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Digesting Stephen Hawking’s new book

grand design.jpg

By James Dacey

I’m a big fan of the Guardian‘s Digested Read in which columnist John Crace takes a newly released book and condenses it into short humorous parody of the original work, often relying on our intimate knowledge of the celebrity author in question. This week, it was the turn of Stephen Hawking and his recent release The Grand Design, which was making headlines across the globe before it was even released last week.

I have picked out a couple of bits that really made me chortle:

“Quantum theories can be formulated in many ways, but the most intuitive is the description of it as a system that has not just one history but every possible history. Let me explain. This book may look unique. But really it’s almost identical to at least three other books in which I have tried and failed to explain cutting-edge astrophysics to the scientifically illiterate…

“But I suppose we should start with Democritus’s theory of the atom, God, scientific determinism and effective theory because that’s pretty much what I’ve done in the past, but I can’t help feeling I’m wasting my time. Though that feeling may not be correct, as there are many different pictures of reality. In other words, there is no theory-independent concept of reality; rather there is only model-dependent realism, where our four-dimensional world may be shadows on the boundaries of 11-dimensional space–time. Sod it. I was right first time. I have lost you already. So there’s probably no point you reading the next bit about quarks and pi mesons.”

The parody is written in good spirit, but I couldn’t help but smile in recognition when I read Crace’s closing footnote: “Er…thanks Stephen, that’s lovely. If you could just end with something you haven’t written before to create a few headlines, then we’re done. How about God doesn’t exist? Lovely job. Let’s do it all again in a couple of years.”

Read the full digested read on the Guardian website.

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16 comments

  1. Tom Sullivan

    Well I happen to agree with Dr. Hawkings statement that god was not needed for the creation of the universe. If in the beginning there may have been nothing. This nothingness could be considered true space, space with absolutely nothing in it. If this true space may also responsible for gravity, the potential energy of this extreme gravity could be the energy that was realized resulting in matter. In getting a little out there if one looks at the ancient text as people writing about science without the correct words to define this science, it could be interpreted that this true space is what they called god. This true space may reside within all particles within all things and is always trying to pull all things together. So is god a diety, or is god true space and the potential energy of it’s immense gravity? There is no plan, there is no reason, the only reasons that can be is explanations that form in retrospect.

  2. Wow! Did anyone else see John Horgan’s (Scientific American) comments on Hawking’s book, “M-theory”, tautological “anthropic reasoning” and the overly fecund “multiverse” inadvertently created by the sorcerer’s apprentices?
    Do I detect a sea change regarding credulity?

  3. John Duffield

    Me:
    http://www.scientificamerican.com/blog/post.cfm?id=cosmic-clowning-stephen-hawkings-ne-2010-09-13
    Good article. How anybody swallows all that M-theory anthropic multiverse stuff absolutely beats me. Talk about emperor’s new clothes.

  4. Jerry Wigglesworth

    I see now Steven Hawking has come up with a theory of the universe that “obviates” God. Does anyone think it is an accident that the “media buzzline” on this book is “Hawking says there is no need for God”? Either he is trying to sell more books or he is worried that science could be forced into a corner of permanent inexplicability as concerns “our” universe, he is worried that we might have to invoke an explanation for “our” universe from an organizing order, agency or rationality from outside “our” universe…which is…sort of….what he does! (it has been said that the atheistic scientists spend much more time “worrying about God” than do theistic scientists)
    I guess Dr. Hawking finally found that region north of the North Pole, after all. I guess it is not only “turtles all the way down” holding up the Earth, but “universes all the way down” too!
    Actually it is the recycled “multiverse” “string” or “many worlds interpretation of QM”, now now rolled into “M-theory”. Not only does it not have a shred of physical evidence, but it maximally violates Occam’s simplicity as well as Popper’s falsefiability criteria. And as yet it has absolutely no explanatory power for the origin and form of the rationally consistent, ontologically independent ideas reflected in physical law, -in other words, -it has not explained the reason why the physical laws should be such that they have “order” and are not only “rational”, but are rationally understood by evolved minds that themselves were only randomly generated by evolution for basic survival fitness. Hawking’s idea can effectively be re-stated as: “all that physically can be… -was, or is, or will be!”. Or -”infinite physical possibilities exist…this (“our” universe) is one of them”.
    -Certainly not “mythological” or religious statements, but certainly metaphysical statements that I imagine have rattled around the brains of philosophers for quite some time now. Science, because of its’ epistemological and ontological self-imposed limitation, is forced to come up with a naturalistic explanation of the Big Bang singularity, but here in M-theory it merely pushes back or deflects the ultimate eternal “agency, means or instrumentality” of causality, existence, and action in the universe…just my humble opinion, of course.

  5. Nick Evanson

    At least this particular tome is somewhat original, unlike Hawking’s first effort with A Brief History of Time: it’s resemblance to Weinberg’s The First Three Minutes pushed the boundaries of what one could reasonably class as coincidence. It would be interesting to know just how much input and editorial control Mlodinow had in this book compared to A Briefer History of Time.

