Sunday, March 13, 2016

Book Review: The Elegant Universe

© 1999 by Brian Greene

Or as I like to call it, The Incredibly Complex Super Convoluted Universe

This is my second go-through with this book. The first time, way back in 2001, I liked it. Understood probably around 75 percent of it. I was working IT at the time in NYC and my jerk desk supervisor saw me reading it one day in the cafeteria and he was impressed. I think his estimation of me inflated much like the early universe 10^-36 seconds after the Big Bang. Okay, bad physics reference. But I enjoyed it back then.

Being a keeper, The Elegant Universe was thrown in the physics stack of books. Boxed up. Moved 35 miles to a new home. Stored in an attic for ten years. Retrieved by me a few months ago. And now, fifteen years later, re-read.

This time around, much more rusty, I think I understood about 60 percent of it. The opening chapters on Relativity and Quantum Mechanics provided a good overview. Unfortunately, every pop sci book contains a Relativity and Quantum Mechanics overview, so I’m kinda Relativity and Quantum Mechanics overview’d out. But Greene does a good job here, as well as his introductory chapters on string theory.

What is string theory? I dunno. I don’t know if there’s a consensus out there either. Apparently, in order to reconcile Relativity with Quantum Mechanics, you need to do away with point particles (elementary particles such as quarks and leptons, which make up protons, neutrons, electrons, and a whole soup of others). Point particles lead to irrational infinities when one does the math behind singularities, such as those found at the center of a black hole or the thing that banged in the Big Bang. Or so I’ve read.

Strings, being one-dimensional entities, do away with these infinities. Problem is, you need about ten other dimensions to make them work. I felt Greene did a decent enough job juggling analogies to help the layman understand this. The Garden Hose Universe, for example. These ten extra dimensions are curled up in our universe and are too small to be detected, like viewing a garden hose a hundred yards away. It will look like a line. But actually, there’s another dimension, a curled one if you follow the circumference of the garden hose. Can’t see it at a hundred yards, but it’s there. So it is with the ten required dimensions of string theory.

From about two-thirds on, though, right after a big section on Calabi-Yau multidimensional spaces, he kinda lost me. The whole R and 1/R thing needs a dedicated re-reading. As does the whole “space tearing flop transitions” chapter. But I did dig some mind-tingling speculations that perhaps our three dimensions (length, width, height) are actually curled, too, the curling starting to happen 15 billion light years away (that’s the farthest we can currently see). Or that the singularity in a black hole is actually a newborn genetically mutated (the physical constants of that universe, that is) universe, unable to be seen by us. And this, in turn, leads us to wonder if our own universe is in a black hole. And the whole Calabi-Yau thing intrigued me, too. Picturing those crazy multidimensional shapes at every nanoscopic point in space, wheeling off into ten (sometimes eleven) dimensions, well, that might just be the koan for me to attain satori.

Like all pop sci books that don’t include equations, because publishers fear equations, The Elegant Universe seemed more a book about the “about” of string theory than actually string theory. That is, I learned a lot about the history of string theory, those who developed it, how the various theories interrelate (the mysterious M-theory), but no so much about what an actual string is and does. At least, on a simplified level for non-string theorists like myself.

Picture a starfish, only one with six limbs instead of five.

Each limb is labeled a different string theory:

Type I
Type IIA
Type IIB
Heterotic O
Heterotic E
11D Supergravity

And the starfish itself is labeled:


This is figure 12.11 in Greene’s book. I like it. It simplifies a complicated subject. I just wish there were something like seven hundred more illustrations. But then I guess it would be called The Elegant Universe Illustrated or The Comic Book Guide to the Elegant Universe for Dummies or something. And I would buy it, too.

Grade: B+

Oh, and I’m putting it back in the box in the attic to read sometime around 2031, and I also want to read Greene’s two follow-up physics books.

No comments: