The Grand Design
By Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow
Unabridged audio edition published by Random House Audio
Read by Steve West
I think some of my friends would be surprised to know I am really into Cosmology and related subjects, but along with tons of fantasy and science fiction I have read Einstein’s Relativity and Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. I have also read books on various theories as they have come and sometimes gone such as Quintessence and Quantum Gravity. When I was a kid, there was still a fair debate going on over Steady State vs the Big Bang origins of the Universe – NB: Big Bang always seemed right to me and, amazingly, it seems to have gained the overwhelming proof since then… Until someone comes along and shows both were wrong, perhaps?
In this book Doctors Hawking and Mlodinow take on the task of explaining M-Theory to guys like me who never got beyond high school math and they do a pretty good job of it although by the end I kept waiting for a final chapter to summarize “…and that is M-Theory,” but it seems M-Theory doesn’t summarize that easily.
If you pop over to our friends at Wikipedia you will learn that M-Theory is an extension of string theory that unites all five 10 dimensional string theories into a single 11 dimensional model… and by the end of the article if you are not a physicist you are likely to be more confused than you were at the start. As the authors of this book state, M-Theory attempts to show that most of the other competing theories are actually all special cases. Certainly that would explain why they all appear to be true in the right situations.
Hawking and Mlodinow go on to explain how, according to quantum theory, the universe does not have a single existence, but that every possible history of the universe exists simultaneously. They offer as proof experimental results that demonstrate that a quantum particle traveling from point a to point b will not necessarily travel in a straight line and, in fact appears, in reality, to go everywhere at once, concentrating on those locations that are most probable. This is extrapolated to our universe, which is just one of many universes which came into existence simultaneously each with its own laws of nature.
I find myself wondering if our universe is one of high probability or, like Terry Pratchett’s Discworld this universe is extremely unlikely in the grand scheme of things and only exists because if there is going to be a “Bell Curve” something has to exist to define it. I further suspect, however, that is a meaningless question since it is probably not possible to calculate the probability of a universe’s existence from within that universe and/or that from within any universe it will appear to be of maximum probability. Just my guess, though.
Will M-Theory hold up, say, a decade from now? Will it turn out to be the unified theory that Einstein was looking for? Who’s to say? Stay tuned, but for now, this book explains M-Theory in a clear and concise manner with interesting bits of humor tossed in every so often just to keep us interested. The Universe, it’s a funny old place.
I enjoyed listening to Steve West’s reading of this book. His smooth, mildly accented voice was interesting to hear, easy to understand and he sounded genuinely interested in the subject matter of the book. What more could I ask for. He reads the serious parts well and fires off the authors’ jokes as though these professorial asides were his own. I doubt any reader could have done it better.
So if you want a relatively recent explanation for the collection of string theories that comprise M-Theory, this is clearly written without bogging down in the mathematics that stands behind each and every one of those theories. This is an explanation for the interested layman, (If you want the math, well two or three degrees from MIT or Case or Cal Tech might help) And it is all the more intriguing to listen to with Steve West reading it.