The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory
  • The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory
  • The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory

The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory

4.2 219
by Brian Greene, B. Greene, B. Greene

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String theory, many physicists believe, is the key to the unified field theory that eluded Einstein for more than thirty years. At last, science has found a way to overcome the nearly century-old rift between the laws of the large - general relativity - and the laws of the small - quantum mechanics. String theory deftly unites these two pillars of modern physics into…  See more details below


String theory, many physicists believe, is the key to the unified field theory that eluded Einstein for more than thirty years. At last, science has found a way to overcome the nearly century-old rift between the laws of the large - general relativity - and the laws of the small - quantum mechanics. String theory deftly unites these two pillars of modern physics into a single, harmonious whole by declaring that all of the wondrous happenings in the universe arise from the vibrations of one single entity: microscopically tiny loops of energy that lie deep within the heart of matter.

In this articulated and clear book, Brian Greene relates the scientific story and the human struggle behind the search for the ultimate theory. Through the artful use of metaphor and analogy, The Elegant Universe makes some of the most sophisticated concepts ever contemplated viscerally accessible and thoroughly entertaining, bringing us closer than ever to understanding how the universe works.

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Editorial Reviews
Take a mind-blowing new theory in physics presented by a charismatic scientist and you've got the recipe for a bestselling science book. In this excellent introduction to string theory (in its simplest form, the theory describes the ultimate matter of the universe as being more like vibrating strings than points of matter), Greene explains clearly its potential to alter our understanding of the universe -- perhaps revealing, for example, the existence of hidden extraspatial dimensions.

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Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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Excerpt from Chapter 1: Tied Up with String

Calling it a cover-up would be far too dramatic. But for more than half a century -- even in the midst of some of the greatest scientific achievements in history -- physicists have been quietly aware of a dark cloud looming on a distant horizon. The problem is this: There are two foundational pillars upon which modern physics rests. One is Albert Einstein's general relativity, which provides a theoretical framework for understanding the universe on the largest of scales: stars, galaxies, clusters of galaxies, and beyond to the immense expanse of the universe itself. The other is quantum mechanics, which provides a theoretical framework for understanding the universe on the smallest of scales: molecules, atoms, and all the way down to subatomic particles like electrons and quarks. Through years of research, physicists have experimentally confirmed to almost unimaginable accuracy virtually all predictions made by each of these theories. But these same theoretical tools inexorably lead to another disturbing conclusion: As they are currently formulated, general relativity and quantum mechanics cannot both be right. The two theories underlying the tremendous progress of physics during the last hundred years -- progress that has explained the expansion of the heavens and the fundamental structure of matter -- are mutually incompatible.

If you have not heard previously about this ferocious antagonism you may be wondering why. The answer is not hard to come by. In all but the most extreme situations, physicists study things that are either small and light (like atoms and their constituents) or things that are huge and heavy (like stars and galaxies), but not both. This means that they need use only quantum mechanics or only general relativity and can, with a furtive glance, shrug off the barking admonition of the other. For fifty years this approach has not been quite as blissful as ignorance, but it has been pretty close.

But the universe can be extreme. In the central depths of a black hole an enormous mass is crushed to a minuscule size. At the moment of the big bang the whole of the universe erupted from a microscopic nugget whose size makes a grain of sand look colossal. These are realms that are tiny and yet incredibly massive, therefore requiring that both quantum mechanics and general relativity simultaneously be brought to bear. For reasons that will become increasingly clear as we proceed, the equations of general relativity and quantum mechanics, when combined, begin to shake, rattle, and gush with steam like a red-lined automobile. Put less figuratively, well-posed physical questions elicit nonsensical answers from the unhappy amalgam of these two theories. Even if you are willing to keep the deep interior of a black hole and the beginning of the universe shrouded in mystery, you can't help feeling that the hostility between quantum mechanics and general relativity cries out for a deeper level of understanding. Can it really be that the universe at its most fundamental level is divided, requiring one set of laws when things are large and a different, incompatible set when things are small?

Superstring theory, a young upstart compared with the venerable edifices of quantum mechanics and general relativity, answers with a resounding no. Intense research over the past decade by physicists and mathematicians around the world has revealed that this new approach to describing matter at its most fundamental level resolves the tension between general relativity and quantum mechanics. In fact, superstring theory shows more: Within this new framework, general relativity and quantum mechanics require one another for the theory to make sense. According to superstring theory, the marriage of the laws of the large and the small is not only happy but inevitable.

