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I like big books.

The Grand Design

The Grand Design - Stephen Hawking, Leonard Mlodinow Overall, The Grand Design was pretty bleak and uninspiring. I think the thing that disappointed me most was the lack of anything new. Several major parts of the big chapters are copied word for word from Hawking's earlier A Brief History of Time and the information on M-Theory leaves a lot to be desired. Mostly, this work is an argument for holding out hope that a Theory of Everything is on the horizon. The book is also very, very short (especially given the hefty price tag). It's almost ridiculously upbeat considering the major mathematical roadblocks preventing the completion of such theories.

In many ways, the title of this book is completely misleading for it fails to deliver any sort of proposals for a grand design at all. Hawking and Mlodinow spend the bulk of the book going over fundamental constants, black holes and interesting, but generally well understood, quantum phenomenon rather than delivering on the promise of the title to tie it all together. It isn't until almost the very end that the authors delve into the mysterious M-Theory, which, at this point, should not even be called a theory. It doesn't even have a proper name. Ask 10 physicists what M-Theory stands for and you'll get 10 different answers ranging from the "Mother of all Theories" to "Membrane Theory" and back again. M-Theory is more of a framework that allows for transformations between different incarnations of 10 dimensional Superstring Theories. Proponents of M-Theory argue that all versions of Superstring Theory are manifestations of this deeper theory. All you have to do is add yet another spatial dimension, bringing the grand total to eleven. One of the arguments in favor of the framework is alluded to by the title of the book: its mathematical elegance. Among the many generally accepted criteria that would validate a theory of everything is beauty. It's gained quite a bit of traction and attention of late because it's a rather neat way of showing the relationships between different versions of theories that all potentially show at least some promise of explaining reality. That's a lot of "maybes" and "looks likes" and not a whole lot of tangible results.

On top of the rehashed nature of the information and its presentation, The Grand Design feels like it has an underlying hostility to it. The purpose of the book is to show that nature itself follows a master plan and to inspire hope that human beings are capable of understanding why it is that things are the way they are without resorting to superstition or an omnipotent and omniscient deity - all worthy and noble goals.

Nevertheless, there are a couple things that Hawking does well. His explanations of theoretical physics applications to cosmology are still top notch, but there's nothing truly groundbreaking. The illustrations are top notch and the book clearly benefitted from some very high production values