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Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality

Written by Brian GreeneAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Brian Greene



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On Sale: December 18, 2007
Pages: 592 | ISBN: 978-0-307-42853-0
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

From Brian Greene, one of the world’s leading physicists, comes a grand tour of the universe that makes us look at reality in a completely different way.

Space and time form the very fabric of the cosmos. Yet they remain among the most mysterious of concepts. Is space an entity? Why does time have a direction? Could the universe exist without space and time? Can we travel to the past?

Greene uses these questions to guide us toward modern science’s new and deeper understanding of the universe. From Newton’s unchanging realm in which space and time are absolute, to Einstein’s fluid conception of spacetime, to quantum mechanics’ entangled arena where vastly distant objects can bridge their spatial separation to instantaneously coordinate their behavior or even undergo teleportation, Greene reveals our world to be very different from what common experience leads us to believe. Focusing on the enigma of time, Greene establishes that nothing in the laws of physics insists that it run in any particular direction and that “time’s arrow” is a relic of the universe’s condition at the moment of the big bang. And in explaining the big bang itself, Greene shows how recent cutting-edge developments in superstring and M-theory may reconcile the behavior of everything from the smallest particle to the largest black hole. This startling vision culminates in a vibrant eleven-dimensional “multiverse,” pulsating with ever-changing textures, where space and time themselves may dissolve into subtler, more fundamental entities.

Sparked by the trademark wit, humor, and brilliant use of analogy that have made The Elegant Universe a modern classic, Brian Greene takes us all, regardless of our scientific backgrounds, on an irresistible and revelatory journey to the new layers of reality that modern physics has discovered lying just beneath the surface of our everyday world.

With 146 illustrations

Jacket photograph by DB Image/Brand X Pictures

Excerpt

Chapter 1: Roads to Reality

SPACE, TIME, AND WHY THINGS ARE AS THEY ARE

None of the books in my father’s dusty old bookcase were forbidden. Yet while I was growing up, I never saw anyone take one down. Most were massive tomes–a comprehensive history of civilization, matching volumes of the great works of western literature, numerous others I can no longer recall–that seemed almost fused to shelves that bowed slightly from decades of steadfast support. But way up on the highest shelf was a thin little text that, every now and then, would catch my eye because it seemed so out of place, like Gulliver among the Brobdingnagians. In hindsight, I’m not quite sure why I waited so long before taking a look. Perhaps, as the years went by, the books seemed less like material you read and more like family heirlooms you admire from afar. Ultimately, such reverence gave way to teenage brashness. I reached up for the little text, dusted it off, and opened to page one. The first few lines were, to say the least, startling.

“There is but one truly philosophical problem, and that is suicide,” the text began. I winced. “Whether or not the world has three dimensions or the mind nine or twelve categories,” it continued, “comes afterward”; such questions, the text explained, were part of the game humanity played, but they deserved attention only after the one true issue had been settled. The book was The Myth of Sisyphus and was written by the Algerian-born philosopher and Nobel laureate Albert Camus. After a moment, the iciness of his words melted under the light of comprehension. Yes, of course, I thought. You can ponder this or analyze that till the cows come home, but the real question is whether all your ponderings and analyses will convince you that life is worth living. That’s what it all comes down to. Everything else is detail.

