I bought this book in the July 2020 Folio Society sale specifically for this August science marathon which I have just realised I am reading in order of length. After the relatively short ‘The Double Helix’ last week I jump to the 432 pages of this volume, next weeks is a similar length and the final book to tackle is over 550 pages. If you are a regular reader of my blog you will know that I do a reading marathon each August, previously I have read multiple books each week but this year I have decided to tackle major scientific works at the rate of one a week when normally I would have interleaved them with shorter and easier works. So what is the importance of ‘The Elegant Universe? Well it was originally published in 1999 and is one of the first books to attempt to summarise the issues between Einstein’s relativity theories and quantum mechanics and then go on to explain a possible solution to their inconsistencies using String Theory to a readership that is not composed solely of physicists. The book was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize so definitely qualifies for my requirement to be a significant science work for this months readings and represents theoretical physics as I have previously read and reviewed the logical book for this subject namely Einstein’s own book on Relativity.
After a couple of brief introductions, one written in 2017 especially for this new edition, and a brief summary of the current understanding of elementary particles which makes up section one of the book Professor Greene dives straight in with two chapters on the General and Special Theories of Relativity, how these moved us on from the Newtonian Laws of Motion and the odd effects that are predicted by Einsteins equations. After this is a chapter giving a good introduction to Quantum Mechanics, which is a surprisingly easy read given the counter intuitive behaviours of forces and particles at this level of magnification. These are followed by a chapter entitled The Need for a New Theory where he looks specifically at the contradictions between Relativity and Quantum Mechanics and the problems that are faced by physicists trying to unite the two in the search for the Theory of Everything. These four chapters make up the second section of the book and cover ground I was already familiar with however I have not read up on String Theory so from here on the theoretical physics was all new.
The chapters get ever more complicated as they try to explain the various aspects of String Theory, which by its very nature as the search for The Theory of Everything has to stretch from atomic level to cosmology. Professor Greene is very good at using analogies to express complex thoughts in a way the reader can approach them. For those who are fans of the Star Trek spin-off Deep Space Nine you will be pleased to find that String Theory allows for wormholes to exist. Spoiler alert – they probably don’t but at least there is some physics behind the idea as shown on the page spread above.
One potentially good way that the entire book is written is the ability of the reader to take it at their own pace and also to decide how deep they want to go. This is done by use of an extensive notes section at the back of the book which moves more complex discussions of points raised along with most of the mathematics out of the main body of the text. Now for me this became increasingly annoying as I had to keep two bookmarks to track where I was up to and to make skipping to the notes section easier but it does make the main text simpler to follow for the more lay reader who after all is probably the target audience.
Am I convinced by String Theory after finishing the book? The answer is probably no, there are far too many places where the solution to problems within the theory appear to be solved by the ‘with one giant leap our hero escapes’ methodology favoured by Flash Gordon short films from the 1930’s. Be it the ‘convenient’ choice of three holes in the six dimensions curved around a string so that the known three families of particles are predicted by approximate mathematical formulas. Or the super-symmetrical particles which are a cornerstone of most string theories (of which there are five versions which also doesn’t seem like a solid foundation) not being found as expected by the Large Hadron Collider so the assumptions of which they are based being changed so they ‘couldn’t have been discovered with current technology’ there are too many holes being papered over. Even assuming that the mathematics is finally worked out, and there is almost forty years of people trying, the idea that a mathematical model is also the physical construct is dubious to say the least and there is no need for the actual physical basis of the universe to match the mathematical representation for a theory to be valid in predicting motion and inter-reaction but String Theorists insist that this is the case.
Twenty years on from the book being written even those heavily involved in the physics back then are starting to have doubts about some of what is suggested. The most obvious candidate is super-symmetry. This is seen as one of the most important signatures that String Theory is correct and is number one on the list of things that ‘will prove or disprove the theory’ included in the book but few physicists now believe it is true as can be judged by this extract of a Royal Institution lecture by Dan Hooper, Head of the Theoretical Astrophysics Group at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in the USA. Maybe String Theory will unravel, maybe it will be adapted to match experimental reality, who knows, but it is an fascinating subject and needs to be tackled to understand the fundamental basis of reality.
Read the book, it’s difficult, even with the solid background in Relativity and Quantum Mechanics that I have, but worth it. It will challenge your understanding of these subjects and that can only be a good thing, physics and mathematics rely on constantly pushing the boundaries and at least at the moment String Theory is the only game in town that attempts to mesh the Quantum Mechanics and what is happening at the smallest boundaries with Relativity and the physics of huge distances. It might be right, it might be wrong, but it will certainly push the boundaries of scientific endeavour for many years to come.