NY Times pans Hawking’s book

September 7, 2010 • 5:55 pm

In today’s NY Times, Dwight Garner reviews Stephen Hawking’s new book, The Grand Design. It’s a thumbs-down:

The real news about “The Grand Design,” however, isn’t Mr. Hawking’s supposed jettisoning of God, information that will surprise no one who has followed his work closely. The real news about “The Grand Design” is how disappointingly tinny and inelegant it is. The spare and earnest voice that Mr. Hawking employed with such appeal in “A Brief History of Time” has been replaced here by one that is alternately condescending, as if he were Mr. Rogers explaining rain clouds to toddlers, and impenetrable.

Meanwhile, over at the Daily Telegraph, Tom Chivers talks about the boom in science books, with physics replacing evolutionary biology as the flavor du jour. He recommends five of them, including Hawking’s.  John Gribbin’s In Search of the Multiverse looks interesting.

36 thoughts on “NY Times pans Hawking’s book

  1. “The spare and earnest voice that Mr. Hawking employed with such appeal in “A Brief History of Time””

    I’ve never understood the popularity of “A Brief History in Time”. I found IT impenetrable.
    I much preferred Brian Greene’s bestsellers “The Elegant Universe” and “The Fabric of the Cosmos”.
    And speaking of Cosmos: Timothy’s Ferris’ “The Whole Shebang” is absolutely superb.

  2. I read the review today. It’s very low on science, which is to say it doesn’t even attempt to address Hawking’s thesis.

    Garner did happen to mention, however, that the book is already Number 1 at Amazon. Checking it just now I see it’s been at the top for six days now.

  3. That’s disappointing, if true. Reading “A Brief History of Time” was one of the things that prompted me to become a physicist.

  4. I’m really not a physics geek at all but I found I had to wade a long way through the shallows of Hawking’s first book before I reached something new to me. Relatives who also read it found it heavy going, though.

  5. Mr. Garner claims that it’s the tone of the book he doesn’t care for, but he reveals the true source of his dislike in the last two paragraphs of the review:

    The arguments in “The Grand Design” — especially those about why God isn’t necessary to imagine the beginning of the universe — put me in mind of something Mr. Ferris said in his excellent book “The Whole Shebang” (1997).

    “Religious systems are inherently conservative, science inherently progressive,” Mr. Ferris wrote. Religion and science don’t have to be hostile to each other, but we can stop setting them up on blind dates. “This may be an instance,” Mr. Ferris added, “where good walls make good neighbors.”

    Or, in other words, how dare Professor Hawking discard Mr. Garner’s favorite pantheon like a used condom? Doesn’t he know that those magisteria aren’t supposed to overlap? Why, cross the magisteria like that and you could get cats and dogs living together, and we can’t have that, now, can we?



    1. Oh no, yet more “those nasty scientists are making baby Jesus cry!” claims. Many religious people claim science is being nasty simply because science is stating the truth as best we know it, and that doesn’t agree with their long-cherished lies which were imparted by religion. It’s like telling someone “hey, you can’t smoke in this mineshaft, you might set off an explosion” and you get “you’re just being mean!”

    2. That’s the “condescending” part then.

      For example, Garner’s kvetch on the presentation of Feynman is likely misinformed on that part. As I remember it there has been authors discussing Feynman’s taste for being presented in precisely that way, as informed by Feynman’s own writings. Which makes Hawking’s description the exact opposite of Garner’s characterization.

  6. I will reserve judgment on the book until I read it.
    But there is one thing I know.
    No positive review of any book critical of religion can ever appear in the so called liberal media.

    1. I don’t think that’s true. As I recall, Natalie Angier gave a very positive review to Sam Harris’s The End of Faith in the NY Times. Here’s a quote:

      ”The End of Faith articulates the dangers and absurdities of organized religion so fiercely and so fearlessly that I felt relieved as I read it, vindicated, almost personally understood… Harris writes what a sizable number of us think, but few are willing to say in contemporary America… This is an important book, on a topic that, for all its inherent difficulty and divisiveness, should not be shielded from the crucible of human reason.”
      — Natalie Angier, The New York Times Book Review

      1. I stand corrected.
        Nonetheless as far as I can tell, this review is only the exception that proves the rule.

        1. I hate that expression. The exception proves the rule is false or incomplete.

          Like finding rabbits in a pre-Cambrian fossil bed.

          1. You probably hate it because it is often confused.

            The original meaning makes most sense, interpreted as “the fact that an exception is stated serves to establish the existence of a rule that applies to cases not covered by the exception”, usually in a social situation: “a sign that says “parking prohibited on Sundays” (the exception) “proves” that parking is allowed on the other six days of the week (the rule).

