The universe is elegant

“We are living, we are dwelling, in a grand and awful time; in an age on ages telling to be living is sublime.” These lines from a familiar hymn were written in the middle of the 19th century.

A dweller of that time would be astonished to see the progress that science has made since then, and how our everyday life has changed as a result. We still haven’t gotten rid of the outmoded social system known as capitalism and the evil it engenders, but the truth of these verses is nowhere more vividly illustrated than by taking a fresh look at the latest results of theoretical physics.

In the latter part of 2003, the Public Broadcasting Service in their NOVA series presented a two-part series on the “Elegant Universe” with Brian Greene. Greene based the series on the 1999 book of the same name. The DVD and the book are available as a package deal. (Call 1-800-255-9424, or use the website www.pbs.org).

The video contains some creative photography and is well worth viewing. The book, although probing much more deeply into scientific matters, is completely non-mathematical and should be accessible to the non-scientist reader.

Now, in early 2004, Greene has published another book, “The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality.” It is not simply a repetition of the first book; it contains many new insights, and both books are well worth reading.

Basically, what both books and the video are about is a popular exposition of theories of matter and the universe at the forefront of contemporary physics. More specifically, the first parts of both books (and the video) are devoted to the revolutionary ideas of quantum mechanics and of the theories of special and general relativity.

Other theories much more recent (and which are based on recent discoveries in particle physics) augment these theories, which date back to the early part of the last century. The combination of all of these made it possible to develop a much more speculative theory, called superstring theory or M-theory, which possibly can combine the general theory of relativity with quantum mechanics and thus be a TOE (Theory of Everything). At least, that’s what Greene says.

If science teaches us anything, it is that each successful new theory, besides giving us new insights into nature’s truths, always raises new questions. These questions, which may not be apparent at first, lead to new research and new theories that reveal the limits of validity of the older theories. Thus science advances in building the edifice of knowledge. But it is a never-ending quest.

Today, no one knows for sure if M-theory is correct, because as yet there are no experimental tests of its consequences. But it presents a breathtaking vision of what string theory may eventually answer regarding questions which have troubled mankind since time immemorial: How did the universe originate? Are there parallel universes? Are time travel and teleportation possible? (The reader who is looking for an explanation of “teleportation” should think of the “Beam me up, Scotty” machine from television’s “Star Trek.”)

A word of warning: certain chapters of either book make for more difficult reading than others, and non-physicists should start with the video first, as a general introduction to the themes of the books (to avoid getting bogged down in any of the chapters).

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org.