Customer Reviews: The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory
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on July 30, 2003
Before I read this book, I didn't know the first thing about string theory, general relativity or quantum mechanics. I believe people like me were the author's target audience; that is, people who are profoundly interested in the mysterious physics of the universe, but lack the scientific or mathematical background to understand them in their raw form. This book certainly shouldn't be seen as anything other than an introduction for those of us outside the field of physics.

Each chapter in this book lays down the foundation for the next chapter. Greene manages to group together scattered discoveries from the past century or so according to their relevance to the topic at hand, and it feels very natural. Every complex concept is explained in somewhat technical detail and then followed up immediately by a clever (and occasionally humorous) analogy. The key points are always restated and rephrased to make absolutely sure the reader is on the same page with the author. This method really does wonders for nailing important concepts to your head, which turns out to be absolutely essential as the book progresses and new ideas are stacked atop the old.

This book, overall, is interesting. There are some extraordinarily intriguing chapters that will have your mind racing for at least a couple days, trying to piece together the chapter's implications, and then there are a couple dull chapters that almost feel like a chore to get through. However, the dull chapters, which seem to be flooded with basic mathematical and technical details, are necessary to understand the big picture. Greene only presents us with the details we need to understand, nothing more, and I honestly can't think of a way he could have made these dull chapters exciting.

If you are a curious physics newbie, or only know bits and pieces about the basic concepts of string theory, special and general relativity, quantum mechanics, black holes, the big bang, or hidden dimensions, this book is certainly for you! If you are already knowledgeable in these subjects and seek the deepest technical and mathematical information about them, I'm guessing you will not find what you are looking for in this book.
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on February 5, 2000
In this book on eleven-dimensional space-time, Brian Greene proves himself to be truly exceptional in at least three of those dimensions: by his thorough comprehension of the origins and direction of theoretical physics up through the emergence of superstring theory, by his monumental contributions to that theory in identifying its components and extending its reach, and, thirdly, in explaining this subject in a way that allows the "layman" to gain an appreciation and intuitive understanding of it.
By way of explaining the use of the term "layman," let me point out that this book is not light reading. I don't believe it can be read by those without at least some exposure to college level physics. I am a former high school physics teacher, and I had to really stretch to understand Dr. Greene's explanations. Nevertheless, considering the mathematical and physical complexity of the subject matter, Dr. Greene has done a splendid and remarkable job of explaining the subject at a conceptual, nonmathematical level. Anyone with a physics background through the level of an introductory course in modern physics will find Dr. Greene's treatise accessible. It brings the reader closer to the current state of research in the rapidly moving field of superstring theory than books written even two years ago.
The book requires work, but it was a labor of love. This book is beautifully and artfully written and was a joy to read. I recommend it highly to anyone with the modest physics background described above who enjoys exploring theoretical physics and cosmology at a level approximating that of Scientific American.
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on December 11, 1999
Assumes no prior knowledge of physics as such. Has an excellent introduction to relativity and quantum theory. Actually, I haven't seen a better introduction to relativity or quantum theory elsewhere. The book then moves on to string theory (which is the main theme of the book). An excellent introduction to string theory, I must say. The book is very easy to follow and can very well serve as a layman's introduction to high-end physics. For the more advanced readers, the author provides endnotes which elaborate the subject matter in a mathematical/physical perspective. People from all walks of life will enjoy this book
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on May 24, 1999
I recommend this book to anyone who is curious enough to wonder about the origins of matter, energy, and the universe itself. Mr. Greene makes it very easy for the lay readers to grasp the basic understanding of some out of this world concepts, such as extra dimensions and vibrating strings. I am a professional engineer with years of training in math and physics, however, I enjoyed the non-technical way Professor Greene has written this book. After reading this book I had a much better understanding of quantum mechanics, relativity, and the string theory, and enjoyed reading the whole book from beginning to the end.
Some of the reviewers have faulted Professor Greene for communicating his ideas without using complicated mathematics. To me, this is one of strengths of this and other similar books that are written for the lay people. Those readers who are mathematical geniuses can find plenty of other resources to suit their taste. Others think that it is inappropriate to write about incomplete theories that cannot be experimentally verified at the present time. This is absurd. This is what the progress of science is all about. I thank Brian Greene for sharing his ideas so clearly with the rest of us. I am going to talk to my young daughter about this book in the hopes of inspiring her to someday join the minds who want to unlock the mysteries of our universe.
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on December 6, 1999
This book is a sheer delight to read! Brian Greene's clarity of thinking and joy of exploring the quest for the ultimate physics theory come clearly through as he describes how superstrings just might be the "common thread" that runs through this universe from the tiniest quantum bits to the largest relativistic bodies. Are you curious to know how all these dimensions can exist in our universe unseen? Greene brilliantly describes memorable analogies (such as an ant seen from a distance to be walking along on a garden hose) that give readers a clear sense of what hidden curled dimensions might feel like... and he writes about physics with such grace and style! If you've hungered to know how to better understand hidden dimensions and superstrings, this book is guaranteed to first pique and then satisfy your appetite.
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on June 30, 2003
I had picked this book up in its hardcover edition a few years ago, but haven't got around to reading it until recently and I'm sorry I didn't do so earlier. It is an excellent introduction to physics and an outstanding overview of "string theory" that is accessible to the layman (in as much as particle physics *can* be accessible without a real knowledge of mathematics.)
The Elegant Universe is worth the purchase price, if only for chapters 2,3 and 4 which lay out, in terms understandable by anyone, the ideas behind Einstein's theory of special relativity, Einstein's theory of general relativity and quantum mechanics. I highly recommend it for this purpose alone.
The rest of the book deals with the central connudrum of modern physics which is, unfortunately, although the theories of relativity (governing large systems) and quantum mechanics (governing minute systems) have been experimentally verified over the past century and are indeed true, they are *not compatible*. Greene does a good job of explaining why the theories are in conflict with one another.
The rest of the book deals with string theory, which Greene and a lot of other string theorists claim can "bridge the gap" between relativity and quantum mechanics. Although Greene does a terrific job of explaining string theory through graspable metaphors, towards the end end of the book, my tiny brain had difficulty understanding some of the concepts.
Yet, by far, Greene provides the most accessible description of this revolution in physics. Greene is quite obviously an ardent evangelist of string theory and his optimism concerning its possibilities lend a certain energy to the read, getting you through the difficult parts. You can tell that this is a man who loves and is excited by what he does for a living, and that excitement is contagious.
Anyone with an interest in why the universe is the way it is will be well rewarded by this text.
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on June 10, 2005
I've read popular books on superstrings/M-theory (Greene's being the prime example), and I've watched TV programs popularizing the same. While I must admit the propaganda value of these media in helping to raise the general public's interest in Physics, I'm afraid that these books and media are extremely biased and give a skewed view of the state of theoretical physics today. An unsuspecting reader picking up this book will likely come away with the feeling that this is a summary of the status quo of theoretical physics nowadays, but nothing can be further from the truth.

