The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality by Brian Greene

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

From Brian Greene, one of the world’s leading physicists and author the Pulitzer Prize finalist The Elegant Universe, 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? Coul...

Title:The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality
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The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality Reviews

  • Joe

    You probably know more about physics than you think.

    See, right there, when your brain registered the p-word, a black hole of anxiety opened up in the pit of your stomach from which nothing can escape. Your underarms began to radiate heat as your mind conjured memories of stuffy high school laboratories. And as your eyes scanned ahead for those dreaded half-English, half-Greek words followed by an equal sign, the probability of you reading on fast approached zero.

    But there’s hope! Whether you re

    You probably know more about physics than you think.

    See, right there, when your brain registered the p-word, a black hole of anxiety opened up in the pit of your stomach from which nothing can escape. Your underarms began to radiate heat as your mind conjured memories of stuffy high school laboratories. And as your eyes scanned ahead for those dreaded half-English, half-Greek words followed by an equal sign, the probability of you reading on fast approached zero.

    But there’s hope! Whether you realize it or not, you just visualized some of the more important natural phenomena that govern the world around us. The stomachache was space-time curvature at a point of infinite density. The sweating was a crass simulation of something known as black body radiation. And your waning interest was a metaphor for quantum non-locality. What do these words mean? It doesn’t really matter. Even complicated physical processes were surmountable — even understandable — when they were put into the context of something familiar, say, traumatic experiences of young adulthood.

    Without analogy and metaphor, a reader can quickly suffocate in the rarified air of the hard sciences. The task then for any science writer is to couch these concepts in colloquial terms and familiar experiences, and no one does it better than Brian Greene.

    His second of two books, The Fabric of the Cosmos, is a potent distillation of 200 years of discovery and an invaluable roadmap of reality that is almost impossible to get lost with, regardless of your level of scientific knowledge. It is a compelling narrative of the search for understanding that probes the boundaries of human experience.

    Greene, a professor of physics and mathematics at Columbia University, is not the first to attempt such a crash course in physics history and experiment for the non-science minded, and he won’t be the last. In fact, the popularity of this breed of book has even necessitated its own genre, which has come to be known as pop-physics.

    Make no mistake; it is truly a difficult task to make the revolutionary ideas of hundreds of brilliant people not only digestible, but palatable in fewer than 500 pages. Since you can’t change the elements of the story — an exhaustive historical record of dozens of collaborating countries — good science writing then becomes an exercise in conversational skills, patient instruction and plenty of examples.

    Greene is adept at all three but his skillful employment of examples is one of the book’s greatest strengths. Throughout the text, he uses objects we experience and protagonists we can visualize to illustrate his points. The Simpsons characters, Mulder and Scully from the X-Files, and former President Bill Clinton all appear on multiple occasions and eggs, snowflakes and bowling balls all serve as props. As juvenile as this might seem, you would be surprised at how effective Greene’s methods are.

    At one point in the book, he tries to explain how something called the Higgs ocean — typically the focus of a Ph.D. thesis — may give particles like protons and electrons their mass. But he uses a very familiar and somewhat playful example to illustrate the point. “If [a particle] has greater difficulty accelerating through the Higgs ocean, it has a greater mass. If we liken a particle’s mass to a person’s fame, then the Higgs ocean is like the paparazzi: those who are unknown pass through the swarming photographers with ease, but famous politicians and movie stars have to push much harder to reach their destination.”

    While this technique of using vivid examples seems straight forward, it is actually very easy to mess up and there are a few cardinal sins that many physics authors commit.

    A common transgression is to sacrifice accuracy for sensationalism under the misconception that science fiction is the only way to engage the average reader. The very talented Michio Kaku of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton (the same place Einstein spent the last few decades of his life) is a repeat offender. His most recent work of pop-physics, called Hyperspace, contains examples that are shamelessly unscientific at times and really underestimate the reader’s intelligence.

    But by no means does Greene dumb down the information in Fabric and yet, none of the underlying ideas are lost. Further, he doesn’t resort to sensationalized hypothetical situations but instead finds a creative way to make the reader appreciate real scientific results. In doing so, he makes it more than understandable. He makes the reader appreciate and even enjoy the excitement of discovery.

    And if Greene’s delivery of concepts is superb, his thoughtful selection of content only reinforces the readability of the text. The fundamental — and most impressive — difference between Greene and most other science writers is the breadth of the issues he addresses.

    Another cardinal sin for a science writer is to allow a topic’s complexity to dictate its relevance, which is just a cop out and a disservice to the reader. Gary Zukov, the author of The Dancing Wu Li Masters, basically left out entire chapters of vital experimental findings because they were too tough to couch in human experience. But Greene doesn’t succumb to such temptations of writing around difficult material. He acknowledges the complexity of problematic topics and painstakingly walks the reader through the material every time.

