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The Elegant Universe (B. Greene)

2004-09-06 3 min read Books marco

What would you read on a week’s long vacation to Maui? You know, sunshine, palms, sand and an inviting ocean? Well, your truly chose (amongs others) The Elegant Universe, a pop-science book by one of the more outstanding string theorists.
Boring? Certainly not. I am a physicist by trade, and I always had a hard time finding the patience to deal with string theory. At some point I knew I would have to do it, and this one was as good an attempt to learn as any other.
String theory is famous for two main reasons:1. It has a successful explanation as to why we experience two sets of forces (gravity on one end and all other elementary forces on the other one) in one single reality2. A very weird view of the world, in which there are infinitesimal dimensions that are curled up, just so that some esoteric mathematical property of spaces beyond a certain dimension holds.
It all sounded too much like the desire to form the universe after the model of the theory. In particular, the extra dimensions seemed to complicate things too much for my pleasure, especially because no observable was associated with these extra dimensions, only mathematical properties.
Then, thinking again, I realized that quantum mechanics must have sounded pretty crazy in the day, too; and there is not the slightest doubt that QM is the best theory in the world when it comes to measurements. The same is true for relativity, another crazy idea in the day.
Who should read The Elegant Universe? It is a very scientific book, trying to explain cover to cover how things work, who is involved in string theory, and how all this edifice came into being. You will sorely miss the prickly debate and the juicy commentary that many other science books offer. This one explains one and only one thing: who came up with string theory, why, and how.
Even if you noticed that’s actually three things, you won’t get much more satisfaction from this book than that. I remember reading a great many attempts to popularize special relativity, even watching Peter Ustinov’s documentary, and getting more confused than before I watched.
Then, one day in the library in Aachen, I discovered the original 1905 ‘Annalen der Physik’ where Einstein published the original theory. All of a sudden everything was clear, and I found that all the attempts to clarify were muddying the waters ever since.
You see, before Einstein came, the laws governing special relativity were all there. What Einstein brought to the equation in this case was simply an overarching explanation that rationalized all the strangeness.
String theory, it seems, needs to find its Einstein. It is a beautiful theory, but it doesn’t really explain much – at least reading this book. One day, if we are lucky and this theory holds, someone will come and explain just why things are supposed to be this way. And that person will make string theory obsolete by simply explaining it in terms outside of it.
Until then, everyone should probably know something about it. This is as good a book as any one.