Dec 13 2008

The Fabric of the Cosmos (book)


Review: Greene BR. The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality. New York: Vintage Books, 2005, ISBN 0-375-72720-5, $15.95.

The most astonishing thing about the universe is that we can understand it at all.

— Prof. Albert Einstein

One of Steve Allen’s “rules” to avoid “dumpth” requires an understanding of current theories on how the universe works. Continuing his quest to combat “dumpth” and the resulting acceptance of country-western as a form of music, the Editor offers a book that provides an overview to modern physics. This has not been an easy task. While there have been many attempts to describe ph

ysics and modern cosmology for laymen, most, frankly, fail. What seems basic and simple for a physicist will melt the brain of a layman, and some of the more cutting edge theories challenge specialists. As noted in a previous review, Hawkin’s A Brief History of Time remains the most popular book to gather dust on a nightstand. Furthermore, most high school and university introductory courses do not touch upon the significant principles and implications of General and Special Relativity other than to describe some of the weirder aspects, such as how much time slows down when you walk across a street and why you will never travel fast enough to reach the highly skilled and reasonable priced nymphomaniacs of Nimbus 9. Similarly with quantum mechanics: “we really have no idea where the electron is! It’s all probability!”

Why should anyone care? “A WARRIOR would not care about the Copenhagen school!” screams a voice in the head of the Editor. A good rhetorical question, and an indication the Editor needs to adjust his medications and/or alcohol content.

Aside from the obvious fact that we all live in the universe, and it might be “nice” to know something about it, we are beset on all sides by pseudoscience. We have “quantum thinking” and “quantum touch.” We have wild claims of magnetic bracelets and shoes. Cable news programs stream advertisements for medicinal substances that contain no active ingredients. We have large groups of screaming people who not only listen to country western music and actually know who Jeff Gordon is, they want to declare science a matter of opinion. Evolution is not a fact, it is a “theory,” demonstrating ignorance of what “theory” means in science. Said Screaming People mischaracterize accepted theories of cosmology–“how can something come from nothing?”–without understanding them. Science is really not a matter of opinion as an erudite mentor of this Editor spake: “it is a matter of fact!”

Pseudoscience and fraud thrive in the vacuum left by the complexity of modern science. If one does not know the science, how can one question the ridiculous claims? How can “something” like the universe come from “nothing?” That physicists can answer that does not really help if the answer involves mathematical arguments that makes one’s eyes bleed. The psuedoscientist and fraud merely laugh and appeal to the simplicity of their ignorance. Indeed, an out-of-work actress and some filmmakers have touted pseudoscience in a movie with the “hilarious” title of What the @#$% Do We Know in the hopes of introducing viewers not to science but the Ramtha cult! Tom Cruise denigrates Brooke Shields treating her post-partem depression while believing he is infested by the spirits of ancient aliens. The Editor will not even get into the prehistoric clams, but He will recognize ridicule for a “religion” that would force one to dump Nicole Kidman.

Compiling an introductory work for laymen proves very difficult as well-intentioned failures demonstrate. Many concepts that are “second nature” fundamentals for a physicist who had no choice other than suffer through the math that demonstrates why the “nonsense” has to be “sense.” Perhaps it is difficult for those who understand to distill their understanding to the layman. The analogies designed to explain current theories often confuse and misdirect more than enlighten. It is no wonder that layman give up or believe the simpler myths of cultists.

Based on the enthusiastic response from both physicists and laymen to Greene’s previous work, The Elegant Universe, the Editor decided to try Green’s most recent work when he found himself actually listening to Shania Twain’s music during a period when his alcohol level had reached a critical low. This is a phenomenal work that succeeds in explaining the fundamental concepts of modern cosmology. It takes the reader to the current “edge” of theory such that one can understand why concepts as odd and counter-intuitive as “multi-dimensions” and “string theory” have become mainstays in modern theory. The Editor will confess that this proved a very difficult review to compile. While Greene succeeds in distilling and explaining not only the current physical models but why physics feel that way, it takes him some time to achieve this. In previous drafts, the Editor has tried to “distill,” very unsuccessfully, some of Greene’s analogies. Each time, the Editor has stared at a twenty-page review that failed to do justice to Greene’s ability to explain a difficult concept.

To give an example, one of the more curious and provocative predictions of quantum mechanics confirmed by experiments is entanglement. Quantum mechanics holds that particles do not have a true locality, they instead have a probability. Einstein, Podolsky, and Rosen objected to this, feeling that the particles do have specific properties, and quantum theories simply cannot reveal them. Quantum, argued Einstein, proves a limited theory. He and his colleagues demonstrated that quantum theories make a ridiculous prediction: particles can be related such that measurement of one determines the measurement on the other, even when separated at distances beyond which either could affect the other–including opposite ends of the Universe! The implications of entanglement have been cited in support of some of the psuedoscience the Editor has righteously denounced.

