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The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking – The Rabbit Hole

Summary

  1. Traditionally these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics. Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge. The purpose of this book is to give the answers that are suggested by recent discoveries and theoretical advances. They lead us to a new picture of the universe and our place in it that is very different from the traditional one, and different even from the picture we might have painted just a decade or two ago.

Key Takeaways

  1. According to the traditional conception of the universe, objects move on well-defined paths and have definite histories. We can specify their precise position at each moment in time. Although that account is successful enough for everyday purposes, it was found in the 1920s that this “classical” picture could not account for the seemingly bizarre behavior observed on the atomic and subatomic scales of existence. Instead it was necessary to adopt a different framework, called quantum physics. Quantum theories have turned out to be remarkably accurate at predicting events on those scales, while also reproducing the predictions of the old classical theories when applied to the macroscopic world of daily life. But quantum and classical physics are based on very different conceptions of physical reality.
  2. We will explain Feynman’s approach in detail, and employ it to explore the idea that the universe itself has no single history, nor even an independent existence. That seems like a radical idea, even to many physicists. Indeed, like many notions in today’s science, it appears to violate common sense. But common sense is based upon everyday experience, not upon the universe as it is revealed through the marvels of technologies such as those that allow us to gaze deep into the atom or back to the early universe.
  3. To deal with such paradoxes we shall adopt an approach that we call model-dependent realism. It is based on the idea that our brains interpret the input from our sensory organs by making a model of the world. When such a model is successful at explaining events, we tend to attribute to it, and to the elements and concepts that constitute it, the quality of reality or absolute truth. But there may be different ways in which one could model the same physical situation, with each employing different fundamental elements and concepts. If two such physical theories or models accurately predict the same events, one cannot be said to be more real than the other; rather, we are free to use whichever model is most convenient.
    1. Model-dependent realism, mental models
  4. M-theory is not a theory in the usual sense. It is a whole family of different theories, each of which is a good description of observations only in some range of physical situations. It is a bit like a map. As is well known, one cannot show the whole of the earth’s surface on a single map. The usual Mercator projection used for maps of the world makes areas appear larger and larger in the far north and south and doesn’t cover the North and South Poles. To faithfully map the entire earth, one has to use a collection of maps, each of which covers a limited region. The maps overlap each other, and where they do, they show the same landscape. M-theory is similar. The different theories in the M-theory family may look very different, but they can all be regarded as aspects of the same underlying theory. They are versions of the theory that are applicable only in limited ranges—for example, when certain quantities such as energy are small. Like the overlapping maps in a Mercator projection, where the ranges of different versions overlap, they predict the same phenomena. But just as there is no flat map that is a good representation of the earth’s entire surface, there is no single theory that is a good representation of observations in all situations.
    1. The Mp is Not the Terrain
  5. Today most scientists would say a law of nature is a rule that is based upon an observed regularity and provides predictions that go beyond the immediate situations upon which it is based.
    1. General and broadly applicable
  6. Because it is so impractical to use the underlying physical laws to predict human behavior, we adopt what is called an effective theory. In physics, an effective theory is a framework created to model certain observed phenomena without describing in detail all of the underlying processes.
  7. There is no picture- or theory-independent concept of reality. Instead we will adopt a view that we will call model-dependent realism: the idea that a physical theory or world picture is a model (generally of a mathematical nature) and a set of rules that connect the elements of the model to observations. This provides a framework with which to interpret modern science.
  8. We make models in science, but we also make them in everyday life. Model-dependent realism applies not only to scientific models but also to the conscious and subconscious mental models we all create in order to interpret and understand the everyday world. There is no way to remove the observer—us—from our perception of the world, which is created through our sensory processing and through the way we think and reason. Our perception—and hence the observations upon which our theories are based—is not direct, but rather is shaped by a kind of lens, the interpretive structure of our human brains.
    1. Mental Models, Galilean Relativity
