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The Greatest Story Never Read 

An Oxford don’s rather thorough guide to the universe

Thursday, Apr 7 2005
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Illustration by Joshua Agler
In the beginning, things started small, then, as time passed, space expanded and the scale of everything got bigger and bigger, until eventually it reached the gargantuan proportions we see today. This, in a nutshell, is how physicists describe the evolution of our universe, but it may equally well describe the evolution of physicists’ books about the universe.

In the beginning (back in 1988) there was A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking’s surprise best-seller that catapulted the subject of cosmology onto the coffee tables of intellectuals and hipsters the world over. Though Hawking’s infamous volume may be the most unread book ever, it had the virtue of brevity, clocking in at a modest 192 pages. A decade later, Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe, which updated the cosmic picture from the standpoint of string theory, expanded the format to 448 pages, even as the point size had shrunk. January saw the publication of Simon Singh’s Big Bang, a 532-page account of physicists’ quest to understand the origin of the universe, and now comes Roger Penrose’s The Road to Reality, which extends the story of physics to no less than 1,136 pages.

It is true that theoretical physics is a cumulative endeavor, and the past few decades have been an immensely fruitful era for the field, at both the subatomic and cosmological levels. But does physics really have this much more enlightenment to offer? The ever-inflating-physics-book phenomenon calls, I think, for a deeper explanation, one that has less to do with the advance of science and more to do with the celebritization of science publishing.

Before the mid-’80s, physicists were essentially nerds. Worse than that, they were associated with weaponry. Who, after all, had built the bombs that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the nuclear missiles on whose threat the Cold War was premised? Having been a physics student in the late 1970s, I well remember the look of disgust on people’s faces when I told them my chosen subject. Then came Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics, Gary Zukav’s The Dancing Wu Li Masters and Paul Davies’ God and the New Physics, all of which cast physics as a mystical search for Truth. A Brief History of Time, with its closing reference to “the mind of God,” solidified this transformation in the public psyche and installed Hawking as the High Priest of science — in the process, selling some 10 million copies.

Aside from Einstein, who lived before the age of mass telecommunications and who would have been appalled by the celebrity apparatus surrounding the subject today, Hawking was the first scientific Superstar. Greene was the next; his combination of cutely named theory, affable manner and soft-rock-star handsomeness made him the darling of talk-show hosts the world over. Although The Elegant Universe is surely a candidate for the second most unread book of all time, PBS turned it into a $3.5 million television series, and its sequel, The Fabric of the Cosmos (576 pages), is rumored to have gleaned a million-dollar-plus advance.

Ever since Hawking, the publishing industry has been trawling the halls of academe for further Stars. No one fits that bill more than Roger Penrose, emeritus professor of mathematics at Oxford University and co-author of Hawking’s original papers on “singularities” (of which black holes are the most famous instance). For this work the pair was awarded the Wolf Prize, the physics world’s equivalent of the Nobel.

Penrose is also the author of the controversial book The Emperor’s New Mind, which claims that consciousness can be explained by quantum mechanics. Not only is he a great physicist, he is also a brilliant mathematician who has developed the theory of “twistors” (six-dimensional entities that may explain the fundamental structure of space and time) and who has made seminal discoveries in the theory of tiling patterns that have endeared him to recreational mathematicians everywhere.

Given all this, it is hardly surprising that he has been signed up for what Knopf, with Hollywood-style hubris, is calling “a major publishing event.” By volume and weight, The Road to Reality is certainly a humongous event. Even in galley form, without a cover, I can barely lift the thing. User-friendly it is not.



And what about the stuff between the covers? What do we get in our 1,136 pages? Just about everything, it seems. Penrose’s goal, as he tells us on his opening page, is to educate his readers about “the underlying principles that govern the behavior of our universe,” and to that end he begins by taking us back to first principles. Not to the early 20th century and Einstein’s theory of relativity, or even to the 17th century and Newton’s laws of motion, but two and a half thousand years back, to Pythagoras of Samos and his famous theorem about right-angled triangles. When a book begins with a chapter on the fundamentals of geometry, it is unsurprising that it takes a thousand pages to get to string theory. On the way the reader is treated to what amounts to a college-level education in mathematical physics, from the Greeks on.

Here is a sampling of topics covered, all quoted directly from the table of contents: geometry of complex algebra, the “Eulerian” notion of a function, conformal mappings, Fourier series, hyperfunctions, linear transformations and matrices, differentiation on a manifold, Euclidean and Minkowskian 4-space, Lagrangian treatment of fields, quantum Hamiltonians, Bohm-type EPR experiments, Bosons and Fermions, “Coloured Quarks,” antiparticles in QFT, constructing Feynman graphs, the Weyl curvature hypothesis, the Hartle-Hawking “no-boundary” proposal, Schrödinger’s Cat with “Copenhagen” ontology, clues from cosmological time asymmetry, the magical Calabi-Yau spaces, the D-brane perspective, the chiral input to Ashtekar’s variables, and twistors as light rays.

If you understand any of that, you are probably going to love this book. For Penrose is utterly sincere in this monumental undertaking, and he leads the reader on a step-by-step adventure up the increasingly precipitous slope toward a mathematical “theory of everything.”

But what of the potential reader for whom the phrase “twistor sheaf cohomology” is likely to induce a sense of apprehension, if not outright terror? At the start of the book, Penrose tells us he has eschewed the standard publishing-industry advice that for every equation his sales would drop by a half. (If that proves true, his readership will be nil.) He goes on to express the belief that most people’s mathematical ability is considerably greater than they imagine and that with patience and persistence anyone can understand the glittering edifice of modern physics.

I am all for this view — the myth of the non-math brain is one of the more noxious notions ingrained in our culture. Most people do have far more mathematical ability than they are ever given the opportunity to exercise. But if one does not acquire mathematical skills while young, it is exceedingly difficult to do so as an adult, at least at the level Penrose is proposing. The Road to Reality will, I am sure, be a hit with college math and physics majors, but to present this, as his publishers are doing, as an accessible text for the general reader is utterly disingenuous.

That said, this extraordinary book is a deeply brilliant resource for anyone who seriously wants to know about the mathematical formalisms and philosophical predilections underlying physicists’ search for a description of the material world. You may not get past the preface, but there is no more concentrated a package of vicarious braininess. Sitting on the coffee table, it will radiate an aura of intellectual uplift to the entire neighborhood. I hope for Penrose’s sake that it does sell well enough to become one of the world’s foremost unread books — it is certainly the greatest.



THE ROAD TO REALITY: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe | By ROGER PENROSE | Knopf | 1,136 pages | $40 hardcover

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