Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Fabric of the Cosmos - Brian Greene

    2005; 493 pages (plus another fifty or so pages of notes, which I didn’t read).  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Non-Fiction; Science.  Overall Rating : 9*/10.

    Do you wonder why Higgs keeps misplacing his boson?  Whether 3-D movies would look even neater in the 10 dimensions that certain physicists claim exist?  Are you curious as to why strings have theories?  When someone says "branes", do you think of zombies?
     Perhaps Star Trek is more your speed.  Can we time-travel to the Future?  To the Past?  Maybe build a Transporter?  How ‘bout all those Parallel Universes we remember from that ST episode  where a hundred different Enterprises were floating around due to a rift in the space-time continuum?

     All these questions are answered in Brian Greene’s The Fabric of the Cosmos.  And for you Trekkies, the answers to the ST questions will be listed in the comments.  You might be surprised.

What’s To Like...
    As you would expect from a physicist, the book is impeccable and logically structured.  First up is a history of physics, starting way back with Isaac Newton, then continuing through Einstein and lastly bringing you up-to-date with Quantum Physics. 

     There is a whole bunch about the tiny particles at play in QP (including the Higgs Boson), and just when you’re getting tired of that, Brian Greene switches from micro to macro, and discusses how this all relates to the origin of the Universe and the Big Bang.    He then wraps things up with the more-fun issues (Wormholes, Time-Travel, etc.) and a look at where Theoretical Physics is headed.

     The book is aimed at those of us without degrees in Physics.  In the 500 pages, I don’t recall having to deal with a single equation.  Instead, Brian Greene uses examples we lay people can envision – The Simpsons, a swirling bucket of water, the chicken and the egg, etc.  He has a gift for doing that, and just to make sure it sinks in, he usually repeats important principles three or four times.

    It’s kind of like what would happen if you were to drop a frog into a hot metal bowl, with a pile of worms lying in the center.  At first, the frog would jump this way and that – high up, low down, left, right – in a desperate attempt to avoid burning its legs, and on average would stay so far from the worms that it wouldn’t even know they were there.  But as the bowl cooled, the frog would calm itself, would hardly jump at all, and, instead, would gently slide down to the most restful spot at the bowl’s bottom.  There, having closed in on the bowl’s center, it would finally rendezvous with its dinner.  (pg. 257; and a fine example of Brian Greene’s imagery )

    When Einstein discovered the nature of relativistic spacetime, he laid out a blueprint for fast-forwarding to the future.  If you want to see what’s happening on planet earth 1,000, or 10,000, or 10 million years in the future the laws of Einsteinian physics tell you how to go about it.  You build a vehicle whose speed can reach, say, 99.9999999996 percent of light speed.  At full throttle, you head off into deep space for a day, or ten days, or a little over twenty-seven years according to your ship’s clock, then abruptly turn around and head back to earth, again at full throttle.  On your return, 1,000, or 10,000, or 10 million years of earth time will have elapsed.  This is an undisputed and experimentally verified prediction of special relativity.   (pg.448/9 )

“(T)he more than 100 billion galaxies, sparkling throughout space like heavenly diamonds, are nothing but quantum mechanics writ large across the sky.  (pg. 308)
    Look, it’s not like Quantum Physics is rocket science or brain surgery.  Oh wait, yes it is.  In fact, it’s more difficult than launching something into space or drilling into someone’s head, because you can see those things.  You can’t see tiny particles, strings, or dimensions #5 thru #10.

    It took me about 8 months to get through The Fabric of the Cosmos, mostly because after reading about 15 pages, my brain would start panting and demand I switch to something with wizards, aliens, or psychotic killers.

   This is a fantastic book which, unfortunately, can only be recommended to people whose geek factor matches Sheldon’s on the TV Show, The Big Bang Theory.  Happily, I'm one of those.  9 Stars.

1 comment:

Hamilcar Barca said...

Answers to the "Star Trek" questions :

Time-Travel to the Future. It's already been done.

Time-Travel to the Past. Theoretically possible, but highly unlikely.

Transporter. It's already been done.

Parallel Universes/Dimensions. Predicted by theory, but detecting them is highly problematic.