Book: The Elegant Universe

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The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory

Author: Brian Greene
Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company

String theory, many physicists believe, is the key to the unified field theory that eluded Einstein for more than thirty years. At last, science has found a way to overcome the nearly century-old rift between the laws of the large - general relativity - and the laws of the small - quantum mechanics. String theory deftly unites these two pillars of modern physics into a single, harmonious whole by declaring that all of the wondrous happenings in the universe arise from the vibrations of one single entity: microscopically tiny loops of energy that lie deep within the heart of matter.

In this articulated and clear book, Brian Greene relates the scientific story and the human struggle behind the search for the ultimate theory. Through the artful use of metaphor and analogy, The Elegant Universe makes some of the most sophisticated concepts ever contemplated viscerally accessible and thoroughly entertaining, bringing us closer than ever to understanding how the universe works.


There is an ill-concealed skeleton in the closet of physics: “As they are currently formulated, general relativity and quantum mechanics cannot both be right.” Each is exceedingly accurate in its field: general relativity explains the behavior of the universe at large scales, while quantum mechanics describes the behavior of subatomic particles. Yet the theories collide horribly under extreme conditions such as black holes or times close to the big bang. Brian Greene, a specialist in quantum field theory, believes that the two pillars of physics can be reconciled in superstring theory, a theory of everything.

Superstring theory has been called “a part of 21st-century physics that fell by chance into the 20th century.” In other words, it isn’t all worked out yet. Despite the uncertainties—”string theorists work to find approximate solutions to approximate equations”—Greene gives a tour of string theory solid enough to satisfy the scientifically literate.

Though Ed Witten of the Institute for Advanced Study is in many ways the human hero of The Elegant Universe, it is not a human-side-of-physics story. Greene’s focus throughout is the science, and he gives the nonspecialist at least an illusion of understanding—or the sense of knowing what it is that you don’t know. And that is traditionally the first step on the road to knowledge. —Mary Ellen Curtin

To write a book to explain in simple, non-mathematical terms what superstring theory is in not a simple task. In The Elegant Universe Brian Greene, a physicist who works in the area, does a very good job. Superstrings are a theory of particle physics that lays claim to being the ultimate “Theory of Everything”, merging Einstein’s relativity and quantum mechanics into an understanding of the physics of the very small and very large in the Universe. Hence to understand superstrings, relativity and quantum mechanics have to be explained as well. In this Brian Greene does a very good job, giving one of the best explainations of relativity I have read in the process. Superstring theory is still very much in its infancy and The Elegant Universe does not claim that all the problems have been solved; in fact a point is made of pointing out all the present deficiencies of the theory.

Probably not a book for the very beginner, but anyone who has read popular accounts of particle physics and relativity should gain a lot from reading this book. In places not an easy read, not for the style (which was generally very easy) but simply for the difficulty of some of the concepts involved. Superstring theory may or may not be the theory of everything but this book will certainly tell you what we think we know so far. Definitely recommended, but don’t expect to read it in a weekend. —Simon Goodwin

Barnes and Noble

Take a mind-blowing new theory in physics presented by a charismatic scientist and you’ve got the recipe for a bestselling science book. In this excellent introduction to string theory (in its simplest form, the theory describes the ultimate matter of the universe as being more like vibrating strings than points of matter), Greene explains clearly its potential to alter our understanding of the universe—perhaps revealing, for example, the existence of hidden extraspatial dimensions.

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