The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene

25 September, 2011

Subtitled Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory, Brian Greene’s popular introduction to the latest contender for the Theory of Everything (TOE) goes hand in hand with a tv programme he made a few years ago. I watched that and was dazzled and had been meaning to find out more about superstrings since then but never got around to it. Superstring theory was too advanced for undergraduate lectures when I was at university since we were still trying to grasp the intricacies of relativity and quantum mechanics, but I was still shocked to learn that although superstring theory is the new theory on the block, it’s been around since the 70s.

Even with a scientific background, The Elegant Universe is not the easiest book to read even though equations are kept to a minimum and it’s mainly descriptive. But the concepts Greene tries to explain visually are not visualisable. Although we try to visualise the wave particle duality of a photon, for example, in fact, what we try to do is to visualise it in terms of what we are familiar with. But quantum mechanics is a different animal and cannot be visualised or thought of in that way. I’m familiar with the issues but I still do it. And in some ways you learn that it’s ok to do so as long as you remember that it’s not really like that. Are you still with me?

I have to admit this book took me a long time to finish partly because I could only absorb about 50 pages at a time because, although Greene writes beautifully and his illustrations are simple and easy to understand, the concepts have a depth to which I am no longer accustomed to thinking. That’s what happens when you stop studying like a student.

But The Elegant Universe opens up a world that is fantastic and bonkers. Our universe and everything in it is composed of tiny one dimensional strings that vibrate and exist in a 10 (or 11) dimensional universe all folded in to each other in varying shapes called the Calabi-Yau manifolds. We only know the approximate nature of superstring theory, although there are 5 versions that differ slightly. Together with supergravity, these 5 different versions of superstring theory make up what is called M-theory which theoretical physicists are hoping will be the Theory of Everything. Yet it’s so complex that we only know the approximate equations. And this in turn may lead us to speculate upon multiverses and pre-Big Bang scenarios. How exciting and mind-boggling is that? I didn’t even know we were allowed to speculate upon what happened or existed before the Big Bang as I thought it was a scientifically taboo topic.

I really enjoyed reading this book. Greene’s explanations are lucid, yet accessible, as he keeps the chapters short and manageable. And I’m eager to read more about the advances in superstring theory, especially since this book was first published in 1999 and revised in 2005. But I’d also like to learn more about dark matter and dark energy which account for 95% of our observable universe and which no one has a clue about. Intriguing or what?? The 4% Universe: Dark Matter, Dark Energy and the Race to Discover the Rest of Reality by Richard Panek sounds just like what I need to read next.

Do also check out Swapna’s review of the book.

And Prof. Greene also makes a cameo appearance in The Big Bang Theory season 4 episode 20 – The Herb Garden Germination. Total geek out.

9 Responses to “The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene”

  1. Nymeth Says:

    This sounds wonderful and very much worth reading, but like you I think I’d need to take my time. Or even longer, since I don’t have much of a background in science. One day!

  2. Mystica Says:

    Completely out of my depth on this one! will we see you here for the Galle Literary Festival again.

  3. Tony Says:

    One day, in another life, I’ll find out about String Theory. Then again, maybe I already have and my timeline hasn’t caught up yet 🙂

  4. […] Reblog: The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene ( […]

  5. Just finished Elegant U.
    I really stretched my limited imagination!
    At times I was convinced and then……….I just couldn’t believe.
    We need just one piece of truth or evidence that another world exits besides an equation.

    • sakura Says:

      It’s pretty crazy, isn’t it, all those dimensions and parallel worlds? Since the Nobel Prize for Physics was awarded for work on dark energy, we should all be reading about that next, right?;P

  6. Yes, dark matter it is!

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