Space – the final frontier. Its limits at present are beyond mathematical measure, which means that it eludes secular human comprehension. Thankfully, however, we have brilliant thinkers who are willing to climb out on a limb and conjecture.
In The Hidden Reality, Brian Greene’s latest and very ambitious foray into the great beyond, we venture no closer to mapping the architecture of perceived infinity, in which Earth seems no more than an inconsequential speck. Yet the bestselling author of “The Elegant Universe” and “The Fabric of the Cosmos” takes us on a different kind of adventure as he explores the possibility that there is not one big uncharted universe, but many.
Those universes take the form of Swiss cheese, suds in a bubble bath, passageways right out of “Star Trek,” and realms right next to us.
The danger of writing a mind-blower like “The Hidden Reality” is that, if the author isn’t careful, it can become mind-numbing to read. A caution here upfront: There are points where Greene walks perilously close to that precipice.
Black holes, parallel universes, the idea that we and our world may have doppelgängers in different dimensions are heady concepts.
For some, such conjecture is religious heresy; for others, it aims to answer the ultimate questions as to how and why we are here, with science, not faith, forming a necessary and – so far – inadequate, bridge to explore the mystery.
What Greene, a popular physics and mathematics professor at Columbia University, does exceedingly well is to lay out the prevailing theories, advanced by the brightest human minds, as to how the whole of everything may be ordered.
Greene made great strides in “The Elegant Universe,” but left us hanging somewhat when the book’s conclusion mentioned raging debates about whether controversial string theory means the universe is governed by uniform laws of physics or is instead a product of random, violent chaos.
In “The Hidden Reality,” Greene picks up where he left off. Inviting readers to entertain varying alternatives – that our universe, for example, is endlessly expanding, or is one of many, or is unique, or is structured like a thin pane of glass that is likely to be annihilated or shattered in a collision with another – challenges the pat understanding that we have of reality.
It’s one thing to confront these abstract possibilities in the plot of a science fiction novel or film; it’s quite another when one is trying to do justice to metaphysical speculation based on half a dozen different theories – all of which are subjects of intense emotional debate among physicists.
There are some books about astrophysics that everyone seems to have sitting on their shelves to show guests how smart they are, but which they don’t actually read because the narratives are like slogging through molasses. “The Hidden Reality” is not one of these. It is entertaining and well written, although this reader must confess that parts of it were cumbersome and required several rereadings before Greene’s points sank in.
Greene is a keen interpreter. He uses easy-to-understand and occasionally hilarious analogies to translate dense concepts. In that sense, “The Hidden Reality” is like other popular, accessible tomes such as Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time.”
The idea of parallel universes intrigues us. Who hasn’t given thought to time travel, both forward and backward, giving us the opportunity to revisit departed loved ones or to see what would have happened if we had made different choices at certain crossroad moments?
Greene alludes to those yearnings, though he is more concerned with issues of cosmic scaffolding and the ingredients that form its bricks and mortar.
Human knowledge of the big picture has progressed in fits and starts, Greene says. “Plato likened our view of the world to that of an ancient forebear watching shadows meander across a dimly lit cave wall,” he writes. “He imagined our perceptions to be but a faint inkling of a far richer reality that flickers beyond reach. Two millennia later, it seems that Plato’s cave may be more than a metaphor.”
Greene points to the radical leaps forward in perception that occurred with Nicolaus Copernicus's insistence that the sun, not the earth, resided at the center of our local universe and Isaac Newton’s work on gravity. And, he notes that it took decades for Einstein’s theory of relativity to grow into a more elaborate platform for thinking about quantum mechanics and intersecting “multiverses.”
Aided by über telescopes, we can now peer farther than ever into space, and with gadgets like the supercollider, we are monitoring at the subatomic level particles that seem microscopic compared to electrons and protons.
What invigorates Greene is wondering which theory will leave us one day looking upon Einstein as prosaically as now we do Newton and Copernicus?
The book ventures into its most surreal when Greene explores the prospect of humans eventually creating simulated universes – think of the movies “Matrix” or “Avatar.” He even mentions that it is possible that we are only virtual projections.
When it comes to the possibility of parallel universes, Greene is agnostic, waiting for solid scientific evidence to steer him one way or another.
He leaves no doubt, however, that he believes we may be on the cusp of a breakthrough. Until then, his book reminds us: It is difficult, if not perilous, to extrapolate conclusions when there is much that we cannot see and so much that we do not understand.