Review: The Elegant Universe

I recently finished reading Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory, and I enjoyed it so much that I thought I should write a bit of a recommendation for it. As you probably gather from the title, it’s essentially a book about the state of modern string theory: what it says, where it’s from, where it’s going, etc. However, the book is aimed squarely at curious lay-readers, and in the course of getting to string theory it covers both relativity and quantum theory in ways that most people should be able to follow.

And it is the author’s ability to cast complex, abstract ideas in everyday experience that is probably the book’s greatest strength. Greene doesn’t shy away from talking about spacetime or hidden Calabi-Yau dimensions, but he always finds ways to make them…well, approachable. I came away from the book with a good understanding of the spirit of the topics (or at least, I think I did!), but I never felt forced into really uncomfortable territory; I got the best part of the sausage, but I didn’t have to see it made. If, as Einstein said, “You do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother”, Greene seems to have proven that he knows what he’s talking about.

In some ways, Greene uses Jared Diamond’s technique of, for lack of a better term, “appropriate repetition”. He manages to repeat important points at the right times and in the right contexts so that, even if you don’t fully grasp them at first, they become clearer and clearer each time. I imagine that this is a difficult technique for a writer (the “appropriate part, not the repetition), but it’s brilliant when it’s done correctly.

On the downside, I could have done with a little less discussion of the author’s own work. While I’m sure it was important to the development of string theory, he tends to get into details of his work that feel out of place. The book drastically changes pace when he gets into the minutiae of his contributions, and it breaks up the flow of ideas at some awkward times.

Also, I’d like to make a comment about the format. I read this book on a Sony eReader and, for whatever reason, all of the diagrams were missing from the text. Considering how much he relies on pictures to communicate complex ideas, I think I really missed out on some of the best parts of the book.

I don’t want to end on a down-note, though! All in all, this is a brilliant book, and I recommend it to any fan of popular science or anyone who just wants to know what nerds are doing with particle accelerators these days.

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  1. #1 by Rob Smallshire on 2009/07/27 - 21:41

    I agree, this is an excellent read, although it would probably stand a second pass now I’ve had a couple of years to mull it over. On the topic of good physics books allow me to recommend Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos by Dennis Overbye. It’s a passionate history of cosmology throughout the twentieth century with an engaging weave of personal and scientific threads. According to my wife, its the most accurate portrayal of competitive academia she has read.

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