THE-GRAND-DESIGN-By-Stephen-Hawking-and-LeonardTHE GRAND DESIGN
By Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow
208 pp. Bantam

Many reviewers know about a little book dubbed Rotten Reviews, edited by Bill Henderson. Inside are vitriolic reviews of literary masterpieces. Thus we have George Bernard Shaw describing Shakespeare’s Othello as “pure melodrama…There is not a touch of characterization that goes below the skin,” Athenaeum magazine labeling Moby-Dick as “an Ill-compounded mixture of romance and matter of fact,” and Whitney Balliett in The New Yorker telling us that Joseph Heller “wallows in his own laughter and finally drowns in it.” There are many others even more condemnatory.

Reviewing has always been a tricky business but in addition to such misfires as the ones quoted above, there are other new publishing trends which make the practice even more challenging. The onset of electronic journalism together with the world of hype and instantaneous reaction has presented new problems. When The Grand Design was published in September 2010, it was accompanied by hundreds of reviews in the very first days as it achieved the No.1 ranking on the Amazon bestseller list ahead of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. In microseconds, reviewers honed in on the “God controversy” that everyone knew would be the leading topic of conversation. Most reviewers saturated their commentary with this “God” hoopla while relatively few parenthetically noted the authors’ seminal thinking on quantum theory, relativity, “M-theory,” multiverses, and gravity – areas of physics which heavily challenge most readers’ intellects. And then…in a few weeks the discussions ceased, the talking heads switched to new subjects, the ultimate ontological questions of our earthly existence evaporated, and copies of The Grand Design began rapidly gathering dust in the world’s bookshelves.

Important books of recent vintage need to be revisited. Reviewers should bear a large part of the brunt of explicating, analyzing and educating readers when long periods of reflection yield revisionist ideas that don’t occur to them when they write their “first night” reviews.

In The Grand Design, there is much complex science that most readers don’t have a clue about. If we focus on just one – quantum physics – we could spend volumes explicating. Richard Feynman, whom the authors acknowledge as the leading authority, has thrown up his hands in desperation trying to do this. “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics,” he exclaims. Yet it is precisely this byzantine science of subatomic particles and their behavior that Hawking and Mlodinow shed important light on at the beginning of their book.

The authors initiate their discussion on quantum physics by stating that the behavior of sub-atomic particles has been scientifically tested “more than any other theory in science” and verified for over 80 years at this point. The tests have shown that because these particles matter-of-factly move at or near the speed of light they do not obey Newton’s laws which are the basis of our commonsense understanding of the universe. In the chapter 4 “buckyball molecule” illustration, the particles are shown to defy Newton’s gravity and obey quantum theory that might appear to many to be “science fiction.”

If you throw a ball to your friend across the room it will obey Newton’s laws. But if you shoot a molecule in similar fashion it will obey a randomness that renders Newtonian law meaningless.

These notions are difficult for people to accept. And if many of them have a hard time accepting Darwinian evolution, which is far easier to demonstrate precisely because it does appeal to common sense, how can acceptance of quantum mechanics hope to find its way into everyday awareness?

The answer is that it doesn’t have much of a chance.

Theory which defies popular thinking is difficult to change. When John Milton published his epic poem Paradise Lost in the 1660s, he used the Ptolemaic arrangement of the solar system even though the Copernican one had been scientifically accepted for almost 200 years. He simply could not bring himself to change over.

Although quantum physics is tough, Hawking and Mlodinow give readers new ways of understanding it through their discussion, illustrations, and plain old street sense.

This part of The Grand Design is relatively small. The other parts on such topics as multiverses and M-theory need further explicatory work from other reviewers. The book contributes much but it will take repeated reviewer visitation to help readers understand and appreciate the thinking within.

Nick Catalano

This review was originally published in ‘The Internet Review of Books’. Book Club India byan arrangement made with ‘The Internet Review of Book’ republishes some of the best reviews. We gratefully acknowledge and thank the original reviewers and the promoters of this website. You are advised to visit http://internetreviewofbooks.blogspot.in/ to read more reviews.

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