Genre Non-Fiction Publisher Knopf Year Published 2000 Review Posted on 12/6/2007 Reviewer Rating
9 out of 10
The Elegant Universe written by Brian Green
Reviewed by C. Dennis Moore
If you've read this book, why not
There is a problem in the world that has plagued physicists for decades, and it is this: the world should not work the way it does. According to physicist and author Brian Greene in his book The Elegant Universe, "physicists study things that are either small and light (like atoms and their constituents) or things that are huge and heavy (like stars and galaxies), but not both." That is, physicists study either quantum mechanics or general relativity, with nary a backward glance for the opposing area of study, and this may well be because the laws of one school do not apply to the other.
Apparently this has long been the thorn in the side of physicists because with two separate and opposing rules for how reality is shaped, how can we truly understand anything?
That's where String Theory comes in. According to Greene, string theory "has the potential to show that all of the wondrous happenings in the universe--from the frantic dance of subatomic quarks to the stately waltz of the majestic swirl of heavenly galaxies--are reflections of one grand physical principle, one master equation." What does this mean for you and me? I don't have any idea.
I tried like hell to understand everything this book offered, but the technical details just reminded me every day why I went into writing instead of science. Greene tries to make the principles accessible to the layman by telling stories to illustrate his points (for instance using the example of two stranded astronauts, George and Gracie, floating past each other to illustrate the speed of light and general relativity and how, as the distance between them grew, the clock strapped to the others' chest would appear to go slower while they're own clock would keep perfect time), but after a while the stories stopped and things got just too complicated. Despite devoting 387 pages to it, I don't understand much more about string theory now than I did when I started. In fact, I think the world makes even less sense to me now, especially after Greene tried to explain to me how eleven separate spatial dimensions would work. I get the three we deal with on a daily basis, width, height, and length--plus the added dimension of time within that space--but to try and understand the added dimensions he talks about, and to understand that while we live within them, they're too small to see . . . my brain hurts again.
I believe Greene meant for The Elegant Universe to be accessible to the general public, but I also think there are things the general public just isn't meant to understand--otherwise we'd all be physicists, wouldn't we?
To get an example of what I mean:
"According to string theory, the universe is made up of tiny strings whose resonant patterns of vibration are the microscopic origin of particle masses and force charges. String theory also requires extra space dimensions that must be curled up to a very small size to be consistent with our never having seen them. But a tiny string can probe a tiny space. As a string moves about, oscillating as it travels, the geometrical form of the extra dimensions plays a critical role in determining resonant patterns of vibration. Because the patterns of string vibrations appear to us as the masses and charges of the elementary particles, we conclude that these fundamental properties of the universe are determined, in large measure, by the geometrical size and shape of the extra dimensions. That's one of the most far-reaching insights of string theory."
If you understood that, you're doing better than me. Or there's this:
"the 'natural' energy scale of string theory is the Planck energy, and it is only through extremely delicate cancellations that string theory yields vibrational patterns with masses in the vicinity of those of the known matter and force particles. Delicate cancellations require precise calculations because even small errors have a profound impact on accuracy."
I admit I was lost through much of this book, and there were whole sections I read several times until I thought I understood it. However, the first quarter made perfect sense and did clear up some things I'd often wondered about, mostly dealing with light, time, and the speed of both. I read the first part of this book, excited and interested, thinking I was in for a great education. But that eventually turned into "Let's see how confused we can make CDM."
To his credit Greene didn't just lecture the reader on the principles of string theory and how the universe works. There were several history lessons, amusing anecdotes (my favorite was: "When the success of Eddington's 1919 expedition to measure Einstein's prediction of the bending of starlight by the sun had been established, the Dutch physicist Hendrik Lorentz sent Einstein a telegram informing him of the good news. As word of the telegram's confirmation of general relativity spread, a student asked Einstein about what he would have thought if Eddington's experiment had not found the predicted bending of starlight. Einstein replied, 'Then I would have been sorry for the dear Lord, for the theory IS correct.'") and sidebars to lighten things up from time to time. In fact, I could have read with even greater interest the history of physics, as long as the author didn't go into another long discussion of Calabi-Yau shapes and Planck energies.
I can't lay all the blame on Greene, however; there were sections I'd be in the middle of and suddenly realize I'd just missed four paragraphs because I was distracted by something else--sometimes not understanding a word of what he was saying took me out of the book and my mind began to wander.
I think the audience for this book is a specialized group, not just anyone can grab this off the shelf and dive into it. For those of us who don't study physics, or are, like me, easily distracted, this might not be the thing to curl up with on a rainy day. But for the readers who are genuinely curious about the topic, I think The Elegant Universe could be just the thing for them. It's an interesting, well-written book, it's just a lot smarter than I am.
Amazon Search Results for The Elegant Universe Brian Green
I think of myself as an informed lay person in the area of physics ... I have an undergraduate degree in Applied Math and Theoretical Physics but went into other directions in my life. But even with all of that background I found Elegant Universe a difficult read and only understood a maddeningly small portion of the entire book. But if you're motivated and read the whole book, stick with it! Read other similar titles and you'd be surprised how your understanding and comprehension of cosmology, quantum mechanics, string theory and current physics will simply grow through osmosis!
Thanks again for a great review!
Posted by Christopher Heath on 12/9/2007
A difficult read at times but well worth it. It should be on everyone's reading list who wants some insight as to how the universe (likely)functions. 5 Stars.
Get the SyFy channel and your other favorite science fiction programming with Direct TV. Compare programming on Direct TV to Comcast and Dish Network to see why you should choose DirecTV. All your favorite Directv packages include quality programming, and now you can get NFL Sunday Ticket free with the purchase of select packages. Find out why direct tv is the best in satellite television programming.