My chance encounter with Camus’ book must have occurred during an especially impressionable phase because, more than anything else I’d read, his words stayed with me. Time and again I’d imagine how various people I’d met, or heard about, or had seen on television would answer this primary of all questions. In retrospect, though, it was his second assertion –regarding the role of scientific progress–that, for me, proved particularly challenging. Camus acknowledged value in understanding the structure of the universe, but as far as I could tell, he rejected the possibility that such understanding could make any difference to our assessment of life’s worth. Now, certainly, my teenage reading of existential philosophy
was about as sophisticated as Bart Simpson’s reading of Romantic poetry, but even so, Camus’ conclusion struck me as off the mark. To this aspiring physicist, it seemed that an informed appraisal of life absolutely required a full understanding of life’s arena–the universe. I remember thinking that if our species dwelled in cavernous outcroppings buried deep underground and so had yet to discover the earth’s surface, brilliant sunlight, an ocean breeze, and the stars that lie beyond, or if evolution had proceeded along a different pathway and we had yet to acquire any but the sense of touch, so everything we knew came only from our tactile impressions of our immediate environment, or if human mental faculties stopped developing during early childhood so our emotional and analytical skills never progressed beyond those of a five-year-old–in short, if our experiences painted but a paltry portrait of reality–our appraisal of life would be thoroughly compromised. When we finally found our way to earth’s surface, or when we finally gained the ability to see, hear, smell, and taste, or when our minds were finally freed to develop as they ordinarily do, our collective view of life and the cosmos would, of necessity, change radically. Our previously compromised grasp of reality would have shed a very different light on that most fundamental of all philosophical questions.

But, you might ask, what of it? 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, as Camus intimated, progress in physics, such as understanding the number of space dimensions; or progress in neuropsychology, such as understanding all the organizational structures in the brain; or, for that matter, progress in any number of other scientific undertakings may fill in important details, but their impact on our evaluation of life and reality would be minimal. Surely, reality is what we think it is; reality is revealed to us by
our experiences.

To one extent or another, this view of reality is one many of us hold, if only implicitly. I certainly find myself thinking this way in day-to-day life; it’s easy to be seduced by the face nature reveals directly to our senses. Yet, in the decades since first encountering Camus’ text, I’ve learned that modern science tells a very different story. 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. Lying just beneath the surface of the everyday is a world we’d hardly recognize. Followers of the occult, devotees of astrology, and those who hold to religious principles that speak to a reality beyond experience have, from widely varying perspectives, long since arrived at a similar conclusion. But that’s not what I have in mind. I’m referring to the work of ingenious innovators and tireless researchers–the men and women of science–who 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.

These developments are anything but details. Breakthroughs in physics have forced, and continue to force, dramatic revisions to our conception of the cosmos. 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. Modern science has spearheaded one assault after another on evidence gathered from our rudimentary perceptions, showing that they often yield a clouded conception of the world we inhabit. And so whereas Camus separated out physical questions and labeled them secondary, I’ve become convinced that they’re primary. For me, physical reality both sets the arena and provides the illumination for grappling with Camus’ question. Assessing existence while failing to embrace the insights of modern physics would be like wrestling in the dark with an unknown opponent. By deepening our understanding of the true nature of physical reality, we profoundly reconfigure our sense of ourselves and our experience of the universe.

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. From Aristotle to Einstein, from the astrolabe to the Hubble Space Telescope, from the pyramids to mountaintop observatories,
space and time have framed thinking since thinking began. With the advent of the modern scientific age, their importance has been tremendously heightened. Over the last three centuries, developments in physics have revealed space and time as the most baffling and most compelling concepts, and as those most instrumental in our scientific analysis of the universe. Such developments have also shown that space and time top the list of age-old scientific constructs that are being fantastically revised by cutting-edge research.

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. Through his theories of relativity, Einstein jolted our thinking about space and time and revealed the principal part they play in the evolution of the universe. Ever since, space and time have been the sparkling jewels of physics. They are at once familiar and mystifying; fully understanding space and time has become physics’ most daunting challenge and sought-after prize.

The developments we’ll cover in this book interweave the fabric of space and time in various ways. Some ideas will challenge features of space and time so basic that for centuries, if not millennia, they’ve seemed beyond questioning. Others will seek the link between our theoretical understanding of space and time and the traits we commonly experience. Yet others will raise questions unfathomable within the limited confines of ordinary perceptions.

We will speak only minimally of philosophy (and not at all about suicide and the meaning of life). But in our scientific quest to solve the mysteries of space and time, we will be resolutely unrestrained. From the universe’s smallest speck and earliest moments to its farthest reaches and most distant future, we will examine space and time in environments familiar and far-flung, with an unflinching eye seeking their true nature. As the story of space and time has yet to be fully written, we won’t arrive at any final assessments. But we will encounter a series of developments–some intensely strange, some deeply satisfying, some experimentally verified, some thoroughly speculative–that will show how close we’ve come to wrapping our minds around the fabric of the cosmos and touching the true texture of reality.

