Review of "The Grand Design" by Hawking/Mlodinow
Dec 03, 2022
My Preface - Books such as "The Grand Design" attempt to explain the history of physics and cosmological science to the common man in understandable terms, but at times take great leaps of questionable logic that attempt to link the world we know to the worlds we do not know. The reason, I believe, unknowingly on their part perhaps, is to keep the reader feeling good about our existence here, that things are under control, and that science will eventually have all the answers. You can read the book, lay it down and say to yourself, "There, now I don't have to think about eternity anymore." In a blog such as mine that may take issue with certain concepts or presentations made by the authors, the reader might easily become unnerved, or fall back on the responses 'What does he know?', or "Who the hell is he?" Fair enough, however I encourage you to read, enjoy, and think. "Have a think" as they say.
"The Grand Design" is filled with excellent anecdotes of the development of the scientific method throughout its history, as it proceeds with a very readable description of that history for the layperson. Where it fails is in the use of forced logic based on unsupported axioms pulled whole-cloth out of nothing to address such cosmic questions as in Chapter One, "Why is there something rather than nothing?", and "Why do we exist?" I originally thought that there are so many nooks and crannies in the discussions as the authors proceed where questions can be legitimately raised that an initial overview of the book would best be served by becoming more a synopsis of content from which more discrete blog posts could be made on specific details. I have done this, but ended up including some discussion of the more questionable (to me) arguments in the book. If you have not read the book, this brief history will be of timely interest, so to speak.
Chapter One - The Mystery of Being
The first chapter is short, forming a sort of preface, stating that the development of the scientific method since the time of the classical Greeks can now replace religion as the basis for answering the key metaphysical questions of our existence, two of which as stated earlier are, "Why is there something rather than nothing?", and "Why do we exist?" The authors face no greater task than this, as they state, hoping to answer the "Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything". I should note here that they do NOT attempt to address the problem and concept of "nothing", nor does it appear in their otherwise commendable Glossary found at the end of the book. My point is that nothing is something and as you would come to know in my other blog discussions, one of the most important 'things' uniting all the book's multiverses together.
Chapter Two - The Rule of Law
This is not the rule of law such as you would think of in the Constitution of the United States. It is rather the rule of physical laws elucidated by thinkers using reason and science over the course of recorded history to push back the darkness of superstition and overbearing religion. This chapter does present a very readable thumbnail sketch of the development of our collective science over the millennia from the Greeks to the present day, including those dark years before and during the Renaissance when the power of religion was used to suppress scientific curiosity. In today's world of rampant social media disinformation we can use the book's review of history as a cautionary tale. Illiteracy and beliefs in conspiracy have continued throughout the ages. The Modern Era is no exception.
This chapter does make one assumption that makes no sense to me. While stating that the universe is governed by specific laws, such as the law of gravity, the authors (and others in the field of science) adopt what is know as 'an effective theory'. Governance by laws would appear to prevent the exercise of free will. In fact, at several junctures in the book the authors announce that this a book based on scientific determinism. And yet, when the solving of impossibly complex equations for determining the predestination of the trillions of cells in a human body regarding a specific response to an observed stimulus is discussed, the authors invoke the "effective theory" of free will. This gives the layman reader a sense that he/she can make individual decisions, but in reality this theory is pure bunk. It imagines that the soul is something that has a free will. In reality the soul is freer than that because it is in essence nothing, encased in a body for which all actions and reactions are predetermined as part of the infinite interrelatedness of the true inclusive universe. It is relaxing to believe in free will, but it is also relaxing to see through it. Make your choice. Oh! Sorry! You already made it! This discussion will be revisited in the review of Chapter Eight.
Chapter Three - What is Reality?
As is consistent throughout the book the authors here present the history of science and the culture of mankind within which it developed. Such luminaries as Ptolemy, Aristarchus, Aristotle, Copernicus, The Matrix movies, and the philosophers Plato, George Berkeley, Dr. Samuel Johnson, and David Hume begin to explore realist vs. anti-realist notions. In the 20th century the development of quantum physics where particle position and velocity are unknown until measured, and worse, are affected by the action of measurement, has lead to the concept of model-dependent realism (MDR), where theories are developed only for specific slices of the universe being observed.
