As a boy, Brian Greene read Albert Camus' The Myth of Sisyphus
and was transformed. Camus, in Greene's paraphrase, insisted that the hero triumphs "by relinquishing everything beyond immediate experience." After wrestling with this idea, however, Greene rejected Camus and realized that his true idols were physicists; scientists who struggled "to assess life and to experience the universe at all possible levels, not just those that happened to be accessible to our frail human senses." His driving question in The Fabric of the Cosmos
, then, is fundamental: "What is
reality?" Over sixteen chapters, he traces the evolving human understanding of the substrate of the universe, from classical physics to ten-dimensional M-Theory.
Assuming an audience of non-specialists, Greene has set himself a daunting task: to explain non-intuitive, mathematical concepts like String Theory, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, and Inflationary Cosmology with analogies drawn from common experience. For the most part, he succeeds. His language reflects a deep passion for science and a gift for translating concepts into poetic images. When explaining, for example, the inability to see the higher dimensions inherent in string theory, Greene writes: "We don't see them because of the way we see
like an ant walking along a lily pad
we could be floating within a grand, expansive, higher-dimensional space."
For Greene, Rhodes Scholar and professor of physics and mathematics at Columbia University, speculative science is not always as thorough and successful. His discussion of teleportation, for example, introduces and then quickly tables a valuable philosophical probing of identity. The paradoxes of time travel, however, are treated with greater depth, and his vision of life in a three-brane universe is compelling and--to use his description for quantum reality--"weird."
In the final pages Greene turns from science fiction back to the fringes of science fact, and he returns with rigor to frame discoveries likely to be made in the coming decades. "We are, most definitely, still wandering in the jungle," he concludes. Thanks to Greene, though, some of the underbrush has been cleared. --Patrick O'Kelley
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From Publishers Weekly
String theory is a recent development in physics that, by positing that all which exists is composed of infinitesimally small vibrating loops of energy, seeks to unify Einstein's theories and those of quantum mechanics into a so-called "theory of everything." In 1999, Greene, one of the world's leading physicists, published The Elegant Universe (Norton), a popular presentation of string theory that became a major bestseller and, last fall, a highly rated PBS/Nova series. The strength of the book resided in Greene's unparalleled (among contemporary science writers) ability to translate higher mathematics (the language of physics) and its findings into everyday language and images, through adept use of metaphor and analogy, and crisp, witty prose. The same virtues adhere to this new book, which offers a lively view of human understanding of space and time, an understanding of which string theory is an as-yet unproven advance. To do this, Greene takes a roughly chronological approach, beginning with Newton, moving through Einstein and quantum physics, and on to string theory and its hypotheses (that there are 11 dimensions, ten of space and one of time; that there may be an abundance of parallel universes; that time travel may be possible, and so on) and imminent experiments that may test some of its tenets. None of this is easy reading, mostly because the concepts are tough to grasp and Greene never seems to compromise on accuracy. Eighty-five line drawings ease the task, however, as does Greene's felicitous narration; most importantly, though, Greene not only makes concepts clear but explains why they matter. He opens the book with a discussion of Camus's The Myth of Sisyphus, setting a humanistic tone that he sustains throughout. This is popular science writing of the highest order, with copious endnotes that, unlike the text, include some math.
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