Classical Reality

Historians differ on exactly when the modern scientific age began, but certainly by the time Galileo Galilei, René Descartes, and Isaac Newton had had their say, it was briskly under way. In those days, the new scientific mind-set was being steadily forged, as patterns found in terrestrial and astronomical data made it increasingly clear that there is an order to all the comings and goings of the cosmos, an order accessible to careful reasoning and mathematical analysis. These early pioneers of modern scientific thought argued that, when looked at the right way, the happenings in the universe not only are explicable but predictable. The power of science to foretell aspects of the future–consistently and quantitatively–had been revealed.

Early scientific study focused on the kinds of things one might see or experience in everyday life. Galileo dropped weights from a leaning tower (or so legend has it) and watched balls rolling down inclined surfaces; Newton studied falling apples (or so legend has it) and the orbit of the moon. The goal of these investigations was to attune the nascent scientific ear to nature’s harmonies. To be sure, physical reality was the stuff of experience, but the challenge was to hear the rhyme and reason behind the rhythm and regularity. Many sung and unsung heroes contributed to the rapid and impressive progress that was made, but Newton stole the show. With a handful of mathematical equations, he synthesized everything known about motion on earth and in the heavens, and in so doing, composed the score for what has come to be known as classical physics. In the decades following Newton’s work, his equations were developed into an elaborate mathematical structure that significantly extended both their reach and their practical utility. Classical physics gradually became a sophisticated and mature scientific discipline. But shining clearly through all these advances was the beacon of Newton’s original insights. Even today, more than three hundred years later, you can see Newton’s equations scrawled on introductory-physics chalkboards worldwide, printed on NASA flight plans computing spacecraft trajectories, and embedded within the complex calculations of forefront research. Newton brought a wealth of physical phenomena within a single theoretical framework.

But while formulating his laws of motion, Newton encountered a critical stumbling block, one that is of particular importance to our story (Chapter 2). Everyone knew that things could move, but what about the arena within which the motion took place? Well, that’s space, we’d all answer. But, Newton would reply, what is space? Is space a real physical entity or is it an abstract idea born of the human struggle to comprehend the cosmos? Newton realized that this key question had to be answered, because without taking a stand on the meaning of space and time, his equations describing motion would prove meaningless. Understanding requires context; insight must be anchored.

And so, with a few brief sentences in his Principia Mathematica, Newton articulated a conception of space and time, declaring them absolute and immutable entities that provided the universe with a rigid, unchangeable arena. According to Newton, space and time supplied an invisible scaffolding that gave the universe shape and structure. Not everyone agreed. Some argued persuasively that it made little sense to ascribe existence to something you can’t feel, grasp, or affect. But the explanatory and predictive power of Newton’s equations quieted the critics. For the next two hundred years, his absolute conception of space and time was dogma.


From the Hardcover edition.
Brian Greene|Author Q&A

About Brian Greene

Brian Greene - The Fabric of the Cosmos

Photo © Andrea Cross

Brian Greene received his undergraduate degree from Harvard University and his doctorate from Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes Scholar. He joined the physics faculty of Cornell University in 1990, was appointed to a full professorship in 1995, and in 1996 joined Columbia University, where he is professor of physics and mathematics. He has lectured at both a general and a technical level in more than thirty countries, and on all seven continents, and is widely regarded for a number of groundbreaking discoveries in superstring theory. His first book, The Elegant Universe, was a national best seller and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. His most recent book, The Fabric of the Cosmos, was also a best seller. He lives in Andes, New York, and New York City.

Author Q&A


A Conversation with Brian Greene


Q: What would you say to people who think they are just not smart enough to ever fully wrap their minds around the nature of the universe?
A: For most people, the major hurdle in grasping modern insights into the nature of the universe is that these developments are usually phrased using mathematics. But when the impediment of mathematics is removed and the ideas themselves are rephrased in common language, they're not that hard to understand. So, I say: give it a try--and most people do find that they grasp much more than they expected.

