Monday, January 7, 2013

The Elegant Universe

by Brian Greene
W.W. Norton and Co., 2003.

Relativity and quantum mechanics both help us understand the universe, but in some cases the equations involved don't play nice and come up with nonsensical answers. Superstring theory (or string theory for short) is a "theory of everything" that attempts to better explain the universe. The gist of the theory is that instead of particles (electrons, quarks, etc.), the smallest units are, in fact, vibrating one-dimensional strings. In The Elegant Universe, Greene expands on the basics to explain in fairly non-mathematical language what the possible ramifications would be.

I admit, I probably would not have been able to finish this book if I hadn't had help from an engineer. I never took physics in school, though I'm fascinated by the subject and have read a handful of popular science books on the topic. In the first few chapters, Greene details what has gone on in physics before, from our changing understanding of gravity, to special and general relativity. In chapter 5, he switches gears and lays out the basics of string theory. Chapter 7 on gets more and more speculative as Greene explores supersymmetry, black holes, how 10 dimensions could exist, and more. He is a definite proponent of the theory, and is not always clear about what is a core part of string theory or what is a fun mathematical possibility within the theory. Still, it was entertaining to read and a mind-stretching experience. I will be very interested in seeing what the next decade brings to the search for a theory of everything.


Rachel Bradford said...

I started reading this book last year and put it down and forgot about it. It was really interesting, but quite heavy, wasn't it?

Mary said...

Yes, The Elegant Universe was heavy reading. It took me just over five months, because I kept putting it down when life got too busy or I was just too tired to take in some of the more complicated aspects of the book.

Also, it really helped having someone to bounce questions off of, make sure I understood what I thought I did, and ask for clarification on what I just didn't get.