Hardcover
The only good thing I can say about this book is that it is beatifully illustrated. It is very rare that I give a popular physics book such a poor rating. In fact, this is the first time I think I have ever told people not to read one!

As a professional physicist, I think it is very important to understand the basis for all claims in science, proceed with metaphysical statements only when the scientist is fully cognizant of the limitations of such statements, and to keep in perspective the importance of philosophy in the sciences, as well as its role. It is then no wonder why I hated one of the first statements made in the book, namely, that philosophy is dead and has no role in science. Of course it does! Every act of interpreting data is a philosophical act. The formal act of developing a theory is itself an act of philosophy. The only thing I found more mind-boggling than this statement was that Hawking went on to spend the rest of the book talking about realism and anti-realism, which is a central debate in the philosophy of science. Hawking says nothing new about this debate, and I am not entirely sure what final point he was driving at because, as far as I can tell, the conclusion that would most support his position was undermined by numerous statements he made earlier on. His closing statements about working toward a final theory were undermined by the fact that he says that phenomena may have multiple theories attached to it and that no single theory is more correct than the other; it is simply a matter of which is more useful. This is strictly an anti-realist statement, yet it seems that Hawking believes a final theory is, somehow (although he doesn't state "how" this somehow could be, still possible.

I think that this book can only be the result of one of two things: 1) Apathy toward the topic, in which case I don't know why he wrote or 2) This book repesents the waning and utterly diminished mind of a once brilliant theorist. I would hope it is the former.

My biggest complaint about the book is that Hawking refuses to accept that the world is governed by cause and effect. He cites Feynman's idea of sum over histories, but this is taking a theoretical tool and proposing that this is the way the universe is, in-itself. There has been a huge push in the 20th century toward randomness in physics. I think the reason for this is that physicists are despairing over Hume's problem of "What constitutes a necessary causal connection?" Moreover, physicists are also despairing over a question formally posed in the 19th century "What constitutes a necessary statistical inference?" The lack of progress on these two questions have, in my opinion, induced despair and, consequently, indolence. Rather than try to proceed on the natural assumption of physical science, that all physical phenomena are induced by prior physical phenomena, they are simply saying that there is no cause and effect, only randomness that is loosely governed by laws of physics. This a position that Hawking holds to in his book, which is an ironically philosophical one for someone who thinks that philosophy is dead.

If you decide to read this book, be sure to ask at every turn "Is this statement a testable one?" This will provide you with a test to decide whether a statement is a scientific one or a philosophical one.
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77 of 97 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon September 3, 2010
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Widely called The Most Purchased, Least Read Book in American Publishing History, Stephen Hawking's treatise on black holes and space-time was a classic amongst science writing, as well it ought to be. It managed to take extremely abstract and difficult to understand material and make it approachable for thirteen-year-olds. (I was one of said teenagers.)

That said, the material in that book was, to my mind, simpler and more intuitive than what was in this book. Somehow, though, Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow managed to take even trickier material (and far, far more counterintuitive science) and make it approachable for lay folk.

Inside, we are taught a brief history of science, from Thales to Feynman, and many of the thinkers in between. We learn of the intuitive theories of Newton and the bizarre realm of quantum realities. As a person who was familiar with wave-particle duality exhibited by subatomic and elementary particles, there was an amazing moment where experiments done with fullerene (a particle roughly 40 times as massive as water) exhibited the same phenomenon. Literally, there were a half-dozen world-view changing moments in this book for me.

As at least one news website has (woefully!) spoiled for all of us, Hawking's beliefs on the creation of the universe are here, and he doesn't make us wait for his point of view (it's on page 9). That said, there is no polemic, no screeching rant against creationism or even intelligent design. He merely seems to take the position of Laplace. He is far more offensive, actually, with other statements, particularly about philosophy. Yes, much like memoiai, I cringed at the speculation that "philosophy is dead", merely because "philosophers have not kept up with science". Certainly, by the time the book closes, he makes the case that philosophers generally will have to do some catching up if they are to remain the metaphysicians and epistomologists amongst us (but other realms of philosophy, thankfully, remain intact).

Despite a few such grandiose claims (the claim that all biology is a result of the electromagnetic force leaps to mind), this is by no means a belligerent or offensive tract. Rather, it shines through in the entirety of the book, and on virtually every page, that both scientists have the single goal of enlightening and perhaps, dare I say it, entertaining.

It is rare (alas!) to find a book so accurate, so detailed, so educational, and so darned fun to read. This is certainly one that I will read again, and I have already started recommending it to others. (Usually, I start with the mischievous statement, "Want to break your brain?").

It's great. It really is. Things like this are why he deserves a Medal of Freedom, and perhaps a Nobel Prize in Peace as well.

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181 of 235 people found the following review helpful
on October 18, 2010
Format: Audio CD
The media hype is just that--hype. The Grand Design is a very disappointing performance by these elite minds. I expected much more substance from these authors. The essence of their thesis is covered in the final three chapters, a thesis weakly argued with unclear logic and minimal substantiation. I think a more authentic forum would have been an essay in Reader's Digest or Time Magazine.

The authors seek to answer three philosophical/religious questions, seeming to assert that physicists are the new priests with physics as the new religion, because "philosophy is dead". Their modality is application of the suppositions (unproven ideas) of theoretical physics to arrive at a conclusion that M-theory can prove the universe spontaneously erupted from nothing and if proved "will be a model of the universe that creates itself." If the critics of "psi" accept these authors' example of argument I will lose faith in the critics' objectivity when it comes to their evaluation of theories on paranormal phenomenon.