    Unfortunately, some concepts will be beyond analogy and word craft and require at least a cursory digression of technicalities. As Greene puts it: “Human language is far better at capturing human experience than at expressing deep physical laws.” But what is unique about Fabric is that Greene gives the reader the option to get more technical without a loss of continuity.

    Throughout the text, he would broach a huge topic by putting it into historical context and discussing its relevance in the big physics picture. Often, the section would end with an ultimatum: keep reading to explore the details for a deeper understanding or skip to the next chapter with at least these implications in mind. This “choose your own adventure” organization gives the book a refreshing flexibility that is too often absent from pop-physics novels.

    Writing style also plays a large role in this work’s success. Richard Feynman, one of the more beloved albeit quirky physicists of the 20th century, was famous for his conversational style physics lessons. Though this made Feynman an incredibly effective educator, he was never able to write a book for want of literary chops.

    Fabric is such a good read because Greene buttresses the same savvy teaching techniques with an eloquent style of storytelling. Some parts are downright poetic and they uncover the easily missed romance and excitement of scientific discovery. He writes, “By deepening our understanding of the true nature of physical reality, we profoundly reconfigure our sense of ourselves and our experience of the universe.”

    And other parts are surprisingly suspenseful, especially for a narrative with such well-publicized plot twists. Even though most people know that Albert Einstein would propose his groundbreaking theories of relativity in the early 1900s, until Greene gets to that part of the story, this reader was genuinely concerned about the troublesome relationship between absolute space and time. (Spoiler: It all works out beautifully!)

    One of the more striking features of The Fabric of the Cosmos is how Greene’s enthusiasm for modern physics almost leaps off the page, making the reader wonder, if only for a second, whether or not the Large Hadron Collider will actually produce spontaneous symmetry breaking of massive scalar bosons. But that’s beside the point. To wonder about the world around us is the first step on the path to scientific discovery and Greene’s work makes it so that anyone can find the way.

  • Jen Padgett Bohle

    Hmmm...I can now talk basics about String Theory and physics at a cocktail party. Get me into anything more than general commentary, discoveries, famous names and famous theories, and I'm completely at a loss. Green is a likable and passionate author, but for readers without a physics knowledge base, his little treatise is tough going, even with all the Simpsons references. I remember the most important concepts, but the intricacies didn't stick with me. This book is best read in segments, prefe

    Hmmm...I can now talk basics about String Theory and physics at a cocktail party. Get me into anything more than general commentary, discoveries, famous names and famous theories, and I'm completely at a loss. Green is a likable and passionate author, but for readers without a physics knowledge base, his little treatise is tough going, even with all the Simpsons references. I remember the most important concepts, but the intricacies didn't stick with me. This book is best read in segments, preferably when you're completely lucid and can take notes.

  • Trevor

    Did you know that Schrödinger’s equation is a perfect anagram of “A Second Herring Quits”? And is a near perfect anagram of “Surely someone’s taking the piss”? The second anagram relies, of course (and almost entirely), on a rather judicious application of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle – but I do think that one may be more illuminating of how I’m finding some of the quantum mechanical experiments described in this book.

    There is part of me that would like to believe that in the early part o

    Did you know that Schrödinger’s equation is a perfect anagram of “A Second Herring Quits”? And is a near perfect anagram of “Surely someone’s taking the piss”? The second anagram relies, of course (and almost entirely), on a rather judicious application of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle – but I do think that one may be more illuminating of how I’m finding some of the quantum mechanical experiments described in this book.

    There is part of me that would like to believe that in the early part of the last century (I don’t remember the year, but surely on an April First) a group of European physicists got together and decided to come up with an idea so monumentally ridiculous that it would have them chuckling at the gullibility of we more mathematically challenged for years to come. Einstein was in on the joke at the start, but ended up thinking it had all gone on for far too long. Frynman introduced some slapstick into the equations (in a fine American tradition) – but, as always, it takes an Irishman (John Bell) to put the final touches on the comedy and to make it truly surreal. So, why isn’t anybody laughing?

    If you are not disturbed by the findings of Quantum Mechanics, well, you’re really not trying hard enough. This is quite some book so far.

    Update

    Okay, I’ve finished and I’ve had problems with this one. In fact, I have many problems with modern physics and believe that the only way I could really understand it more would be to go back and finish off a degree in this stuff. Since I’m unlikely to do that, I am going to have to accept that this stuff will have to remain a mystery to me.

    This guy really does try to make this stuff accessible, but I’ve a feeling that without the maths it just does not make any sense on any level.

