Books I Want My Kids to Read Someday #79: “The Fabric of the Cosmos” by Brian Greene

Dear kids,

The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality by Brian Greene isn’t just your regular book. It’s a book that explains–well, everything. The nature of reality. You don’t have to read it, but I do recommend that you read a book like it. A bit of heady science goes a long, long way.

Selected Quotes:

  • The central concern of this book is to explain some of the most prominent and pivotal of these revisions to our picture of reality, with an intense focus on those that affect our species’ long-term project to understand space and time.

On the slippery nature of reality:

  • . . . Ingenious innovators and tireless researchers—the men and women of science . . . have peeled back layer after layer of the cosmic onion, enigma by enigma, and revealed a universe that is at once surprising, unfamiliar, exciting, elegant, and thoroughly unlike what anyone ever expected.
  • Surely, any sober assessment would conclude that although we might not understand everything about the universe—every aspect of how matter behaves or life functions—we are privy to the defining, broad-brush strokes gracing nature’s canvas. Surely, reality is what we think it is; reality is revealed to us by our experiences. [But,] the overarching lesson that has emerged from scientific inquiry over the last century is that human experience is often a misleading guide to the true nature of reality.
  • I remain as convinced now as I did decades ago that Camus rightly chose life’s value as the ultimate question, but the insights of modern physics have persuaded me that assessing life through the lens of everyday experience is like gazing at a van Gogh through an empty Coke bottle.

On past understandings of reality:

  • To Isaac Newton, space and time simply were—they formed an inert, universal cosmic stage on which the events of the universe played themselves out. To his contemporary and frequent rival Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz, “space” and “time” were merely the vocabulary of relations between where objects were and when events took place. Nothing more. But to Albert Einstein, space and time were the raw material underlying reality.
  • The two theories of relativity are among humankind’s most precious achievements, and with them Einstein toppled Newton’s conception of reality.
  • Even though Newtonian physics seemed to capture mathematically much of what we experience physically, the reality it describes turns out not to be the reality of our world. Ours is a relativistic reality.

On today’s understanding of reality through quantum mechanics:

  • A core feature of classical physics is that if you know the positions and velocities of all objects at a particular moment, Newton’s equations, together with their Maxwellian updating, can tell you their positions and velocities at any other moment, past or future. Without equivocation, classical physics declares that the past and future are etched into the present. But according to the quantum laws, even if you make the most perfect measurements possible of how things are today, the best you can ever hope to do is predict the probability that things will be one way or another at some chosen time in the future, or that things were one way or another at some chosen time in the past.
  • The universe, according to quantum mechanics, is not etched into the present; the universe, according to quantum mechanics, participates in a game of chance.
  • Whereas human intuition, and its embodiment in classical physics, envision a reality in which things are always definitely one way or another, quantum mechanics describes a reality in which things sometimes hover in a haze of being partly one way and partly another.
  • Things become definite only when a suitable observation forces them to relinquish quantum possibilities and settle on a specific outcome.
  • . . . The filaments of superstring theory can also vibrate in different patterns. These vibrations, though, don’t produce different musical notes; remarkably, the theory claims that they produce different particle properties.
  • Going from dots to strings-so-small-they-look-like-dots might not seem like a terribly significant change in perspective. But it is. From such humble beginnings, superstring theory combines general relativity and quantum mechanics into a single, consistent theory, banishing the perniciously infinite probabilities afflicting previously attempted unions. And as if that weren’t enough, superstring theory has revealed the breadth necessary to stitch all of nature’s forces and all of matter into the same theoretical tapestry. In short, superstring theory is a prime candidate for Einstein’s unified theory.
  • And, in a more robust incarnation of superstring theory known as M-theory, unification requires ten space dimensions and one time dimension—a cosmic substrate composed of a total of eleven spacetime dimensions. As we don’t see these extra dimensions, superstring theory is telling us that we’ve so far glimpsed but a meager slice of reality.
  • If superstring theory is proven correct, we will be forced to accept that the reality we have known is but a delicate chiffon draped over a thick and richly textured cosmic fabric.

Love,

Mom

Get the entire recommended reading list at Books I Want My Kids to Read Someday.

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