            See other sensible meanings in the link. There is even a scientific sense (in which on closer examination the rule is shown not to apply to the exception).

            That the existence of exceptions (or extreme data) doesn’t necessarily break a general law is something else entirely. In measure theory those would have negligible measure. Maybe we should call that “the rule that proves the exception” (since rules precisely defines what is exceptions). 😀

      2. But.. but … doesn’t Natalie have that *backwards*? I keep hearing it is the religious who are being persecuted by those horrible geeks.

  7. I have just finished “A Grand Design”. I was a little disappointed. I read “A Short History of Time” shortly after it was published, and didn’t understand it at all (or not much). I understood everything in “A Grand Design”, but only because there was so little science in it. Too much emphasis was given to string theory and M-theory, which are still just mathematics, not science. Quantum physics and the Multiverse provide enough evidence that gods don’t exist.

  8. I will read it, but in all honesty when any book purportedly on science makes claims about god (or the absence thereof), I assume the author is really after royalties.

    1. Really? Richard Dawkins is “really after royalties?” Victor Stenger is “really after royalties?” Sam Harris is “really after royalties?” Dan Dennett is “really after royalties?” Stephen Hawking is “really after royalties?”

      Seriously. Qualify that (a lot) or it just sounds stupid.

      1. I said any book purportedly about science, not books about atheism.

        And yes, unfortunately, the “god publicity” for this book by Hawking is all about royalties, as was putting god in the title of God Created Integers. Hawking, or his publicists, know well that infusing god into science, whether pro or con, is guaranteed royalties.

        BTW, I just read it–you can do it in a few hours. It is light-weight standard multiverse stuff, and poorly done. Unfortunately, there is no more scientific evidence for the multiverse or M-theory than there is for god.

          1. Woit is a known crackpot on string/M theory. Not a good example.

            I said any book purportedly about science, not books about atheism.

            But that is the whole point! Science affects social life, and discussing that in science books can, and should, be done, if it pleases the author. If it also pleases the author’s wallet is besides the point; ironically that follows precisely because it has been a rare occurrence.

            Also, as WEIT incessantly returns to, religion makes empirical claims that can and should be analyzed (due to religious claims of precedence, imperviousness, special pleading, et cetera). I’m pleased as peaches that Hawking did this, and I laud all scientists that do.

            1. Oops, imprecise: Woit is a known crackpot _critic_ of string/M theory. He throws anything at its walls to see what sticks.

    2. They didn’t make any claims about god’s existence in the book. They simply said that it doesn’t seem to be necessary.

    1. Beware for Woit, see my comments above.

      The same goes for Penrose unfortunately, he has done more for physics (cosmology especially) and math than most scientists. But he has also produced some remarkable religious like thinking, among them a belief that the human brain is “special” (in that evolution stumbled on “new physics”) and that the universe has “purpose”.

      Read with a pinch of quarks. 😀

      1. Woit may be a little monomaniacal in his criticism of string/M-theory (sort of like atheists are about beliefs in god, and for the same reasons), but he is no crackpot. Penrose is a brilliant scientist who is not afraid to be imaginative and, possibly, wrong. His theory of consciousness is based on science, and probably wrong. But science progresses through fecund error.

  9. Dwight Garner sez …

    The spare and earnest voice that Mr. Hawking employed with such appeal in “A Brief History of Time” has been replaced here by one that is alternately condescending, as if he were Mr. Rogers explaining rain clouds to toddlers, and impenetrable.

    My word, how dare he be so dickish ! It’s not like there’s any reason to .. uhh … hang on … what’s this ?!? …

    Professor Billy Wilbanks, chair of the Science Department at Jacksonville College in 2006 sez …

    “There’s a lot of questions right now that I can’t answer. What holds the clouds up? If we throw a whole bucket of water in the air, the whole bucket is going to come right back down, but when it rains, all these little raindrops fall”

    Professor Hawking, you go on with your bad self and Rock Out With Your Hawk Out.


  10. I was impressed with “A Brief History of Time” even though that was impenetrable . But it is disappointing that the next one
    is more impenetrable with rather condescending attitude.

  11. I think it’s fair to point out that, within his field, Hawking is one player among many, someone who did his best work decades ago. He does have a high degree of fame due to his disability, and no-one wants to deny him appearing on Star Trek or whatever, but it does tend to obscure the fact that he isn’t the dominating mind in his field as was, say, Einstein. Einstein was also a colourful character who attracted media attention, but his scientific contributions would have been noticed just the same.

    I have read many, many popular-science books. Hawking’s are not the best: try Asimov or Sagan or Gamow.

  12. I have read some of it and I don’t think it is a literary masterpeice. I have enjoyed the part discussing model-dependence.

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