ISBN: 0-375-70811-1 (Trade)
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 wallsunaidedis a harmless and occasionally
enlightening form of release. Michio Kakus Hyperspace
and Stephan Wolframs A New Kind of Science
recent examples. But Brian Greenes 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 authors 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
arxiv.org. 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? Thats more probing a question than might
first be assumed. Lets say, for starters, that when Einstein
himself sat down to let the rest of the world in on his work in
, he couldnt 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 well
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.
mechanics and relativity, The Elegant Universe
of sciences 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
universes 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
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 wont 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.