Author Brian Greene is a theoretical physicist and mathematician who can translate the arcane language of those realms into pellucid prose. You will especially, and deeply, appreciate Greene’s writing if you are curious about the universe but find most explanations of its wonders to be impenetrable nonsense (even those in layman’s terms, such as this tiresome summation of special relativity: One twin rides a spaceship around the galaxy at close to the speed of light, and when he returns he’s hardly aged a bit, but the twin who stayed on earth is now an old man. Really?).
I’m reading Greene’s third book, The Hidden Reality, which is every bit as exciting and mysterious as the name implies. Greene, who is also a Columbia University professor and has hosted Nova specials on his work, is, among other things, a wonderful respecter of ignorance: He begins The Hidden Reality by defining “universe,” then taps everybody’s native sense of amazement by pondering infinity. He then proceeds to describe, in colorful detail, nine distinct conceptions of possible multiverses.
He casts light on numerous points (and particles) of interest along the way. Pretty soon you’re chuckling indulgently at historical anecdotes about what certain geniuses used to think, like the one about Einstein’s initial rejection of the theory of the Big Bang starting our universe.
So I’m reading happily along, and the scenarios Greene puts forth are highly entertaining but completely outlandish, so much so that I’m inclined to double-check the author’s credentials. Parallel universes just like ours, including exact doppelgangers of ourselves doing exactly what we are doing at this very instant, plus every imaginable variation of ourselves and our universe that you can imagine — come on. Is he just some lunatic conjuring hallucinatory visions based upon fragmentary knowledge and imperfect understanding? Well, yes and no. The multiverse theories are conjectures, but they also represent the best guesses of numerous highly regarded scientists.
The Hidden Reality does begin to drag in parts. But just when I’m thinking that I don’t really care how many five-wrapped spheres fit into a Calabi-Yau shape, he whips out string theory’s “potential implications, among which are new varieties of parallel worlds.” I won’t presume to try to describe them, but for me, that’s the good stuff, and after a while, I stop asking skeptical questions and just enjoy the tour. For some others, the math is the good stuff, and fortunately for them, there are 45 pages of notes with additional equations and references.
Brian Greene’s talk Explaining the Elegant Universe takes place Monday, February 25, 8 p.m., at UCSB’s Campbell Hall. The event kicks off Arts & Lectures Winter Festival, its first-ever fundraising initiative. Admission: $20 (general public), $10 (UCSB students). For more info and tickets, call 893-3535 or visit artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu.