Sunday, September 24, 2006

Superstrings

I’m reading THE ELEGANT UNIVERSE: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory, by Brian Greene. Greene is a quantum physicist at Cornell and Columbia. In this book, Greene confronts the “dirty little secret” of physics, namely that as currently formulated, general relativity and quantum mechanics cannot both be right. General relativity seems to explain the behavior of the universe on a large scale, while quantum mechanics describes the behavior of subatomic particles. Since, in our specialized society, scientists typically study either the universe OR subatomic particles but not both, this incompatibility of their guiding theories doesn’t pose much of a problem on a day-to-day basis. But this doesn’t alter the fact that both can’t be right. Greene believes the two theories can be resolved by the superstring theory. Of course, the problem with the superstring theory is it can’t be proved and hasn’t all been worked out yet. In fact, I saw the other day that two books have recently come out attacking the effect of the superstring theory on modern physics.

Why am I reading this book? Because I never studied physics at university and I’ve recently started feeling a lack in my understanding of things (mainly while doing research for a book idea). I’m not sure I’d recommend Greene’s book. It’s not an easy read, and that’s not simply the fault of his subject matter. For example, he’ll give a simplified explanation of something in Chapter 2 that will leave me thinking, “But what about xyz? This doesn’t make sense.” Then in Chapter 4, he’ll say, “You may have been puzzled in Chapter 2 because you thought, ‘What about XYZ?’ That’s because the explanation was simplified.” Then he’ll go on to explain XYZ. Perhaps, given the subject matter, there is no other way to explain it to a layperson. I intend to read more books on the subject, but it’s going to take me a while to wade through this one, so don’t hold your breath.

A few weeks ago I read THE FIELD, by Lynne McTaggart. This is description of discoveries that point to a unifying concept of the universe reconciling Newtonian science with quantum physics. Her focus is on the “zero point field,” the microscopic vibrations in space and within and between physical objects on earth, i.e., basically, superstrings. McTaggart is an investigative journalist, and while her website leads one to suspect she’s rather flaky, her book at least seems solidly researched and footnoted. It includes some intriguing information that does seem to support the superstring theory, but she doesn’t provide the solid understanding of physics provided by someone like Greene.

What I’m reading for fun: BUDDHA IN YOUR BACKPACK, by Franz Metcalf. If reading a book on Buddhism doesn’t sound like your idea of light reading, let me hasten to add that the book is aimed at teenagers. Plus, remember it’s in comparison to the above!