    My problem is exacerbated by the fact that it seems that every time there is a problem in Physics we are having trouble solving we just make up something invisible to solve it. Universe not expanding fast enough? Stuff it full of dark matter. Expanding too fast? Bring back the Cosmological Constant. Can’t make gravity fit in with quantum theory? Postulate string theory. Having trouble with quantum theory? Why not create an infinite number of universes that can’t access each other. Having trouble explaining the vibrations of one dimensional strings? Vibrate them in 11 dimensional space.

    Bring back the Ether, I say. Physics never seems to do anything by half. Even cosmic inflation seems to have inflated the universe to a ridiculous extent in the first nanosecond of the universe.

    I don’t believe I can really say anything sensible about any of this stuff. It is so far divorced from my limited understanding that to express an opinion really just makes me feel incredibly ignorant. Like I said, I’m not prepared to learn the maths, so I should just shut up. It is a pity physics has become so esoteric – I would like to be one of its great defenders, to use it as a basis to understand the universe, but I come away from these books feeling someone is having me on.

    This is a good book, in part. Some of it is still remarkably hard going – even with the allusions to the Simpsons and X Files (I’ve never seen the X Files or some of the other bits of pop culture mentioned, so that made what I took to be some of the jokes quite inaccessible to me – but that will just be me). The stuff about Newton’s Bucket was utterly fascinating and well worth reading. The stuff of string theory was like most stuff on string theory – I’ve virtually no understanding of this stuff and can’t quite follow the controversy that surrounds it. Anyway, it sounds like no one will ever be able to test any of this stuff – if we can’t see an electron how the hell are we ever going to see a one dimensional string?

    My main problem with this book was his early explanation of entropy and how this did not provide an arrow of time. He says that if you watch a film of an egg falling and braking that you could reverse the film and there is nothing in the laws of physics to decide which direction the film travelled in that must be the right direction. He says that there would be a way to get all the bits of egg to fly back at the right speed and reconstitute. This, of course, is nonsense. It is not a matter of things coming back together at the right speed that is the issue. Have you ever broken a glass? You don’t get the pieces to go back together again by moving them together at the ‘right speed’. They never go back together again. This is a one way reaction. Why? Because once the glass is broken the bonds between the atoms in the glass are broken. Pushing the pieces together again is pushing negatively charged electrons against negatively charged electrons and they will repeal each other, not just nicely bond. There are laws of physics and laws of chemistry that do not allow this reversal. I figure that if I have spotted a flaw in this easy bit of his argument there are too many bits of this argument that I struggled to follow that may be just as equally flawed. (This stuff is from about page 145 – 169)

    I did learn some interesting stuff from this book – even about entropy. I had no idea that the arrow of entropy was double headed or that inflation was the main cause of order in the young universe. But large parts of this book deal with questions that are simply too esoteric. I ended up knowing that I would never know what was in a black hole or what caused the big bang and basically not really caring. I’m sure this wasn’t Greene’s intention, more is the pity.

  • Kristen

    I GIVE UP

    You win

    round science book **(shakes fist in anger)**

    In fact, after reading this book I've given up on science completely in favor the Nabokovian theory of

    young earth creationism:

    "Theoretically there is no absolute proof that one's awakening in the morning (the finding oneself again in the saddle of one's personality) is not really a quite unprecedented event, a perfectly original birth."

    Yeah, that

    make a bit more sense than most of

    I GIVE UP

    You win

    round science book **(shakes fist in anger)**

    In fact, after reading this book I've given up on science completely in favor the Nabokovian theory of

    young earth creationism:

    "Theoretically there is no absolute proof that one's awakening in the morning (the finding oneself again in the saddle of one's personality) is not really a quite unprecedented event, a perfectly original birth."

    Yeah, that

    make a bit more sense than most of this book.

    . . .

    I'm starting to wish I never listed this here because if I hadn't I could give up without feeling so bad (or anyone knowing).

    It's not that he's a bad writer it's just that I'm not that smart, but I suppose we all have own unique talents, right? Sure, Brian Greene might understand physics

    can he roll a joint while driving his car with his knee? . . . so yeah, I got that going for me at-least . . . That's

    , right?

  • Greg

    I like to talk shit about science sometimes. Sometimes it's just to push people's buttons and other times it's because of the pop side of science is ridiculous (you know like the studies that get quoted on your web-browsers start-up page, which may even be contradicted a few days from now by some other article, or all those fucking pharmaceutical ad's on TV. Hey, thanks Pfizer for helping make me a drug addict!). I just made a slight at pop-science and that is hypocritical of me, it's really the

    I like to talk shit about science sometimes. Sometimes it's just to push people's buttons and other times it's because of the pop side of science is ridiculous (you know like the studies that get quoted on your web-browsers start-up page, which may even be contradicted a few days from now by some other article, or all those fucking pharmaceutical ad's on TV. Hey, thanks Pfizer for helping make me a drug addict!). I just made a slight at pop-science and that is hypocritical of me, it's really the only type of science I can understand and this book basically falls into that category, it's a watered down version of real science so humanities idiots like me can understand concepts that they would stare open mouthed at if they had to read the actual articles about.