  6. My collaborator Ilexa Yardley and I believe that the real M-theory involves what we call ‘Extended Mind’, and that conventional approaches suffer through ignoring the possibility that mind may be as fundamental as matter. The key point is that biological systems are highly constrained in both content and organisation by the requirements of survival and reproduction (without which they would not exist). We hypothesise that what happens at deeper levels of nature is similar.
    So physics does not depend on some God-given mathematical scheme; rather, such schemes emerge as the biologically organised systems develop mathematical capacities (God may or may not be part of the picture here), with universes with their specific properties emerging in parallel. This is not philosophy: suitable models can be created and they just have to be guided in the right direction to fit with what we want to explain and with our understanding of how biological systems work.
    Effort comparable to that currently put into developing string theory, applied in this context instead, should enable a detailed account to be gained of how this all comes about, the kinds of problems involved in both situations being similar. And, in contrast to the difficulty in investigating string theory in the laboratory, the properties of mind specific to these models are accessible to us already since some of them are our own.
    Why should one prefer this to the kind of account advocated by people such as Hawking? I went into this in some detail in my 70th birthday lecture which gave a preliminary account of our thinking, on line at
    http://sms.cam.ac.uk/media/871489
    but basically there are a number of issues that seem difficult to address or comprehend on the basis of conventional theories, that can be accounted for more naturally if mentality is present at all levels; and there is a definite rationale behind our approach which will, I believe, render materialistic thinking obsolete in time.

  7. Imre von Soos

    I am glad to see from the general reactions coming from the press and from the various comments that Hawking became finally instrumental to the long awaited change in physics – and maybe even in other branches of science – by discrediting the actual trends with his writings.
    It would be most interesting if a good reporter, like James Dacey, would interview some of the great experts of leading universities and squeeze out some straight answers in support or in opposition of Hawking’s writings.

  8. If Occam’s razor is used to distinguish between the competing creation theories then Genesis wins hands down, on the grounds of its simplicity. Creationists would also have it that reality should be decided by those with sufficient faith in the ultimate undefinable, God. After all, in a real democracy, they argue, reality should be determined by the most morally upright , vocal and populist faction. How much more unscientific are they being than Hawking declaring that the year 2000 would represent the end of history because all of physics would have been discovered by then? In any case, he borrowed the idea from Nostradamus. The contention that there was no need for a Creator relies upon the notion that the most important physical developments are random in nature and not, as Einstein hoped they would turn out to be, determinate. If you define your Creator as the fifth force that unites the other known forces of Nature your brand of Creationism would be hard for the theorists to dispute but you’d still need to satisfy those who demand He be human in nature.

  9. Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow write a sequel to “A Brief History of Time” to attempt to answer the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything. Both authors assess their belief that the M-Theory is the only viable candidate for a complete “theory of everything”.
    Nothing more far from reality! Once again Hawking presents us his superficial thinking and outdated theories, being completely unaware of recentest scientific advances…

  10. Imre von Soos

    Just as I have posted a comment, came up the posting Nr.7 of Professor Brian Josephson, which has animated me to no end. At long last somebody has touched a subject that was rejected whenever I have tried to sneak it into a discussion: a subject that is the foundation of my personal reality and that is: Mind over Matter. Here and there I have mentioned the conscious and rational causative Principle underlying physical manifestations, or David Bohm’s implicate-explicate order, with the only reaction that “Bohm’s ideas are not accepted by the mainstream”.
    The General System Research for the understanding of how biological and physical systems work, originated by Ludwig von Bertalanffy, popularized by Arthur Koestler and presented by them on the Alpbach Symposium “Beyond Reductionism” in 1968, was soon pushed into oblivion. The only place where I could lecture over Holistic Philosophy and Science (beside architectural and engineering design) was in Brazilian Universities, but related essays in the English language were nowhere else accepted.
    There appears to be no problem with being a religious fundamentalist or a materialist-atheist fundamentalist, but they join hands in their fight against natural spirituality originated in expanded consciousness and rational thinking: active perception, active intuition, active intelligence and active ethics.
    Wouldn’t there be just about time for a respected and serious medium, like Physicsworld, open up the opportunity for the expression of some original thoughts? Or is the dominating Zeitgeist so scared from a change to the better?

  11. Sukraacharya

    Crace’s parody is indeed interesting read, but he seems to be making fun of the quantum description. I am sure he realizes that the computer he uses, the silicon chip in all communication and interfacing devices, are designed on the basis of our understanding of the quantum nature. If he is clear about this, then his parody might be misleading to the more innocent. If he thinks that the sum over history is not the correct description, and that the history of every particle in the Universe was written by the “intelligent designer”, then how can the deviations from such path occur, and from where does the concept of sin arise. Consciousness would be redundant as one has to trudge along the thin line no matter what. In such a deterministic world any heinous sin will be forgiven for the repentant.
    I feel more happy in a probabilistic world, where the sum over all my previous activities determines my most probable next step. Here, I find alternatives to the well traversed average path of maximum probability, make a conscious choice on the direction of my next step, and also bear all the responsibility for this.
    Of course there is no model independent view of the reality. Every perception, which results from the processing of the sensory inputs by the individual, is different. It is obvious that we will only be able to approximate the truth, and never perceive the absolute. So which is real, something that we can never achieve, or that we perceive?