Q: Is it a challenge, as a physicist and mathematician to write in a way that everyone can understand?
A: It is a challenge, but for me its both a useful and exciting one. I find that translating cutting-edge research into more familiar language forces me to strip away extraneous details and zero in on the core ideas. Often, this helps me to organize my own thoughts and has even suggested research directions. And it's exciting to see ideas that are close to my heart and those of other researchers in the field reach a wider audience. The questions we are tackling are universal, and everyone deserves the right to enjoy the progress we're making.

Q: What made you decide to follow The Elegant Universe and string theory with an exploration of cosmology?
A: Well, I wouldn't say that The Fabric of the Cosmos is a book on cosmology. Cosmology certainly plays a big part, but the major theme is our ever evolving understanding of space and time, and what it all means for our sense of reality. The Elegant Universe was a book about the search for a unified theory, in which space and time were supporting characters. As I was writing it, I almost had to keep space and time in check, as they so easily could have taken over. In The Fabric of the Cosmos, I let them have free reign--and space and time, with little effort, assumed the starring roles.

Q: You make some mind-boggling statements about the nature of time. Can you elaborate on the difference between how physicists and the rest of us view time?
A: Well, in day to day life, physicists view time in the same way that everyone else does. And that makes it all the more surprising when we examine how time appears in our current theoretical frameworks, because nowhere in our theories do we see the intuitive notion of time that we all embrace. Nowhere, for example, can we find the theoretical underpinnings for our sense that time flows from one second to the next. Instead, our theories seem to indicate that time doesn't flow--rather, past, present, and future are all there, always, forever frozen in place. Moreover, we all sense that time has a direction pointing from what we call past to what we call future. And much of what we experience adheres fully to this "arrow of time" (e.g. eggs break but they never unbreak, we remember the past but not the future, etc.). But as familiar as this all is, explaining the origin of time's arrow using our understanding of physics is no small task. And when we look at the problem closely, it seems to require that we understand what conditions were like at the birth of the universe. That is why I spend a good deal of time in The Fabric of the Cosmos discussing cosmology.

Q: Doesn’t that make it hard to catch a train?
A: It does, but it doesn't make for a good excuse--at least not more than once.

Q: You discuss some seemingly simple things that turn out to be quite complex beneath the surface, like water sloshing around a spinning bucket. Can you explain?
A: Well, physics is ultimately about explaining what we see and experience. And some things that might seem mundane--like a bucket of spinning water--actually tap into some deep mysteries. As I describe in the book, Newton himself realized that a bucket of spinning water raised surprisingly delicate questions about the nature of space--whether or not space is a human abstraction or a real physical entity. It's a question we are still pondering today.

Q: What’s the most startling and unexpected revelation about the universe that you have seen in your career as a physicist?
A: That's a tough question. Probably the growing belief, due largely to string theory, that our universe may really have more than three space dimensions. That possibility really blows my mind.

Q: You are one of the world’s foremost experts on string theory. In your new book you also talk about superstrings and branes, what exactly is the difference?
A: Well, a superstring--like a very, very thin rubber band--is an object with only one dimension, the dimension that extends along its own length. Branes are simply objects with more dimensions. A two-brane has two dimensions (like a disk or frisbee), a three-brane has three
dimensions (like a lump of clay), and the higher dimensional branes have more dimensions (don't worry, I can't picture them either). The point is that superstring theory was initially thought to only contain strings. But in recent years, we've come to realize that these other, higher dimensional objects--the branes--also have an important role in the theory.

Q: What are black holes and what do they tell us about the nature of universe?
A: Black holes are regions of the universe in which so much mass has been crushed to such a small size that the pull of gravity is enormous. So strong, in fact, that if you get too close it is impossible to escape. Even a beam of light that gets to close will be sucked in, explaining why black holes are black--light can't escape their powerful gravitational grip. Black holes provide theoreticians with an important theoretical laboratory to test ideas. Conditions within a black hole are so extreme, that by analyzing aspects of black holes we see space and time in an exotic environment, one that has shed important, and sometimes perplexing, new light an their fundamental nature.

