Unstoppable reader Jason Bennett has penned another review, this time of Brian Greene's The Elegant Universe -- proof that it's good to venture beyond the O'Reilly section of the store, at least the few feet to the Current Science area.
Greetings, all. This book is yet another departure from my standard software theme, but a fascinating one nonetheless. Ever since the discovery of relativity and quantum mechanics, the everyday world and the world as described by science have diverged. We have no frame of reference for time running at a different rate, nor for particles jumping through solid objects. Yet it is these very discoveries which have driven physics (and technology) for the past fifty years. Even worse, scientists have been unable to reconcile these difficult-to- understand theories with one another. Today, though, there are solutions in sight. String theory promises to revolutionize science once again by uniting the theory of the big (relativity) with the theory of the small (quantum mechanics), and now that they understand these theories better, scientists can explain to the rest of us how our world truly works. Michio Kaku did an excellent job with his Hyperspace five years ago, and now Brian Greene gives us a different and updated perspective. Although this book is not written for everyone, it is directed at anyone with a decent science background (high school physics), and a desire to learn more about how our reality works.
As the saying goes, let's start at the beginning. Science has recently (where recently = 100 years, recent in historical terms) faced down three major conflicts in its world view. The first, the conflict of Newton's theory of motion versus Maxwell's law of electromagnetism over whether a light wave can be outrun, was resolved by special relativity (Newton lost). The second conflict, and one initiated by the discovery of special relativity, was whether gravity can be transmitted instantaneously across distances. (Special relativity, of course, states that nothing can be transmitted instantaneously). From this conflict was born general relativity, the theory of curved space, and Newton lost again (although, to be fair to Newton, he was correct as much as he could have been). The third conflict, caused by the implications of general relativity (anyone see a pattern?), was and is between general relativity and quantum mechanics. Simply put, the theory that describes the big and the theory that describes the small do not make sense together. Therefore, either one is correct, or the atoms that make you up behave differently than the planet upon which you stand. The answer to this conflict may very well be string theory.
After a quick introduction to these conflicts, and the place of string theory in the modern framework of physics, Greene takes us on a looping yet fascinating tour through special and general relativity, quantum mechanics, and the details of the conflict between them. This foundation for his description of string theory is quite helpful in bringing the book down to the level that most people can understand (especially liberal arts grads :-). In the process, Greene shows how the weirdness and unpredictability of quantum mechanics is simply unreconcilable with relativity, given our current formulation of both theories.
Of course, such a state cannot continue forever. Enter string theory. String theory basically states that the universe is fundamentally made up of oscillating loops of "string", and it is those oscillations which determine the nature and makeup of the universe. String theory also postulates that the universe is composed of several rolled-up dimensions, influencing the vibrations of the strings, and thus the makeup of our universe.
Without going into detail (that's the author's job), string theory has gathered a lot of evidence and momentum in the past years, and what I have sketched is only a 5-minute sound bite. There's plenty more detail of both the theory and its implications in the later sections. Greene closes by explaining where physics and string theory are headed, and pronounces his hope that soon we will be able to hold in our hands a fundamental explanation of the universe (the Theory of Everything [TOE], the Holy Grail of physics).
Not too much. I found some of the later chapters to drag somewhat, delving into mathematics that I neither wanted nor needed. The chapter on black holes, especially, held great promise, but tended to drag at times, on a subject that I consider horribly fascinating.
In a sentence, this book makes modern physics accessible. I dare say any Slashdot reader could readily read and enjoy the material, with only a little stretching here and there. It is important that we as a people know more about how our world works, and this book is a solid step in that direction. Just as Hyperspace was a bestseller, I hope TEU can acquaint more people with these fascinating and fundamental developments of science.
So What's In It For Me?
Very simply, a better understanding of how our world works, and little pain in getting there. There's something to be said for enjoying physics!
Purchase this at ThinkGeek.
Table of Contents
- Part I: The Edge of Knowledge
- Tied Up with String
- Part II: The Dilemma of Space, Time, and the Quanta
- Space, Time, and the Eye of the Beholder
- Of Warps and Ripples
- Microscopic Weirdness
- The need for a New Theory: General Relativity vs. Quantum Mechanics
- Part III: The Cosmic Symphony
- Nothing but Music: The Essentials of Superstring Theory
- The "Super" in Superstrings
- More Dimensions Than Meet the Eye
- The Smoking Gun: Experimental Signatures
- Part IV: String Theory and the Fabic of Spacetime
- Quanutm Geometry
- Tearing the Fabic of Space
- Beyond Strings: In Search of M-Theory
- Black Holes: A String/M-Theory Perspective
- Reflections on Cosmology
- Part V: Unification in the Twenty-First Century
- Glossary of Scientific Terms
- References and Suggestions for Further Reading