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Elegant Universe

510 words on

In 2000, during my visit to Claus while he was in Berkeley, I bought Brian Greene's The Elegant Universe, a popular science book about the developments in modern physics known as string theory. Back then my tutor suggested it as a good read as we tend to touch the geometrical ideas related to what the physicists do.

Book Cover Two things can be said about this: One is, that there are many problems: Physically, while the theory is beautiful, many physicists brush it off as 'philosophy' as at this stage there are no experiments that could falsify predictions – the ultimate testbed for physical theories. The things predicted are too small to be probed with the devices and energy levels available today.

Mathematically, things are difficult as well. String theorists indulge in heavy duty mathematics, using them in the typical pragmatic and relaxed 'physicist' way, churning out conjectures. Conjectures that actually look interesting from a mathematical point of view, making this an intriguing theory. And leaving mathematicians in the situation of wanting to make sense of everything in a rigorous fashion to eventually turn those conjecture – or rather appropriate variations thereof – into proper theorems.

So it's quite a big, complex and active area reaching from theoretical physics into mathematics. Nothing that easily lends itself to writing a popular science book about it. That's where Brian Greene, a physicist himself, comes in with his writing skills and does a rather good job at motivating the new principles of the area to the general public.

As far as I can tell, he succeeded. The Elegant Universe seems to have sold rather well. Encouraging me to compare it with 'that other best-selling popular physics book', Hawking's A Brief History of Time. The latter is said to be one of the most popular and unread coffee-table items ever. Even with the best intentions, many people found it too hard (or uninteresting?) to read all the way through it. And that even though it is reasonably short at around 200 pages.

Thus I ask myself who bought all those copies of The Elegant Universe. It is much longer, at almost 400 pages in smaller type. It is considerably harder than Hawking's book as well and the author doesn't even sit in a wheelchair. So it looks like an unlikely candidate for a bestseller. Just another coffee table book? Or a change of attitude in people making them more interested in science? I don't know.

And if you don't want to read the book, you could just peek at the TV mini-series. It's available online, looks rather slick and has soundbites by many 'celebrities' of the field in it – so I'll at least recognise people like Witten of Vafa, should I bump into them in the street. The online version makes good use of QuickTime as well, giving captions and extra links while the show is running (haven't really seen that done before). It's just a shame that you can't simply go double size when playing things in a browser window.

[Buy at amazon .com, .uk, .de]

February 29, 2004, 13:15

Tagged as book, brian greene, elegant universe, physics, string theory.


Comment by Richard Anderson: User icon

I confess.

I missed your site.

I also did not finish reading “The Elegant Universe”. I read about 2/3’s of the book when I suddenly found myself completely and utterly baffled.

March 2, 2004, 21:11

Comment by ssp: User icon

I guess if you ‘finish’ reading my site, that’ll be more than good enough for me ;)

Anyway, getting 2/3 through the book is really quite far. I expect most people stop in the first 50-100 pages as this book is much harder than Hawking’s. I guess the whole topic is just very baffling.

There are many physicists around who don’t think string theory is the right thing. Mainly because it’s so far detached from observations and experiments today. Thus they count it as philosophy rather than science.

March 3, 2004, 1:35

Comment by Jason McDowell: User icon

Hey dude,

I wonder if you will notice this, since it is a few days past. I missed your site too.

I bought The Elegant Universe a few years ago. Awesome stuff! I watched the miniseries a few months ago, it was great!

As for the Elegant Universe miniseries not being double size - try using the “zoom in” feature of OS X. You turn it on in Universal Access. It is a good way of seeing embedded quicktime almost full screen

March 5, 2004, 12:30

Comment by ssp: User icon

Jason, thanks for the hint. It never occurred to me that I can abuse Universal Access in that way.

March 6, 2004, 2:48

Comment by nathan: User icon

i love the elegant universe. it is so easy to understant. i give brian greene 2 thumbs up on this book.

April 22, 2004, 16:40

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