On Writing About Physics

I made some comments on writing popularized physics in Blackboard I. Now, here I am, feeling absolutely compelled to do it again.

A few days ago I received a care package from my sister containing, among other things like granola bars and socks, a copy of Brian Greene's The Hidden Reality. I felt it to be almost synchronistic, or at least coincidental, after having written the brief essay near the top of Blackboard II. Having read his first two books, I plunged in. My main complaint of my previous critique had to do with the overuse and potentially obfuscating effect of metaphors, and Mister Greene does not shy away from such stand-ins.

Okay, every popularizer has the mandatory initial chapters on the development of physics ideas beginning with Thales or Archimedes or someone like that. All the way through to the twentieth century, showcasing all the usual suspects, their breakthroughs and contributions to the science. So, after plowing through that several times an astute and interested reader should feel no compunction about skipping ahead to what the book is actually supposed to explain. For the sake of completeness, however, I decided to begin on chapter two.

I got as far as page 100 before I cracked. He was talking about string theory, repeating a great deal from his first book The Elegant Universe. But now, ladies and gentlemen, I need to rant. On page 100 we have a discussion on the difference between wrapped and unwrapped strings. I believe Mister Greene assumes the reader has read his other books, especially the first. He writes: "In this way wrapped and unwrapped strings are sensitive to different features of a shape through which they're moving. What the unwrapped strings see [my emphasis] on one space, the wrapped strings see on the other, and vice versa, rendering identical the collective picture gleaned from the full physics of string theory." This came within the larger frame of the equivalence of pairs of geometric shapes for space that have completely different features when each is probed by wrapped and unwrapped strings, and this equivalence allows for the easier of the pair to be worked out mathematically. Okay.

But what I got hung-up on, stubbornly, I might add, as though refusing to even try to grasp what he was attempting to convey, was the idea of a string having the capacity to see. Greene does this all the time. He makes obtuse what, I believe, would be more easily understood by stating pointedly just what the hell is going on. I mean, c'mon, anybody interested enough to bother reading this stuff probably has sufficient background and intelligence to go the extra mile to understand, to make the effort. At least, why not tell it like it is first, and then wax on the metaphors afterwards. The brief notes at the back help, I must say, but, such as they are, they break continuity if you decide to flip back for more details. Instead, he personifies something as abstract as a vibrating string. Can they hear and smell and taste as well? What is it they see with their Planck-scale eyesight?

On the same page near the bottom he writes: "When a sphere is packed into this shape [a certain Calabi-Yau shape], it can wrap around a portion of the Calabi-Yau multiple times, much like a lasso can wrap multiple times around a beer barrel. So, how many ways can you pack a sphere into this shape if it wraps around, say, five times?" Say what? Wrap a sphere around a convoluted shape, or any shape? Spheres don't wrap. They can contain something, but, unless the sphere is composed of multiple concentric shells, you're only going to do that once.

I know I'm being petty. After all, who am I to critique Brian Greene? But, every time, it seems, I'm about to get an insight into something, to learn more, perceive a new angle, grasp another aspect, he goes off on some watered-down metaphor. It's annoying. When scientists attempt to capture a concept with words and expressions, they do their utmost to get as close as possible to the essence of it. Words -- nouns, verbs -- are metaphors for reality to begin with. When dealing with the abstract world, it becomes especially important to draw as accurate a picture as possible. I've read many mathematics text books over the years and have spent many hours of my life mulling over specific wordings describing an idea or set of ideas collectively forming an overall picture. I would never have learned what I have to the depth that I have if the authors of those math books had resorted to metaphors, layers removed from the accurate portrayal of what they wished to convey, in the name of attempting to make it all the more palatable.

Okay, I got that off my chest. Now, maybe, I can read the rest of Professor Greene's best-selling book in peace and, hopefully, with understanding.