Monday, April 11, 2011

The Grand Design Book Review

Note: I don't normally do book reviews, and I am consequently not well versed in the art of producing them. Nor do I desire to be. This is as much an overview and discussion about my experience with the book as it is a review.

Title: The Grand Design, by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow (2010)

This book is an absolute must read for anyone who is interested in science, and, more specifically, the origins of the known universe(s) (yes, universes (read the book)).

[Allow me to dispel a rumour regarding this book, before I briefly discuss it: This book in no way incorporates into its main thesis the idea that there is no god, so for those of you theists who think it does so, you can rest assured it absolutely does not. What is said, is that in their view, based on the science, no god was required. There's a huge difference there. Huge.]

The book basically takes the reader on a journey through the history of cosmology, starting with the early philosophers, astronomers and mathematicians, up through Galileo, Newton, and Einstein, to Feynman and the other early quantum physicists, and ends with the current state of both quantum physics and cosmology as a whole. Of course, the authors know their audience, and provide a general overview with some clever analogies to elucidate the harder to grasp concepts. This book will NOT render you an expert in any given field; rather, it will fill you in on the general idea of where things stand, and where they appear to be headed, and will teach you a few specific things along the way which will blow your freaking mind.

One of these absolutely mind blowing ideas, at least for me, was the concept of the rapid expansion that took place within the first like trillionth of a second post onset (of the big bang). Basically, matter that would be measured on the Planck Scale (sorry if my terminology is off here....I'm but a layman....yes, even after reading this book lol) expanded to a size like a billion billionth times larger than the Milky Way galaxy. In the first like .00000000000000000000000000000000001 second! The example they gave was to imagine a penny suddenly expanding to a size larger than our galaxy in under a millisecond. Under. A. Millisecond. The fuck?

Think that sounds crazy?

So did I.
(I had always thought that the expansion was a prolonged, steady, accelerating process, with no periods of super rapid expansion or rapid deceleration). That is, until I read further and they began to explain how they know; basically, it boils down to the near uniformity of the temperature across the cosmic microwave background radiation (CMBR). See, the temperature is near uniform, with only small derivations seen at any point. This near perfect uniformity of temperature would only be possible if the heat were able to dissipate across the surface of the radiation in the time frame it had to do so.

This, as confirmed by mathematical calculation and known laws of chemistry (and whatnot....ya, I'm no expert, as I said) could only have happened if the radiation was spread across an area so small that the heat was able to dissipate, thus cooling off the most heated areas and warming the coolest, bringing the temperature across the field to about even. See, the CMBR is FAR too large for the heat to have dissipated in the time since its inception. It could only have happened at a certain size. This, combined with other evidence, has shown that at the onset of the big bang expansion, things at first moved so rapidly one cannot barely even fathom it.

The book is full of mind blowing tidbits of info like this, although, as is to be expected, many of them are not quite so easily understood (or explained). Much of the quantum mechanics stuff, while fascinating, is hard to grasp. I found myself reading and then re-reading some sections over and over and over, trying to coax my befuddled brain into taking the pieces of information presented it and putting them together into a coherent picture. I sometimes failed. Curse you, lack of a scientific background!

Other than the sometimes boggling complexity, even for a simplistic book (relative to the complexity of the given subjects, not relative to most reading material), the only other downsides, at least to me, were the length and price. Don't get me wrong, it's a high quality release, with very good binding, top quality paper and very cool full colour original artistry, but at 180 or so pages and a price tag of $39.99 CDN (Hardcover), it's a hefty investment, at least for me. I was done reading it within a few days, only reading an hour or two here and there. I could have waited for the paperback, which I normally do for books, but I really wanted to read this one (have for some time) and did not want to wait another 6 months or more. So, factor in the fact that I'm both in Canada, and not normally someone who purchases hardcover editions (or even new books for that matter; Book Depot ftw).

Was it worth it? Yes, I'd say so, and my best friend is currently reading it as well, as I let him borrow it once I was done (at least, I hope he's reading it....he's not much of a reader and i could see him easily quitting a few pages in) so my $40 plus tax is going a bit further. It's also not much to pay for some truly amazing and important information, so all in all, I am happy, although I will stick to my used books/paperback editions protocol going forward. I'm happy to have broken that rule for this one, though. So glad I read it. So very, very glad, and I hope you do too, if it interests you at all. And one need not be an atheist to enjoy it either. This is a science book, not a religious (or anti-religious) book, despite what things you may have read online, or what associations you may have drawn due to various factors. This is for everyone, and frankly, everyone should read it. How did it all come to be? Very important stuff, folks.

Next up: I'm currently reading Eye for an Eye, by Joel Ross. After that, I'd like to see if I can procure a reasonably priced paperback copy of The Greatest Show on Earth, by Richard Dawkins, which, to my limited knowledge, is basically The Grand Design for evolutionary biology. I'll have more relevant knowledge going in than I did for TGD, but I am sure I will still learn a LOT from TGSOE.

Recommended: Hell Yes! To anyone who is interested in the big questions, and the scientific endeavour to answer those questions, this is a must, must read.


Tell magx01 and the rest of The Thoughtful Gamers what's on your mind!