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The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and…
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The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality (2004)

by Brian Greene

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Glancing at the reviews for Brian Greene's overview of how we view the stuff of which our universe is made, it seems that some people base their rating and opinion on how much they agree with the science, or how credible they find it. While I have read a fair few popular science books – especially in the areas of physics and cosmology, areas I find utterly fascinating and about which I am perplexed that anyone can not be astounded and beguiled – I have to assume that I am reading a fair explanation of facts and theories. That is not to say that I assume the author is more knowledgeable than me simply because he has more letters after his name, but because he grounds his claims with background and the weight of evidence that is needed for a scientific hypothesis to become a generally accepted theory. Also, I have taken the effort to educate myself in these areas so have enough grounding myself to be able to appreciate the arguments.

That said, for much of this book I'm unsure how much background would be needed to understand the explanations. Greene writes with a clarity and readability which is all too rare in any field, and is particularly welcome in discussing such big ideas. As in Stephen Hawking's The Grand Design, Greene completely dispenses with calculations but, unlike Hawking, he also tries to keep the use of metaphor to a minimum. It cannot, of course, be dispensed with completely – metaphors are an extraordinarily powerful descriptive tool, especially in a field that can only properly be explained and understood using specialist mathematics – but for the most part Greene simply gives an overview of each field in historical context, and explains WHY it is important, what it explains and why it works.

He starts – as modern physics in so many fields must – with Isaac Newton, and particularly Newton's Bucket. If you hang a bucket of water on a rope and twist the rope, as the rope unwinds, spinning the bucket, at first the water remains stationary until the friction of the bucket's movement makes the water begin to spin. When it does, the surface becomes increasingly concave, moved outward by what why now call centripetal (or centrifugal) force. But what, asked Newton, is the water moving away from, or toward? What is it moving in relation to? He decided that it moved in relation to the fixed fabric of the cosmos, the stuff in which the matter (that he recognised as being the thing on which gravity works) sits. Recognising that he had no way of testing this medium by experiment, Newton took this is an immutable absolute and left it at that. Greene keeps returning to the bucket and its implications throughout the book, to superb explanatory effect.

I won't go further into the details (read the book!), but simply say that thanks to Professor Greene I now understand areas of cosmology and physics where I had previously had to simply give in to brain cramp and accept as being true. I understand why the speed of light (actually, the speed of any electromagnetic radiation) is approx 300, 000 km/sec faster than you, no matter how fast you are travelling. I understand a whole lot more about General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics, and why they make sense and are such powerful tools in describing our universe. I understand that Inflationary Theory is not merely a tweak of Big Bang theory to enable it to fit observed facts, but a whole new way of looking at the growth of the universe that actually explains much more about the fundamental physics.

I'm not claiming a thorough understanding of these subjects (and in some, like Brane Theory, I still found myself rather lost; a re-read may be in order), but I feel that The Fabric of the Cosmos has deepened my comprehension of and appreciation for the wonders of our universe. And for the wonders of the human mind to work out these things. In around three hundred years we have developed this system, science, as a means of examining the world around us in a way which is comprehensible to anyone who is willing to put in the work. All books on science now seem to feel the need to restate this about science; it is NOT knowledge passed down from on high by men in white coats using deliberately obfuscatory language for reasons of either professional pride or conspiracy. Science is a method that enables us to understand more and more about the world, to revel in the joy of knowing how the rainbow is formed as well as in its simple beauty. No idea in science is sacrosanct, no theory is holy. To achieve the status of acceptance of say, General Relativity or Evolution by Natural Selection, a theory has to be tested – that is, it has to survive again and again and again the onslaught of people systematically trying to prove it wrong. When a weakness is found the theory must be re-examined. Sometimes the fault will cause the foundations of the theory to crumble, and it will be discarded; it has still served a purpose, to show how promising such an approach is. Sometimes finding the errors will strengthen a theory and teach us more – Edwin Hubble's original calculations of distant galaxies seemed to show the universe to be about 1.5 billion years old, despite lots of other evidence at the time insisting it was at least 3 billion years old (as we now know, this was still almost five times too conservative). Everything else about Hubble's observation and theory made sense, there was simply an error in calculating the distance of the super novae he was using to get the figures, a correction which itself taught us much about the universe.

And this is incredibly important to realise because, while many theories, however much work they take, partly make sense on an intuitive level you get to Quantum and Brane theory and they simply cannot – in fact they seem, by intuition and everyday experience, utterly ridiculous (the great physicist Nils Bor said something along the lines of “if you think you understand Quantum Theory, you don't understand Quantum Theory”) but they are undoubtedly right. One important way a theory is tested is to use it to make predictions in the physical world and Quantum Theory has been called far and away the most successful predictive theory in science. It is, like every successful theory, one that accurately describes the way our universe works, with the limits of perception and understanding we have, which is why theories are modified or discarded when new information comes along. Which is why General Relativity replaced Newton's Laws of Gravitation as the best description we have for how gravity works – although NASA still use Newton's calculations most of the time, for the same reason you don't need to understand Gaussian Quadratic Maths to balance your chequebook.

