The Elegant Universe, by Brian Greene


I'm almost all the way through my backlog of physics-related books (previously here, here, and here) - I honstly have a few more to go, but I had this book set aside in my mind as I wanted to get through sooner than later and the others were hopefully setting it up so that I wouldn't be completely lost.

It sorta worked - not all of the material was totally new, and sometimes I'd read about a topic and say to myself "that sorta makes sense if I consider so-and-so that I recall from ..." and I wouldn't have to spend as much time digesting the material repeatedly. With that said, this book probably isn't for a truly casual reader that doesn't have at least a passing background in science and engineering - which I find an interesting thing to say because the book is almost bereft in math and formal proofs, and I can only conclude this was a purpose-driven effort by the author to be able to include a wider audience. The trouble here is that the math is actually really important for understanding physics and phenomenon like what is covered here - and without it, it requires the reader to understand things at a purely conceptual level without the glue (math) that really holds it together. When I graduated from university with a mere bachelors degree in Electrical Engineering, I knew my calculus pretty well, and over the past 20 years or so I've slowly lost the particulars - but I still understand the concepts of integrals, differentials, probabilities, etc - and even without full solutions, I would have personally been interested in at least seeing the form of the relevant governing equations to help understand the concepts. The notes at the end of the book do include a little bit of math, but not enough.

I can say that after reading this, things are finally starting to gel for me on some fundamental topics. The importance and differences between general relativity, special relativity, and quantum mechanics and how they support and conflict with classical newtonian mechanics for starters. I also actually have an idea of what string theory actually is: before reading this book, I had obviously heard of string theory, but I didn't have any idea what the string part of string theory referred to - and now I sorta do. I had read about theories of extra spatial dimensions in addition to the 3 we directly observe and concepts like multiverses - but now I know a lot more about them. I've always been curious about topics like the big bang and blackholes - and now I have even more questions, but also understand a bunch more.

I'd be lying if I told you I got everything in this book. I understand a little about Calabi-Yau Spaces now, but I can't really picture them and I'm positive that the math behind them is out of my reach, but I think I get just enough about them to understand why they're brought up so often. And again, without the math, I will always be forced to recognize that I don't really get any of it - but I complete understanding just couldn't be a goal of either reading or writing this book. No, it was about knowledge sharing to curious people, and I'm one of those.

The Good

Dr. Greene did a pretty good job of setting the table with introductory material leading up to actually getting into string theory itself - something that he had to do even for someone like me that was somewhat fresh coming out of other books on related materials who was already at least passingly familiar with them.

For me, the best part of the book came towards the end when it was focusing on the cutting edge (at least at the time of publication) of string theory and some of the advancements that the author himself had been a part of. It's hard to call this book a textbook because of the aforementioned lack of math and rigor, but it's really not a story either - but when the author describes his own role, he does tell stories, and they're fun and engaging and probably the easiest sections to digest in the entire book.

I also appreciated how the author makes a point throughout to provide color on what is accepted by the community, what still needs more research, experimentation, evidence, and consensus - and what's purely theories and ideas and isn't at all settled science - without leaving it out.

I also appreciated how the author kept track of the locations of relevant chapters and especially diagrams to refer back to throughout. The materials is pretty dense and interrelated throughout and requiring the reader to flip around on their own would have been tough (and they probably wouldn't do it and suffer because of it). I encourage anyone reading to not be shy about consulting with earlier references when they come up.

I also have to mention a particular note that made me chuckle. I read the hardback edition from 2003, and at the bottom of page 239 is the following page note:

Some of the ideas in this and the next few sections are rather subtle, so don't be put off if you have trouble following every link in the explanatory chain -- especially in a single reading.

I mentally sighed in a sarcastic manner when I read that. Oh, thank you for providing me permission to find the material difficult because none of the rest of the book had at all been challenging up until that point. No, not at all. I then proceeded to read it and get pretty thoroughly lost.

The Bad

As I already said, I think a bit more math would have helped. Maybe even just end notes - or even pointers to a separate volume that had some more rigour. The text as it is stands alone already - but I can't get over how this was lacking.

I would have enjoyed if more human stories could have been included, but I get that the author wasn't present for all of the discoveries that came before and just wouldn't know them. I recently watched the PBS Cosmos series (a remake of the Carl Sagan book and TV series) and liked how it was presented as it did just that.

Final Thoughts

This book is intimidating for someone that didn't know anything about string theory heading into it, but I enjoyed it and was able to get through it in just over a month of mostly reading in chunks of time no longer than an hour before I went to bed a few nights a week. I give this 4 out of 5 stars.