The authors state that "No mathematical model or theory can describe every aspect of the universe." M-theory, as it is now called, is a network of theories, each addressing a specific subset of the universe's physical relationships with component parts. Dualities exist where two competing theories both adequately explain certain phenomena. The authors also state that, "Another problem that model-dependent realism solves, or at least avoids, is the meaning of existence." Stating that MDR solves the meaning of existence is at best cavalier. The "meaning of existence" properly stated is the Big Why?. Why are we here? No MDR can answer that. Stating the problem is avoided is a better proposition, however the problem remains. The authors do avoid it. In Chapter One the authors say they hope to answer the question "Why do we exist?" The best answer appears to be because we do not not exist, but this seems to be more a statement of fact than an answer to the Big Why question, cleverly asked in the past by Monty Python, "What's all this then?" My own personal response is that we exist to satisfy the demands of Infinity. But, that is just another sleight of hand. I propose thankfully that that mystery will always continue.
The chapter ends by describing quantum theory and its approach to the next chapter, "Alternative Histories". This theory states that "every possible version of the universe exists simultaneously in what is called quantum superposition." This means that the answer to the question, Does an objective reality exist? is No. The authors and I agree on this point.
Chapter Four - Alternative Histories
Quantum Superposition - This chapter focuses on the mystery of anyone actually knowing what is going on in the universe, how it is all going on all of the time, and how that by simply observing an action we do in fact influence it. It is a way of saying that we are all in the same soup, and that our very existence is influencing everything around us, just as everything around us is influencing us. Alternative histories mean that the outcome of any interaction is uncertain; there are only probabilities. We walk on a crowded sidewalk. We know where we want to go, but the path to get there will be uncertain. There are even universes where we never get to our destination. I stop for a bagel and need to cancel a meeting. An infinity of universes spread outward and come together at every moment in the universe of time.
Chapter Five - The Theory of Everything
Here, a history and description of the four major forces we know of today and relativity in the physical world are presented in order of their recognition by mankind and their mathematical development. Finally, Quantum theory is discussed.
1. Gravity - Newton's Laws - 1600s
2. Electric and Magnetic Forces - Orsted, Faraday, Maxwell, Michelson, Morley, Kelvin - 1800s
-. Light, Space-Time, Relativity - Einstein - 1900s
3. Weak Nuclear Force - responsible for radioactivity
4. Strong Nuclear Force - holds atomic nuclei together and thought to include sub-nuclei components such as quarks
5. Quantum theory - M-theory, dimensions, universes, quantum electrodynamics (QED), quantum chromodynamics (QCD)
Quantum theory includes the possibility that all forces are related in some as yet unknown way. QED and QCD have helped to show relationships between the electromagnetic and atomic forces, but have to date failed to be able create a quantum gravitational theory. Here I quote an entire paragraph from the book and discuss a key blind spot in the current description of our universe by physicists.
"The reason a quantum theory of gravity has proven so hard to create has to do with the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, which we discussed in Chapter 4. It is not obvious, but it turns out that with that principle, the value of a field and its rate of change play the same role as the position and velocity of a particle. That is, the more accurately one is determined, the less accurately the other can be. An important consequence of this is that there is no such thing as empty space. That is because empty space means that both the value of a field and its rate of change are exactly zero. (If the field's rate of change were not zero, the space would not remain empty.) Since the uncertainty principle does not allow the values of both the field and the rate of change to be exact, space is never empty. It can have a value of minimum energy, called the vacuum, but that state is subject to what are called quantum jitters, or vacuum fluctuations - particles and fields quivering in and out of existence."