While superstring/M theory is one of the active frontiers in theoretical physics, it is hardly the only active frontier, nor is it the most promising. Due to the almost complete lack of empirical evidence for superstring/M theory, plus the almost impenetrable math (even to many theoretical physicists!) within which superstring/M theory has wrapped itself, superstring/M theory stands out as a rather strange theory: it's an isolated self-perpetrating theoretical construct almost impervious to external checks and reviews. Such theories aren't uncommon in physics: throughout the history of physics they pop up every now and then, e.g. Eddington's numerology, Einstein's unified field theory and Finkelstein's theory of everything, to name just a few. The main difference between superstring/M theory and these other theories is that superstring/M theory is much more polished mathematically, and has a much larger following. This in turn has made superstring/M theory much more respectable in appearance, by patching any loopholes that appear with newer and higher orders of abstractions (as evidenced by appearance of the most anti-intuitive wild concepts like extra spacetime dimensions, parallel universes etc.), all of which were wrapped in the most exquisite and impenetrable mathematics. This in turn has attracted even more smart students to superstring/M theory, which in turn makes it appear even more respectable, which in turn... ad infinitum.

A theory in physics is only as good as the physical (not mathematical) foundation upon which it's built, and the physical foundation of superstring/M theory is shaky at best, non-existent at worst. As a purely mathematical theory, superstring/M theory may be able to stand on its own as an elegant and insightful theory which may even have applications in other exotic branches of mathematics. But a physical theory can never stand alone, it must have verifiable connections to experiments and to other more established branches of physics. A completely isolated theory in physics, however elegant and compelling it may be mathematically and aesthetically, is irrelevant and is doomed to suffer the fate of so many other fads and irrelevant theories in physics: to be forgotten in time.

I just hope that Brian Greene and other proponents of superstring/M theory can be a little more humble and admit that their theory is nothing but a spectacular but ultimately speculative theory in physics, just one among many many others, and stop preaching like it's the best and only candidate theory in physics.

(For a more balanced view of superstring theory, based on BBC interviews of several leading theoretical physicists (including Feynman, Weinberg and Glashow), read the book "Superstrings : A Theory of Everything?" edited by P.C.W. Davies and J. Brown. e.g. here's what Glashow (Nobel-prize winner in physics) has to say about superstring theory:

"... There have always been kookie fanatics following strange visions. One of the most kookie, and of course most brilliant, was Einstein himself. It has often been said by my string theory friends that superstrings are going to dominate physics for the next half of a century. Ed Witten has said that. I would like to modify that remark. I would say that string theory will dominate the next fifty years of physics in the same way that Kaluza-Klein theory, another kookie theory upon which string theory is based, has dominated particle physics in the past fifty years. Which is to say, not at all."

