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The Elegant Universe

by Rob Friesel

The Elegant UniverseAN INTRODUCTION BY WAY OF HYPERBOLIC SENTIMENT: The Elegant Universe is “The Bible” of superstring theory1.

I close the covers of The Elegant Universe with powerfully mixed feelings. On the one hand, Brian Greene gives us a lucidly-written layman’s-terms explanation for high-concept modern physics, providing an excellent survey of 20th century science and painting a vivid picture of a promising strategy for reconciling the discrepancies in the otherwise dominant theories. On the other hand, about half-way through the text, it devolves into (what feels like) a navel-gazing vanity project that fails to connect that promising strategy with the target audience (i.e., the layman that actually gives a damn about modern science).

To be clear: the first third of the book is a remarkable accomplishment. Brian Greene is a cogent writer with a wonderful pedagogical streak that is able to produce a clear image of some otherwise hard-to-decipher concepts in modern physics. Because of The Elegant Universe, I feel like I now have a fairly good understanding of the core concepts underlying Einstein’s theories of special and general relativity, and quantum mechanics (e.g., Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle). Greene is also able to give a decent explanation regarding how these theories break down when you try to “merge” them (e.g., like when you come up with “infinite energy” and/or “infinite mass” and/or “infinite probabilities” through calculations of black holes or the Big Bang).

This first third of the book is very accessible, very enjoyable, and very informative. Engaging, fascinating, and extremely powerful.

Somewhere during that potent 130-150 pages, Greene remarks (something to the effect of): You cannot be said to fully understand something until you can explain both its system and significance to a complete stranger. (Not a quote, but I’m sure you know what I’m getting at…)

And with that statement does Dr. Greene undermine the remaining two-thirds of the book. After introducing string theory, after explaining that it is a strategy with the potential to marry relativity and quantum mechanics, after getting you (the lay-reader) excited that you too will have some insight into the critical significance that is superstring theory — he glosses over some math (which doesn’t really feel like physics after that first 120 pages) and more/less asks you to “bear with me here, trust me…”

EXAMPLE: after introducing the concept of strings, the text rushes into a discussion of 6-dimensional “curled up” Calabi-Yau manifolds without really giving a good way of visualizing that whole mess2.

EXAMPLE: after 2 or 3 chapters about string theory where Greene is introducing it and discussing how it might reconcile relativity and quantum mechanics, he starts to segue into reconciling aspects of string theory with itself — looping back (like its own subject strings) on itself in a perverse recursion full of mathematical adjustments and jargon.

EXAMPLE: in the midst of discussing how this New Science, and where you expect it to loop back on the promised explanations for the Old Science, Greene veers off into a series of anecdotes about “this one time at Harvard…” and/or “once at Princeton we stayed up all night and…” — which really just seemed a little gratuitous.

By the time I realized what was happening, my attitude was already tainted. Perhaps I could have extracted more of the science if my cynicism hadn’t kicked in so virulently and so early on in the reading. Perhaps spending more time with the end-notes will prove fruitful. Or perhaps on a future, subsequent follow-up reading I will discover that I was right the first time and we have 150 or so pages of incredible science writing and the remainder is chintzy vanity project3.

RATED FOR HYPE: ★★★★★
RATED FOR STYLE: ★★★☆☆
RATED FOR SCIENCE: ★★☆☆☆

A version of this review was originally published on Goodreads.com.

  1. Let’s hear it for faith-based science? []
  2. This is partly me being overly critical of Greene’s (in my opinion) cavalier treatment of the Calabi-Yau concepts immediately following their introduction. There are some end-notes and citations for further reading, and he does attempt to dedicate some space in the main text to the idea — but his “dumbing down” of the Calabi-Yau manifolds to the “ant in the garden hose” analogy just doesn’t really address it with sufficient vigor. Not after the incredible work he did in the earlier chapters re explaining relativity and quantum mechanics. I suppose I may have been more satisfied with something along the lines of “you have your time dimension, your three ‘regular’ space dimensions, and then these other six are really dedicated to providing reference points to describing the shape and vibration of the string IN THE THREE DIMENSIONS YOU ARE ALREADY FAMILIAR WITH” — but no such explanation was there. If that’s even really what he might have meant. []
  3. Which I mean in the nicest possible way…? To be fair, Greene leaves plenty of room throughout the text to permit himself (and his colleagues studying superstring theory) to be “wrong”. It reminds me of when Robert Wright hedges his bets in The Moral Animal, saying that the evolutionary psychology approach (as championed by himself, Richard Dawkins, E.O. Wilson, Robert Trivers, and others) is a strong one that explains a whole lot but you better be careful before you go painting too broad of a stroke with those kinds of theories… Greene seems to do similar hedging, admitting that aspects of superstring theory seem tenuous (esp. when you consider how many “adjustments” they perform while “fine-tuning” a given aspect of the theory(s)) and that they (as scientists) are wise to temper their enthusiasm, to not lose sight of goals like “experimental verification”. But then there’s Greene’s enthusiasm — which can easily electrify the reader but also just as easily undermine all of that careful hedging. []

About Rob Friesel

Software engineer by day, science fiction writer by night. Author of The PhantomJS Cookbook and a short story in Please Do Not Remove. View all posts by Rob Friesel →

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