The Elegant Universe

The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene

What did it win?

Aventis Prize 2000

What’s it all about?

On an ultramicroscopic scale, quantum mechanics is incompatible with general relativity. String theory, which makes tiny vibrating strings the fundamental building blocks of nature, harmoniously unites the two within a unified theory of the universe.

Was it really any good?

Yes and no. I have to admit, I’m a sucker for books like these. Most of modern physics is magic to me, and reading about it usually boils down to trying to get a handle on the metaphors. But I also love the big philosophical issues involved. I can spend hours trying to imagine extra dimensions, or what it would mean to be outside of both space and time. And there’s no end to considering the origins of the universe. What was before the Big Bang? If the universe is expanding, what is it expanding into? Will we ever know? Can our limited human brains comprehend such ultimate knowledge?

Greene has his work cut out for him. Sometime in the twentieth century the links snapped between the world we experience every day and the world explained by scientific theory. Every writer trying to describe advanced science to a lay audience today has to begin by making it clear that nothing they are discussing has anything to do with common sense. While the great scientific breakthroughs of a hundred years ago may be easily reproduced and understood (feeding the growth of the “history of science” as a separate field of publishing and scholarship), the present state of the art is rarified indeed. As Greene puts it, “special relativity is not in our bones – we do not feel it. Its implications are not a central part of our intuition.” Similarly, quantum mechanics is said to describe a nature that is “absurd from the point of view of common sense.” String theory may be elegant, but it is not an elegance that is easily appreciated, especially at an introductory level.

I wasn’t able to keep up with Greene all the time. In fact, I don’t think I kept up with him at all after the first few introductory chapters. A lot of this is my fault, but the author has to share some of the blame. The stories Greene tells to illustrate basic principles are often unnecessarily complex. The diagrams, of which there are many, are helpful in the early going, but are suspicious when we start talking about extra dimensions. Then again, when trying to describe such an exclusively mathematical reality, words and pictures are probably not the most useful tools.

If nothing else, you do come away from all of this with some new ideas about life, the universe and everything. In an elegant summary (except for the mixed metaphor at the end), Greene tells us that “If string theory is right, the microscopic fabric of our universe is a richly intertwined multidimensional labyrinth within which the strings of the universe endlessly twist and vibrate, rhythmically beating out the laws of the cosmos.” I could live with that.

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