Saturday, October 23, 2010

Cat's cradle


I was not a big fan of Stephen Hawking's 1988 runaway bestseller A Brief History of Time. In fact, getting through it was a chore. So I'm not in a hurry to read his new book The Grand Design, although co-author Leonard Mlodinow's previous The Drunkard's Walk was an OK read.

The two physicists now promise to answer the BIG QUESTIONS: Why is there something rather than nothing? Why do we exist? Why are the laws of nature what they are? Did the universe need a designer and creator?

The answer to even one of those questions would be worth the $28 cost of the book. To answer them all would be to sweep away 2500 years of philosophy. And theology, too. The authors conclude there's no need for a God to get the whole thing going.

They invoke M-theory, a 11-dimensional version of string theory that promises the long sought goal of uniting quantum theory and gravity. In one version of this theory the universe as we know it has zero total positive and negative energy and therefore could have sprung into existence from nothing by quantum fluctuations. M-theory also predicts the existence of 10 500 universes, one of which we inhabit. Etc.

The string theorists are having fun, and I wish I were smart enough to follow their game. But I'm not getting hot and bothered by Hawking's and Mlodinow's answers to the BIG QUESTIONS. The Big Bang theory is not much older than me. M-theory is younger than my grandchildren. By the time my grandchildren are my age who knows what cosmologists will understand about the universe(s)?

Proposing answers to the BIG QUESTIONS based on any momentary version of science is a fool's game. The universe may have a grand design, but anyone who thinks M-theory is it, now and forever, is setting himself up for a tumble. And anyone who uses the Big Bang or M-theory to argue for the existence or nonexistence of a Designer is already out on a limb.