Although my main interests have always been history, languages, and cultural studies, I somehow also developed a love of astronomy early on. Due to my lack of interest in maths, chemistry, and physics in every other aspect than cosmology, I was however satisfied with reading popular science books about the universe and following the scientific progress in a very casual way. About 15 years ago, I read The Elegant Universe, in which the physicist and string theorist Brian Greene explains string theory in as accessible a way as is possible for such an obscure topic, and the book just blew my mind.
First of all, Greene is a master of explaining difficult concepts by mainly using analogies and thought experiments to great effect. This was, for instance, the first time that I began to understand what the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics are truly about. Not in any kind of in-depth way, of course, but I understood enough of what he was talking about that I could follow him in general, and this alone was a huge accomplishment for me. Secondly, he has an engaging style that helps to keep his audience interested, even when he dives into the most difficult subjects that will probably go over many a reader’s head. And, last but not least, this book most successfully depicts theoretical physics as a marvel that just blows open the doors to a wholly different world, which makes for riveting reading. A lot of the time I was just stunned by the sheer breadth of imagination involved in these theories, be it the existence of 11 dimensions or the concept of a multiverse.
A few years later I read his second book, The Fabric of the Cosmos, which focuses on spacetime and the foundation of our reality, and this also is an excellent science book that explains complex topics in an incredibly accessible way without oversimplifying them. For anyone, and especially laymen, interested in these subjects I don’t think that there could be better books or a better writer out there to explain them.
When I became aware that Greene had recently published a new book, I hoped that it could live up to those other two, and I was not disappointed. It’s been many years since I read the other two, but I still quite clearly remember the amazement and excitement I felt, especially while reading The Elegant Universe. This book is a little different, but I think that I like it even more than the others because it touches me on a more personal level.
Here, Greene of course also explains phenomena like black holes, the expansion of the universe, and what he calls the “entropic two-step”, the dance which enables evolution on one hand, but ultimately leads to extinction, but on top of that, he asks the question that is at the root of human existence, and that is what it all means. Earth is just a tiny irrelevant speck of dust in the outskirts of a run-of-the-mill galaxy in a vast universe. This universe started a long time before any kind of life evolved, and it will exist for a long time after it is all gone. Greene draws a detailed picture from the big bang to the end of the universe as far as it can be predicted, and there will be an end, and long before it, any kind of life or consciousness will have vanished.
Still, even though we can contemplate eternity, and even though we can reach for eternity, apparently we cannot touch eternity.
If we are aware that one day everything that we know and are will be gone, what is the purpose of this existence? The answer is an obvious one, but it is fun and thought-provoking and depressing all at once to go on this journey with Greene, and to come to the only possible conclusion:
As we hurtle toward a cold and barren cosmos, we must accept that there is no grand design. Particles are not endowed with purpose. There is no final answer hovering in the depths of space awaiting discovery. Instead, certain special collections of particles can think and feel and reflect, and within these subjective worlds, they can create purpose.
It is a comfort to know that others are looking up at the stars with the same question in their minds, even though everyone has to ultimately turn within and struggle with it on their own.
CBR13 Bingo: Gateway