Stephen Hawking is still great at lucidly explaining tricky things, says Rajaram Nityananda
THE FONT sizes on the cover say it loud and clear — more than the subject or the second author, the real point of this new book is that Stephen Hawking rides again, a decade after A Brief History of Time and its quick successors. BHT was a milestone — daring to take non-technical explanation into new realms with brevity, wit, force. Hawking spoke of things he was among the first to think about, like evaporating black holes and a smooth beginning of time, and instantly became an icon of the quest for fundamental laws. But it was physics at the centre, with atheistic philosophy emerging only towards the end.
The Grand Design raises the stakes, by shifting the focus beyond natural laws. The questions are: Why is there something rather than nothing? Why do we exist? Why this particular set of laws and not some other? The warm up starts with early Greek science and moves rapidly to Descartes and Newton, reminding us that the notion of laws describing reality was not taken for granted for much of our history, and should not, even now. Modern science gets a rapid review, with star billing for Feynman’s formulation of Quantum Theory. This states that there is no unique history for subatomic particles. It is as if the electron can do different things at the same time, provided you don’t look. Many physicists continue to ponder whether Quantum Theory is the ultimate framework. Not Hawking, for whom the idea that the entire universe has no unique history is basic.
With this kind of appetizer, what is the main course? A mix of “modeldependent reality”, “M-theory” and “the strong anthropic principle”. The first neatly sidesteps questions about “reality” by admitting that we only build models of it. M-theory is a code word for the main new twist that String Theory took after BHT appeared. It is a tribute to human ingenuity that people can extract predictions from such a framework, and a tribute to Hawking and Mlodinow that they can make it so convincing.
Lev Landau, as much an icon amongst twentieth century physicists as Feynman, said that cosmologists are often in error but seldom in doubt. They must sometimes be in error, since they have said many different things over the years. And doubt would not get you very far in such uncharted waters. Hawking has himself acknowledged, in BHT and elsewhere, the occasions when he changed his views on these matters. This book should not be read as the last word, but as a a daring attempt to construct a grand design from current ideas, and just as daring — to reach an audience prepared to follow a rather intricate story.
Nityananda is Senior Professor at Pune’s National Centre for Radio Astrophysics
Bouncing along fine
This cricket book is lavish in everything but design, says Shantanu Guha Ray
ABHIJIT SARKAR of the Sahara Group will not comment whether his coffee table book on Indian cricket, The Golden Era, was just an ego boosting exercise. But his boss, Sahara chief Subrata Roy, was clear when he recently told reporters why he sponsored the national cricket team. No, it wasn’t a business decision. Roy simply didn’t want an MNC to sponsor the Indian cricket team. The big purse that the BCCI demanded did not matter to him.
This is a compendium of extravagant visuals and lucid write-ups from the honchos who run India’s most money-spinning game. In the book, I saw an interesting, bridge-building exercise by Sarkar: a note from BCCI President Shashank Manohar dispelling reports about his tensions with former skipper Sunil Gavaskar (over cash demanded by the latter).
The heavyweight book will surely give Sarkar — who is seen at all big cricket dos in India but often dwarfed by Roy’s looming presence — his place in the sun. The book is his baby, so he’s seeking all the attention. What did he miss: a comment from the flashy Lalit Modi on IPL’s success (don’t know if that would be politically correct for Sarkar in the present circumstances). Sarkar should have got a better designer to add style to his efforts. If a pictoral book from the 1983 World Cup win to India’s recent home series against South Africa is being planned, then you should never ignore the design element.