Review: The Elegant Universe

Posted on Sep 1, 2003

The first thing that I’ll say about the book is that it is hard to read. It’s by far the most demanding of the non-fiction I’ve been reading. This book has prerequisites if you want to read it. Dancing Wu Li Masters is a must, and I wish I had read the other book that I bought about quantum physics before this. Prepare yourself, that’s all I’m saying.

The essence of superstring theory is relatively simple; you, if you ever did think about it, probably thought of the elementary particles as being points. Superstring theory claims that they are, in fact, small strings vibrating in a certain way. This theory can claim to incorporate gravity itself in a meaningful and fundamental way, predicting the properties of the gravitron. This in itself is pretty exciting to physicists. (Note that Einstein’s general relativity mentions gravity, but only to hand-wave it into accelerated motion). There’s no doubt that the potential of string theory (as it’s more commonly known) is quite impressive. It’s the first human attempt at an actual Theory of Everything. Greene also notes that even opponents of string theory have no better or different theories as yet, and concede that their own areas of research seem to be stagnating.

String theory also predicts seemingly crazy stuff, like the universe is not four space-time dimensions, but eleven. The other seven spatial dimensions exist on such microscopic scales, however, that we’re unable to see or interact with them in any way. Got that? It also predicts that black holes have a temperature, which seems outlandish, but seems to actually be true. This is one of the only testable bits of string theory.

Therein lies the biggest criticism of string theory thus far; there’s no way to tell if it’s right or wrong. There’s hope that when a supercollider in Geneva becomes operational at the end of the decade that string theorists will finally have evidence for some of their theories. Greene points out that even if string theory is wrong, the field has spurred new developments in “point physics”, so it’s not a total waste.

So, in one sense, the book worked. I’ll be paying attention to what that thing clears up, and I’ll actually try to answer people that wonder why we spend millions of dollars on these things. Maybe it’ll go something like “So you can finally get your jet-pack to the eighth dimension, stupid!” It does face deductions for ease of reading and potential relevance. When all it said and done, though, it could be a great primer for a very important set of ideas about the universe. I’ll give it 8.4/10.