Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Elegant Universe

by Brian Greene

This book is one of those that has been lying unread in my bookshelves for a considerable amount of years. I remember I purchased it not too long after I read Tor Nørretranders The User Illusion, which I did on the Greyhound bus trip from Montréal to British Columbia back in 2001. The User Illusion gave me that intellectual brain itch one comes across every now and then, and as the junkie I am I obviously wanted the effect imitated somehow. My constant search for euphoria lead to eager consumption of titles on popularized science such as Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time. At that period in my life, actually on that very North America trip, I was at a crossroad of crucial decisions. If I really wanted to make an attempt of getting into medical school I first needed to achieve much more comprehensive core studies of natural science, which meant heaps of supplementary evening studies at the municipal adult education concurrent with my beloved studies in philosophy at Lund University. These books I somehow decided to use as my own cognitive behavioural therapy to build up motivation for getting seriously into science. But for some reason, of which I am glad now, Brian Greene's book was saved for later.

In The Elegant Universe - Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions and the Quest for The Ultimate Theory the Columbia University mathematics and physics professor elaborates string theory and contemporary theoretical physics in a non-technical and pretty laid-back way. I often wish my skills in maths were much more thorough as I then could venture into these studies, which in many way touches some of those fields of philosophy that keeps me awake. However, accepting my limitations can also be a healthy insight I suppose, and thanks to the civilization of human collaboration I have the opportunity to enjoy it popularized, but nonetheless as thoroughgoing in its explanations as I could ask for. Again I am left immensely grateful for the shoulders of the giants upon which I am, and indeed we all are, standing on.

The grand Theory of Everything is an attempt of uniting the essentially different physics of macro cosmos, as in Einstein's theory of general relativity, and the quantum physics of micro cosmos. Both those theories are fundamentally coherent in themselves, but have seemed equally fundamentally inconsistent with one another. Greene's book tells us it seems string theory, or rather the six string theories comprised in an M-theory and its many dimensions beyond the three spatial and one time dimension we all are used to, is well on the way to bridge this unexplained chasm. It may be that a lot has happened since it came in 1999, even so the text is interesting as it gives a good introduction to the background of the problem and as it is filled with simple explanatory illustrations and analogies on events that suddenly becomes within a layman's grasp to ponder on. Beautiful! However, despite his high hopes of deducing the laws of physics, Brian Greene is still humble on the fact that such an attempt may not be the end to it. He writes about an idea of several universes, with their own intrinsic set of physics, the multiverse hypothesis.

The Elegant Universe again and again plays with epistemology and the fabric of reality, time and space and other branches of philosophy. Like when Greene is discussing what mysteries remains in our understanding of black holes, and its consequences for the debate concerning determinism. It may be that Laplace's demon with knowledge of position and velocity of all particles in the universe, which because of this knowledge would also be able to determine their historical and future positions and velocities, is undermined by the uncertainty principle of Heisenberg, one of the pillars of quantum mechanics. Probability and exactly is not the same. The then suggested case for quantum determinism within a framework of exact mathematical rule for all events/wave functions, which would enable an intelligence to determine future and history is, according to Hawking, derailed by the existence of black holes. When something falls into a black hole the calculations for all future wave functions will be incorrect, as such information is lost. It is no longer possible to disregard this conclusion as Hawking (again) has shown that black holes are not completely black, and that they are emitting energy, slowly evaporating. Black holes are thus not possible to isolate from the rest of cosmos as the distance between the centre of the black hole and event horizon shrinks, and no longer is keeping the rest of us cut off. But what if the black hole then again emits the information it has devoured, is not that what is necessary for quantum determinism? Well, Hawking and Thorne have bet against, claiming that the information is forever lost, and Preskill has bet on that the information returns as the black hole evaporates. Apparently the winner of the gamble will receive an encyclopaedia.

I have obviously enjoyed reading the book quite a lot, which explains why I opened this review with how I am glad it was left unread on my bookshelf. In fact his second book on theoretical physics, The Fabric of the Cosmos, is on order for me. I have also understood that Nova made a documentary with Brian Greene on The Elegant Universe which, despite the medium's shortcomings on these matters, I must get my hands on. Until then I am left waiting and contemplating, hoping they will get the Large Hadron Collider fired up again next year, finding the Higgs boson.