Book Review: The Elegant Universe, by Brian Greene

It has literally taken me years to read this book. Not because it’s uninteresting or anything, but because I have to be in a certain mood to read it. A mood in which I’m ready to read slowly and think deeply.

The Elegant Universe is about superstring theory and M-theory; basically, the “theory of everything” that physicists have always been searching for. It’s written for a general audience, but still gets pretty deep into it – without much math. While that’s a good thing, since most people (myself included) would need years of training to even begin to understand the math involved, it also left me with a feeling that I was always missing part of the picture. I guess that’s unavoidable in a book of this sort, though.

The book answers a lot of questions, but also brings up just as many – most of which are things that the average person has never considered before. Many such questions are very very deep. So deep that it’s nearly impossible to really grasp what’s being talked about. Whenever possible, Greene illustrates things with 2 or 3-dimensional analogies, but again, you feel like you’re missing something when, in reality, the theory involves 11 dimensions.

That’s the thing, though – humans will never intuitively grasp a world with 11 dimensions. We live – and evolved in – the 3 space dimensions (and one time dimension) that we’re all familiar with. Our brains simply weren’t built to understand any more than that. Like a goldfish can never understand the math involved in buying a chocolate bar, maybe we will never fully understand the math involved in describing the universe.

People will damn well try, though. I have much respect for the physicists involved in string theory (and other cutting-edge stuff like it). Many would probably hate this word, but it involves a lot of faith. Faith in at least two things: 1) That humans are able to understand the universe, and 2) That the universe is understandable at all. As briefly discussed in the book, maybe there is no ultimate theory that ties everything together. Maybe planets just work a certain way, and photons work a certain way, and there is no connection between these two ways of working. Until they find it, these physicists don’t even know if the theory they dedicate their lives to finding exists. Of course, they feel it exists, as I’m sure most scientists do. How could it not? And so far, everything has gotten closer and closer to meshing together cohesively. But it could stop at any point, and yeah, that feeling that it won’t, in some way, that’s faith.

These are deep issues, and I can’t really get into them in a brief review, so you probably have no idea what I’m talking about. But if you want to have your brain challenged and get a better understanding of one way the entire universe might be explained, give The Elegant Universe a shot.

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