Vintage Books, 2000
ISBN: 0-375-70811-1 (Trade)
Since the first great physics revolution in the 1920s, explanatory popular science texts have held tremendous sway over lay readers. That comes with qualification, of course. One can hardly imagine a group of enthralled undergraduates flocking to buy the latest title on, say, fluid dynamics. But books that concern the potential for a grand unified theory (GUT, or TOE, theory of everything), much like books about religion, never seem to go out of fashion. In a troubling era, the encouragement to suspend disbelief long enough to agree that we certainly do live in a universe where bowling balls can fly through walls–unaided–is a harmless and occasionally enlightening form of release. Michio Kaku’s Hyperspace and Stephan Wolfram’s A New Kind of Science are two recent examples. But Brian Greene’s Pulitzer Prize Finalist, The Elegant Universe, is in a class of its own. Quite simply, this unassuming masterpiece is the most authoritative and interesting science book I have encountered.
         It must be an almost superhuman curiosity that compels physicists to plumb a universe that cannot offer them material or even technical gain, and then to present their findings with humble hands to a public consumed by possession rather than conception. Even in such a world, Dr. Greene has developed renown as a sort of poster-boy for modern theoretical science. He holds fabulous lectures that attract (a strange attractor, indeed) beautiful urbanites and looks appropriately bashful during television interviews. Yet Dr. Greene is more than a gussied-up savant, and he has the credits to prove it. One of the engaging aspects of this author’s work is that his "truths" are verifiable by anyone with Internet access and a few thousand hours to spend getting down to basics with quantum mechanics and superstrings. The papers that he quotes, including quite a few of his own, are readily available through the public Internet archive Dr. Greene describes instances when papers first published on the Internet initiated storms of mental gymnastics in laboratories and classrooms all over the world. If every theory and projection The Elegant Universe contains is eventually debunked, then this book, perhaps unique among its peers, will still hold some value as a sidebar-worthy history of the Internet-as-dorm room for bull sessions that resulted, and continue to result, in genuine scientific communication, dissemination, and discovery.
         But what is the book about, exactly? That’s more probing a question than might first be assumed. Let’s say, for starters, that when Einstein himself sat down to let the rest of the world in on his work in 1920’s Relativity, he couldn’t get the ideas across in 170 pages that Dr. Greene illuminates in a little over fifty. (But the fellow did have a few redeeming features, so we’ll forgive the slight oversight on the part of a God that, according to modern physics, certainly does play dice.) Dr. Greene, however, is a natural teacher with a Plato-esque gift for guidance without overbearance. After a lifetime in academia, he retains a giddy fascination for his chosen concentration that is conveyed by both the fluidity of his prose and the agreeable what-if? illustrations of highly technical, and for most of us previously inaccessible, concepts. He is an easy-going king among paupers who anticipates and answers our questions before we have stumbled onto them ourselves. And he does this without inspiring feelings of inferiority and subsequent distaste in his readers. He earns our trust early in the text and then almost imperceptibly drags us into black possibilities beholden to advanced and inscrutable mathematics. This is a world predicted, conceived, and delivered courtesy of a select few, of the tools and processes they have developed and that are themselves indebted to a score of centuries’ remarkable thinkers.
         Beyond quantum mechanics and relativity, The Elegant Universe explores some of science’s most compelling recent developments: string theory, supersymmetry, and M-Theory. I will not attempt to elucidate these ideas here, which many theorists believe to be fundamental to our universe’s structure, as they are fragile and shadowy creatures, prone to flight, and are best left for Dr. Greene to relate.
         Like the unseen world that it describes, The Elegant Universe is neither completed nor altered by its readers’ proficiency and insight. The book is secure in its knowledge, and such nonchalant confidence is deeply satisfying. But when approached, Dr. Greene rewards without demanding anything more than an open mind and the pleasure of a few hours’ company. Such should be the goal of, if not the driving force behind, novelists and nonfiction writers alike. Read once for enjoyment and twice for comprehension, The Elegant Universe divulges a multiverse of new ideas that won’t change the way you live, but that might change the way you think about a life made wonderful by the exquisite mystery of the nature it contains.