The problem with this description is with the value of a field being zero, and the entire concept of 'rate of change'. At a given moment in time a field's value can be zero as it oscillates back and forth in its wave amplitude function. The problem lies with the "rate of change" equaling zero. Not only cannot the rate of change equal zero, it cannot equal any value. If the rate of change equals zero then the field is undetectable. If the rate of change is any number then that number brings the fields toward infinity after any amount of time. The problem lies with the concept of duration. In any experiment the experiment always begins with t=0, i.e., the starting point. The starting point indicates or assumes there will be an ending point. Time then becomes a measurement of duration.
However, the universe does not exist in a duration. Duration implies a "history of time", a history of the universe over time. If a history is not what the universe is, then what is the universe? The universe is NOW. Did you ever notice how a minute from NOW, it is still NOW. As far as we know the universe has always been NOW. That would suggest that NOW is also FOREVER. The in-betweens are all the durational dimensions of the universe, and our creation of 3 and 4 dimensional constructs to deal with an ever-changing NOW.
The application of a NOW moment to a field oscillating through its zero value NOW position produces the case that cannot be adequately described by the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. But, it does describe the doorway to the world that leavens the universe of universes. The existence of NOW and the why of it is the crux of all physics. Some say that when you die you become one with this NOW energy. In that case you are no longer around to ask the question why. So, the mystery of existence will forever remain a mystery. Fascinating!
Chapter 6 - Choosing Our Universe
This chapter leads towards the quantum understanding that while we continue to develop the description of our commonly agreed-upon universe there are many other possible universes out there that we cannot know and cannot investigate due to a lack of the ability to observe them. As the authors lay out the known facts, so to speak, we are often confronted with science's inability to get around this concept of the unknown and the unknowable. For instance, in the description of the expanding universe, we are confronted with the statement that the universe must have been smaller in the past. But, smaller than compare to what? It is unexplainable.
The description of the expanding universe goes back to Edwin Hubble's finding of red shifts in the spectrographs of distant stars that can only be explained by the stars' motions away from us as observers. Furthermore, it has been detected that this expansion only occurs in areas of low ambient gravitational forces. In other words, galaxies and clusters of galaxies are not expanding due to the local strength of gravitation which resists what should be a universal expansion throughout the universe. Only the distance between these clusters is growing, not within.
This description of our expansionistic universe is based on a rather homocentric view where our local space-time is considered to be that of a stable unchanging continuum. There is an alternate view to this where an observer stands outside our universe and registers instead that the space between galactic clusters is unchanging. In that view all the matter in these gravitationally glued-together agglomerations of stars is seen to be shrinking into their gravitational wells over time. The endgame of this particular viewpoint is unkind indeed. Recent discoveries that the rate of universal expansion is actually increasing plays well into the shrinking matter scenario, since gravity is at its heart an inverse square law. May the unknown forces beyond our known universe save us. That we are but children playing in our own local sandbox does not lessen the incredible amazement that is our world and its underlying leavening agent.
An example - if we think of a proton as being the size of our Earth, what would be the distance to the closest electron circling the nucleus? Use the elemental hydrogen atom with its single proton as the example. The hydrogen atom has one proton and one electron, which we could say unquantumly "spins" around the proton like our moon. How far away would that electron be? It would be in the region of 17.6 billion miles away, which is over 4 times the distance of Pluto from the sun. That's a lot of space with nothing existing between our proton planet and that electron moon.
To make the case that the expansion of the universe occurred by way of the popular Big Bang concept, gathered data poured into our theoretical models shows us that there had to be a very early-on cosmic inflationary period where the universe expanded much faster than the speed of light. The authors explain that "nothing can move faster than the speed of light, but that speed limit does not apply to the expansion of space itself." This statement is very problematic in that earlier the authors noted that the expansion of our universe was only occurring in the empty regions of space between galaxies or larger groups of galaxies, indicating that gravity could resist this expansion. And, yet this gravitational force is thought through general relativity to be limited by the speed of light. This would indicate that the expansion we are witnessing today is of a different nature than the inflationary expansion at the inception of our universe.
