Leonard Mlodinow came to the Las Condes Municipal theater this week to talk about the second book he co-wrote with Stephan Hawking, the “Grand Design”. The event was an invitation-only affair sponsored by the investment firm Celfin Capital. The well-dressed crowd of investors and businessmen chatted in the lobby where coffee and breakfast muffins were served at the godawful early hour of 8:30, godawful early that is by Chilean standards. Across town at the Catholic University–in what can only have been a fluke of bad timing for the work of both men is similar–a more motley, less formally dressed crew of college students were gathered to hear the Nobel Prize physicist Brian Schmidt who had come up with the idea that the universe is expanding and gaining velocity as it does so. The Chilean television news that night explained that two Chileans had simultaneously and independently come up with the same idea. Dr. Mlodinow in his lecture in Las Condes explained that the Nobel committee often works that way–that capricious and staid body, working as a committee must do, sometimes selects people who were peripheral to the finding and not always the person who conceived the idea. For example, Dr. Mlodinow said “The Grand Design” explains that physicists formulated the idea that if the universe did indeed start with a Big Bang then there should be cosmic radiation still lingering out there and that we should be able to detect that. But the men who actually won the Nobel Prize for that idea were two Bell Labs scientists who were trying to figure out what was causing the static which was cluttering the signal on their communication satellite. That static which they stumbled upon by happenstance was that sought after microwave radiation.
“The Grand Design” is a book which explains for the laymen how the universe was created from the Big Bang and where we are today in the world of physics. The famous wheel-chair bound physicist, Stephen Hawkins, was brought together with the literate and frequently published Caltech physics professor Leonard Mlodinow when Dr. Hawkins had read Mlodinow’s book on the origins of Euclidean geometry and topology. All of this is heavy mathematics and physics. So one wonders how many people in the crowd in Las Condes really absorbed Einstein’s general and specific theory of relativity and Richard Fenyman’s quantuum mechanics and the uncertainty principle. Beyond that, one might wonder also how many people who bought Dr. Hawkin’s original book “A Brief History of Time” and had pushed it to the top of The New York Times bestseller list had actually read all the way through the material. This book could be what Günter Grass is for German’s–someone whose work you buy and then put on the coffee table. The complexity of the material explains why Dr. Mlodinow helped Stephen Hawkin’s rewrite that original work into a shorter, more accessibly title called “A Briefer History of Time”.
The affable Dr. Mlodinow has written a handful of books on physics and math and is excellent at distilling complex ideas into concepts the laymen can understand. For example, he described in his lecture how physicists now know for sure that the universe is flat rather than curved. This idea is not too difficult to understand if you consider the surface of a balloon. Most people might recall from high school geometry–unless they were sleeping or staring at the buxom cheerleader in the next row–that if you take the three angles of a triangle and sum them up the total is 180 degrees. But what if you draw the same triangle on the surface of a balloon? If someone could hover above the balloon in space and look down those curved lines would look straight–think of lines of longitude on a globe and you get the same idea. The sum of those so-called “great circles” which make up this triangle is 270 degrees because each corner is a right angle of ninety degrees. That simple notion was a daring breakthrough which tossed out the three thousand year old of ideas of Euclid at least in three dimensional space. This idea is shown below in a graphic taken from a NASA web site where you can see a triangle drawn on a curve, a saddle, and a flat plane. In the case of the saddle the sum of the angles in the triangle is, remarkable again, less that 180 degrees. For those who understand this idea it is subtle in its complexity. For those who study the heavens it solved some of the principal problems of cosmology.
So how does one go about writing a book with the esteemed British scholar Stephen Hawkins, who it should be noted currently holds the chair in mathematics once held by Sir Isaac Newton at Oxford University, the scientist who first explained how gravity works and what causes the planets to rotate about the Sun. Dr. Mlodinow said Stephen Hawkins is paralyzed from the neck down due to ALS disease and has limited ability to speak. To communicate he presses his cheeks against a toggle device attached to his wheel chair. It works like a mouse pad. With that device he can tap out letters or select words from a list he commonly uses. These he puts together into sentences. Of course Stephen Hawkins can hear with no issues. So in this way the two were able to write out their presentation of how the Big Bang produced hydrogen, which produced giant stars, whose nuclear reactions produced smaller stars, whose supernovae explosions produced heavier elements, whose carbon and oxygen molecules bound together to eventually produce us (i.e. people).
When the book was first published Stephen Hawkins and Leonard Mlodoninow were taken aback at the controversy which erupted. In his lecture in Las Condes Leonard explained as he must have n+1 times–”where n is large” as a mathematician might say–that a couple of book reviewers in London–who he said had skimmed the book and not read it in its entirety–said the takeaway message from this book is “There is No God”. It is was as if Sarte had arisen from the dead to make his famous declaration anew. After all, if the point of physics was that the expansive universe emanated from one point which was infinitesimally small, and if in one Big Bang the universe grew to the immense size that it is today, and if all of this can be explained by physics, then there was no need for and no sign of the existence of any god, specifically the God with the capital “G”. This is a bold idea to breech in a Catholic country like Chile where the mathematician and physicist Álvaro Fischer, President of the Fundación Chile, asked Dr. Mlodinow about that directly. Leonard Mlodinow, squirming in his seat, politely explained that he had answered this question more than 100 times before in television interviews then proceeded to answer it again. Dr. Mlodinow said that quite a few physicists were indeed religious and the Big Bang theory does not rule out the existence of God. For God to exist there to would have to have been miracles which violate the principles of physics–for example, a spontaneously burning bush or the parting of the Red Sea. This has not happened. Another example, the Bible itself says the universe is 6,000 years old and physicists can prove it is many times older than that. So does God exist? Each person must decide that for themselves.
As the lecture ended admirers walked to the stage and sought a word with Dr. Mlodinow or pressed copies of his book into his hands for him to autograph. One chap having bought his electronic copy of “The Grand Design” on the Amazon Kindle had no paper book to sign. Instead he put forth a copy of Albert Einstein’s book on relativity. The doctor was for a moment taken aback as all physicists would be at the mention of the esteemed scientist. Leonard said, “I am not sure I should be signing Einstein’s book”. Then he penned his name.