Parallel universes for dummies

The concept of parallel universes has built-in pop-culture connotations.

The concept of parallel universes has built-in pop-culture connotations. A recent venture that comes to mind is the Fox sci-fi television show “Fringe,” which bases its story around the existence of an opposite universe filled with humorous and disconcerting doppelgängers—but one can easily trace the trajectory of these representations as far back as “The Wizard of Oz.” Despite the fictional associations, Brian Greene’s new book “The Hidden Reality” (Alfred A. Knofp) explores the very real and very scientific possibility that our “universe” may actually be one of many.

Greene is a physicist who specializes in superstring theory. He has published two other similar books, “The Elegant Universe” and “The Fabric of the Cosmos.” While these two concentrate more specifically within his specialization, the newest addition to his catalogue branches into various areas of physics to explain the numerous contemporary investigations into “multiverse” theories.

Each chapter enters the parallel universe hypothesis from a different theoretical approach—big bang theory, inflationary theory, string theory, etc. The collective represents a fair assessment of where physics has been and where it must go in order to further prove (or prove at all) the reality of these hypotheticals. This book is less of an argument than a thoughtful exploration into a variety of speculations that will help scientists ultimately overcome their future limitations.

While heavily steeped in current endeavors, the narrative is also interspersed with portraits of past scientists. In an effort to explain the greater context of the concepts, Greene builds colorful historical narratives that create rounded characters out of the many names that would otherwise be rather two-dimensional references. This timeline of 20th century personalities puts the current work into perspective while also feeding our shared fascination with the inner workings of the quirky scientist.

One aspect that ties Greene’s works together is his accessibility as a science writer. Early on in “The Hidden Reality,” Greene clarifies that his goal is to present the naturally dense scientific information so that it can be understood by the layperson. The task of reading about quantum fields and sticky branes and cosmological constants can be daunting, but Greene presents the information in a highly comprehensible fashion. Just when the science begins to spiral into a dark territory beyond the average person’s understanding, he pulls you out and offers a paint-by-numbers analogy:

“Think of the universe as a gigantic block of Swiss cheese…we’ve found that the cosmic cheese acquires more and more holes because quantum processes knock the inflaton’s value downward at a random assortment of locations. At the same time, the cheesy parts stretch ever larger because they’re subject to inflationary expansion driven by the high inflaton field value they harbor. Taken together, the two processes yield an ever-expanding block of cosmic cheese riddled with an ever-growing number of holes.”

Throughout the book, Greene analogizes Pringles, Dom Pérignon, Ms. Pac-Man, clammy handshakes, Legos and a giant slice of bread, just to name a few. These highly visual comparisons allow the reader to baby-step through the more difficult theories. At the same time, he gives his more experienced readers permission to “skip ahead” if they are already familiar with the forthcoming data.

That said, Greene has a way of making his narrative interactive. There are periodical references to the reader’s location, which force us to think about the physical space in which we read, the book we hold or the light shining on the book’s pages. Understanding and applying these ideas to the microcosm of our own space helps the reader to comprehend the larger concepts. In these moments, Greene’s voice is playful and guiding, without decreasing the gravity (no pun intended) of his investment in this work.

Greene is part of a welcomed effort to close the gap between the oft-convoluted world of science and the ordinary person, who has a much easier time understanding Swiss cheese and Pringles. In the end, the reader emerges with both a richer knowledge of physics as well as a variety of metaphors to communicate said knowledge at a cocktail party. ?