JenniferRuth's Reviews > The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory

The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene
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Feb 09, 2011

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Write a review...Brian Greene has written and excellent popular science book that really displays his passion for the subject of string theory. He does a brilliant job of explaining difficult concepts for the layperson and manages to make most of the book engaging and understandable.

The book starts out by explaining the well-known concepts of special and general relativity before moving on to quantum mechanics and then to the greater intricacies of string theory. It finishes by giving an overview of how string theory is being developed into the more encompassing M-Theory and posing the questions scientists hope the theory will answer. It is true that the book does become a more difficult read when you get into later chapters. This is not the fault of Greene but more the fact that it must be quite hard to create metaphors to explain concepts that are usually only displayed higher-dimensional mathematics. It is worth persevering even through these difficult chapters because it really does give a nice, if superficial, understanding of the science. I cannot fault Greene's explanation of the subject which was always interesting and he did a fantastic job of relating string theory to questions of cosmology. It definitely left me with a sense of wonderment.

I did have some problems with some aspects of the book that were not related to the science. Greene has a very bad habit of wandering off into self aggrandisement and terrible anecdotes. The worst thing about Greene's anecdotes is that they aren't anecdotes at all. They are stories with no point that should never have been included in the book. These stories are just there, hidden among the more difficult chapters as some kind of unnecessary filler being all the worse because Greene manages to make himself and his colleagues sound like the dullest people on earth. I do not need to read about how Greene and Edward Witten emailed one another. Actually, I lost count of the number of times he told me (in horribly florid prose) how bloody fantastic Witten was. This was very distracting. A better editor would have removed these parts from the book.

I understand that Greene is heavily-invested in research into string theory but I do not think it helps the book for him to constantly reassert how fantastic he and his fellow theorists are. It comes off as smug. Alongside the Alan Partridge esque anecdotes this smugness then becomes almost cringeworthy.

Despite this problem, you cannot fault the excellent science writing which makes some very difficult mathematical and scientific concepts understandable and fascinating. It's a nice to read before bed so you can drift off to sleep trying to imagine the parts of the universe you can't see.
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