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The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality [Paperback]

by Brian Greene
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (347 customer reviews)

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

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 --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Bookmarks Magazine

If the idea that time may travel in more than one direction hurts your brain, there's hope for you yet. Greene, author of The Elegant Universe and professor at Columbia University, designed this dazzling overview of physical reality for general readers (and kindly gives ample notice when he's about to delve into physics-speak). Using humorous examples from everyday life, from Larry King and Homer Simpson to earthworms, Greene animates thorny questions of space, time, and reality. Although he stresses speculative physics, he often dismisses some of its implications. And the illustrations don't add much. But Greene's enthusiasm and "excitement for science on the threshold of vital breakthroughs," notes The New York Times, "is supremely contagious."

Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Booklist

*Starred Review* Forbidding formulas no longer stand between general readers and the latest breakthroughs in astrophysics: the imaginative gifts of one of the pioneers making those breakthroughs have now translated mathematical science into accessible analogies drawn from everyday life and popular culture. Using images as simple as that of Homer Simpson riding a skateboard and an ordinary earthworm crawling along a tightrope, Greene draws readers deep into revolutionary new conceptions of space and time. These conceptions transform the everyday world of 3-dimensional sense perception into the illusory surface of an 11-dimensional reality. Hidden from human view, tightly coiled loops of multidimensional string link radiant stars to mysterious black matter in a galactic space-time tapestry of sublime symmetry. Though Greene deepens his inquiries with occasional ventures into scholarly complexities (thoughtfully warning timid readers, who can skip the abstruse sections), disarmingly simple principles finally penetrate the very frontiers of cosmological research, where the random chaos of quantum mechanics begins to fit within the lucid harmonies of relativity and where the strangely one-directional arrow of time starts to yield the secrets of its flight. Nonspecialists will relish this exhilarating foray into the alien terrain that is our own universe. Bryce Christensen
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

Review

“Send[s] the reader’s imagination hurtling through space on an astonishing ride. . . . He is both a skilled and kindly explicator. His excitement for science on the threshold of vital breakthroughs is extremely contagious.” —The New York Times

“The best exposition and explanation of early 21st-century research into the fundamental nature of the universe as you are likely to find anywhere.” —Science

“Perhaps the single best explainer of abstruse science in the world today. . . . Greene has a gift for finding the right metaphor.” —The Washington Post

“I recommend Greene’s book to any nonexpert reader who wants an up-to-date account of theoretical physics, written in colloquial language that anyone can understand.” —Freeman Dyson, The New York Review of Books

“As pure intellectual adventure, this is about as good as it gets. . . . Even compared with A Brief History of Time, Greene’s book stands out for its sweeping ambition . . . stripping down the mystery from difficult concepts without watering down the science.” —Newsday

"Greene is as elegant as ever, cutting through the fog of complexity with insight and clarity. Space and time, you might even say, become putty in his hands." —Los Angeles Times

“Highly informed, lucid and witty. . . . There is simply no better introduction to the strange wonders of general relativity and quantum mechanics, the fields of knowledge essential for any real understanding of space and time.” —Discover

“The author’s informed curiosity is inspiring and his enthusiasm infectious.” —Kansas City Star

“Mind-bending. . . . [Greene] is both a gifted theoretical physicist and a graceful popularizer [with] virtuoso explanatory skills.” —The Oregonian

“Brian Greene is the new Hawking, only better.” —The Times (London)

“Greene’s gravitational pull rivals a black hole’s.” —Newsweek

“Greene is an excellent teacher, humorous and quick. . . . Read [your friends] the passages of this book that boggle your mind. (You may find yourself reading them every single paragraph.).” —Boston Globe

“Inexhaustibly witty . . . a must-read for the huge constituency of lay readers enticed by the mysteries of cosmology.” —Sunday Times

“Relish this exhilarating foray into the alien terrain that is our own universe.” —Booklist, starred review

“Holds out the promise that we may one day explain how space and time have come to exist.” —Paul Davies, Nature

“Greene takes us to the limits of space and time.” —The Guardian

“Exciting stuff. . . . Introduces the reader to the mind-boggling landscape of cutting-edge theoretical physics, where mathematics rules supreme.” —The News & Observer

“One of the most entertaining and thought-provoking popular science books to have emerged in the last few years. The Elegant Universe was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. The Fabric of the Cosmos deserves to win it.” —Physics World

“In the space of 500 readable pages, Greene has brought us to the brink of twenty-first-century physics with the minimum of fuss.” —The Herald

“If anyone can popularize tough science, it’s Greene.” —Entertainment Weekly

“Greene is a marvelously talented exponent of physics. . . . A pleasure to read.” —Economist

“Magnificent . . . sends shivers down the spine.” —Financial Times

From the Inside Flap

From Brian Greene, one of the world?s leading physicists, comes a grand tour of the universe that makes us look at reality in a completely different way.

Space and time form the very fabric of the cosmos. Yet they remain among the most mysterious of concepts. Is space an entity? Why does time have a direction? Could the universe exist without space and time? Can we travel to the past?

