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.
Greene...explor[es] the ideas and recent developments with a depth and clarity I wouldn't have thought possible. He has a rare ability to explain even the most evanescent ideas in a way that gives at least the illusion of understnding.He developes one fresh new insight after another....In the great tradition of physicists writing for the masses, The Elegant Universe sets a standard that will be hard to beat.
The New York Times Book Review
New York Magazine
Compulsively readable. Greene threatens to do for string theory what Steven Hawking did for black holes.
LA Times Book Review
A thrilling ride through a lovely landscape....As rewarding as it gets...A compelling human saga.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
One of the more compelling scientific (cum-theological) questions in the Middle Ages was: "How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?" Today's version in cutting-edge science is, "How many strings... ?" As posited by s tring theory physics, strings are furiously vibrating loops of stuff. The concept of strings was devised to help scientists describe simultaneously both energy and matter. The frequency and resonance of strings' vibration, just like those of strings on an instrument, determine charge, spin and other familiar properties of energy and eventually the structure of the universe: a true music of the spheres. There's a chance that strings are themselves made up of something still smaller. But scientists can prove their existence only on the blackboard and computer, because they are much too tiny a hundred billion billion times smaller than the nucleus of an atom to be observed experimentally. Brian Greene, professor of physics and mathematics at Cornell and Columbia universities, makes the terribly complex theory of strings accessible to all. He possesses a remarkable gift for using the everyday to illustrate what may be going on in dimensions beyond our feeble human perception. Just when we might be tempted to dismiss strings as grist for the publish-or-perish mill, Greene explains how they have demonstrated connections between mathematics and physics that have helped solve age-old conundrums in each field. This book will appeal to astronomy as well as math and physics fans because it probes the important insights string theory gives into hotly debated issues in cosmology. Later chapters require careful attention to Greene's explications, but the effort will prepare readers to follow the scientific advances likely to be made in the next millennium through application of string theory.
These days, physicists are bubbling over with talk of strings--tiny, vibrating loops of matter, seen as the building blocks of nature, that may serve to unite the divergent theories of quantum mechanics and relativity. For the rest of us, wunderkind Columbia professor Greene provides just the sort of nervy, imaginative metaphors that make understanding snap into place. (LJ 2/15/99) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Greene, originator of groundbreaking discoveries in superstring theory, describes exciting new research in the field and discusses implications for the future of science. Using plain language with no math or technical jargon, he tells how superstring theory identifies nature's fundamental building blocks, which turn out to be, not subatomic particles, but vibrating strands whose vibrational patterns account for all of nature's forces. He combines everyday examples, b&w diagrams, and a sense of fun to illustrate complicated concepts. Annotation c. by Book News, Inc., Portland, Or.
Beautifully told...The Elegant Universe presents the ideas and aspirations and some of the characters of string theory with clarity and charm...a thoughtful and important book.
...I can only say that Greene's book is an explanatory tour-de-force...It would be hard to imagine anyone producing a clearer account than this of the difficult ideas involved, and Greene even brings out something of the actual excitement of scientific discovery...
The London Review of Books
Superstring theory may provide the long-sought unification of physics for which Einstein sought in vain. Here is a look at the current state of the quest. Greene (a professor of physics and mathematics at Columbia and Cornell) begins by pointing out the central problem of modern physics. Quantum mechanics and general relativity both work perfectly, and they cannot both be right. Relativity works for large, massive objects; quantum theory for tiny ones. Normally, the two realms can be kept separate. Yet increasingly, physics deals with phenomena such as black holes, where the conflicts are impossible to avoid. Out of the search for a more complete explanation came string theory. Its foundations were laid down some 30 years ago by Gabriele Venizano, who found that a two-century-old formula by Leonard Euler described subatomic particles more elegantly than existing theory. The relationships would make sense if elementary particles were not pointlike, but elongated and vibrating, like tiny musical strings-in one sense, a modern version of the ancient metaphor of the music of the spheres. It took a while for physicists to embrace string theory; for one thing, it seemed to predict things nobody had ever seen. And despite its formidable explanatory power, its mathematical expressions were often even more formidable-Greene describes some of the equations as nearly impossible to understand, let alone solve. Still, it has the right look about it, and two waves of enthusiasm (one in the mid-1980s, the other ten years later) have convinced many physicists of the theory's probable validity. Greene deftly summarizes these findings, in areas from subatomic-particle theory to cosmology, with occasionalforays into deeper waters such as the ten-dimensional structure of the universe, with several dimensions folded undetectably back into themselves. A final chapter forecasts that string theory will become the standard physical model in the next century. Entertaining and well-written-possibly the clearest popular treatment to date of this complex subject.
