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on 5 October 2000
Explaining superstring theory to the lay reader is a massive task. Not only does Greene achieve this task with amazing clarity and vision he takes the reader through an introduction to quantum theory and general relativity (as well as some of their extensions) on the way.
This has to be one of the best written science books of recent years. I hasten not to add the word "popular" in case would-be readers imagine that this is a book for beginners, which it is not. If you have a scientific background you will find this book both accessible and exciting.
On the downside Greene explains superstring theory as if it has to be the Grail of the quest for a Grand Unified Theory. He could have done a lot more to explain that superstrings are not necessarily the only route to such a theory and that there are other interesting and elegant theories, too. But then Greene himself is a major player in superstring theory and one who has made significant contributions to the field. Superstrings are a theoretical concept which far from being proven, add a great deal of complexity without producing too much in the way of experimental evidence to support the model. But - and this is a big but - they do offer at least one unifying theory. Whether or not it is the only (or perhaps most elegant) approach capable of achieving that goal time alone will tell.
Definitely recommended for readers with some background.
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on 18 April 2001
I read Stephen Hawking's "A Brief History of Time - Illustrated Edition" last year, and enjoyed it up to a point, that point being quantum mechanics, at which juncture I lost plot entirely. Some months later I regrouped and struggled on to the end. (Of course, the stuff about black holes was fascinating, as you'd expect from a Hawking book).
And so this year I chose "The Elegant Universe" as the next instalment of my quest to keep 'tuned-in' with physics and cosmology.
Different class, mate.
The first third of the book explains the current pillars of modern physics - Einsteins Special & General Relativity, Newton's Gravity, Quantum Physics, and the incompatibilities between them - and I have to say I learned more from those hundred pages than from Stephen Hawking's entire book. Brian Greene has what Hawking lacks - the ability to TEACH, not just tell.
I write speculative fiction as a hobby, and when I read a book such as this I tend to fold down the corners of pages which contain some interesting idea or other that I fancy turning into a story; I must have folded down every second page, such is Greene's verve for bringing home the wonder (and sometimes the absurdity) of nature's laws as we currently understand them.
The middle chunk of the book explains how String Theory could unite the inconsistencies of such laws, and Greene does a sterling job of explaining (to a semi-layman such as myself) the whats, hows, whens, wheres and whys.
And then we really got down to business; the last chunk delves into quantum geometry, the finer points of 'Calibi-Yau shapes' and other abstract concepts, and at this point I began to lose my grip on reality. Nevertheless, Greene has structured the book such that the reader can skip chapters that bore/confuse/both without losing the thread of the book entirely. And as such I made it to the end after all.
I'm no scientist or mathematician, just a bloke who's fascinated by physics and cosmology from an everyday standpoint and who has a thirst for knowledge. If you're the same, this book will quench it admirably.
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on 30 July 2005
This is a prime example of the notoriety gained by string theorists for overblowing the results of their theory. The claims in 'The Elegant Universe' maybe true, and if they are, I will be the happiest person in the world.
At the moment however, there is no reason to believe this. Some of the so-called 'successes' of string theory are debatable at best, others may well be mathematical coincidences, and of course, you can never get past the fact that there is no experimental evidence of strings whatsoever. Moreover, string theory is part of a class of theories increasing in number that are decidedly 'Un-Popperian' (i.e. unfalsifiable), simply because many of the predicted effects of the theory are at energies way beyond anything we are likely to measure.
The problem with Brian Greene's book is that it mentions none of this. It is not at all critical of the theory. At best, it talks of String Theory as the 'only game in town' (The most popular game yes, but certainly not the only one), and at worst, it talks of String Theory as if it has been proven already! This is not what I expect of a science book; even one designed for the layman.
Having said all this, the book was enjoyable to read - I even read the followup. By all means, buy it and read it, and you will have a good time I assure you. For an objective view of the future of research in theoretical physics however, 'The Road to Reality' by Roger Penrose is a much much better book.
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VINE VOICEon 15 October 2002
This professor is one of the leading lights of physics and his command of lucid narrative is a boon. His description of theory of special and general relativity was the best ever encountered.
I followed the main explanation about quantum mechanics that was also excellently delivered, but as science gets towards the edges of known knowledge and covers string theory, it gets hard to keep all the facts in your head at the same time. You may need to read it more than once to follow it all. If you can follow all this your doing better than me.
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on 5 June 2002
At the time of writing this is (as far as I can determine) the only up-to-date and accessible material on the step beyond Strings - M-Theory.
It is brilliantly written. Even with a Degree in Astrophysics I found the non-mathematical reworking of both Relativity and Quantum Mechanics most refreshing - if only this had been around for us to read back then!
I heartily recommend this book to everyone who has any interest in the nature of the universe. You can dip your toe and get a feel for the ideas or you can read Chapter 12, brush up your n-dimensional geometry and head off into the Bibliography of graduate level texts.