That's part of the good news. But superstring theory -- string theory, for short -- takes this union one giant step further. For three decades, Einstein sought a unified theory of physics, one that would interweave all of nature's forces and material constituents within a single theoretical tapestry. He failed. Now, at the dawn of the new millennium, proponents of string theory claim that the threads of this elusive unified tapestry finally have been revealed. String theory has the potential to show that all of the wondrous happenings in the universe -- from the frantic dance of subatomic quarks to the stately waltz of orbiting binary stars, from the primordial fireball of the big bang to the majestic swirl of heavenly galaxies -- are reflections of one grand physical principle, one master equation.

Because these features of string theory require that we drastically change our understanding of space, time, and matter, they will take some time to get used to, to sink in at a comfortable level. But as shall become clear, when seen in its proper context, string theory emerges as a dramatic yet natural outgrowth of the revolutionary discoveries of physics during the past hundred years. In fact, we shall see that the conflict between general relativity and quantum mechanics is actually not the first, but the third in a sequence of pivotal conflicts encountered during the past century, each of whose resolution has resulted in a stunning revision of our understanding of the universe.

The Three Conflicts

The first conflict, recognized as far back as the late 1800s, concerns puzzling properties of the motion of light. Briefly put, according to Isaac Newton's laws of motion, if you run fast enough you can catch up with a departing beam of light, whereas according to James Clerk Maxwell's laws of electromagnetism, you can't. As we will discuss in Chapter 2, Einstein resolved this conflict through his theory of special relativity, and in so doing completely overturned our understanding of space and time. According to special relativity, no longer can space and time be thought of as universal concepts set in stone, experienced identically by everyone. Rather, space and time emerged from Einstein's reworking as malleable constructs whose form and appearance depend on one's state of motion. The development of special relativity immediately set the stage for the second conflict. One conclusion of Einstein's work is that no object -- in fact, no influence or disturbance of any sort -- can travel faster than the speed of light. But, as we shall discuss in Chapter 3, Newton's experimentally successful and intuitively pleasing universal theory of gravitation involves influences that are transmitted over vast distances of space instantaneously. It was Einstein, again, who stepped in and resolved the conflict by offering a new conception of gravity with his 1915 general theory of relativity. Just as special relativity overturned previous conceptions of space and time, so too did general relativity. Not only are space and time influenced by one's state of motion, but they can warp and curve in response to the presence of matter or energy. Such distortions to the fabric of space and time, as we shall see, transmit the force of gravity from one place to another. Space and time, therefore, can no longer be thought of as an inert backdrop on which the events of the universe play themselves out; rather, through special and then general relativity, they are intimate players in the events themselves.

Once again the pattern repeated itself: The discovery of general relativity, while resolving one conflict, led to another. Over the course of the three decades beginning in 1900, physicists developed quantum mechanics (discussed in Chapter 4) in response to a number of glaring problems that arose when nineteenth-century conceptions of physics were applied to the microscopic world. And as mentioned above, the third and deepest conflict arises from the incompatibility between quantum mechanics and general relativity. As we will see in Chapter 5, the gently curving geometrical form of space emerging from general relativity is at loggerheads with the frantic, roiling, microscopic behavior of the universe implied by quantum mechanics. As it was not until the mid-1980s that string theory offered a resolution, this conflict is rightly called the central problem of modern physics. Moreover, building on special and general relativity, string theory requires its own severe revamping of our conceptions of space and time. For example, most of us take for granted that our universe has three spatial dimensions. But this is not so according to string theory, which claims that our universe has many more dimensions than meet the eye -- dimensions that are tightly curled into the folded fabric of the cosmos. So central are these remarkable insights into the nature of space and time that we shall use them as a guiding theme in all that follows. String theory, in a real sense, is the story of space and time since Einstein.

Excerpt reprinted from The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory by Brian R. Greene. Copyright © 1999 Brian R. Greene. All rights reserved.

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What People are saying about this

Edward Witten
Everyone who is curious about the horizons of theoretical physics — past, present, and future — will greatly enjoy this book
— Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton University
Michio Kaku
Greene does a masterful job in presenting complex materials in a lively, engaging manner. Highly recommended.
— Author of Hyperspace

Meet the Author

Brian Greene is a professor of physics and mathematics at Columbia University. He lives in New York City.