  12. R. Haynes

    Spontaneous creation, without regard for the Laws of Physics, would seem to completely negate Hawking’s premise that a God is not necessary. Eventually we will have a comprehensive universe theory which is based on reality and standard physics, and is consistent with astronomical observations. Then it will be up to each scientist to individually decide whether intervention from a supernatural entity is necessary or even possible.

  13. I Do Seriously Not agree with Hawking : Philosophy is still alive.
    I’m sorry for my poor english so be brief , Dos God allowed us to use here natural numbers ? For example, electron, photon … ? Where is the source of concept of natural numbers ,For example,the natural number ‘one’ come to human being’s mind from ? maybe Only the macro world. So, Do’s the ‘one’(–that natural number we can Applied to an apple) can be applied to ‘electron’ ? in my mind ,that is Doubtful. Maybe God never say the word–’one’ electron. that’s true we have no ‘half-clicks’ , but There are no “half-clicks.” not equal to There are ‘one’ electron,just ‘one’ ‘click’,the natural number ‘one’ ( for apple) not equal to the ‘one’ (for electron),we need something (the new natural number ‘one’ for electron?) to be coming from quantum phenomenon , we know our electron experiment must be ‘reconstruct’ on ‘clicks’(that’s Macroscopic phenomenon) ,Maybe this’s another interpretation ?
    “The first thing we notice with our electron experiment is that we hear sharp
    “clicks” from the detector (that is, from the loudspeaker). And all “clicks” are
    the same. There are no “half-clicks.””(From Richard Feynman’s Lectures on Physics)
    I has more for the idea in my blog : http://xexz.mysmth.net(chinese) if interesting ,comment welcom.

  14. Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, Nobel physicist, in 1959 invited me to the University of Chicago’s Yerkes Observatory. He introduced me to mysticism and the universality of the Universe. Chandra once said “God is man’s greatest creation.” He wasn’t questioning God just people who shape God to their preferred image.
    In “The Grand Design” Stephen Hawking postulates that the M-theory may be the Holy Grail of physics…the Grand Unified Theory which Einstein had tried to formulate and later abandoned. It expands on quantum mechanics and string theories.
    In my free e-book on comparative mysticism is a quote by Albert Einstein: “…most beautiful and profound emotion we can experience is the sensation of the mystical. It is the sower of all true science. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and most radiant beauty – which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their primitive form – this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of all religion.”
    E=mc², Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity, is probably the best known scientific equation. I revised it to help better understand the relationship between divine Essence (Spirit), matter (mass/energy: visible/dark) and consciousness (f(x) raised to its greatest power). Unlike the speed of light, which is a constant, there are no exact measurements for consciousness. In this hypothetical formula, basic consciousness may be of insects, to the second power of animals and to the third power the rational mind of humans. The fourth power is suprarational consciousness of mystics, when they intuit the divine essence in perceived matter. This was a convenient analogy, but there cannot be a divine formula.

  15. David Bailey

    I can’t help wondering if fundamental physics is approaching a real period of cricis:
    1) The various potential mathematical theories contain so many parameters and variants that almost any experimental facts can be accommodated. At the same time, they deviate from the predictions of older theories only in extreme conditions – such as those pertaining fractions of a second after the big bang – that they are poorly constrained by experimental data.
    2) Much of the experimental data is of an extremely indirect nature. For example, cosmological red shifts are used to determine the distances, and hence the ages of objects, but if one part of the theory used to do this is wrong, vast numbers of established results would become suspect!
    3) I suspect that Brian Josephson is right when he suggests that consciousness is a fundamental aspect of reality – not an outcome of complex systems theory. Indeed, the founders of Quantum Mechanics explicitly hinted at this in the standard interpretation of QM. Since consciousness seems to coexist with matter at normal temperatures and pressures (!!), that would imply that a big shakeup to all of physics may be on the way – not just to the physics of black holes and big bangs!
    4) There also seems to be a computational limit to physics. For example, nobody actually knows if quantum mechanics accurately describes the working of a biological cell – a full ab-initio treatment of such a system will almost certainly be forever out of reach. It is just assumed that quantum mechanics applies to such systems!
    5) I do worry somewhat about the fundamental assumption that science is totally honest. Suppose, for example, that someone came up with good evidence that the supposed fluctuations in the universal background radiation, were in fact due to a more mundane form of noise. Would his/her paper ever get published, given the acute embarrassment that this would cause to so many people?

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