    By the way, I loved this book!

    Starting with a seemingly simple problem (or I would think it's simple, but it took a few hundred years and Einstein to adequately understand it, apparently (not that I could figure it out) about why the water in a bucket pushes up against the side of the bucket when you spin the bucket around really fast, Brian Green creates a narrative (I'm using this in it's normal manner, not in the science as narrative way that I use it when I want to piss people off, this book is a history of science book in quite a few ways) that shows how this bucket filled with some water paved the way for Relativity, Quantum Mechanics, Quantum Uncertainty, the Big Bang, String Theory, M-Theory, Branes and other concepts that helped move forward theoretical understandings of the whole universe. Oh, actually the underlying theme to the book is how do we understand the concepts of space and time, or spacetime, which is one of the problems of understanding why the water in the bucket does what it does when it is spun around.

    Oh, did I mention I loved this book? I feel awkward giving it five stars because I lack the critical acumen to know if Brian Green is really telling the whole story, or if there is a huge bias here because I'm an idiot when it comes to matters like this. I felt like he was being fair though but maybe I was just dazzled by any of the mathematics he would throw into footnotes that I wouldn't have the first idea on what to do with if someone handed me even the simplest one and asked me to solve it.

    About a hundred pages into the book I had the realization that I should have been more interested in math and science growing up. More exactly I had the realization that the way math and science were taught in the schools I attended did nothing to inspire me at all. I'm fairly certain that most people never use most of the information they learn in science classes. I've never had the need to know all the parts of a flower, but if I had been taught something about what went into discovering some of the biology of (x) or say about the real awesomeness of evolution I'd probably have perked up and gotten interested. Or maybe learned about the difficulties still facing scientists when dealing with the subatomic level, and the weirdness of quantum uncertainty and entanglement might have gotten me more interested and wanting to know more in a chemistry class than endlessly learning how to balance electrons between elements (or whatever that fruitless exercise was called). I know these details are really important to doing science, but without any reason to care about wanting to know about science this is all just monumental busy work. Shouldn't it be the job of schools to get kids to care and wanting to learn rather than forcing meaningless facts onto them?

    This rantish aside about the misguided importance (pedological approach?) of science education in American schools was just me being bitter. It's too late now, and I'm too dumb in too many areas of knowledge but I should have been a theoretical physicist. That is what I realized reading this book. I wish someone had told me about the weird shit these people try to figure out, explained who Parmenides was and the basic gist of his Poem was, and then told me I could work on these problems for the rest of my life if I started to pay attention in math class and gave a shit about my science classes, that there was cool stuff I'd get to later on.

    Parmenides is never mentioned in this book, but at almost every step through the book he kept popping into my mind. He's my reoccurring fascination. His idea of the everything just being One at first glance is so silly. I remember the first time reading Zeno's Paradoxes (he was Parmenides student) and thinking they were just silly games with words, obviously something moves faster than something else and can over come it. Obviously an arrow shot at a target eventually hits it. Duh! But sometime soon after my immediate annoyance at these kinds of meaningless games something clicked in me and I started to try to think through what Parmenides could mean by the whole universe being an unchanging, undivisible, timeless thing. A point, if you would. On one level Parmenides can be thought of as the logical foil to the pre-Socratic materialists, the voice that says your theory is nice but what about (x)? I don't buy into the idea that was Parmenides only goal though. Unfortunately it's pretty much impossible to know exactly what Parmenides thought, because of thanks to those motherfucking Christians and Moslems (you know for their multiple burnings of the Library of Alexandria (and Christians for their wanton destruction of 'heretical' literature) we have only a scant few fragments left from Parmenides work, and most of it is second hand from the post-Socratic arch-materialist Aristotle (materialist meaning something sort of different in the Ancient Greek sense than one would think of a materialist today).

    Are you bored yet?

    Anyway, back to Parmenides, I don't buy the idea that his role was only as foil, or goad to the materialists to make their theories more logically consistent. Why? Because of Plato. Socrates is bested only twice in the dialogues. First as a young man by Parmenides of Elea (the guy I've been writing about) in

    and second by the Eleatic Stranger in

    and

    (these two dialogues are like a part one and part two to each other). The appearance of the Eleatic Stranger is in the two dialogues that come at the end of Socrates life, before the series of dialogues that make up the trial and death of Socrates. In both instances Socrates is bested in his arguments by the philosophy coming from Elea. Why? Why is the only person who Plato allows to give Socrates a philosophical beat-down either Parmenides or a stand in for him? (Parmenides himself couldn't be in a chronologically later dialogue, since he was an old man when Socrates was a youth).

