16 January 2008

Oh, If Only I Knew What He Was Talking About

Brian Greene - The Elegant Universe

Alright, this is going to be a bit of a bullshit post, if only because I finished this book a week ago. I had a great post in my head, but my internet was spotty and I failed to write anything down or take notes for myself. That was stupid of me, though certainly not the first time that's ever happened.

With that caveat in mind, here's the main point (I think) I wanted to make last Monday. As much as any book on string theory can be, The Elegant Universe is a winner. Greene boils down the essentials in an incredibly simple fashion with easy-to-understand and insightful analogies. String theory is mind-bogglingly complex; it stretches beyond what most humans are capable of imagining (and that includes many of the involved scientists). Without knowing the math behind all this, it remains difficult (in my opinion) to perceive this microscopically small world, so I commend Dr./Prof./Mr. Greene for his efforts in trying to make all this accessible to the layman. I can't possibly begin to describe this world here and it would be a crime for me to try. Realistically, I need to reread whole chapters at some point because there is so much that I had to skim through because I simply did not understand what was going on.

My own ignorance notwithstanding, what I found lacking in this work was some of the storytelling. A good deal of the book is devoted to the history and development of string theory, Greene lays down the foundations of 20th century physics as it relates to the most modern conceptions of how the world has begun to appear to modern theorists. However, in an attempt to ground and humanize many of the "characters" here, the main story tends to drag; details of the lives of these (mostly) men and their situations come at the cost of attention to the flow of ideas. I guess that would be my only critique, as I found my attention wandering about 3/4 of the way through when that should really be where things are picking up steam and careening towards a conclusion. This isn't to say that Greene is a terrible narrator, but I think some editing of the storyline could have helped me keep focus when the physics started to get more complicated and outright weird.

I definitely recommend The Elegant Universe for those uninitiated in the world of string theory (much as I was). Given that this book was written a couple years ago, a lot of this work has been furthered in that elapsed time. I've been trying to find "updates" of sorts, but I'm finding material hard to come by. I'm also looking for anything that might be able to tie chaos theory in with any of this string business. If anyone knows of anything, point me in the right direction...

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