Skip to main content

The Fabric of the Cosmos – Brian Greene *****

Subtitled “space, time and the texture of reality”, this could be seen as yet another book trying to do all of science – but it’s more finely tuned than that – and a much better read than most of the “tell you everything” books. In fact, what Brian Greene tries to do, and largely succeeds in, is explaining the two great underlying theories of science, both developed in the twentieth century – relativity and quantum theory – then extending beyond them to the nature of time and the composition and origins of the universe.
The first section of the book concentrates on relativity (mostly special, but quickly filling in general) and quantum theory. From there we pick up a description of what time is, whether “time’s arrow” is a realistic context, and how time slots into the quantum arena. The third section is more cosmologically oriented, spending a fair amount of space on the big bang and quantum fluctuations. Then we get onto the current preferred theories of matter – string theory and its extension to bring in “branes”. Although string theory has a lot of supporters it is pure hypothesis and very likely to disappear in the future – watch out, though for some more experimentally based gems like the remarkable and often ignored Casimir force. Finally there’s a summary “what’s it all about” section, including a delightful chapter on teleporters and time machines.
Taken individually, the subjects covered in each of the first four sections could be (and are) enough material to make a good book in their own right. There’s enough here, though to get a grip on what’s involved, and the interested reader should then go on to read a book with more detail on the individual section topics. The great thing about the way Greene has written this book is that it’s never overwhelming, yet there’s an opportunity to see how it all fits together (at least as much as it does all fit together in current theory – while those underlying aspects of relativity and quantum theory are solid, it all gets more speculative as you get further in). Although it’s quite a long book – over 500 pages with the notes and index – it doesn’t feel all that long, which is a great mercy. All too often others who have attempted books on this scale have produced tomes that are more effective as doorstops than as readable popular science.
There are some minor disappointments. Greene is a great popular science writer who pitches it just right, but occasionally his popularism is a little forced, for example in his use of characters from TV shows like the Simpsons and the X Files to illustrate his example. (The use, for example, of a duel between Itchy and Scratchy in his relatively section is a bit cringe making.) The book is beautifully illustrated, but occasionally these graphics get in the way of the facts. It’s a bit like when someone first gets hold of 3D graphics in a spreadsheet, and suddenly everything is 3D – some of the points would have been much clearer with a boring old two dimensional line diagram, rather than fancy 3D shading that gets in the way of the information the diagram is supposed to put across.
Even so, this is a strong entry from Greene, and certainly one of the best popular science books of 2004.
Paperback:  
Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Lost in Math - Sabine Hossenfelder *****

One of my favourite illustrations from a science title was in Fred Hoyle's book on his quasi-steady state theory. It shows a large flock of geese all following each other, which he likened to the state of theoretical physics. In the very readable Lost in Math, physicist Sabine Hossenfelder exposes the way that in certain areas of physics, this is all too realistic a picture. (Hossenfelder gives Hoyle's cosmological theory short shrift, incidentally, though, to be fair, it wasn't given anywhere near as many opportunities to be patched up to match observations as the current version of big bang with inflation.)

Lost in Math is a very powerful analysis of what has gone wrong in the way that some aspects of physics are undertaken. Until the twentieth century, scientists made observations and experiments and theoreticians looked for theories which explained them, which could then be tested against further experiments and observations. Now, particularly in particle physics, it…

Gravity! - Pierre Binétruy ****

I had to really restrain myself from adopting the approach taken by The Register in referring to Yahoo! by putting an exclamation mark after every word in the text when faced with reviewing Gravity! One thing to be said about the punctuation, though, is it makes it easier to search for amongst a whole lot of books on gravity and gravitational waves (the subtitle is 'the quest for gravitational waves') since their discovery in 2015.

Despite the subtitle, Pierre Binétruy gives us far more - in fact, gravitational waves don't come into it until page 160, which makes it really more of a book about gravity with a bit on gravitational waves tacked on than a true exploration of the quest. 

However, those early pages aren't wasted - Binétruy gives us plenty of detail on all kinds of background, for example plunging in to tell us about element synthesis, something you wouldn't expect in a book on gravitational waves. I also really liked a little section on experiments you can…

Brain Based Enterprises - Peter Cook ****

A quick flag on this one: it's a management/business book, and the four star rating is with that in mind. Brain Based Enterprises does contain a surprising amount of science, considering this, which is why it's here, but don't expect it to be like a four star pure science book.

This is an eclectic attack on the status quo of our ideas about business. Peter Cook suggest that much of current business simply isn't oriented to the realities of a modern, technological world, and that we need to handle things very differently in a knowledge-based economy.

The book is divided into three sections. For me, the most interesting was the first 'brainy people' part, as my own business doesn't have teams and such - but for those who do there are also 'brainy teams' and 'brainy enterprises' sections. Cook stirs together a heady mix of science - from psychology to economics - music (a passion of his and a significant part of the way he works) and business the…