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The Elegant Universe
Brian Greene
W.W. Norton & Co.

I've had this book on my shelf for almost three years now, and just got around to reading it (probably not the sort of thing one should admit in public). I am enormously glad to have done so, and hope to go through it again once I've recovered from the initial exposure. The book is written for an educated audience that doesn't necessarily know anything about physics or mathematics.

Greene covers a lot of ground; most of the book is actually taken up in framing the problem, the disconnect between general relativity and quantum mechanics. In order to do this has to first explain a lot about both of these before it can move on to the details of how string theory offers a tantalizing possibility of reconciling them.

It is probably not entirely the author's fault that the earlier chapters are easier going than the later ones. Relativity is weird and non-intuitive, but once you wrap your mind around a few concepts it does sort of flow from one thing to the next, and concrete examples are fairly easy to come by. Plus, we've all grown up with these ideas as part our mental furniture. Quantum mechanics is considerably weirder and does not benefit from this kind of ground-level familiarity; most of us have heard of Uncertainty (although the book's explanation suggests to me that most of us have it wrong) and may recall Schröaut;edinger's cat, but that's about the extent of it; these chapters are correspondingly more difficult. And the final pieces on string theory are of course most difficult of all, because very few laypersons have any idea at all. I did find it a bit odd, though perhaps I should not, that the author seems to have the most trouble explaining his own area of specialty without falling into over-detailed and under-explained concepts.

I'm certainly not going to try to explain string theory here, other than to say that it is very weird, very interesting, and requires an imagination well beyond mine to deal with properly; Greene frequently admits that the things he is talking about are "difficult" to visualize. Me, I'm not sure it's possible to visualize nine spatial dimensions at all, and the explanation that they're all wrapped up very small doesn't help. Maybe my brain isn't flexible enough.

I definitely recommend this one; the explanations in the early sections alone are worth the cover price, and it's a fascinating glimpse into a world both collegial and highly competitive. Science is a process, and watching it in action is something most outsiders can't readily do. It's all the more interesting in this case because string theory is both tempting and very incomplete; it may be decades yet before its equations can be framed and solved as anything other than approximations that raise as many questions as they resolve. The theory might very well turn out to be wrong—which would be a shame, for it truly is elegant, in its rather bizarre way—but I suspect it will still be worth reading about.

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© 2004 Rebecca J. Stevenson