24 May 2009

When You Are Engulfed in Flames; The Fabric of the Cosmos

When You Are Engulfed in Flames is David Sedaris's latest book, and the first of his works that I've read. A couple of the stories are quite endearing, especially the ones about Sedaris's close encounters with death, as well as his quest to quit smoking. But many of the others just strike me as "Ha ha, look how quirky we were or are." While When You Are Engulfed in Flames is at least mildly amusing and entertaining throughout, it only rises to the level of laugh-out-loud funny in a couple of places.

As an aside, I noted that David Sedaris was puzzled by some of the same things in Japan that puzzled me during my recent trip to Taiwan, namely, (1) Why is everyone so exceedingly polite? and (2) Why is green salad served at breakfast?

The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality is Brian Greene's sort-of followup to The Elegant Universe. Fabric of the Cosmos covers the principles of relativity and quantum mechanics and the attempts to unify them (with string theory and its variants). One overarching theme that Greene considers is how all these different theories have different implications about the true nature of space and time— are they purely artificial constructions, or are they fundamental concepts, or are they emergent phenomena arising from something more fundamental? And considering these alternative theories about the nature of the universe is a lot more interesting than just asking "Can we smash tiny particles into tinier particles?" (Although, high-energy physics is indeed still an important apparatus.)

Having not yet totally forgotten my undergraduate physics classes, I was pretty impressed by Greene's treatment of relativity and quantum mechanics. He makes quite lucid analogies that convey the basic principles without much math. His treatment of string theory and the possibility of extra space dimensions was pretty enlightening, too.

The part where my eyes started to glaze over was during the chapters in the middle about the Higgs field and cosmology. At this point it seemed like the analogies that Greene used were just analogies for the sake of not using scary terminology. They seemed to me kind of hollow and didn't really provide any interesting insights about the underlying phenomena.

Overall, Fabric is a well-written guided tour of modern physics and is worth a read (especially if you have not read The Elegant Universe). My only complaint is that after reading so much physics without any math I feel sort of swindled. I feel compelled to go purchase a proper string theory textbook, which, I suppose, is pretty high praise for Professor Greene.

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