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PopMatters Talks About the Beginning of The Universe With Physicist and Author Leonard Mlodinow

Like Richard Feynman before him, Dr. Leonard Mlodinow has a gift that’s all too rare in physicists—he speaks Normal Person. The physicist and author of the New York Times best-seller The Drunkard’s Walk, Mlodinow has a knack for making the complicated issues that crop up in quantum physics seem—well, simple is the wrong word. But he gives readers the tools to wrap their heads around things like complex concepts like curved space-time and quantum uncertainty. And given the ground covered in The Grand Design his latest literary collaboration with Nobel Prize-winning physicist Stephen Hawking, that’s no mean feat. “The book is about two issues. One is where did the universe come from, and the other one is why are the laws of nature what they are,” Mlodinow says casually, as if these are fairly basic topics of dinner table conversation. “And we give a scientific explanation of those two issues.”


The two began working together when Hawking, a fan of Mlodinow’s first book, Euclid’s Window, approached Mlodinow about collaborating on A Briefer History of Time, “a simpler, easier to understand version of A Brief History of Time, which was his big book in the 1980s. Unsurprisingly, it was a partnership that didn’t require much arm-twisting for Mlodinow. “One day, I just got a call and was asked if I wanted to work with Stephen Hawking,” Mlodinow recalls. “It was a pretty easy call for me.”


cover art

The Grand Design

Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow

(Bantam; US: Sep 2010)

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The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives

Leonard Mlodinow

(Pantheon)

The book went so smoothly and was so well-received that the in 2005, the pair decided to begin work on a new book addressing some of Hawking’s more contemporary thinking. Neither of them imagined that the book, which would become 2010’s The Grand Design , would take more than four years to complete.  But the delays were unavoidable, owing largely to the fact that some of the ideas the two were laying out in the book were still works in progress. “One of the theories that the book is based on is called top-down cosmology, which is Stephen’s latest thinking about how to approach the idea of the beginning of the history of the universe,” Mlodinow explains. “He was really working that out through 2007, so that settled down. But in the beginning, he hadn’t really quite worked out his thoughts on that.”


One of the issues most relevant in The Grand Design - and of Mlodinow’s The Drunkard’s Walk - is the fundamental randomness and uncertainty that governs much of the world of quantum physics – a fact that is unnerving to some, who Mlodinow tries to put at ease. “A universe governed by randomness is a universe that you are understanding at its most basic and fundamental level,” Mlodinow says. “But this doesn’t change the thoughts and feelings that you have, the psychology or what we call the effective theories of life.”


And for most of our lives, Mlodinow points out, theories are more useful as… well, as just that. “The fact that space and time are curved and each individual particle is interacting with each other particle is very interesting from a philosophical or fundamental level, but for our everyday lives, we just say the earth falls in an ellipse,” says Mlodinow


And randomness isn’t something to be troubled by, either. If not for accidents of chance, the world might not function as we’re accustomed to, and warts all, it on the whole functions amazingly well. “The randomness in your life just as often brings good things as bad things,” says Mlodinow. “That’s something to be recognized. And you still have the choice of how to react to random events when they happen - that’s a very important part of your path in life. So I would say something that’s to be understood and dealt with and even taken advantage of rather than feared.”


But when people talk about Hawking and Mlodinow’s latest offering to the world of science literature, it’s not randomness they’re talking about. Instead, the most talked about issue in The Grand Design has become the pairs’ assertion that God is not necessary for the creation of the universe. Mlodinow is understandably weary of speaking to the matter.


He’s not angry, mind you.  He just seems to genuinely not get what the big deal is. He and Hawking went out of their way to make this point without being controversial. “I guess we’re naïve. We were careful, or we thought we were being careful, not to ruffle any feathers,” says Mlodinow. “We didn’t say there was no god, or even that god didn’t create the universe, we just said that god is not necessary to create the universe. That explanation is not necessary because there is another explanation. So if you’re looking to god because you’re seeking an explanation for that question, then you needn’t do that. But there are many other reasons to look toward god and you can still believe that god is behind it. We’re just saying that there is an alternative explanation if you don’t want the explanation of god. We didn’t think it was quite that controversial.”


This fairly innocuous assertion has marked the biggest flare-up of discussion surrounding The Grand Design, much to the authors’ surprise – and disappointment. “We just didn’t think it was quite that controversial,” Mlodinow says. “We realized the issue is a touchy one, and we tried to phrase things very specifically and precisely so that we wouldn’t ruffle feathers.”


One factor that contributes to Mlodinow’s consternation is that within the context of the book, the discussion the topic is practically nil. And the reason they didn’t write much about it was simple – it’s not what they were interested in writing about. The pair of well-regarded physicists were, maybe not astonishingly, more interested in writing about physics. “We didn’t pay too much attention to it because so little of the book is about that subject,” says Mlodinow. “We were more concerned with ‘Will people understand what we’re writing?’ And of course it turned out to be the other way.”


Leaving aside the God issue – or non-issue, as it may be – what would Mlodinow prefer people take away from The Grand Design? “I think what Stephen and I would both like people to talk about with this book and other physics books is ‘Wow, physics is cool. Science is really cool, the universe is awesome and wonderful,’” says Mlodinow. “It’s spectacular and fascinating, and it’s mind-bending that physics can explain it.”


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His success as a solo author has also led to some impressive partnerships in recent years. Mlodinow’s the guy who made scientific visionary Stephen Hawking more accessible — after Hawking read “Euclid’s Window,” he wanted to work with Mlodinow.
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