  9. A model is a good model if it: Is elegant, Contains few arbitrary or adjustable elements, Agrees with and explains all existing observations, Makes detailed predictions about future observations that can disprove or falsify the model if they are not borne out.
  10. Another of the main tenets of quantum physics is the uncertainty principle, formulated by Werner Heisenberg in 1926. The uncertainty principle tells us that there are limits to our ability to simultaneously measure certain data, such as the position and velocity of a particle. According to the uncertainty principle, for example, if you multiply the uncertainty in the position of a particle by the uncertainty in its momentum (its mass times its velocity) the result can never be smaller than a certain fixed quantity, called Planck’s constant. That’s a tongue-twister, but its gist can be stated simply: The more precisely you measure speed, the less precisely you can measure position, and vice versa.
  11. In other words, nature does not dictate the outcome of any process or experiment, even in the simplest of situations. Rather, it allows a number of different eventualities, each with a certain likelihood of being realized.
  12. Given the state of a system at some time, the laws of nature determine the probabilities of various futures and pasts rather than determining the future and past with certainty.
  13. Quantum physics tells us that no matter how thorough our observation of the present, the (unobserved) past, like the future, is indefinite and exists only as a spectrum of possibilities. The universe, according to quantum physics, has no single past, or history. The fact that the past takes no definite form means that observations you make on a system in the present affect its past.
  14. Electric and magnetic forces are far stronger than gravity, but we don’t usually notice them in everyday life because a macroscopic body contains almost equal numbers of positive and negative electrical charges. This means that the electric and magnetic forces between two macroscopic bodies nearly cancel each other out, unlike the gravitational forces, which all add up.
  15. Maxwell’s equations dictate that electromagnetic waves travel at a speed of about 300,000 kilometers a second, or about 670 million miles per hour. But to quote a speed means nothing unless you specify a frame of reference relative to which the speed is measured. That’s not something you usually need to think about in everyday life. When a speed limit sign reads 60 miles per hour, it is understood that your speed is measured relative to the road and not the black hole at the center of the Milky Way. But even in everyday life there are occasions in which you have to take into account reference frames. For example, if you carry a cup of tea up the aisle of a jet plane in flight, you might say your speed is 2 miles per hour. Someone on the ground, however, might say you were moving at 572 miles per hour. Lest you think that one or the other of those observers has a better claim to the truth, keep in mind that because the earth orbits the sun, someone watching you from the surface of that heavenly body would disagree with both and say you are moving at about 18 miles per second, not to mention envying your air-conditioning.
    1. Galilean Relativity
  16. Electromagnetic forces are responsible for all of chemistry and biology.
  17. The histories that contribute to the Feynman sum don’t have an independent existence, but depend on what is being measured. We create history by our observation, rather than history creating us. The idea that the universe does not have a unique observer-independent history might seem to conflict with certain facts we know. There might be one history in which the moon is made of Roquefort cheese. But we have observed that the moon is not made of cheese, which is bad news for mice. Hence histories in which the moon is made of cheese do not contribute to the present state of our universe, though they might contribute to others. That might sound like science fiction, but it isn’t.
  18. What makes this universe interesting is that although the fundamental “physics” of this universe is simple, the “chemistry” can be complicated. That is, composite objects exist on different scales. At the smallest scale, the fundamental physics tells us that there are just live and dead squares. On a larger scale, there are gliders, blinkers, and still-life blocks. At a still larger scale there are even more complex objects, such as glider guns: stationary patterns that periodically give birth to new gliders that leave the nest and stream down the diagonal.
  19. One can define living beings as complex systems of limited size that are stable and that reproduce themselves.
  20. M-theory is the unified theory Einstein was hoping to find. The fact that we human beings—who are ourselves mere collections of fundamental particles of nature—have been able to come this close to an understanding of the laws governing us and our universe is a great triumph. But perhaps the true miracle is that abstract considerations of logic lead to a unique theory that predicts and describes a vast universe full of the amazing variety that we see. If the theory is confirmed by observation, it will be the successful conclusion of a search going back more than 3,000 years. We will have found the grand design.

What I got out of it

  1. Hawking does a brilliant job of making many of these complex and scary topics manageable and approachable – from M-theory to quantum physics and string theory 


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