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Elegant Universe 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 218 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Good for anyone who's interested in the field but does not have formal training in Mathmatics and / or Physics. If you find yourself on the discovery channel alot or the Science channel, this book is for you
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Physicist and author, Brian Greene, discusses old and new insights in physics. Exploring spacetime, relativity, quantum mechanics, superstring theory and M-theory, among other topics, Greene attempts to illustrate what seems thus far to comprise the workings of the universe. Elegant Universe is an interesting enough read which nonetheless will not engage everyone and will leave many wondering. Because while the language and analogies are understandable even for those who are not mathematicians or scientists, the theories presented may be difficult to comprehend. Also, the book is probably more appealing to those who constantly ponder the micro- and macro- scopic universe or are concerned with the discovery of a T.O.E. (Theory of Everything) than to those looking for more tangible consequences of the micro- and macro-scopic on their immediate physical existences.
samschmidt More than 1 year ago
Above all, this book has really helped me visualize theories that I had never really been able to understand before. This book goes through Einstein's theories about relativity and the theory of quantum physics comprehensively and creatively. Author Greene uses intriguing analogies and theoretical characters in order to explain why space must be curved, among other physics humdingers. For those of us who were always interested but could never get through heavy, scientific snore books, this book is a godsend. It deals with its subject matter intelligently, compellingly, and with a great deal of literary merit, which is all together too rare in science texts. Science and literature are not mutually exclusive, and this book proves it. I'm so glad that I took the time to read this.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene, a professor at Columbia University, examines contemporary physics, it's origins, conflicts, and future topics of studies, all in very readable laymans terms. As Greene reveals in his book, scientists for a long time have ignored the conflicts between relativity and quantum mechanics and merely assumed that each set of mechanics would be used in their own respective worlds. However the development of String Theory has offered a unique chance for unification of the two sets of theories. Greene explores the origins of String Theory and it's meanings in very worldly analogies. Although Brian Greene does a good job of explaining the theories he does not go into detail about the full implications or modern applications the theory could have for society. Despite this it serves its purpose as an introduction into the otherwise intangible world of physics and is very readable for all audiences.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Finally! A book that doesn't assume we're all scholars coming right out of Harvard! I'm still reading this book, but so far I have to give it 5 stars because of how little it expects of it's readers. It is theoretical physics, so of course it expects that we have some background knowledge (be family with the subatomic particles, know basic ideas pertaining to general relativity, etc.), but the ratio of what it has to offer to what it expects is so distinct! If you have any curiosity in string theory, or for that matter physics, definitely pick up this book!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Brian Greene makes the worlds most bizzare concepts easy to understand.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Words cannot describe how impressed I was with this book. It was downright brilliant to say the least. Brian Greene begins this magnificent journey with detailed descriptions of both relativity and quantum mechanics, and then goes on to explain the mathematical conflicts between these two theories and how they can be resolved using string theory. Professor Greene has a marvelous talent for taking difficult concepts and transforming them into something that absolutely anyone can understand. After reading this book, I am now more familiar with both relativity, quantum mechanics, and string theory, which were concepts that I previously knew very little about. Professor Greene not only writes about the unification of quantum mechanics and relativity through string theory, but many other fascinating concepts as well. He talks about the possibility of extra dimensions of space, black holes, the big bang and the tearing of space, while tying it all into string theory. Reading this book was an amazing experience, and was even emotional at times. I commend Professor Greene for taking the beautiful glories of the universe, and displaying them for the world to see. Professor Greene, if you ever happen to be reading this, I want you to know that you should be VERY proud of this book. Even if string theory turns out to be incorrect, this book will still be a magnificent achievement. It would not be extreme to assert that everyone on Earth should read The Elegant Universe. The Elegant Universe was truly an amazing voyage through space, time, and the awesomeness of our spectacular universe.
AJSTX More than 1 year ago
