The Improbable Weirdness of Being
Quantum jitters, warped space-time, subatomic vibrating strings—it’s a mad universe out there
By Tim Folger
The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality
By Brian Greene
Alfred A. Knopf, $28.95
The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality
Is the universe a hologram and three-dimensional space nothing more than a compelling illusion? Of the myriad fascinating ideas Brian Greene presents in his new book, he singles out this as the one most likely to play a dominant role in the ongoing quest to understand the cosmos. It’s an outlandish proposal, one that Greene dwells on only briefly. But it’s also a benchmark of sorts, a measure of the sheer strangeness of reality as revealed by the discoveries of modern physics, discoveries that Greene chronicles with brilliant clarity.
Greene, a physicist at Columbia University and author of the best seller The Elegant Universe, begins his latest tale with Sir Isaac Newton, who saw space and time much as most of us still do today. For Newton, space was an empty three-dimensional arena in which events unfold; time ticked away in the background at the same eternally even rate throughout the universe. Albert Einstein demolished that eminently reasonable viewpoint when he merged space and time into one malleable four-dimensional fabric. He theorized that space, far from being the shapeless void that Newton imagined, has curves and ripples; time can flow at different rates or even stop completely if you happen to be traveling at the speed of light.
But what is space-time? Does it have a fine-scale structure, the way matter is made of atoms? If so, what could space-time possibly consist of? And where would its components exist, if not in space and time? Is Einstein’s the final word on the subject? To explore these questions Greene needs nearly 500 pages, not including a 39-page appendix of notes for the terminally curious. But don’t let the length put you off. There is simply no better introduction to the strange wonders of general relativity and quantum mechanics, the fields of knowledge essential for any real understanding of space and time. Greene’s writing is highly informed, lucid, and witty.
“Electric and magnetic fields are as entwined as the fibers in a Rastafarian’s dreadlocks,” he writes in one passage. In others he uses seemingly mundane events to convey the excitement of exploring the limits of what we know about the universe. For example, Greene explains why time flows forward—but never backward—by a careful look at what happens when an egg rolls off a counter and splatters on a floor. His explanation winds all the way back to the Big Bang. Simply put, eggs don’t “un-splatter” because it’s more likely that eggs—and everything else—will evolve from a highly ordered arrangement of matter into something much less orderly. Or as a physicist would say, entropy, or disorder, tends to increase and has ever since the very beginning of time.
Reading Greene’s account of subjects like quantum teleportation or of the simultaneous, eternal coexistence of the past, present, and future, it barely seems possible that any forthcoming discoveries could make the universe seem any stranger than physics has already revealed it to be. But in later chapters Greene describes theories that may lie beyond quantum mechanics and relativity. He personally favors string theory as a likely successor, which holds that the universe consists of 11 dimensions. We’re aware of only four of them (three of space and one of time) because the other seven are curled up on scales too tiny for us to notice. Then again, if the holographic theory of the universe turns out to be true, our 11-dimensional cosmos may be merely an ephemeral projection from a two-dimensional surface beyond all space, time, and strings.
The wonder Greene evokes throughout the book brings to mind a striking admission Newton made late in life. The man who limned the laws that guide the paths of stars, planets, and falling apples had this to say about the universe: “I do not know what I may appear to the world; but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.” Physics has come a long way since then, but as Greene reminds us, in many ways the profound mystery of the universe remains undiminished.
Three Tales: A Digital Documentary Video Opera
By Steve Reich (music) and Beryl Korot (video)
Courtesy of Beryl Korot/Nonesuch
“The Hindenburg has gone,” intones a sonorous voice. “She was the largest thing that ever flew . . . her tragedy will not halt the march of progress.” Indeed, the march of progress following the fiery crash of the hydrogen-filled airship in 1937—as portrayed in dramatic detail in Steve Reich and Beryl Korot’s video opera—has included the creation of nuclear bombs, Dolly the cloned sheep, and robots that express human emotions. Now available on DVD, this epic musical tale of 20th-century technology depicts the destruction and death that arose out of man’s obsession with machines. Paradoxically, it also inspires deep admiration for the grandeur of the human imagination.
Three Tales has three chapters: Hindenburg (reviewed in Discover in December 2000), Bikini (the bombed Pacific atoll, not the swimsuit), and Dolly. Viewed with post-9/11 eyes, the roaring flames of the downed dirigible seem both eerily familiar and horribly compelling to watch. Yet there is, of course, worse to come. As the natives of Bikini atoll clutch their worldly goods and flee, tenor voices sing of “a gigantic shimmering mushroom, ever changing its form and color.” The island, a site of U.S. atomic testing in the 1940s and 1950s, is still off-limits to its original inhabitants. Dolly touches on obsessions that are already shaping scientific debate in the early 21st century: the dangers of genetic engineering, the conflict between religion and science, and the dim possibility that we will create a race of intelligent robots that will replace us. Featuring a panoply of talking heads that includes a loop of zoologist Richard Dawkins repeating the words, “We, and all other animals, are machines created by our genes,” this chapter verges on scare mongering.
Yet there is a strange and terrible beauty in the opera’s imagery: the balletic movements of the construction workers as they tiptoe over the partially built Hindenburg; the twisted girders of the crumpled zeppelin; palm trees on Bikini staggering sideways in the yellow atomic wind; and a robot named Kismet singing poignantly of a garden created by God. Three Tales is a work of extraordinary power, one that will no doubt long stand as a testament to the grand mistakes—and awe-inspiring creations—of our time.
Science Best Sellers
1. A SHORT HISTORY OF NEARLY EVERYTHING
By Bill Bryson, Broadway Books
2. STIFF: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers
By Mary Roach, W. W. Norton
3. THE ANATOMY OF HOPE: How People Prevail in the Face of Illness
By Jerome Groopman, Random House
4. THE NEW HUMANISTS: Science at the Edge
Edited by John Brockman, Barnes & Noble Books
5. THE UNIVERSE IN A NUTSHELL
By Stephen Hawking, Bantam
6. GORGON: Paleontology, Obsession, and the Greatest Catastrophe in Earth’s History
By Peter Ward, Viking
7. THE SCIENCE OF GOOD AND EVIL: Why People Cheat, Share, Gossip, and Follow the Golden Rule
By Michael Shermer, Times Books
8. DREAMS OF IRON AND STEEL: Seven Wonders of the Nineteenth Century, From the Building of the London Sewers to the Panama Canal
By Deborah Cadbury, Fourth Estate
Sweat, blood, and heroic vision built the modern world.
9. MIND WIDE OPEN: Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life
By Steven Johnson, Scribner
10. LOST IN SPACE: The Fall of NASA and the Dream of a New Space Age
By Greg Klerkx, Pantheon Books