Begging the Noble Readership’s patience, the Editor will try to explain what that all means. To begin, the Editor found a reference devoted to this curious concept only to find it hopelessly dense. Greene does a far better job in his long chapter than Aczel in his entire book. The basis for Einstein’s objection and the concept of entanglement is exclusion: two particles cannot share the exact characteristics. If they share all other parameters they must have opposite “spin,” for example. Thus, when entangled electrons move in opposite directions, determination of spin on one must mean the other has the opposite spin. Entanglement seems to make intuitive sense if one believes, like Einstein and his colleagues, that both electrons actually have the specific opposite spin prior to any measurement. That is not actually the case in quantum: particles only have a probable value for these attributes until measured. Greene borrows a good analogy: if one separates a pair of gloves and sends one to Los Angeles and another to Paris, and the man who opens his package in Paris finds he has the right glove, the man in Los Angeles must have the left glove. However, quantum holds that prior to any measurement, the electrons have only a probability for the spin and measurement defines the spin. This would be the same as if the glove sent to Paris has only a probability of being either a right or a left glove, and only the opening of the package–a measurement–will convert the probable left or right glove to an actual left or right glove. How then does the glove in Los Angeles “know” to be the opposite of the Paris glove? Do not both have separate probabilities if quantum is correct, and will not, based on probability, occasions arise where both men end up with the same-handed glove? Yet, that would violate exclusion. If the Parisian glove is randomly determined to be “right” by opening the box, it must then send some “signal” to determine the glove in Los Angeles and vice a versa. Returning to particles, if they do not have a specific locality–specific parameters like spin–then the measured electron must somehow influence the other electron. If the quantum theory is true, argued Einstein and his colleagues, then measurement of the potential spin of one determines it spin and determines the spin of the other electron no matter where it is. For one electron to affect the other at a great enough distance, the influence would have to travel faster than the speed of light. Ridiculous!

Testing this objection seemed impossible: how does one demonstrate that measurement of the spin of one electron in some way defines its spin as quantum predicts rather than merely reveals it as Einstein, Podolsky, and Rosen predicted? Irish physicist John Bell devised a model which described, basically, an experiment that would determine whether or not the electron has a definite value which measurement merely uncovers, or a probable value which measurement defines. Bell’s actual argument is elegant but unfathomable if one shares the mathematical ineptitude of the Editor. Greene demonstrates his skill in using an analogy which makes sense and is again far more accessible to the mathematically crippled than the reference listed.

The Editor will not leave the Noble Readership uncertain of the answer. When technology caught up to theory, experiments confirmed that Einstein, Podolsky, and Rosen were correct that quantum predicted entanglement, and their objection to it was wrong. This is one of the great ironies of modern physics: what Einstein considered too strange to accept actually happens. The electron does not have specific characteristics that measurement merely reveals–the Parisian glove is randomly determined to be right or left-handed, and only when the box is opened does it become one or the other. How the Los Angeles glove “knows” to be opposite is an interesting discussion, but it does not involve the sending of any information between the two. The electrons do not communicate in such a way that breaks the speed of light. Greene gives some of the current models that try to explain why entanglement actually happens.

Entanglement is just one of the many difficult concepts that Greene successfully explains. Given that, the Editor finds it curious that Greene would risk confusion with some of his examples and analogies. For example, Greene does not discuss or explain exclusion, the basis for Einstein’s objection and the concept of entanglement. This would have made his explaining why the particles have to have opposite spin if they share all other characteristics easier to understand. Furthermore, in his discussion Greene chooses to state that the entangled electrons have the same spin. In foot- and endnotes he admits the opposite is true but wishes to avoid confusion. If a reader cannot handle the fact that entangled electrons in his model share everything else but have opposite spin, he will not make it past the title page or the more obscure works of Dick and Jane. He might as well buy the latest Neil Young album and root for Dale Ernhart, Jr. A reader having any understanding of the subject, even from other popular descriptions, will know this is wrong, while the rest will encounter problems if they consult other works. Greene introduces confusion rather than lessens it. That having been written, Greene handles the rest of his description of entanglement very effectively, more effectively than the “intended for the general audience” work the Editor references, and certainly better than any attempt the Editor tried in previous drafts.

That objection aside, Greene’s work remains a very accessible description of very difficult concepts, even for physicists. It is both reasonably priced and well-written.

-John David Morenski, M.D., Godan, Uechi-Ryu


Aczel AD. Entanglement: The Unlikely Story of How Scientists, Mathematicians, and Philosophers Proved Einstein’s Spookiest Theory. New York: Plume, 2003.

Allen S. Dumbth: The Lost Art of Thinking with 101 Ways to Reason Better & Improve Your Mind. New York: Prometheus Books, 1998.

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