This is an incredibly easy read for non-physicists who are trying to understand the complexities of Einstein's theory of relativity and Newton's theory of gravity. Using simple examples to illustrate the issues of these theories, Bruce Greene explains why there is conflict between these two and why the string theory is a wonderful solution for the unified theory of the universe. For non-physicists like myself, who has difficulty understanding the simplest ideas in physics, this was a wonderful book that helped me gain understanding into issues such as why gravity bends light, what relativity is all about, and what is the string theory and why it's a good solution for the unified theory. To understand these complex issues in physics was a major miracle for me. If anybody is looking to comprehend these issues as well and wants an easy read with comprehension of these difficult issues, I highly recommend this book. Even Stephen Hawking's book, which I considered another great read because of its easy, simple language and examples, I doubt could have done as well as Brian Greene explaining the string theory. Again I cannot say enough about this book and how easy it was for me to grasp the concepts and the complexities of physics.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Very well written. A good introduction to String Theory. Should be followed with "The Hidden Reality" also by Brian Green.
Derek Buchman More than 1 year ago
Incredibly interesting and informative. I definitely recommend reading this if you have even a remote interest in the subject.
Sanjay Gupta More than 1 year ago
Love the progression of the book marching through relativity,quantum mechanics, 5 string theories and the revelations of string theory to the unifying M-theory. Makes me want to explore even more. Wish there was some progression of recommended reading. As a layperson understand string theory a bit better but there is so much more to know.
ScarlettJP More than 1 year ago
For any non math major who wants to understand 20th century discovery in physics and cosmology...Brian Greene is an excellent teacher, and explains his subject clearly with respect for the intellectual curiosity of his reader.You won't be bored, and you will be stunned by the beauty of what is known&the mystery of what is yet to be uncovered..I found it to be compelling.....ScarlettJP
random_skeptic More than 1 year ago
Brian Greene has done a wonderful job introducing string theory to the layman and laywoman. He starts off by giving good background information about quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity. He then goes on to lay out the framework for string theory in a very understandable way. There were times in the book when the information got a little heavy, but Greene always warns you before hand and clarifies his points later. I now have a fuller understanding of string theory and a better appreciation of how this theory could truly change our view of the universe. I would recommend this book to anyone with an interest in Science and/or Phyics.
MsTabetha More than 1 year ago
Although the jargon used in this book can get a little technical, Greene delivers it in such a way as to be easily understood even by the most amateur of stargazers. During technical points in the book, Greene presents the information through real-life examples and funny "what-if" stories. Numerous times throughout this book I found myself laughing out loud one minute, then putting the book down to further think about a theory that was explained. I definitely recommend this book to someone who is curious about the world in which we live, but might not have a solid background in physics or science. I also recommend it to professional physicists, astronomers and scientists who are looking for a refreshing break from the dull, technical reference materials that they are encountered with on a day to day basis.
Violet_Adams More than 1 year ago
Easy to read and understand. There is no longer any excuse to dropping acid when you can read Brian Greene and allow him to expand your mind.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I loved this book. I really like books that will entertain and challenge me at the same time. Awesome book, one of my all time favorites. I wouldn't suggest it to anyone without an interest in deep physics and mathematics.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book was outstanding. I had to re-read some of the sections but only because of how complicated some of these concepts are. Brian Greene does an excellent job explaining these 'out of this world' concepts. I have yet to come across a book that made me feel so powerful yet so minuscule at the same time. You will never look at the world in the same way again.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The sun doesn't revolve around the earth as we once thought, and our egoic selves may today still be stuck thinking that old way, relying on our ego-derived thoughts to convince ourselves that the universe we're in is the center of all size and time in existence. Perhaps size is the key to determining everything in existence and is directly related to time. Regarding small objects: let's say that there are items so small that they are humanly-and-machine-immeasureable, and that each of these objects contain an infinite number of next-smaller universes wherein, to life in each progressively smaller universe, time runs unmeasurably more slowly than in the next universe larger... Are there progressively smaller universes that exist within a human fingernail, for example, whereby the smaller each universe is than the next, the more slowly time -to life within that universe - passes? On the large scale, in our universe, the deeper into space that objects exist, the more they move apart at increasing speed. Are objects and time in our universe's most distant space speeding up to where they are connecting with, and shifting into the next larger universe - in which time passes immeasurably more quickly vs. ours due to its immeasureably greater size? Do an infinite number of progressively smaller universes exist in each of our fingernails - whereby each universe down is size-unmeasurable by life in all larger universes? All universes no doubt include life, or at least the eventuality of having life, because without life, there would be no reason for a universe to exist. Maybe we're not the center of existence after all, and we live both immeasurably tiny within the nucleus of an atom of shell in a turtle's back, while at the same time being immeasurably large compared to an infinite number of progressively smaller universes that exist in each person's fingernails.
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Not a quick page turner but very interesting read.
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