Greene uses these questions to guide us toward modern science?s new and deeper understanding of the universe. From Newton?s unchanging realm in which space and time are absolute, to Einstein?s fluid conception of spacetime, to quantum mechanics? entangled arena where vastly distant objects can bridge their spatial separation to instantaneously coordinate their behavior or even undergo teleportation, Greene reveals our world to be very different from what common experience leads us to believe. Focusing on the enigma of time, Greene establishes that nothing in the laws of physics insists that it run in any particular direction and that ?time?s arrow? is a relic of the universe?s condition at the moment of the big bang. And in explaining the big bang itself, Greene shows how recent cutting-edge developments in superstring and M-theory may reconcile the behavior of everything from the smallest particle to the largest black hole. This startling vision culminates in a vibrant eleven-dimensional ?multiverse,? pulsating with ever-changing textures, where space and time themselves may dissolve into subtler, more fundamental entities.

Sparked by the trademark wit, humor, and brilliant use of analogy that have made The Elegant Universe a modern classic, Brian Greene takes us all, regardless of our scientific backgrounds, on an irresistible and revelatory journey to the new layers of reality that modern physics has discovered lying just beneath the surface of our everyday world.

With 146 illustrations

Jacket photograph by DB Image/Brand X Pictures


From the Hardcover edition. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

About the Author

Brian Greene received his undergraduate degree from Harvard University and his doctorate from Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes Scholar. He joined the physics faculty at Cornell University in 1990, was appointed to a full professorship in 1995, and in 1996 joined Columbia University where he is professor of physics and mathematics. He has lectured at both a general and a technical level in more than twenty-five countries and is widely regarded for a number of ground breaking discoveries in superstring theory. He lives in Andes, New York, and New York City.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Chapter 1: Roads to Reality

SPACE, TIME, AND WHY THINGS ARE AS THEY ARE

None of the books in my father’s dusty old bookcase were forbidden. Yet while I was growing up, I never saw anyone take one down. Most were massive tomes–a comprehensive history of civilization, matching volumes of the great works of western literature, numerous others I can no longer recall–that seemed almost fused to shelves that bowed slightly from decades of steadfast support. But way up on the highest shelf was a thin little text that, every now and then, would catch my eye because it seemed so out of place, like Gulliver among the Brobdingnagians. In hindsight, I’m not quite sure why I waited so long before taking a look. Perhaps, as the years went by, the books seemed less like material you read and more like family heirlooms you admire from afar. Ultimately, such reverence gave way to teenage brashness. I reached up for the little text, dusted it off, and opened to page one. The first few lines were, to say the least, startling.

“There is but one truly philosophical problem, and that is suicide,” the text began. I winced. “Whether or not the world has three dimensions or the mind nine or twelve categories,” it continued, “comes afterward”; such questions, the text explained, were part of the game humanity played, but they deserved attention only after the one true issue had been settled. The book was The Myth of Sisyphus and was written by the Algerian-born philosopher and Nobel laureate Albert Camus. After a moment, the iciness of his words melted under the light of comprehension. Yes, of course, I thought. You can ponder this or analyze that till the cows come home, but the real question is whether all your ponderings and analyses will convince you that life is worth living. That’s what it all comes down to. Everything else is detail.

My chance encounter with Camus’ book must have occurred during an especially impressionable phase because, more than anything else I’d read, his words stayed with me. Time and again I’d imagine how various people I’d met, or heard about, or had seen on television would answer this primary of all questions. In retrospect, though, it was his second assertion –regarding the role of scientific progress–that, for me, proved particularly challenging. Camus acknowledged value in understanding the structure of the universe, but as far as I could tell, he rejected the possibility that such understanding could make any difference to our assessment of life’s worth. Now, certainly, my teenage reading of existential philosophy
was about as sophisticated as Bart Simpson’s reading of Romantic poetry, but even so, Camus’ conclusion struck me as off the mark. To this aspiring physicist, it seemed that an informed appraisal of life absolutely required a full understanding of life’s arena–the universe. I remember thinking that if our species dwelled in cavernous outcroppings buried deep underground and so had yet to discover the earth’s surface, brilliant sunlight, an ocean breeze, and the stars that lie beyond, or if evolution had proceeded along a different pathway and we had yet to acquire any but the sense of touch, so everything we knew came only from our tactile impressions of our immediate environment, or if human mental faculties stopped developing during early childhood so our emotional and analytical skills never progressed beyond those of a five-year-old–in short, if our experiences painted but a paltry portrait of reality–our appraisal of life would be thoroughly compromised. When we finally found our way to earth’s surface, or when we finally gained the ability to see, hear, smell, and taste, or when our minds were finally freed to develop as they ordinarily do, our collective view of life and the cosmos would, of necessity, change radically. Our previously compromised grasp of reality would have shed a very different light on that most fundamental of all philosophical questions.