Another concern of the statement that the expansion of space itself is not limited by the speed of light is the earlier statement that, "Since the uncertainty principle does not allow the values of both the field and the rate of change to be exact, space is never empty." If it is not empty this means that there are things in it, such as electromagnetic and gravity waves that ARE limited by the speed of light. To achieve expansion faster than the speed of light would imply that space is a separate entity from the objects found in it. I am certainly ok with that. In fact, I am heartened by this as the primary feature of space for me is that it is in fact nothing. If you examine the statement that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light in a positive way, then you admit that "nothing" is something and needs to be treated as such in any description of any universe. This goes hand in hand with the true end points of universes where the dimensional point time = zero becomes now and forever at the same time. It also goes hand in hand with the concepts of singularities where everything exists at one point where all dimensions cease along with time. This is the wellspring from which all universes emerge and collapse into.
This chapter does have theories for which I take no issue, that there are universes invisible to us with differing numbers of dimensions or physical laws at play within those universes. The next chapter will explain that many of these universes are unlivable and that our particular universe is a rare one. Rare or not, we can talk about it because we are in it. So, if someone supernaturalist asks you if you are a medium just say, "No! I'm a rare!"
Chapter Seven - The Apparent Miracle
"The Apparent Miracle" is one of the best chapters of this book. It describes the uniqueness of our universe and reasons why it is an uncommon one. The chapter begins with the rarity even in our own universe of easy to grasp conditions necessary for the development of life as we know it to evolve. Checkmark items such as being in the Goldilocks zone around a single star with a fairly circular orbit are discussed, as well as the physical laws necessary for physical particles such as atoms to form and to build into larger atoms and molecules that have permitted the generation of our carbon-based lifeforms. The moment in time in which we live in in our universe is also important as the life and death of stars is required in order to generate these more complex atoms. This requires billions of years to transpire from the initial appearance of a universe such as ours.
These physical laws are further examined whereas slight variations in their operating principles would prevent life from ever forming. Details of the triple alpha process of carbon atom formation in stars is discussed with attention paid to the strength of the nuclear forces that govern these reactions. Models show that as little as a "0.5% change in the strength of the strong nuclear force or 4% in the electric force, would destroy either nearly all carbon or all oxygen in every star, and hence the possibility of life as we know it." Minor changes to the strengths of other forces would also prevent life. If our universe had more than three space dimensions, then stable orbits for planets would be impossible. Even the repulsive force responsible for the accelerating rate of expansion of our universe, originally defined as Einstein's cosmological constant is so fine-tuned that a different strength would have blown apart the universe before stars could even form. That all these other universes with possible different strength values for forces common to us must exist shows how rare ours is, and that does not even begin to address those universes with different forces than those at play in our own. We are truly rare. Does this give us a designation as the Chosen People by a God who created a home just for us? I do not believe so. We are here in this unique universe, and though rare, so is each other universe. Life simply is one aspect of this universe. Other universes have other aspects. All exist. My fundamental core belief is that Infinity is Everything and Nothing, Now, and Forever. Its property is to demand that all things exist at the same time now and forever somewhere. The Big Bang is always happening. You just have to know where to look. You will always find it as it is all happening NOW.
Chapter Eight - The Grand Design
The eighth and final chapter of "The Grand Design" is one of the shortest and one of the weakest in the book. As the authors state, "The laws of nature tell us how the universe behaves, but they don't answer the why? questions that we posed at the start of this book: Why is there something rather than nothing? Why do we exist? Why this particular set of laws and not some other?"
The bulk of this chapter is filled with a rather detailed description of the computer model called the Game of Life, invented in 1970 by John Conway that explores how "living" and "non-living" blocks in an array interact over time to a given set of rules, meant to determine if groups of blocks might be able over time to replicate themselves, thus carrying on through time as life does here on Earth. These six pages of description culminate with the question as to whether or not self-replicating lifeforms could become self-conscious. That rather simple question could have been asked without Conway's model, but there it is.
