The Elegant Universe

by Brian Greene

Cover image

Publisher: Vintage
Copyright: 1999, 2003
Printing: 2003
ISBN: 0-375-70811-1
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 448

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I've been hearing hints and glimmers about superstring theory for a while, but my own physics education only covered standard general relativity and quantum mechanics and from the bits of science reading that I've done since, I never really caught the gist of what superstring theory was attempting to accomplish or where it was at. When I read the Powells interview with Brian Greene, I was intrigued, and decided to give this book a try.

Greene is a theoretical physicist and string theorist in his own right (and in fact The Elegant Universe touches in passing on his own contributions to superstring theory), making him well-qualified to cover the physics. Thankfully, he is also a clear and engaging writer, and this is one of the most readable science books I've read while still being assured that it would be accurate. I have a few minor niggles: Greene does tend to follow the theoretician's style of presenting a conclusion and then presenting the proof, which can feel forced at times, and towards the end of the book I think the difficulty of the material begins to overwhelm his ability to explain it clearly to the layman without mathematics. Apart from that, though, the writing was good enough to make me eager to read the next chapter and find out what's next, which is high praise for this heady of science.

The first few chapters are a brief but comprehensive introduction to the basics of special relativity, general relativity, quantum mechanics, and their conflict, and are worth the price of the book by themselves. I don't think I've ever read a clearer explanation of relativity. I've read or heard innumerable explanations of relativity before, from physics textbooks to lectures to explanations in SF novels, and Greene's introduction still clarified for me things that I'd not really understood. It may even help with the details of what goes with general relativity and what goes with special relativity and why they're separate actually stick in my head, something that I've always had problems with. The quantum mechanics is not quite as good, but then quantum mechanics is harder to explain, and Greene does a competent job at introducing the important bits that will matter for the story of superstring theory. (I would still dearly love to read a good explanation of exactly what the weak force is, though.)

That being said, this is not a book that I can recommend without reservations to someone with no physics background. I don't think you have to have really internalized relativity in order to understand it, but I do think this works better as your fourth explanation than your first. I'm also not sure that I would have grasped quantum mechanics well enough from this description if I hadn't already been familiar. An avid hard science fiction reader or someone who remembers their college physics shouldn't have a problem; those with no scientific background whatsoever will struggle.

The heart of this book, of course, is the explanation of just what superstring theory is, why people care about it, and what it's status is at the time of the writing of the book. With this, I was quite satisfied. Superstring theory is a hard topic to explain, given the esoteric circumstances under which it diverges from established theories, its use of ten- and eleven-dimentional space with folded dimensions, and its close association with topology theory (about which I regrettably know almost nothing). I came away from my reading with a pretty good understanding of the basic idea and the current obstacles, and some really interesting ideas to ponder (like black holes as fundamental particles). Greene tells science like a story, presenting developments in mostly chronological order and explaining what motivated the research and why the earlier theories weren't adequate, a choice that I wholeheartedly approve of and which adds a great deal of human interest to the telling.

Some of his explanations are truly excellent. I think I actually understand how our universe could be eleven-dimensional without us noticing, something that I thought I'd never be able to wrap my mind around and something that he spends some time going over from different angles. In other places, though, he did leave me puzzled. I still don't quite get why he and other superstring theorists find the theory so inherently aesthetically attractive, for instance. The importance of unification of quantum mechanics with general relativity makes sense, but I didn't understand how he could express dissatisfaction with quantum mechanics for requiring that the weights of fundamental particles be experimentally determined rather than predicted, and then embraces a theory where the laws of the universe are dependent on the exact folded form of extra-dimensional spaces, which could theoretically be of any shape. It feels like the same problem except even worse, but he clearly doesn't see it that way. I feel like I missed an explanation.

I only have a few other dislikes about the book. The tail end of the book also isn't quite up to the quality of the rest of it, and his upbeat, conquer the universe rallying cry at the very end felt forced to me. It also unfortunately has end notes, although not as badly as some others I could mention, and once again the end notes that are simply references to other works aren't distinguished from the end notes that actually add more explanation. The text is quite readable without the end notes, and a non-scientific reader likely is better off skipping them, but I once again ended up reading the book with two bookmarks.

Despite all that, though, this is one of the best popular science books I've read, and a book I can readily recommend to any hard science fiction fan or person with an amateur interest in physics (or even a professional interest in a different field).

Rating: 9 out of 10

Reviewed: 2004-11-23

Last modified and spun 2017-11-12