But, you might ask, what of it? Surely, any sober assessment would conclude that although we might not understand everything about the universe–every aspect of how matter behaves or life functions–we are privy to the defining, broad-brush strokes gracing nature’s canvas. Surely, as Camus intimated, progress in physics, such as understanding the number of space dimensions; or progress in neuropsychology, such as understanding all the organizational structures in the brain; or, for that matter, progress in any number of other scientific undertakings may fill in important details, but their impact on our evaluation of life and reality would be minimal. Surely, reality is what we think it is; reality is revealed to us by
our experiences.

To one extent or another, this view of reality is one many of us hold, if only implicitly. I certainly find myself thinking this way in day-to-day life; it’s easy to be seduced by the face nature reveals directly to our senses. Yet, in the decades since first encountering Camus’ text, I’ve learned that modern science tells a very different story. The overarching lesson that has emerged from scientific inquiry over the last century is that human experience is often a misleading guide to the true nature of reality. Lying just beneath the surface of the everyday is a world we’d hardly recognize. Followers of the occult, devotees of astrology, and those who hold to religious principles that speak to a reality beyond experience have, from widely varying perspectives, long since arrived at a similar conclusion. But that’s not what I have in mind. I’m referring to the work of ingenious innovators and tireless researchers–the men and women of science–who have peeled back layer after layer of the cosmic onion, enigma by enigma, and revealed a universe that is at once surprising, unfamiliar, exciting, elegant, and thoroughly unlike what anyone ever expected.

These developments are anything but details. Breakthroughs in physics have forced, and continue to force, dramatic revisions to our conception of the cosmos. I remain as convinced now as I did decades ago that Camus rightly chose life’s value as the ultimate question, but the insights of modern physics have persuaded me that assessing life through the lens of everyday experience is like gazing at a van Gogh through an empty Coke bottle. Modern science has spearheaded one assault after another on evidence gathered from our rudimentary perceptions, showing that they often yield a clouded conception of the world we inhabit. And so whereas Camus separated out physical questions and labeled them secondary, I’ve become convinced that they’re primary. For me, physical reality both sets the arena and provides the illumination for grappling with Camus’ question. Assessing existence while failing to embrace the insights of modern physics would be like wrestling in the dark with an unknown opponent. By deepening our understanding of the true nature of physical reality, we profoundly reconfigure our sense of ourselves and our experience of the universe.

The central concern of this book is to explain some of the most prominent and pivotal of these revisions to our picture of reality, with an intense focus on those that affect our species’ long-term project to understand space and time. From Aristotle to Einstein, from the astrolabe to the Hubble Space Telescope, from the pyramids to mountaintop observatories,
space and time have framed thinking since thinking began. With the advent of the modern scientific age, their importance has been tremendously heightened. Over the last three centuries, developments in physics have revealed space and time as the most baffling and most compelling concepts, and as those most instrumental in our scientific analysis of the universe. Such developments have also shown that space and time top the list of age-old scientific constructs that are being fantastically revised by cutting-edge research.

To Isaac Newton, space and time simply were–they formed an inert, universal cosmic stage on which the events of the universe played themselves out. To his contemporary and frequent rival Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz, “space” and “time” were merely the vocabulary of relations between where objects were and when events took place. Nothing more. But to Albert Einstein, space and time were the raw material underlying reality. Through his theories of relativity, Einstein jolted our thinking about space and time and revealed the principal part they play in the evolution of the universe. Ever since, space and time have been the sparkling jewels of physics. They are at once familiar and mystifying; fully understanding space and time has become physics’ most daunting challenge and sought-after prize.

The developments we’ll cover in this book interweave the fabric of space and time in various ways. Some ideas will challenge features of space and time so basic that for centuries, if not millennia, they’ve seemed beyond questioning. Others will seek the link between our theoretical understanding of space and time and the traits we commonly experience. Yet others will raise questions unfathomable within the limited confines of ordinary perceptions.

We will speak only minimally of philosophy (and not at all about suicide and the meaning of life). But in our scientific quest to solve the mysteries of space and time, we will be resolutely unrestrained. From the universe’s smallest speck and earliest moments to its farthest reaches and most distant future, we will examine space and time in environments familiar and far-flung, with an unflinching eye seeking their true nature. As the story of space and time has yet to be fully written, we won’t arrive at any final assessments. But we will encounter a series of developments–some intensely strange, some deeply satisfying, some expe...

From AudioFile

Stephen Hawking may be the more renowned scientist, but when it comes to explaining cutting-edge physics to the lay reader, he comes second to Brian Greene. This recording introduces superstring theory, an attempt to solve one of science's most perplexing problems: how to reconcile general relativity and quantum mechanics. Not only is Greene a superb stylist who introduces these concepts without jargon or mathematics, he also has a grab bag of imaginative analogies for ideas that are impossible to visualize-such as the extra spatial dimensions that superstring theory requires. Erik Davies may not be a physicist, but he's entirely comfortable with the material, and he delivers it at just the right pace. Most importantly, he feeds on Greene's enthusiasm and passes it along to the listener. D.B. © AudioFile 2004, Portland, Maine-- Copyright © AudioFile, Portland, Maine --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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