    Anyway, long story that doesn't mean too much to anyone probably, but to sum it up Parmenides has been an thought game for me for years now, and many of the ideas that I've had to reconcile what Parmenides means I find in this fucking book, there are people who are seriously considering some of the logical games I play in my head about cosmology, but they have math and ways of actually coming up with answers! I haven't done a good job at it, but to me this is so exciting. It's like all of the crazy shit that philosophers have thought up over the years can be actually studied and not just argued about using a mismash of concepts and logic, but possibly measured and articulated with math and shit! This book is like a validation to the stuff I think about when I'm not just wallowing in self-pity or being sad.

    Of course, I knew that a lot of this stuff existed before reading this book, but I had no idea what any of it really meant. I just took the words and applied common meanings to them. String Theory? Oh, everything is interconnected with vibrating strings. Actually, no. That's not what String Theory means. Multi-dimensions, you mean like people could be living in a dimension almost on top of me that I don't see because I don't have access to those dimensions, but one day maybe we could, right? No, actually even if the dimensions are big, the word big is being used on a microscopic scale, like the width of a piece of hair big, as opposed to small as in so small we have nothing that can see it.

    I realized that most of the ways books in the new age section use science terms to validate their ideas and how they claim to be drawing on cutting edge research is bullshit, that they are just picking terms out and using them in ways to sell books on hokum.

    I realized reading this book that I wish I wasn't so stupid and that I could at least understand this stuff at more than in a non-technical watered down way.

  • Paul  Perry

    Glancing at the reviews for Brian Greene's overview of how we view the stuff of which our universe is made, it seems that some people base their rating and opinion on how much they agree with the science, or how credible they find it. While I have read a fair few popular science books – especially in the areas of physics and cosmology, areas I find utterly fascinating and about which I am perplexed that anyone can not be astounded and beguiled – I have to assume that I am reading a fair explanat

    Glancing at the reviews for Brian Greene's overview of how we view the stuff of which our universe is made, it seems that some people base their rating and opinion on how much they agree with the science, or how credible they find it. While I have read a fair few popular science books – especially in the areas of physics and cosmology, areas I find utterly fascinating and about which I am perplexed that anyone can not be astounded and beguiled – I have to assume that I am reading a fair explanation of facts and theories. That is not to say that I assume the author is more knowledgeable than me simply because he has more letters after his name, but because he grounds his claims with background and the weight of evidence that is needed for a scientific hypothesis to become a generally accepted theory. Also, I have taken the effort to educate myself in these areas so have enough grounding myself to be able to appreciate the arguments.

    That said, for much of this book I'm unsure how much background would be needed to understand the explanations. Greene writes with a clarity and readability which is all too rare in any field, and is particularly welcome in discussing such big ideas. As in Stephen Hawking's The Grand Design, Greene completely dispenses with calculations but, unlike Hawking, he also tries to keep the use of metaphor to a minimum. It cannot, of course, be dispensed with completely – metaphors are an extraordinarily powerful descriptive tool, especially in a field that can only properly be explained and understood using specialist mathematics – but for the most part Greene simply gives an overview of each field in historical context, and explains WHY it is important, what it explains and why it works.

    He starts – as modern physics in so many fields must – with Isaac Newton, and particularly Newton's Bucket. If you hang a bucket of water on a rope and twist the rope, as the rope unwinds, spinning the bucket, at first the water remains stationary until the friction of the bucket's movement makes the water begin to spin. When it does, the surface becomes increasingly concave, moved outward by what why now call centripetal (or centrifugal) force. But what, asked Newton, is the water moving away from, or toward? What is it moving in relation to? He decided that it moved in relation to the fixed fabric of the cosmos, the stuff in which the matter (that he recognised as being the thing on which gravity works) sits. Recognising that he had no way of testing this medium by experiment, Newton took this is an immutable absolute and left it at that. Greene keeps returning to the bucket and its implications throughout the book, to superb explanatory effect.

    I won't go further into the details (read the book!), but simply say that thanks to Professor Greene I now understand areas of cosmology and physics where I had previously had to simply give in to brain cramp and accept as being true. I understand why the speed of light (actually, the speed of any electromagnetic radiation) is approx 300, 000 km/sec faster than you, no matter how fast you are travelling. I understand a whole lot more about General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics, and why they make sense and are such powerful tools in describing our universe. I understand that Inflationary Theory is not merely a tweak of Big Bang theory to enable it to fit observed facts, but a whole new way of looking at the growth of the universe that actually explains much more about the fundamental physics.

