How I Came to Love Physics, and Other Mysteries of the UniverseDecember 17, 2018
I hated physics in high school. I never understood the point of learning about the forces of nature. Chemistry was much more exciting. You could create fun experiments that would foam and fizz. Physics was boring. That is, until 10 years ago when someone gave me a copy of The Fabric of the Cosmos, by Brian Greene.
The first time I picked it up, it was a slog. I had to pause often, trying to picture some of the complex ideas he was trying to explain. Thankfully, Greene has an amazing gift in his ability to describe abstract physical principles in a manner that allows the layperson to not only grasp those ideas, but be entertained in the process. He takes us on a journey of discovery, starting with classic Newtonian physics, to Einstein’s relativity and finally to the wacky world of quantum physics.
What makes the subject of physics so fascinating is that it challenges our entire perception of reality. For example, we generally perceive time as moving in one direction and at constant rate of change. Well, as Einstein theorized and we have since proven, that’s not how time actually works. Time is not constant. It is intertwined with space in what Einstein referred to as spacetime. Many things influence time, including gravity, speed, distance and direction. In Einstein’s words, “the distinction between the past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”
And if you think that’s cool, wait until Greene starts to explain quantum theory and its many offshoots. The behaviour of things very small, at the atom and particle level, gets really weird. (For those in need of a quick review, atoms are the stuff that everything is made of, while particles are the stuff that atoms are made of.) Research of particle behaviour has provided us with many new puzzles, such as: Why do particles exist only as waves of probability until the precise moment we observe the particle? And why do two “entangled” particles that are separated – even at infinite distances – have a mysterious, simultaneous connection? It’s this last question that is one of the yet-to-be explained contradictions between what we know about relativity and what we have observed about quantum mechanics that has prevented us from coming up with a “unified” and proven explanation of how the universe works.
Greene addresses unified theories, specifically String theory and M-theory. The by-products of these are some bizarre possibilities, such as additional dimensions beyond the four we perceive as reality (the three spatial dimensions, plus time). Additionally, rather than just the one universe we are aware of, it’s possible there is an infinite number of universes out “there” ... somewhere.
I have re-read this book twice since first reading it – not only to understand it better, but also because I loved it so much. Greene’s book sparked a curiosity that has stuck with me for a decade. I have read many other books on space, time and quantum physics. I have watched documentaries and dozens of YouTube lectures on anything that addresses “reality.” In short, I have fallen into an infinite rabbit hole that is beyond fascinating, getting into debates that range from the effect of consciousness on matter, to the possibility that we might be living in a simulation of reality.
And it all started with Brian Greene’s book. I always told people that I would love to meet him. A few years ago, in a random conversation with a colleague of mine, I discovered he had been Brian’s roommate at Oxford University. He asked if I would like to meet Brian, and of course, I jumped on the opportunity with the giddiness of a teenage girl meeting Shawn Mendes.
Since then, I have met Brian several times and he is as engaging and enthusiastic about physics as he comes across in his book. Recently, he sent me a wonderful note for my 60th birthday that read “Congratulations on this milestone birthday. But remember, time is relative.”
I can’t help but think that somehow, I put it out there that I wanted to meet him, and the mysterious universe granted my wish.
Enjoy the book.