Saturday, July 28, 2007

An Elegant Read

Since completing my undergrad in mechanical engineering at Baylor, I've continued to be interested by what physicists and scientists are discovering about the fabric of our universe. Brian Greene is a professor of math and physics at Columbia University and a leading proponent of superstring theory. Superstring theory is complicated, but basically is an attempt to make two seemingly opposed, but successful physical theories work together. The first of these two theories is general relativity, by which Einstein gave us the means by which gravity actually works in the cosmos. Both special relativity and general relativity showed that time was not stationary as thought before, but actually a dimension just like space, hence the wording space-time to speak about our 4-dimensional reality. The second great physics theory is quantum mechanics, which describes the way particles actually work at a microscopic level - very, very small. Basically, quantum mechanics shows that, as Greene puts it, there are some very strange things happening at a microscopic level, where location and speed cannot be simultaneously known. Both relativity and quantum mechanics have been shown to accurately predict with amazing accuracy what happens in the world around us, but as one works especially well on a large scale (relativity) and the other on a small scale (QM), physics have been working hard on a united theory of everything that could tie the two together. In this book, Greene makes the argument that superstring theory (also called M-theory) just might be the ultimate theory underlying everything else. The physics community has not all come to this conclusion, but Greene's book makes for fascinating reading.

He writes about very complicated mathematical models of the universe without getting in to the math behind them. Rather, he uses excellent analogies to help the reader understand the complicated ideas involved in the theory. His work requires some background in physics so that you're not completely lost, but you don't have to really know any math to get through it. Some of the most fascinating parts of the book are toward the end as Greene begins to unravel what superstring theory might mean for cosmological questions. The theory still proposes that the Big Bang occurred, but now because of the complexity involved with string theory (11-dimensions instead of 4), all kinds of other questions are being asked about pre-Big Bang and post-Big Bang physics.

All in all, I can't help but notice that the Elegant Universe that Greene describes testifies to an Elegant Creator - Greene forcefully makes the case that every nuclear force and principle of quantum mechanics and relativity seemed to be wired just right for life to exist. This just reinforces in my mind the ideas that the Apostle Paul makes in Romans 1 - that certain attributes of God can be seen in the creation - His eternal power and divine nature to be specific. When I read Greene's work, I see these attributes on every page. Is it my presupposition that God exists and that His Word is true that drives me to this conclusion? Possibly, but even if you come to the table with different presuppositions, you are ultimately asking the same questions and dealing with ultimate human issues. Notice Greene's thoughts towards the end of this book as he reflects on his research and cosmology:

However, maybe there is a limit to comprehensibility. Maybe we have to accept that after reaching the deepest possible level of understanding science can offer, there will nevertheless be aspects of the universe that remain unexplained. Maybe we will have to accept that certain features of the universe are the way they are because of happenstance, accident, or divine choice.

and...

We are all, each in our own way, seekers of the truth and we each long for an answer to why we are here.

Fascinating to me that a child prodigy in mathematics with his Ph.D. in physics from Oxford and his own institute for string theory & cosmology research would land on the last pages of his fine work back on the main philosophical questions that we all must wrestle with.

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