My sentiments exactly :)
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on March 4, 2001
Brian Greene's "The Elegant Universe" is the best book on a scientific subject I've ever read. The first five chapters, which deal with Space, Time, Special & General Relativity, and Quantum Mechanics, are incredibly clear and worth the price of the book alone. Without using any math, Greene is able to explain the key points of all these topics, and most importantly, to show why Relativity and Quantum Mechanics are incompatible, and why that's a problem for physicists. He then takes the reader through the various stages of thinking that have gone into String Theory, and it's fascinating stuff! Greene uses copious examples to demonstrate concepts that are difficult to visualize or grasp, and this is incredibly helpful. You definitely get a sense, for instance, of what a "curled up dimension" means, through some very clever reduced-dimension examples (not sure if these are Greene's constructions or well-known in the physics world, but they're very clear and helpful). The going gets a little tougher towards the end of the book, where the most recent thinking on String Theory and the discussion of Black Holes & the early instants of the cosmos are more complex and tougher to grok straight through. But even so, they are fascinating and worth the effort.
Greene's prose is clear, analytical, and well thought out. At least a half dozen times while reading the book, I said to myself, "Hmmm, but what about X?" to find a few paragraphs later Greene would write, "You may be wondering about X. Well, here's how that works..." To me, this is a sign of a clear thinker and helped make the book even more enjoyable to read. If you're at all interested in cutting edge physics theory, this is a great book to turn to.
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on May 21, 2000
This is an excellent trip through the wonders of modern cosmology and physics. I kept having to get up and walk around the room once in a while and pinch myself to get a new reality fix. Well maybe reality -- but Mr. Greene might think I was fooling myself and only moving about in the 3 dimensional space known to my conciousness, and not the other seven tightly wrapped dimensions in Calabi-Yau forms at a billionth of a billonth of a meter. Who needs science fiction when the real thing is so "unreal?"
As a reader I have more than a casual interest in modern physics and have read dozens of books in this vein, however I do not have a math background sufficient enough to deal with the professional literature in the field. I have found this work one of the best in explaining string theory. Mr. Greene's approach of using analogy and metaphor is right on target. His sometimes humorous approach was a good antidote for what could become overbearingly theoretical.
The first half went down pretty easily in spite of the difficult nature of the subject. Brian Greene deserves much applause for pulling off this bit of magic. The second half gets tangled up in the author's own areas of research and I felt that he suddenly began talking to a different audience, in this case his peers, and instead of an explanatory tone, the book seemed a little bit argumentative. Of course this is a topic where anything said in a definitive manner is likely to provoke a professional argument. Nonetheless, the first half of the book is well worth the read and more than adequately covers the field for the reader where this topic would be of interest. The second half will be of interest to folks with more background.
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on May 22, 2002
As a professional in theoretical physics and its history I am sorry to say -- this is not a fair popularizing book.
First, be warned that Dr. Greene provides rather distorted and misleading view of some important historical issues of modern physics. His narrative is strongly twisted to support his claims that strings are here as a "natural" answer and the only game in town. E.g., Planck's struggle with the black-body radiation, as depicted by Greene, is closer to a fairytail than historical and scientific truth.
The places where Greene touches statistical physics and thermodynamics are full of principally wrong statements which indicate that he has just a very superficial knowledge of these matters.
His exposition of Quantum Mechanics (QM) pushes favourable but false statements about quantum "weirdness", showing that he is evidently unaware about many classical and modern works showing QM from a rational and unparadoxical perspective (starting yet from von Neumann in 1927).
Greene's statements about a "fundamental" gap between QM and General Relativity (GR) are just other common mantras of the string army, indicating their superficial insight into these underlying theories. BTW, he is not indicating properly how the string concept offers a synthetizing cure.
His "review" of the 20-th century physics is not only biased but also tedious, repeating notoriously well-known (but too often one-sided and misleading) statements and fairytails about physics' celebrities.
As for the strings grandeur: I do not believe that there is too much hope that a rational Theory-of-Everything might be elaborated by people who exhibit so irrational views of quantum, relativistic and statistical physics, confuse distinctions between mathematics and physics, evidently do not understand probability theory and thermodynamics, etc. And of course, it is just funny to read on the same page that the M-theory is just IT, whilst still being unable to generate even basic equations, state its own principles, or even to demonstrate how standard physical equations or parameter values follow from IT.
Actually, there is still NO string theory at all: it is rather a big gulash of mathematical exotic adhockeries, of formalistic ambiguous escapes, everything scrambled with grand supporting statements of Muhammad Ali.
But most fundamentally: Greene, Witten, and the whole string army are pushing their philosophy that all kind of "weirdness" is just an intrinsic feature of our physical image. However, many rational physicists think that they are rather building a babel tower on sands, on the underlying theories they do not interpret rationally. I do not believe that the aim of the Theory of Everything ever was/is something of this kind. I am just sorry about so many laymen that are evidently so easily fooled by this new type of mysticism, combined with some lack of scientific modesty and honesty.
In summary, Greene's "Elegant Universe" is neither an elegant image of the universe, nor an adequate narrative of modern physics and its history.
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