by Brian Greene
published by Vintage
© 1999 by Brian Greene
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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
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
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