Q: You say that a particle on one side of the universe can influence the action of a sister particle on the other side of the universe instantaneously. Does this violate Einstein?s statement that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light?
A: It is a delicate question, but most physicists would say no. The influence is such that no information can be sent from place to place at faster than light speed, and many believe that's enough to avoid conflict with Einstein's recognition that light sets a cosmic speed limit. I am among those who take this point of view, but as I stress in the book, this issue--due to remaining conundrums surrounding quantum mechanics--is not fully settled.

Q: How close are we to really understanding the nature of the universe?
A: Sometimes I think the final theory is just around the corner. Sometimes I think such thoughts are naive. The bottom line is I don't know, but what we're learning is so startling, that in a way it doesn't matter. When or if we reach the deepest understanding, it will be a major moment for our species. But until then, making progress at unravelling the cosmos is its own reward.

Q: What do you think of the new Matrix movie?

A: Liked the first one better--made you think more about what constitutes reality. Second one had only a bit of that, and although the effects were great, I just felt exhausted by the end.


From the Hardcover edition.

Praise

Praise

“Send[s] the reader’s imagination hurtling through space on an astonishing ride. . . . He is both a skilled and kindly explicator. His excitement for science on the threshold of vital breakthroughs is extremely contagious.” —The New York Times

“The best exposition and explanation of early 21st-century research into the fundamental nature of the universe as you are likely to find anywhere.” —Science

“Perhaps the single best explainer of abstruse science in the world today. . . . Greene has a gift for finding the right metaphor.” —The Washington Post

“I recommend Greene’s book to any nonexpert reader who wants an up-to-date account of theoretical physics, written in colloquial language that anyone can understand.” —Freeman Dyson, The New York Review of Books

“As pure intellectual adventure, this is about as good as it gets. . . . Even compared with A Brief History of Time, Greene’s book stands out for its sweeping ambition . . . stripping down the mystery from difficult concepts without watering down the science.” —Newsday

"Greene is as elegant as ever, cutting through the fog of complexity with insight and clarity. Space and time, you might even say, become putty in his hands." —Los Angeles Times

“Highly informed, lucid and witty. . . . There is simply no better introduction to the strange wonders of general relativity and quantum mechanics, the fields of knowledge essential for any real understanding of space and time.” —Discover

“The author’s informed curiosity is inspiring and his enthusiasm infectious.” —Kansas City Star

“Mind-bending. . . . [Greene] is both a gifted theoretical physicist and a graceful popularizer [with] virtuoso explanatory skills.” —The Oregonian

“Brian Greene is the new Hawking, only better.” —The Times (London)

“Greene’s gravitational pull rivals a black hole’s.” —Newsweek

“Greene is an excellent teacher, humorous and quick. . . . Read [your friends] the passages of this book that boggle your mind. (You may find yourself reading them every single paragraph.).” —Boston Globe

“Inexhaustibly witty . . . a must-read for the huge constituency of lay readers enticed by the mysteries of cosmology.” —Sunday Times

“Relish this exhilarating foray into the alien terrain that is our own universe.” —Booklist, starred review

“Holds out the promise that we may one day explain how space and time have come to exist.” —Paul Davies, Nature

“Greene takes us to the limits of space and time.” —The Guardian

“Exciting stuff. . . . Introduces the reader to the mind-boggling landscape of cutting-edge theoretical physics, where mathematics rules supreme.” —The News & Observer

“One of the most entertaining and thought-provoking popular science books to have emerged in the last few years. The Elegant Universe was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. The Fabric of the Cosmos deserves to win it.” —Physics World

“In the space of 500 readable pages, Greene has brought us to the brink of twenty-first-century physics with the minimum of fuss.” —The Herald

“If anyone can popularize tough science, it’s Greene.” —Entertainment Weekly

“Greene is a marvelously talented exponent of physics. . . . A pleasure to read.” —Economist

“Magnificent . . . sends shivers down the spine.” —Financial Times

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