Work in Progress: The Elegant Universe

In an attempt to both educate myself and prepare for a potential career switch, I’ve made it my goal to read scientifically-inclined books as much as I can, between being consumed by sci-fi and other works of fiction. Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe makes this goal much easier to achieve by being about string theory and the universe (whoa, nelly!) and very, hah, elegantly and simply explained.

The thing about Greene’s writing is not that it’s erudite, but that it’s quite easily accessible. There are diagrams of the analogies he gives — I’ll come to one of them in a moment — and a clear link from one step of the history of string theory to the next. Actually, it’s more of a tour of the concepts. Greene starts with the idea that space and time are linked, then goes on to talk about the theory of general relativity. But soon, he introduces the idea of microscopic weirdness, as opposed to the macroscopic mind-boggler that is general relativity.

And there’s the rub — that the equations governing space and time at a macroscopic level simply don’t hold when you get down to the Planck level of the universe, which is around 20 orders of magnitude smaller than the radius of an electron (classically, since quantum physics dictates that an electron is more of a probability of position and velocity than anything concrete).

On sub-Planck-scale distances, the quantum undulations are so violent that they destroy the notion of a smoothly curving geometrical space; this means that general relativity breaks down.

No matter how clear you intend to be, however, in books like this, there needs to be a certain amount of hand-waving.  The problem is that a lot of the theory proofs and some of the explanations themselves are rooted in such esoteric branches of mathematics that it’s difficult to conclude an explanation except to say “… and then magic with numbers happened.”

It’s interesting to see, at the fringes of physics, how much we have to cease depending on experiment and observation. Some of the suggestions by various luminaries of physics amount to nothing more concrete than a mathematical analysis of what would make numerical sense. Like negative probabilities, for instance.

But Greene’s simple, fluent storytelling makes this easy to comprehend and digest. He’s so full of enthusiasm for his subject that he sounds like an excited curator at a museum of the physically magnificent — and absurd.

More updates as the book progresses. It’s going slowly, but even paging back to re-read some of it will be worth my time.

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