    I'm not claiming a thorough understanding of these subjects (and in some, like Brane Theory, I still found myself rather lost; a re-read may be in order), but I feel that The Fabric of the Cosmos has deepened my comprehension of and appreciation for the wonders of our universe. And for the wonders of the human mind to work out these things. In around three hundred years we have developed this system, science, as a means of examining the world around us in a way which is comprehensible to anyone who is willing to put in the work. All books on science now seem to feel the need to restate this about science; it is NOT knowledge passed down from on high by men in white coats using deliberately obfuscatory language for reasons of either professional pride or conspiracy. Science is a method that enables us to understand more and more about the world, to revel in the joy of knowing how the rainbow is formed as well as in its simple beauty. No idea in science is sacrosanct, no theory is holy. To achieve the status of acceptance of say, General Relativity or Evolution by Natural Selection, a theory has to be tested – that is, it has to survive again and again and again the onslaught of people systematically trying to prove it wrong. When a weakness is found the theory must be re-examined. Sometimes the fault will cause the foundations of the theory to crumble, and it will be discarded; it has still served a purpose, to show how promising such an approach is. Sometimes finding the errors will strengthen a theory and teach us more – Edwin Hubble's original calculations of distant galaxies seemed to show the universe to be about 1.5 billion years old, despite lots of other evidence at the time insisting it was at least 3 billion years old (as we now know, this was still almost five times too conservative). Everything else about Hubble's observation and theory made sense, there was simply an error in calculating the distance of the super novae he was using to get the figures, a correction which itself taught us much about the universe.

    And this is incredibly important to realise because, while many theories, however much work they take, partly make sense on an intuitive level you get to Quantum and Brane theory and they simply cannot – in fact they seem, by intuition and everyday experience, utterly ridiculous (the great physicist Nils Bor said something along the lines of “if you think you understand Quantum Theory, you don't understand Quantum Theory”) but they are undoubtedly right. One important way a theory is tested is to use it to make predictions in the physical world and Quantum Theory has been called far and away the most successful predictive theory in science. It is, like every successful theory, one that accurately describes the way our universe works, with the limits of perception and understanding we have, which is why theories are modified or discarded when new information comes along. Which is why General Relativity replaced Newton's Laws of Gravitation as the best description we have for how gravity works – although NASA still use Newton's calculations most of the time, for the same reason you don't need to understand Gaussian Quadratic Maths to balance your chequebook.

    Greene's book, the first I've read by him, shows why it is worth reading a range of books on the same (or closely connected) areas of science. While in The Grand Design, Hawking and Mlodinov managed to convey a sense of wonder and discovery on a par with Carl Sagan's writings (a plaudit I don't throw around lightly!), Greene has given us a book that manages a clarity and depth of explanation while being a thoroughly entertaining read. At schools, perhaps instead of training our children into narrowly defined roles, science classes should just be introducing them to the works of Greene and Hawking, Sagan and Tyson (Neil deGrasse, not Mike) and Krauss to show them how huge and wonderful and beautiful the universe is, and how much joy and fulfilment can be achieved through our efforts to understand it.

  • WarpDrive

    Wow, what a wonderful book. What a ride it was.

    Brian is definitely one of the best science popularisers about, hands down. It is amazing how he manages to convey potentially complex subjects, such as quantum mechanics and relativity, in a simple but at the same time rigorous manner. And he does that with a contagious enthusiasm which reminded to me why I love physics. I also greatly appreciated the fact that he never gets into the game (like so frequently happens in popular science books, unfor

    Wow, what a wonderful book. What a ride it was.

    Brian is definitely one of the best science popularisers about, hands down. It is amazing how he manages to convey potentially complex subjects, such as quantum mechanics and relativity, in a simple but at the same time rigorous manner. And he does that with a contagious enthusiasm which reminded to me why I love physics. I also greatly appreciated the fact that he never gets into the game (like so frequently happens in popular science books, unfortunately) of oversimplifying the subject. His book is very readable and he has a great gift of explaining complex subjects with an amazing clarity.

    While the book may be a bit too simple at times, more quantitative detail is available in the notes at the end of the book (which I strongly recommend you read, to get more detail), and bibliographic references are pretty good. It is a fantastic introductory book to the realm of contemporary physics - of course, if you are interested in more quantitative treatments of such subjects, then this is probably not the book for you - although I must say that everybody with an interest in science should really take the time to read this masterpiece.

    The author, being a foremost scientist directly involved in the most advanced research efforts in areas such as String Theory, does have his own preferences and biases (all honestly acknowledged by him, and also they do not impact the overall objectivity and impartiality of his book). Moreover, being particle physics an area of such intense and frantic development, there are a couple of area where the book looks a bit dated (for example, even if SUSY is not officially dead, the results coming out of the LHC are such that there is increasing doubt over the real prospects of SUSY and consequently of Super String Theories - although it is completely premature to claim that they are dead).

