The Hidden Reality: Brian Greene

Put on your science pants! My brain’s taking a trip down science-nerd lane! A trip it often takes!

Here’s the thing. I am a science nerd. I very nearly went into theoretical physics at university, but instead opted for pure maths. But it was always a close race. I dabbled in physics throughout my university career, and I could never quite satisfy my curiosity, which led to me reading popular science book after popular science book in my quest to bridge the gap between my math and my physics, but in a way that didn’t require me to go back to school and suffer through academia again. (I am just not built for that world, despite my true love of learning all things.) Someday, my brain will put to pixel its adoration of physics classics like Black Holes and Time Warps by Kip Thorne, or In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat by John Gribbin, but until then, you’ll just have to take my word that my brain loves physics. String theory, M-theory, quantum field theory: bring it! is the general attitude around these parts.

So it is obvious why I could not resist the siren song of Brian Greene’s latest The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos. (As an aside, I am so tired of lengthy subtitles for non-fiction books. I get that the publisher feels compelled to attract readers by giving them a hint of what the book’s about, but you know, that’s what the blurb on the inside jacket is for. I hope we can start having non-fiction books with just one title someday.) In some ways, Brian Greene is living my dream: a professor of both physics and mathematics doing groundbreaking research in superstring theory. (Of course, this is the dream of the me that plays well with others.) And his previous books were well-written, accessible explanations of some of that groundbreaking research with ample background given to ground the reader.

I’m sure that anyone who has read even five pages of science fiction has considered the idea of parallel universes before. It is such a science fiction thing: other worlds, parallel universes! (Explored to great effect, I might add, in Neal Stephenson’s latest, Anathem.) But the thing that Greene does here is make the case for non-fictional parallel worlds. No, seriously. Take a minute to get your head around that. Greene offers up a theoretical framework from established physics and research-in-progress in which other universes are not only plausible, but maybe even necessary. Sadly, here is where science parts again from fiction because even if one of these proposals is correct, chances are we are not going to be able to interact with these universes.

Saving the maths and tricky equations for the endnotes for the most part, Greene casually compares inflation fields to South Park, and turns Samuel Johnson into mathematics. His tone is conversational and he is kind to science-wary readers, offering up brief summaries of complicated ideas and encouraging those timid readers to skip ahead if they need to. And he offers up information in the right place at the right time, so the facts you need to make sense of the theories are fresh in your brain when you need them, something this forgetful brain was grateful for.

What we are faced with is basically nine possible universes, or rather multiverses, since the “uni” in universe can be misleading. We’ve spent a lot of time thinking of “universe” in the singular, but our universe is just one of many universes in this book, so the idea of a universe of universes comes in handy. Welcome to the multiverse! Greene gives these multiverses names like “Quilted Multiverse” and “Holographic Multiverse,” breaking them up into their own chapters and exploring various facets of relativity, quantum mechanics, quantum field theory, M-theory and so much more to make the case for the possibility of their existence. He follows all this up with a needed discussion on the limits of scientific inquiry as we know it, since at least one of these multiverses simply cannot be detected or measured by us ever. So is it scientific to even discuss its existence? This gets into the very nature of science itself, which is fascinating and got me thinking that I should study more about the philosophy of science.

In the midst of all these fantastic and far-reaching ideas, the one thing I was sad to not see was any real appearance by the ladies. This book is a serious sausage fest. I’m sure this was not deliberate on the part of Greene. He probably looked to the people whose work he was most familiar with, people who made the big developments in the fields that he was looking at. But in the further reading list at the back of the book, three and a half of the authors are of the lady persuasion (one was a co-author), and of the scientists that make an appearance in the text itself, only seven are woman, and three of these only made it into the endnotes. I didn’t keep track of every scientist named when I was reading (my bad), but the index at the end lists 195 people and only seven of those are women. This is just flat-out depressing.

I know part of this is just due to the whole history thing, where ladies were kept out of anything requiring five seconds of brain power. If we’re not talking about computing or radiation or stolen DNA thunder, then the famous lady scientists disappear from the scene. (And please feel free to tell me about other famous lady scientists that I am not aware of!) But I’m pretty sure that part of it is that annoying see-through ceiling that people sometimes talk about, the one that somehow ensures people with lady-bits don’t get to climb that ladder all the way to the top. In most research, it’s the research leader that gets cited and talked about, not all the underlings and grad students and whoevers working with that leader. And these leaders still tend to be men. So even if there are more ladies in science now than ever before (and I have no numbers to back that up, I just believe/want it to be true), they are still not in positions of power and so still not getting their names tossed about in best-selling popular science books.

I, for one, would like to see more lady names tossed about in these books. So here is my plea to all would-be popular science authors: try to find ladies working in the field you are writing about. Maybe they will not be so obvious when you are first writing. Maybe theirs are not the names you are so intimately familiar with. Maybe their results overlap with results that are better known. It’s okay. Take some time. Seek them out. And then put their names in your book. It means something to women who might be thinking about careers in science, but who are maybe put off by the giant sausage party that it appears to be. And every time one of you does make an effort to seek out the ladies, it subtly changes the prevailing mindset of science = dudes. And that is something I would be immensely glad to see.


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