Greene's book, the first I've read by him, shows why it is worth reading a range of books on the same (or closely connected) areas of science. While in The Grand Design, Hawking and Mlodinov managed to convey a sense of wonder and discovery on a par with Carl Sagan's writings (a plaudit I don't throw around lightly!), Greene has given us a book that manages a clarity and depth of explanation while being a thoroughly entertaining read. At schools, perhaps instead of training our children into narrowly defined roles, science classes should just be introducing them to the works of Greene and Hawking, Sagan and Tyson (Neil deGrasse, not Mike) and Krauss to show them how huge and wonderful and beautiful the universe is, and how much joy and fulfilment can be achieved through our efforts to understand it. ( )
  Pezski | Jun 8, 2017 |
I fully admit i struggled with some of the concepts discussed in this book - Brian Greene makes it as friendly as possible but some of the terminology just went over my head - still I did finish with a better understanding than I started with.
I found that the multiple ways of describing various concepts sometimes useful but mostly repetitive. But I can see why they are there as everyone will interpret situations diferently.
The second half of the book which goes into quantum theory and supersting theory the most difficult to understand but i think this is mostly because the concepts are so alien to our everyday understanding of life. ( )
  SashaM | Apr 20, 2016 |
The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality "Every moment in time just is." That is a huge thing to wrap your mind around. Every moment in space-time just exists. While we experience the "arrow of time," the feeling of moving forward (which Greene explains) every moment already exists in the universe, and always will. When I saw an episode on NOVA made from this book I knew I had to read it. The episode I saw was "The Illusion of Time," and it blew me away. Watch it at the link and you'll be a 25-point Calvinist.

Mathematics might be the highest form of worship; every Christian should read books such as this one about cosmology. The more we learn about the universe, the more improbable a self-existing first cause seems. As Greene points out, the universe we see now is dramatically less probable, statistically speaking, than one that developed from complete randomness. That the universe originated with a low-entropy (Big Bang) event is also highly improbable, but yet we know it happened.

The universe started at a size smaller than the period on the end of this sentence. It had incredible symmetry, such that perhaps all of the forces we know today were combined together in one force. The laws of physics break down at that point, there's the incompatibility of quantum mechanics and generaly relativity such that we have a "fuzzy patch." But newly-discovered inflationary theory tells us much of what happens after the first moment, exactly how the universe began its incredible rapid expansion. (See Greene's recent article in Smithsonian Magazine).But, the "fuzzy patch still looks fuzzy."

Galaxies are now moving apart from each other at high rates of speed. We discover planets and learn more about the makeup of the universe every day. The last third of the book deals with super string theory, which Greene also details more thoroughly in The Elegant Universe (some parts seem to be repeated verbatim in both works; I imagine all of his books essentially say the same things in different ways... one has to make money somehow).

How many dimensions does space have? 10? More? Why did only 3 dimensions experience inflation after the Big Bang? What about curled dimensions? M theory? Planck length? Those are the tedium in the second half of the book.

He does delve into the possibility of Star Trek-like teleportation, showing the recent advances in research that indicate this may one day be possible. Just this week the Army confirmed that it can teleport quantum data, for example.There is also an explanation of the theoretical and mathematical impossibilities of time travel-- traveling backwards in time. These are amusing aspects.

Greene frequently uses Simpsons characters in his analogies. It is not nearly as analogic in language as The Elegant Universe, but it's mostly understandable. The second half of the book gets pretty heavy, though, an audio version is the only way I could get through it. When you get bogged down in quantum mechanics it helps to have the audio keep pushing you on to the main point.

I really should not judge a book by one that followed it, but I give this book 3.5 stars out of 5. ( )
  justindtapp | Jun 3, 2015 |
Good book with some astounding thoughts on where physics and the study of space-time are going. Above my head but there are pearls of information that suggest the immensity and the unseen reality about us all. But a long read. ( )
  JBreedlove | Mar 5, 2015 |
Marking this as finished even though technically I still have two more chapters left -- they're even chapters I look forward to reading. But I know I'll be coming back to this and I wanted to move on to other reading for now.

Having said that, this seems like a good overview of the current (well, as of the date of publication) state of the game in physics. I can't say that for certain of course, but it left me feeling like I had some understanding (not enough -- hence my suggestion I might return to it) of the current issues and the current focus of research for cosmology. ( )
  tlockney | Sep 7, 2014 |
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0375727205, Paperback)

As a boy, Brian Greene read Albert Camus' The Myth of Sisyphus and was transformed. Camus, in Greene's paraphrase, insisted that the hero triumphs "by relinquishing everything beyond immediate experience." After wrestling with this idea, however, Greene rejected Camus and realized that his true idols were physicists; scientists who struggled "to assess life and to experience the universe at all possible levels, not just those that happened to be accessible to our frail human senses." His driving question in The Fabric of the Cosmos, then, is fundamental: "What is reality?" Over sixteen chapters, he traces the evolving human understanding of the substrate of the universe, from classical physics to ten-dimensional M-Theory.

Assuming an audience of non-specialists, Greene has set himself a daunting task: to explain non-intuitive, mathematical concepts like String Theory, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, and Inflationary Cosmology with analogies drawn from common experience. For the most part, he succeeds. His language reflects a deep passion for science and a gift for translating concepts into poetic images. When explaining, for example, the inability to see the higher dimensions inherent in string theory, Greene writes: "We don't see them because of the way we see…like an ant walking along a lily pad…we could be floating within a grand, expansive, higher-dimensional space."

For Greene, Rhodes Scholar and professor of physics and mathematics at Columbia University, speculative science is not always as thorough and successful. His discussion of teleportation, for example, introduces and then quickly tables a valuable philosophical probing of identity. The paradoxes of time travel, however, are treated with greater depth, and his vision of life in a three-brane universe is compelling and--to use his description for quantum reality--"weird."

In the final pages Greene turns from science fiction back to the fringes of science fact, and he returns with rigor to frame discoveries likely to be made in the coming decades. "We are, most definitely, still wandering in the jungle," he concludes. Thanks to Greene, though, some of the underbrush has been cleared. --Patrick O'Kelley

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:18:06 -0400)

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A foremost string theorist discusses such topics as Newton's perspectives on space, Einstein's fusion of space and time, and recent breakthroughs on multidimensional universe theory.

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Penguin Australia

2 editions of this book were published by Penguin Australia.

Editions: 0141011114, 0141037628

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