The intricacies of being sold on string theory

If you are seeking an appreciation for the techniques of string theory, then Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe could be an optional supplement. If, on the other hand, you want to explore the epistemological backdrop against which string theory proclaimed its aesthetic vigor, then the book is a must-read. As the title implies, it discusses the elegance of string theory in great and pleasurable detail, beginning from a harmonious resolution of the conflicts between quantum mechanics and general relativity being its raison d’être to why it commands the attention of some of the greatest living scientists.

A bigger victory it secures, however, is not in simply laying out string theory but getting you interested in it – and this has become a particularly important feature of science in the 21st century.

The counter-intuitive depiction of nature by the principles of modern physics have, since the mid-20th century, foretold that reality can be best understood in terms of mathematical expressions. This contrasted the simplicity of its preceding paradigm: Newtonian physics, which was less about the mathematics and more about observations, and therefore required fewer interventions to bridge reality as it seemed and reality as it said it was.

Modern physics – encompassing quantum mechanics and Albert Einstein’s theories of relativity – overhauled this simplicity. While reality as it seemed hadn’t changed, reality as they said it was bore no semblence to any of Newton’s work. The process of understanding reality became much more sophisticated, requiring years of training just to prepare oneself to be able to understand it, while probing it required the grandest associations of intellect and hardware.

The trouble getting it across

An overlooked side to this fallout concerned the instruction of these subjects to non-technical audiences, to people who liked to know what was going on but didn’t want to dedicate their lives to it1. Both quantum mechanics and general relativity are dominated by advanced mathematics, yet spelling out such abstractions is neither convenient nor effective for non-technical communication. As a result, science communicators have increasingly resorted to metaphors, using them to negotiate with the knowledge their readers already possessed.

This is where The Elegant Universe is most effective, especially since string theory is admittedly more difficult to understand than quantum mechanics or general relativity ever was. In fact, the book’s first few chapters – before Greene delves into string theory – are seasoned with statements of how intricate string theory is, while he does a tremendous job of laying the foundations of modern physics.

Especially admirable is his seamless guidance of the reader from time dilation and Lorentzian contraction to quantum superposition to the essentials of superstring theory to the unification of all forces under M-theory, with nary a twitch in between. The examples with which he illustrates important concepts are never mundane, too. His flamboyant writing makes for the proverbial engaging read. You will often find words you wouldn’t quickly use to describe the world around you, endorsing a supreme confidence in the subject being discussed.

Consider: “… the gently curving geometrical form of space emerging from general relativity is at loggerheads with the frantic, roiling, microscopic behavior of the universe implied by quantum mechanics”. Or, “With the discovery of superstring theory, musical metaphors take on a startling reality, for the theory suggests that the microscopic landscape is suffused with tiny strings whose vibrational patterns orchestrate the evolution of the cosmos. The winds of charge, according to superstring theory, gust through an aeolian universe.”

More importantly, Greene’s points of view in the book betray a confidence in string theory itself – as if he thinks that it is the only way to unify quantum mechanics and general relativity under an umbrella pithily called the ‘theory of everything’. What it means for you, the reader, is that you can expect The Elegant Universe not to be an exploratory stroll through a garden but more of a negotiation of the high seas.

Taking recourse in emotions

Does this subtract from the objectivity an enthused reader might appreciate as it would have prepared her to tackle the unification problem by herself? Somewhat. It is a subtle flaw in Greene’s reasoning throughout the book: while he devotes many pages to discussing solutions, he spends little time annotating the flaws of string theory itself. Even if no other theory has charted the sea of unification so well, Greene could have maintained some objectivity about it.

At the same time, by the end of the book, you start to think there is no other way to expound on string theory than by constantly retreating into the intensity of emotions and the honest sensationalism they are capable of yielding. For instance, when describing his own work alongside Paul Aspinwall and David Morrison in determining if space can tear in string theory, Greene introduces the theory’s greatest exponent, Edward Witten. As he writes,

“Edward Witten’s razor-sharp intellect is clothed in a soft-spoken demeanor that often has a wry, almost ironic, edge. He is widely regarded as Einstein’s successor in the role of the world’s greatest living physicist. Some would go even further and describe him as the greatest physicist of all time. He has an insatiable appetite for cutting-edge physics problems and he wields tremendous influence in setting the direction of research in string theory.”

Then, in order to convey the difficulty of a problem that the trio was facing, Greene simply states: Witten “lit up upon hearing the ideas, but cautioned that he thought the calculations would be horrendously difficult”. If Witten expects them to be horrendously difficult, then they must indeed be as horrendous as they get.

Such descriptions of magnitude are peppered throughout The Elegant Universe, often clothed in evocative language, and constitute a significant portion of its appeal to a general audience. They rob string theory of its esoteric stature, making the study of its study memorable. Greene has done well to not dwell on the technical intricacies of his subject while still retaining both the wonderment and the frustration of dealing with something as intractable. This, in fact, is his prime achievement through writing the book.

String theory is not about technique

It was published in 1999. In the years since, many believe that string theory has become dormant. However, that is also where the book scores: not by depicting the theory as being unfalsifiable but as being resilient, as being incomplete enough to dare physicists to follow their own lead in developing it, as being less of a feat in breathtaking mathematics and more of constantly putting one’s beliefs to the test.

Simultaneously, it is unlike the theories of inflationary cosmology that are so flexible that disproving them is like fencing with air. String theory has a sound historical basis in the work of Leonhard Euler, and its careful derivation from those founding principles to augur the intertwined destinies of space and time have concerned the efforts of simply the world’s best mathematicians.

Since the late 1960s, when string theory was first introduced, it has gone through alternating periods of reaffirmation and discreditation. Each crest in this journey has been introduced by a ‘superstring revolution’, a landmark hypothesis or discovery that has restored its place in the scientific canon. Each trough, on the other hand, has represented a difficult struggle to attempt to cohere the implications of string theory into a convincing picture of reality.

These struggles are paralleled by Greene’s efforts in composing The Elegant Universe, managing to accomplish what is often lost in the translation of human endeavors: the implications for the common person. This could be in the form of beauty, or a better life, or some form of intellectual satisfaction; in the end, the book succeeds by drawing these possibilities to the fore, for once overshadowing the enormity of the undertaking that string theory will always be.

Buy the book on Amazon.

1Although it can also be argued that science communication as a special skill was necessitated by science becoming so complex.