Physicist Brian Greene became a surprise bestselling author with The Elegant Universe, a book about the brainy subject of string theory. Too abstract to be verified directly, string theory contends that the world is made up of tiny strands of energy whose twitches and squiggles account for all the forces and phenomena in the universe. Strings make up the particles that make up atoms, which make up the molecules that move in things like baseballs, brains, stars, galaxies, space, and time. Accounting for the last two—concepts that govern the human experience without making their origins or terms readily definable—is the main charge of The Fabric Of The Cosmos, a dense yet approachable history of physics' struggle to do the math for the universe as it currently appears.
Starting with Albert Einstein's theory of relativity, Fabric follows physics and its findings about how "everyday experience fails to reveal how the universe really works." When Einstein fused ethereal notions of space and time into the quantifiably real space-time continuum, he was dabbling in philosophy as much as science. Numbers supported his ideas, but his ideas demanded nothing less than a major overhaul of what perceptions and truths really mean. Greene does a marvelous job of revealing both the details and implications of such a change.
After establishing relativity's place on the grand scale of people and planets, Fabric moves into the subatomic arena of quantum mechanics, where the bold mandates of cause and effect turn into blurry suggestions at best. Surveying ideas highlighted by Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, Greene shows how things like electrons exhibit concrete characteristics only when subjected to observation. Instead of specific points in space, electrons exist less tangibly in a mist of probability waves, which account for all the possible locations an electron might randomly happen to be at any given moment. Such jittery quantum behavior—which can stretch across light years—informs much of what is thought about the universe's evolution from the Big Bang. Along those lines, Fabric describes how space has gone through a phase change analogous to that of an ice cube melting into water and fizzling into steam. In that progression lies the rub of space's subatomic texture, made up of loops and chasms that suggest undetectable dimensions beyond the standard model's 4D mold.
Staring down the science behind such abstract ideas takes a good amount of work, but Greene proves an engaging guide. He shows hidden byways between seemingly disparate ideas, and he shows where those ideas might be headed in a future that's already happening.