The authors then note correctly that some people believe self-awareness is unique to humans and that this is the basis of the argument for free will. I am gratified that at least the authors do not state that belief as a fact, but limit the idea to "some people". My personal belief is that the entire universe is self-aware, all the way down to atoms, quarks, and beyond through the entire infinity of the smaller and smaller, as well as the larger and larger. However, withholding the judgment of self-consciousness breaks down for the authors when tackling the issue of free will. Speaking about scientific determinism's inability to solve equations for the predictions of interactions between the trillions of cells (call them particles, if you will) in the human body, the authors come up with the statement, "We would therefore have to say that any complex being has free will - not as a fundamental feature, but as an effective theory, an admission of our inability to do the calculations that would enable us to predict its actions."
Take a second and think about that. Oh, we can't solve the equation, so therefore we will just say "Free Will!" like a battle cry, because it makes an effective theory? "No Free Will!" makes just as an effective theory, especially if you are talking about a universe of universes. In fact you could have universes of free will and no free will, with the "Free Willers" species being that group of beings that can jump from universe to universe as they make their choices. That open-ended description makes better sense than claiming free will. And, then there is also the definition in their statement of what is a "complex being". Is a human that much more complex than an ape? And, if self-awareness is more than a trait unique to humans, then shouldn't free will also apply to all other complex beings? What is the difference between a human deciding whether or not to eat that next slice of pizza and an almost full lion deciding whether or not to expend the effort to tackle that passing antelope? You think you are free to decide, but were you really? In my view, the authors on this point in their book took the easy path of providing a nervous public a definitive answer that soothes nerves and gives in to the basic human hubris of pride and self-importance. Of course we have free will. Animal spirits! Charge!!!! . . . Are you an effective team?
The chapter next refers back to the Game of Life, noting that we are in what you could call a "continuous world", which in turn develops the concept of energy, described as a conserved quantity that doesn't change over time. Herein is contained several sentences that have deeper meanings than you might expect at first glance. Quoting, "The energy of empty space will be a constant, independent of both time and position. One can subtract out this constant vacuum energy by measuring the energy of any volume of space relative to that of the same volume of empty space, so that we may as well call the constant zero." Counter that quote with this one mentioned earlier in my review of Chapter Five, " . . . there is no such thing as empty space. That is because empty space means that both the value of a field and its rate of change are exactly zero. (If the field's rate of change were not zero, the space would not remain empty.) Since the [Heisenberg] uncertainty principle does not allow the values of both the field and the rate of change to be exact, space is never empty. It can have a state of minimum energy, called the vacuum, but that state is subject to what are called quantum jitters, or vacuum fluctuations - particles and fields quivering in and out of existence." Comparing these two quotes we find that this state of minimum energy is zero, which makes sense as there will be occasions where particles and waves coming into and going out of any volume of space are at their personal zero point between positive and negative energy states. This contradicts the first sentence of the second quote, "there is no such thing as empty space". In fact, moment by moment there is such a thing as empty space and that energy value is indeed zero.
This theoretical definition of empty space, built through a confluence of multiple understandings of our physical world is the gateway to infinity and our best grasp of an all-inclusive reality. Completely empty space as a concept is liberating. A cubic meter of space has the same value and property of a cubic parsec of space. They are both Nothing. And Nothing is coincidentally Something, since you have just imagined it. Once again, our reality is amazing and mind-boggling.
Further on in this chapter the authors do explain that with the sum total of forces measurable in our universe we can postulate that entire universes can create themselves spontaneously out of nothing. However, they end that discussion with the sentence "Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist." This logic takes the reader out on a gangplank and then pushes them unceremoniously into the sea. Simply because you can create something out of nothing does not mean that "nothing" is gone. "Nothing" is here and active at every moment. Nothing is now and forever. And, it certainly does not answer the question Why? That question will always remain a mystery.
Though the authors transmit the idea that we in science are on the path to understanding and perhaps confirming a grand design, please dear reader, continue to question and build your own understanding of the universe, not only with this book but with your own experience throughout your brief time spent in this particular universe. Perhaps the authors best personal understandings are to be found in the Acknowledgments. Those that helped us "provided not just moral support, but practical and technical support without which we could not have written this book. Moreover, they always knew where to find the best pubs."