    Overall, it is an amazing introductory book, informative, entertaining, lucid, and a complete pleasure to read.

  • Stian

    Let's start with the positives:

    Greene does an excellent job of explaining very hard-to-understand concepts in non-mathematical ways. That said, I think it was unecessary to use popular culture the way he did. It feels silly, reading about Einstein and general relativity and getting an example which uses the Kwik-E-Mart, Bart, and Lisa and so forth. But okay, I admit that this is a fairly small detail that shouldn't take too much away from the overall experience. The important thing is that the

    Let's start with the positives:

    Greene does an excellent job of explaining very hard-to-understand concepts in non-mathematical ways. That said, I think it was unecessary to use popular culture the way he did. It feels silly, reading about Einstein and general relativity and getting an example which uses the Kwik-E-Mart, Bart, and Lisa and so forth. But okay, I admit that this is a fairly small detail that shouldn't take too much away from the overall experience. The important thing is that the concepts are explained in a manner which is understandable. Does Greene do that? He does, for the most part.

    Furthermore, Greene is obviously passionate about the subject matter, and that is something that is contagious. Reading about the bucket argument (

    ) and the various attempts at answering it; the exciting exploration of time, the arrow of time, and its mysteries; the exhilarating explanation of entropy; the outline of general relativity, quantum mechanics and a whole host of other physical theories, and on the whole Greene's passionate way of writing makes this an extremely engaging read.

    And the subject matter

    interesting. I mean, the bending of space and time, particles being "entangled" ("spooky action at a distance") through space, possible hidden dimensions, elusive particles, multiverses.. Paul Erdos said that "if numbers aren't beautiful, I don't know what is." Well, if this stuff isn't interesting, I don't know what is! Thus, overall, the book is extremely engaging and exciting, and it's one of those books that are very much, in many ways, unputdownable.

    Now, the negatives.

    First of all, the illustrations are almost no help, because they are of awful quality. I read the hardcover version, and even here they are small, with no colour and in fairly awful quality.

    Another problem with the book has been pointed out in this review as well,

    . You get the impression that without the math, a lot of this just isn't really possible to convey properly. You are left with only a part of the picture. I'm reminded of Richard Feynman's words: "To those who do not know mathematics it is difficult to get across a real feeling as to the beauty, the deepest beauty, of nature... If you want to learn about nature, to appreciate nature, it is necessary to understand the language that she speaks in." Sometimes Greene is pretty frank about this. He'll essentially write, "okay, I know this is far-fetched, but trust me on this one: the math is right, guys."

    To Greene's credit, there are a lot of pages in the back of the book devoted to the more mathematically inclined reader, so that those who

    get it can check it out for themselves.

    Now, the last negative aspect of the book is the fact that there's not a whole lot of new things here. If you've read

    , you don't really get a whole lot of new knowledge, except that this book is less about string theory and more about cosmology. I think it's enough to read one of them, which kind of renders this book somewhat unecessary.

    With all those negatives aside, the book is enjoyable and engaging. If you want some stretching exercises for your imagination, it's not a mistake to pick it up.

  • Mark Hebwood

    What an incredible journey this was. I think Brian is fantastically gifted to explain esoteric and cutting-edge cosmological concepts without the use of formulae and maths. He says himself that he will only use metaphors to explain the ideas, but even so he remains respectful of his subject, he does not dumb things down, and I found the metaphors for the most part evocative and helpful. Towards the end of the book, however, the ideas get so far removed from human intuition that I would have want

    What an incredible journey this was. I think Brian is fantastically gifted to explain esoteric and cutting-edge cosmological concepts without the use of formulae and maths. He says himself that he will only use metaphors to explain the ideas, but even so he remains respectful of his subject, he does not dumb things down, and I found the metaphors for the most part evocative and helpful. Towards the end of the book, however, the ideas get so far removed from human intuition that I would have wanted a little more formalism, perhaps. But - this was on offer as well! Brian adds a copious body of footnotes and in this way relegates a more rigorous discussion to the back of the book. This discussion will of course still not satisfy those who have an in-depth understanding of the science involved, but I don't think they are the target group of this book in the first place.

    To me, this was the best account of the current state (well, it's ten years old, but close enough) of cosmology I have read. The field appears to be so fast-moving that some of his statements in the later chapters have already been overtaken by reality, but there is a special charm in hearing Brian suggest that the LIGO experiment may demonstrate the existence of gravitational waves in decades to come when you know that this has already happened, much sooner than he thought. Equally, I felt a pang of regret when he expresses optimism that the LHC runs may find evidence of extra spatial dimensions soon after the upgrade to higher energies, knowing this has not happened yet, and scepticism is mounting that it ever will.

