Recommendation: If you have any working knowledge of physics you definitely want to buy this. For others, it’s extremely informative but could be a little dense and confusing. I’d still recommend it, but you should know what you’re getting into beforehand.
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Buckle up y’all, in celebration of Pi Day we’ve got a hardy helping of physics on our plate, and nobody’s leaving until we eat every last bite. I’m kidding, of course. You can leave. You’d be a quitter, but you know, if that’s how you want to live your life. Alright, enough goading my audience. I know most of you have an off switch that kicks in whenever you hear people talking about physics and I get it, I do. I was a physics nerd in high school and majored in it for my first couple years in college (before I saw the light and switched to my English degree. Holla back, unemployment!) so I know the details are confusing, the terminology is incomprehensible, and when people talk about it they can get wrapped up in their own little world and make you want to rage out and poke them in the eyeball.
But, this is different. Brian Greene’s main goal in The Elegant Universe is to take this monstrous, twisting, mathematical smorgasbord and serve it up in a way that someone can actually understand. And, for the most part, he meets that task. Even though I’m familiar with physics, my interest always waned upon hearing the theoretical mumbo-jumbo, so I never understood any part of string theory. Well, even in the early parts of this book, Brian Greene takes that theory that I never understood and, at its most basic level, makes it really simple. So I’m gonna try to give you an initial idea of this book’s subject without tagging too much spray paint onto the train. Most of you probably have some understanding of what electrons/protons/neutrons are, yes? They’re all hanging out together in these things we call atoms and for a long time people thought they were the tiniest particles in existence. Then we cracked a couple together and saw a whole mess of junk spill out, so we assumed that these were the tiniest particles in existence. But string theory postulates that all the particles we’ve found are actually made up of unimaginably small strings with a definitive (though incredibly tiny) size. That’s the idea. Pretty straightforward.
The devil, however, is in the details. It turns out that changing our model from using small particles that we treat as one-dimensional points into using two-dimensional strings turns physics into a red-alert-we’re-all-gonna-die-save-yourself panic monster. Jennifer Lawrence gets it. And so, Greene takes us on a journey through physics showing the extreme and profound ways that this single adjustment changes everything forever. Most importantly, if string theory is correct, it will resolve the greatest physics conflict since the early 1900’s. You see, two physics concepts that you might have heard about (general relativity and quantum mechanics) are actually completely incompatible. Usually, this doesn’t matter because people use quantum mechanics to explain microscopic phenomena and general relativity to explain gargantuan phenomena, but the simple fact that these two areas of physics are in direct contradiction shows that there is something fundamentally wrong with our conception of the world. So, since string theory provides a way to combine the two, it’s a pretty big deal.
Greene is very patient with us readers, doing anything he can to present these largely mathematical ideas in a figurative manner. It’s the best that I’ve ever seen it done. Theories that I knew about but never understood suddenly open up in this book and present their ideas like ripe fruit. That being said, I can’t ensure that everyone will be up to the task of reaching that fruit. My previous knowledge served as a step-ladder, and I still found myself eagerly leaping up just to come down empty-handed on occasion. There’s no use pretending, this book is difficult. I really think it is in the simplest form that it can be, but it’s still difficult. This will not be good if you’re looking for a light read, anything humorous, or if you have no interest in the sciences. You have to be ready for it. You have to know that some revelations might pass you by and that sometimes you’ll need to put the book down to make your brain stop feeling like mush. If you can do that, it’s totally worth it.
I also need to note that string theory is an unproven field. Because of the extremely small distances and extremely high energies needed to verify it, there aren’t (or weren’t as of publication in 1999) any methods to accurately test the theory. And, there are some problems with the theory itself that physicists are still struggling to understand. It isn’t a finalized Theory of Everything (as they say), but it is a proposed one. Sure, string theory could be wrong and, sure, you might think reading about a completely unproven theory is a waste of time. But I’m down for anything that provides me a deeper understanding of the world that I live in and this book absolutely does that.