A wonderful read.
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on 4 June 2000
I purchased "The Elegant Universe" on recommendation from my PhD studying brother. Since then it has won the Aventis Prize for Science. Brian Greene's lucid writing style instils into the reader a good understanding of the basic concepts of Einstein's relativity and Quantum Mechanics. The author then builds upon this in such a way that the reader can begin to understand the subtle differences between the two theories and appreciate the need for a more fundamental theory, strings in this case.
A fine explanation of string theory then follows which left me absolutely amazed that a book could so clearly and succinctly explain to me the foundations of one of the most complex theories ever attempted in science. Indeed, this book is so well written that my interest in popular science and the progress of string theory is now greater than ever.
I have read a lot of popular science books based on physics and cosmology, but not has ever left me quite so fulfilled and happy with the tricky concepts involved as this one. A truly fine work. Now that I have finished this book, I can't wait for the scientists to finalise string theory so Brian can write the sequel!
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on 29 September 2009
I think the title is a big misnomer. Unlike Carlos Calle's "Superstrings and Other Things" this book is about string theory though I'm not sure "theory" is a deserving adjective and perhaps "concept" or "conjecture" might be more apt. The first third of the book is beautiful - Greene's explanation of relativity really got me on a high. The problem starts when he posits string theory as the beginning of the theory of everything, the theory "nature" demands we "must" use to answer all existential questions or at least something to that effect. Given that strings are these incredibly small things (close to a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a metre) that there is virtually no hope we can ever detect them that's a lot of faith Greene demands. But faith he demands nonetheless because the mathematics is so beautiful. This smacks of religion.

In string theory there could be as many as 11 spacetime dimensions because this is what is required to make the mathematics work. The mathematics embodies very complex structures like Calabri-Yau shapes that cannot be imagined or experienced because they are outside our 3 dimensional ken and anyway are so tiny we can't detect them. How do the physicists know they are there then? My reading is that since we can't disprove their existence that means they are likely to be there. It's like just because you think your dreams are real when you are having them they must be real. I just couldn't get rid of the idea that string theorists were just making things up, devising complex mathematics and models to fit the results much like accountants cook the books so they can report a predetermined profit figure. I thought science was about demonstrable repeatable experiments. The beauty of Einstein's time dilation for example is that it has been proven (I think). I suppose the proof will be (or not as the case may be) in the pudding for string theory. Until then, give me no religion.

But four stars nevertheless because Greene knows his stuff and writes well.
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on 3 July 2000
I am studying string cosmology at PhD level so it's fair to say I already know a bit about string theory. From the point of view of a (sort of !) expert this is a good, clear and interest provoking book. But I would say it rather neglects to mention the fact that string theory IS NOT the only theory of everything around. There are many problems with it both mathematically and conceptually. To present a fair view of the subject this should have been explained to the reader rather than misleadingly portray it as the universally accepted pinnacle of scientific endeavour- it isn't. But in the books favour it does present a very good introduction to General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics. It is always interesting to see these topics explained to the non-expert and Brian Greene has done this really well. It even made me rethink my understanding of the subjects and refreshing the interest of a tired old PhD student is never a bad thing. Now all we need is an account of Loop Quantum Gravity for the general reader and all the bases of modern theoretical physics will have been covered.
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on 6 February 2003
The problem with "A Brief History of Time" was its lack of illustration, making it incomprehensible to the layperson. The problem with "The Universe in a Nutshell" is that it is a triumph of style over substance and is nothing but illustration, leaving no meat and potatoes for those with a keen interest in the subject. The Elegant Universe is a happy medium and works perfectly.
String theory is a very recent development (1990's) and is thus still in its infancy. It has, however, galvanised the physics community into action because it is beginning to reolve paradoxes which came from two previous theories. Unfortunately, it is incredibly esoteric, and a popular science author has to commicate in metaphors, citing examples which fall within the comprehension of those of us without PhD's. Brian Greene accomplishes this brilliantly.
This book is essentially a guided tour of the development of cosmology in the last century. Although focussing on string theory, it also manages to explain relativity, and the even more bizarre quantum mechanics. Illustrations are perfectly proportioned with the text: one will find a picture having thought "if only there was a picture to explain that.." and the illustrations themselves are concise and rather artistic. Concepts are explained in excellent metaphorical situations and there are appendices for experts in the field.
Although not for the layperson, TEU is both an accessible and substantial introduction to an exciting new breed of physics.
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on 21 July 2002
Its a book that puts "a brief history of time" to shame. Brilliantly written, with examples that shed light on general theory of relativity, quantam mechanics & geometry and strings. Equations, if you're interested, are available in the end notes.
This book was recommended by a friend, after I found that the brief history of time was such a dissapointing read. Now I would definitely rate "The Elegant Universe" as a benchmark on how such a difficult subject can be handled with such clarity
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