    Transcending what Brian was actually teaching me about the science, I also had an epiphany when I was reading the book. Brian talks at length about the shortcomings of the Big Bang theory, and explains how the theory of inflation may answer some of its more frustrating issues, such as the flatness problem. The flatness problem highlights the issue that a tiny difference in origin conditions would have generated a universe entirely different from the one we observe today. Now, I have always thought that this is no mystery, the fact that we are here to observe this universe is the reason we may puzzle about these finetuned conditions, but they are just one in many, equally possible, universes, and our surprise is therefore of our own making. I even thought this position was enlightened, and quite clever. But Brian explained that physicists abhor theories that rely on unknown qualities, on axiomatic pronouncements that accept something as a given. I understood that only by asking "why" were physicists able to develop a theory that explains the finetuning, and go beyond the Big Bang as the creation theory of the universe.

    And this was an excellent lesson to me. I think I knew this once, but I had forgotten about it. In my case, my anthropic stance was actually an attempt on my part to avoid a deeper question, an attempt to posit an answer where there wasn't one yet. Brian reminded me that we must never stop asking "why", that asking "why" is what makes us human.

    I loved this book. I can only recommend it to anybody who does not have a formal degree in science and wants to learn more about cosmology but is a bit frustrated about the lack of depth popular accounts of this topic typically provide.

  • Mahmut Homsi

    رأسي آلمني كثيراً خلال قراءة هذا الكتاب و لكن مع ذلك لم أستطع تركه

    حسناً.. إليك بعض المعلومات الصادمة، بعضها حقائق و البعض الآخر نظريات و فرضيات و لكنها معتمدة على استنتاجات رياضية

    1- أنت لست ثابت، أنت في حركة دائمة و متسارعة أيضاً

    2- القوى الكهرومغناطيسية هي التي تحمل جلدك و عظامك مع بعضها البعض

    3- نحن نعيش ضمن 11 بعداً و ليس ضمن ثلاثة أو أربعة أبعاد

    4- قد يكون هناك عدة أكوان أخرى مختلفة و ليس كون واحد Multiuniverse

    5- الزمن ليش شيء ثابت.. الزمن شيء نسبي يختلف من شخص لشخص و من مكان لمكان

    قد يكون سريع

    رأسي آلمني كثيراً خلال قراءة هذا الكتاب و لكن مع ذلك لم أستطع تركه

    حسناً.. إليك بعض المعلومات الصادمة، بعضها حقائق و البعض الآخر نظريات و فرضيات و لكنها معتمدة على استنتاجات رياضية

    1- أنت لست ثابت، أنت في حركة دائمة و متسارعة أيضاً

    2- القوى الكهرومغناطيسية هي التي تحمل جلدك و عظامك مع بعضها البعض

    3- نحن نعيش ضمن 11 بعداً و ليس ضمن ثلاثة أو أربعة أبعاد

    4- قد يكون هناك عدة أكوان أخرى مختلفة و ليس كون واحد Multiuniverse

    5- الزمن ليش شيء ثابت.. الزمن شيء نسبي يختلف من شخص لشخص و من مكان لمكان

    قد يكون سريعاً على الكرة الأرضية و لكنه بطيئاً على كوكب آخر أو العكس.. نعيش هنا 60 سنة مثلاً و لكننا قد نعيش 600 سنة على كوكب آخر

    6- نظرياً يمكننا زيارة المستقبل و يمكننا أيضاً الرجوع للماضي و لكن لا يمكننا تغييره

    7- قد يكون الكون هو إسقاط لمعلومات ثنائية الأبعاد

    8- الفضاء ليس هو عبارة عن لا شيء .. ليس فراغاً أبداً

    9- الفضاء تحكمه عدة قوانين منها: الطاقة السوداء التي تتحكم بحركة الكواكب و النجوم - و التضخم الداخلي الذي هو الانفجار الكبير

    10- هي نظرية مدهشة تطرح أن هناك ما هو أصغر من البروتونات و الكواركز حتى String Theory

    !!هناك شرائط تهتز بشكل دائم و شكل هذا الاهتزاز يعطي للمادة خصائصها التي نراها نحن .. إذن الكون كله مؤلف من شريط واحد مهتز

    11-Quantum mechanics الرفاهية التكنولوجية التي نعيشها الآن هي بسبب الـ

    و التي تقول أن حركة الإلكترون هي عبارة عن موجات و ليست حركة خط وحيد و لذلك هناك احتمالات لانهائية لمكان الإلكترون خلال حركته


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