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Cannonball Read IV: The Hidden Reality by Brian Greene

By BanannerPants | Book Reviews | November 13, 2012 | Comments ()


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I tried to make the argument that reading was hard, but a dear friend of mine called me stupid. I suppose it's not the reading that's hard, it's the science. I've been reading The Hidden Reality by Brian Greene for about 6 weeks now. It's about 322 pages, so it really shouldn't take me that long. But I could only read about 6 pages at a time before my brain wanted to explode.

It's supposed to be about parallel universes. In fact, I was drawn in by the first few paragraphs and Brian Greene's description of potential multiple electron locations within their clouds equating to potential multiple everythings. If it was possible for an electron to be in one of two places, then it was actually possible for them to be in each place, just in different universes. So if it was possible for me to either make the train or miss the train, it was possible for both to happen, but in different universes. Basically, Sliding Doors could happen, but in parallel universes. Ooooh, intrigue.

But then Brian Greene goes on and on about string theory. I've read (parts) of his other books, The Elegant Universe and The Fabric of the Cosmos, and it's all just string theory propaganda. The fervent defense of it makes me skeptical of it, where I wasn't at all before. I'm sure there is a bit more nuance to it, but it seems like there are three full books just touting that string theory is the true wave of the future. They can't all say the exact same things, but they're not saying all that much that's different.

The problem I've been having with The Hidden Reality and Brian Greene is that he claims he's explaining super complicated scientific ideas in everyman ways. He's on a bit of a high horse about his ability to break down the cosmos so the laymen can understand it. I call bullshit. He is not good at analogies. Now, I'm not great at science, but I know some things. Brian Greene attempts to use Archie (from the comics) as an analogy for something in science. If I were to do this, I would say something along the lines of "Archie eats an infinite number of hamburgers. You wonder how he does it, right? He just eats and eats and never gets full. Because it's an infinite amount, he'll never run out of hamburgers. If you tell him to cut down on hamburgers by, say, half, he's still eating an infinite number of hamburgers because half of infinity is still infinity. And in the end both will eventually kill Archie." Or, alternatively "Archie has a really hard time deciding between Betty and Veronica because they're both really hot. Parallel universes allows for him to never have to decide. He can have both, though he won't know he has both because he can't know about the other realities. Also, there is probably another universe where he's with neither of them and instead alone and miserable." Those aren't great, I know. But still, it gave you something to imagine, right? Brian Greene's "layman analogies" go like this: "Imagine Archie had a homework problem where he had to count to 10^155. And then imagine he had a radio telescope and was measuring the temperature of the universe to determine the value of the universal cosmological constant." Brian-that's just what you do. That's NOT an analogy. Saying Archie is going to do it instead of you doesn't help me understand it.

He does this repeatedly, and I find it frustrating. I don't understand the science any better, and I just get irritated when he drags my favorite pop-culture characters through the cosmological background radiation mud. He's not fun to read, but he thinks he is. He's an arrogant physicist, and I find that insufferable.

I almost didn't finish the book because I was so distracted by his imperfect analogies. And his overzealous defense of string theory.I've probably missed a huge section of it, but I don't yet see how string theory or not string theory helps explain parallel universes. It seems to me like explaining how farmers deprive chickens of light to get better eggs while teaching someone how to make hollandaise sauce and perfectly poached eggs. (ANALOGY!) I suppose one leads to the other in about 125 steps, but I just want a goddamned eggs benedict. So sure, string theory might explain-or rather, mathematically justify-the forces of the universe and 125 steps later I might get to thinking "oh, so there could be parallel universes?" but I just want a goddamned eggs benedict.

I know science well enough to have picked up this book and find its content interesting. But without a Ph.D. in asshattery and physics, so much of it was lost on me. I prefer the astrophysics stylings of Neil deGrasse Tyson. He knows how to make analogies and he has a lovely sense of humor.

Brian Greene can eat my hat. My infinitely large multiverse hat.

This review is part of the volunteer Cannonball Read IV. Read all about it, and find more of BanannerPants's reviews on the group blog.

(Note: Any revenue generated from purchases made through the amazon.com affiliate links in this review will be donated in entirety to the American Cancer Society.)



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  • LurkeyTurkey

    Oh, Bannanerpants, thanks for reading this so I don't have to bother. If I read one more book using Archie & Jughead analogies......

  • Karo

    My husband has this book, and all the others. He has no Ph.D. in anything, but playing around with those ideas makes him happy. All it makes me is aggressive. I want to batter Schrödinger's cat round its head until it is dead in ALL universes. I find the whole idea of parallel universes incredibly absurd, and I hate myself for doing it because I have no clue about physics and am therefore just an unenlightened dumbass who refuses to accept that the world is much more complicated than my idiotic brain allows for. But I'm glad I read your review, because you make it sound like it might actually all be bullshit, which makes me less of an idiot. Huzzah! (No, really. You're the first person who mentions the word propaganda in the string theory context, and I have hope.)

  • BierceAmbrose

    Must restrain brain-fist of death, urg, urg, urrrrrrrrg. I can't hold it. Run!

    Look, the first thing you have to realize is that a Ph D in string theory is a Ph D in asshattery. And why do I say this? Because they cheat, intellectually. Here's an example:

    In fact, I was drawn in by the first few paragraphs and Brian Greene’s
    description of potential multiple electron locations within their clouds...

    In the standard model (or whatever we're calling it in this universe) an electron is not a billiard-ball of charge swarming around in a cloud, so it's hard roundness is some particular place (or several string-y places) at any one time. It is a distribution of likelihoods that you'll get an electron's charge and mass worth of interaction with anything else, spread across space.

    There is no spoon, only Zuul, or so they taught me back when I had enough math chops to dazzle the uninitiated with obscure Greek symbols.

    It's extra hard to wrap your analogies for the wrong idea. TheOtherGreg is right, "The Trouble with Physics" is a fine antidote. Alternatively, read any two essays by Karl Popper and call me when they're in the same universe as a clue. (Ohhhhhh, there's a thing there with Karl Popper & Schrodenger's cat. That may be funny.)

  • BierceAmbrose

    Well, that's one for the "don't bother" list. Thanks for taking the hit for us. In this universe, anyway.

  • Wembley

    So you agree with Sheldon?

    Yep. A The Big Bang Theory reference-here on the "we're too cool for highly-rated shows, because we have no idea who the target demographic really is" site.

  • Daniel Valentin

    I agree with the problems you have with Brian Greene's way of writing. For my string theory fix, I like Michio Kaku much more.

  • TheOtherGreg

    The analogy is flawed - Jughead would be the one eating an infinite amount of hamburgers.

    But seriously, you should read "The Trouble with Physics" by Lee Smolin to get the non string theory view of things. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/T...

  • Wednesday

    Excellent review. This wouldn't have hit my "to read" list in any case, but your review was informative and entertaining!

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