Monday 27 January 2014

The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory - Brian Greene (1999, 2003 with new preface)

Calabi-Yau shapes in action

One of the rotating quotes on Brian Greene’s website states that: “Brian Greene is the new Hawking, only better.” This quote comes from the Times, but what do they mean by better? Is Greene better at popularizing difficult physics concepts, or is he simply a better scientist? In any case The Elegant Universe is certainly well written and stands as a fine popular science text for the curious to begin to understand string theory. Greene does a fine job of explaining both the history of the theory, its principle concepts and its potential to be the long sort after theory of everything. String theory has its origins in the late 1960’s, but really came to the fore as a significant theory in the 1980’s. String theory posits that the smallest fundamental bits of nature are not particles, but are in fact tiny vibrating strings of energy. Intrigued? Then The Elegant Universe is the book for you. 

One of the great things about The Elegant Universe is that before you get to the chapters that focus on string theory Greene presents an overview of some of the major theories and discoveries in physics. I’ve read many quality physics books about Einstein’s special and general theories of relativity and also quantum theory, but I was particularly impressed with Greene’s ability to explain tricky concepts with well chosen analogies. Greene’s overview of the weird world of quantum mechanics, including Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, wave particle duality, and quantum tunneling, is particularly impressive. 

Greene’s thorough explanations of the principles of both relativity and quantum physics lead to a detailed and complex explanation of string theory. Greene makes it clear why string theory is, at the moment, the best candidate to reconcile the problems of uniting relativity and quantum theory. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of string theory is how it convincingly suggests that there are other dimensions curled up as small as the Planck length. Things get really tricky when Greene takes you through extra dimensional curled up Calabi-Yau shapes. However Calabi-Yau shapes are nothing compared to the sections dealing with space tearing flop transitions, which is a specialty of Greene’s. But wait, you then have your mind blown by the second superstring revolution in the form of M-theory. Phew! Are you totally put off the idea of reading this book? Don’t be, it might be important for you to know what a flop transition is one day, and Calabi-Yau shapes? Your arm just passed over a few trillion a moment ago.

The argument for string theory as the ultimate theory of everything is certainly compelling, however lurking in the background is the problem that unlike relativity and quantum theory, string theory is extremely difficult to test experimentally. Greene does acknowledge this problem and devotes a whole chapter to the issue. The Elegant Universe was first published in 1999 and since then the Large Hadron Collider has been built and used successfully to find the so called ‘god particle,’ the Higgs Boson, which is a massively significant achievement. However the collider is yet to turn up any evidence of extra dimensions or supersymmetry particles, both of which would give string theory a massive boost of credibility. At the moment the Large Hadron Collider is undergoing upgrades to make it even more powerful. Will Greene be updating The Elegant Universe in a few years time following the great news that string theory has been verified? Just how string theory theorists will be regarded in the future compared to such giants as Heisenberg, Einstein and Bohr may depend upon it. String theory does have many supporters, such as Hawking, but it also has its fair share of detractors and until there is some experimental proof it runs the risk of losing ground as other avenues are pursued. Personally Greene has convinced me of string theory’s worth, but I just hope that’s he’s right about the integrity of those space tearing flop transitions, otherwise we are all really in trouble.

Monday 13 January 2014

The Bodysurfers - Robert Drewe (1983)

The Bodysurfers is a collection of interlinking short stories that predominantly follow the generational fortunes of the Lang family. Most of the stories are set on either the west or east coast of Australia, with one set on the west coast of America. It is not an exaggeration to claim that Australians have a strong connection with the ocean, with nearly all of the major cities lying along our coastlines. Sun, surf and sand is part of our national identity and stands in strong contrast to the unforgiving outback that has a long tradition in the arts as being a signifier for a darkness at the heart of the Australian psyche. 

The Bodysurfers begins with the story The Manageress and the Mirage. Almost immediately Drewe’s thematic premise is established with a simple mirage metaphor. The Lang children lunch with their father on a hot Christmas day in a hotel overlooking the Indian Ocean. Looking out to sea they witness Rottnest Island split into three by a mirage. The notion that surface appearances can be deceiving is a theme that is repeated throughout The Bodysurfers; coupled with the use of the ocean as an analogue for the characters various psychological circumstances. These themes are quickly expanded upon in the next story, The Silver Medallist, which features a former swimming champion who runs a business on the beach with his beautiful teenage daughter. The champion is not all he seems and the ridicule he feels for being made to look foolish by a black swan is merely the tip of a troubled psyche.

The next story, Shark Logic, features a man on the run from his life on
Australia’s east coast. Whilst hiding out in an apartment on Western Australia’s west coast he contemplates moving on again. He becomes obsessed with the sharks on display in an aquarium close by the beach, not realizing that despite his fear of sharks he has more in common with them than he thinks. The Last Explorer highlights the contrast between the coast and the interior. An old explorer lies in convalescence, recollecting his inland voyages. He’s a resilient man, but can’t stand the view of the ocean through his hospital window. All he can think about is the harsh Australian interior. Is it better to look outwards, or to look inwards? In most of these stories the characters choose the former, in perpetual denial of the home truths they are often confronted with. Looking for Malibu features David Lang and his family living and travelling along the west coast of California. Their lives and the lives of other expats they meet stand in stark contrast to what they perceive as an optimistic coastline of myth and opportunity. The reality is, of course, far different, including what they hope for in their own lives. 

Drewe’s writing style is versatile and unselfconscious, he excels in creating psychologically deep characters by placing them in recognizable life situations that also act as subtle metaphorical landscapes. Despite the brevity of the collection The Bodysurfers seems bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. This is perhaps due to several generations of the Lang family featuring in the majority of the stories. The reader is kept busy making the connections between each story and pondering the overall significance of the various situations the characters find themselves in. 

The final story, Stingray, is inspired by Drewe’s own encounter with an unknown stinging sea creature. That it also extends the ocean analogue makes you wonder just how much of Drewe’s own life had been an inspiration for all the dark undercurrents the various characters face throughout the collection. Considering The Bodysurfers populist style and brevity I suspect that the autobiographical content helped provide Drewe with his clever sleight of hand when it came to exploring the national psyche via otherwise obvious ocean analogues. Throughout this collection of stories Drewe managed to be both literary and populist; a considerable achievement that makes The Bodysurfers well worth reading.