Washington Post Book World
Greene does an admirable job of translating a wholly mathematical endeavor into visual terms. Throughout his work, he writes with poetic eloquence and style. Marcia Bartusiak
Los Angeles Times
“As rewarding as it gets . . . a thrilling ride through a lovely landscape.”
The New York Times Book Review
Sets a standard that will be hard to beat. George Johnson
New York Times Book Review
Greene goes beyond Kaku's book [Beyond Einstein], exploring the ideas and recent developments with a depth and clarity I wouldn't have thought possible. Like Simon Singh in "Fermat's Enigma," he has a rare ability to explain even the most evanescent ideas in a way that gives at least the illusion of understanding....Rather than recycling the tired old set pieces science writers too often fall back upon, he develops one fresh new insight after another....In the great tradition of physicists writing for the masses, The Elegant Universe sets a standard that will be hard to beat. George Johnson
“.Do you lie awake a night wondering about superstrings, hidden dimensions and the quest for an ultimate theory of the universe? If so, you should browse Brian Greene's The Elegant Universe...[A] well-written account—without equations—from the forefront of cosmology and physics.”
“Compulsively readable. . . . Greene threatens to do for string theory what Stephen Hawking did for black holes.”
George Johnson - The New York Times Book Review
“Sets a standard that will be hard to beat.”
The New York Times Book Review - George Johnson
“Sets a standard that will be hard to beat.”
“[A] delightful, lucid introduction to the greatest problem in all of physics, the quest to unify all the laws of nature. Greene does a masterful job in presenting complex materials in a lively, engaging manner. Highly recommended to anyone who has ever gazed at the heavens and wondered, as Einstein did, if God had a choice in making the universe.”
“Everyone who is curious about the horizons of theoretical physicspast, present, and futurewill enjoy this book.”
David M. Lee
“[A] beautifully crafted account of string theorya theory that appears to be a most promising waystation on the road to an ultimate theory of everything. His book gives a clear, simple, yet masterful account that makes a complex theory very accessible to nonscientists but is also a delightful; read for the professional.”
“[A] tour-de-force of science writing. Perhaps more than any other popular-level account, this book peels away layers of detail and reveals the stunning essence of cutting-edge physics. With a rare blend of scientific integrity and literary flair, the author takes us on a whirlwind journey to the forefront of the search for the ultimate theory of the universe.”
George Johnson - New York Times Book Review
“Greene goes beyond Kaku's book [Beyond Einstein], exploring the ideas and recent developments with a depth and clarity I wouldn't have thought possible. Like Simon Singh in "Fermat's Enigma," he has a rare ability to explain even the most evanescent ideas in a way that gives at least the illusion of understanding....Rather than recycling the tired old set pieces science writers too often fall back upon, he develops one fresh new insight after another....In the great tradition of physicists writing for the masses, The Elegant Universe sets a standard that will be hard to beat.”
Marcia Bartusiak - Washington Post Book World
“Greene does an admirable job of translating a wholly mathematical endeavor into visual terms. Throughout his work, he writes with poetic eloquence and style.”
Read an Excerpt
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.