There is little that is new here. Proposing M-Theory as the basis for describing the origin of the universe is certainly not a new idea. Arguing for M-Theory describing a universe's spontaneous generation from nothing is a new proposal in the world of cosmology--but not for the realm of non-Greek based philosophy. Thousands of years ago the Taoist described the universe as self generated from nothing. It's nice to see cosmology is catching up to thousands-of-years-old philosophy, contrary to the authors' opposing assertion in their opening remarks.

I will grant the book will stir thought and argument, which may be the authors' primary goal, since after 30 years of effort string theory /M-theory is wallowing in a quagmire due to its failure to simplify into the grand design. The authors' assert that the disjointed complexity of the M-theory is as good as it gets, just compromise and don't waste any more time on trying to make it better--it is already The Grand Design. Hmmmmm, what was the basis of that argument again?

I hope the authors will take on the rigor of producing a mathematical model, derived from current work that has some validation from Cosmic Ray Background measurements to demonstrate their conclusions. That will at least, allow others to check their work and bring authenticity to the proposal. Maybe they've done that work and neglected to mention it--one can only hope?

I for one, as a professional physicist and engineer, am not convinced by their arguments and do not see that they answered the three philosophical questions proposed in the first chapter. By the end of reading the second chapter I added a fourth question...should cosmologist attempt to become philosophers?

Welcoming your responses,
Bob Lindberg
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344 of 451 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Stephen Hawking's reputation as a scientist is primarily based on his work on black holes in the 1970s. It was an early attempt to unite General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics, an extremely difficult undertaking that engendered a measure of success, making it an important achievement in scientific history. His second claim to scientific fame was the unprecedented triumph of his book A Brief History of Time which sold more than 9 million copies. His well known battle with Lou Gehrig's Disease has confined him to a wheelchair making his raspy, unearthly computer voice instantly recognizable. It has turned him into the most famous scientist in the world but the media suggestion that he inhabits the scientific pantheon with Galileo, Newton and Einstein may be an exaggeration of his achievements. In the opinion of many scientists, legendary physicists such as Maxwell, Planck, Bohr, Dirac and Feynman have made greater contributions and Hawking's reputation as the great seer may be part of the problem with this book.

Hawking and co-writer Leonard Mlodinow have written a short, popularized gloss of modern physics that assumes the reader knows almost nothing of science. We are told as if it were the very first time we had heard it that 2 dimensions means one needs 2 numbers to find a location and an ellipse is a stretched-out circle. The tone of the book can only be described as simultaneously lofty and dumbed-down in order to insure maximum sales. Anyone with even a little scientific sophistication may feel annoyed by this. In any event, the book is not targeted towards those comfortable with mathematics since not only are the simplest sums banished from the book but the very word mathematics seems to have been avoided by design. Where additional knowledge might have materially improved the book some tepid humor has been substituted instead. There are many cartoons included as well, as if emphasizing the book's popularized nature.

Hawking controversially asserts that God was unnecessary during the birth and evolution of the multitude of universes that his chosen M-Theory posits as the cosmic landscape. Although he makes a point of offering this latest offspring of String Theory as his current choice for a Grand Unified Theory of everything, Hawking scarcely provides any explanation of M-Theory other than to assert that it is a theoretical patchwork quilt and conceptually very difficult. Surely if one is writing a book there is an obligation to provide more information than that. It strikes me as odd that in order to banish the concept of a single Creator from the universe Hawking must first embrace a cosmic landscape of 10^500 (10 raised to the power of 500, a number so large that it might as well be infinity) universes in order to explain why our own fortunate universe is so meticulously fine-tuned for life. Prof. Hawking's reason for doing this, of course, is that an infinite number of universes would statistically guarantee at least one life-bearing one, theoretically eliminating the need to explain why ours is so well-adapted for biology. But wouldn't a Supreme Being by very definition bridge all possible universes regardless of their number, thus leaving us right where we started? So why add the unnecessary additional layer of complexity? Surely this cannot be in the spirit of one of science's first principles: Occam's Razor, which suggests that the simplest explanation is usually the correct one.

This book suffers from a real weakness: it often makes vague suggestions without offering substantive science. We are left with hazy conjectures when hard scientific realism is mandatory. Science is based on proof with mathematics as its rigorous handmaiden. Hawking offers us a handful of illustrations and some short anecdotal evidence in its stead. I found that deeply unsatisfactory and inevitably caught myself wishing that Hawking's reputation as a great seer had not clouded his judgement while writing this book.
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13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon September 12, 2010
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
This book has gotten plenty of news coverage due to its theological discussions, so let's just get this out of the way: Hawking does not claim that God does not exist. Rather, he and his co-author claim that it is not necessary to invoke a God to explain the existence of our universe. Of course this is not a new or particularly controversial idea in modern physics, and Hawking has already made similar claims over 20 years ago in A Brief History of Time. So, those reviewers who are so hung up on this issue should simply take a few deep breaths and realize that science has long since moved past the traditional ideas of creation.

Now, the book itself is very short and easy to read. At under 200 pages and with some beautifully designed graphics, reading this book probably wont be an exhaustive task. On the other hand, I'm sure many of the concepts will sound a bit crazy to those not familiar with the craziness of quantum mechanics. Nevertheless, Hawking and Mledinow do a great job at explaining why there are very good reasons to think that the implications of quantum mechanics are true - namely, that they've been experimentally verified.

As far as pop-physics books go, you could do better (the length of the book doesn't allow the authors to go into much detail). But you could also do a hell of a lot worse; A Brief History of Time, even though it's one of the most popular physics books of all time, is much more tedious and boring. The Grand Design, on the other hand, certainly has the best explanations of Hawking's ideas that I've read.

To summarize, a person buying this book because of the media hype will almost certainly be disappointed. Hawking doesn't attempt to disprove God or anything like that, but he does give a pretty good account for how we can understand the universe without appealing to a creator. But if you're mildly interested in the subject of theoretical physics, this book is perfect.
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