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February 3, 2013

Blast from the Past: "The Elegant Universe" — Brian Greene


This post originally appeared on April 3, 2011.

When I happened on it last evening it gave me pause for a number of reasons: that was enough for me to decide to air it out again today.


Back story: in early 2000 Barnes & Noble held a contest in which entrants were required to explain, in 250 words or less, why a given book of their choice merited inclusion in what was to be called the Independent Thinkers series, a group of books selected for their original and provocative points of view.

Below is my submission for the contest.


Brian Greene's "The Elegant Universe," like any book, is an idea in two dimensions: words on paper. This brave text would put lightning in a bottle; its heart is nothing less than an explanation of how our everyday world is a kind of Potemkin Village, masking a violent, seething, unimaginably frantic 11-dimensional space of energy fields and matter exploding and vanishing within and around us.

The audacity of any attempt at a final "Theory of Everything" is always admirable and yet, ultimately, poignant and futile. In an attempt to understand all that appears mysterious by way of reason and mathematics, Greene shows how the greatest thinkers of modern physics open vistas of thought that appear tantalizingly close to success at explaining our universe. It is as if the belief of the leading physicists at the dawn of the twentieth century that everything important had been discovered, and what remained was only to fill in the details, never existed: what's past becomes prologue.

If indeed we are walking, talking, scheming, dreaming energy fields, composed of nothing but infinitesimally tiny vibrating loops of string-like stuff, sleeping and then waking each morning and resuming our 11-dimensional trip through time, each of us at a submicroscopic level indistinguishable from any other of the six billion souls on the the planet, so be it. The very idea of a shared nature, our common essence, is one so powerful and uplifting that the book containing it demands inclusion in the Independent Thinkers series.


I didn't win, place or show.

I still like the essay, though.


Looking back from today, it occurs to me only now (not at the time of the 2011 Episode 1 post) that thinking about Greene's book in a focused, concentrated way and then putting down those thoughts in 250 words was a catalyst for "Quantations," a book I wrote in 2001 and published in 2002.

February 3, 2013 at 04:01 PM | Permalink


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I like your essay very much. The Elegent Universe is my favorite pop-sci book to date. Brian Green has a real knack for explaining the anti-intuitive complexities of quantum physics and string theory in ways that allow the reader to believe (most likely incorrectly) that he/she understands them.

Posted by: andrew chase | Feb 4, 2013 3:58:31 PM

Erudite, but I think that you lost them with the "Potemkin Village" metaphor.

Posted by: 6.02*10^23 | Feb 4, 2013 6:26:25 AM

sounds interesting, maybe he could explain this http://www.earthfiles.com/news.php?ID=2058&category=Environment

Posted by: rob | Feb 3, 2013 4:58:42 PM

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