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Ruth’s Reviews – The Hidden Reality

Ruth Francis, Nature’s former head of press, is reading the shortlist of the Royal Society Winton prize for science books at a rate of one a week. She’s done it before. Will she succeed this year? The winner of the prize will be announced on 26 November.

In the introduction to The Hidden Reality, Brian Greene asserts he is going to “briefly remind you of the features of quantum mechanics, then focus on its most formidable problem”. For anyone who needs not reminding, but informing, of the features of quantum mechanics, this may be an intimidating declaration. It would be a shame to let this put you off.

The book tackles some of the most challenging ideas in theoretical physics; each chapter explains a different take on the idea that there are other realities. Interwoven into the fabric of each chapter are Einstein and his theories. These serve as a foundation onto which newer theories or models are built.

Luckily the reader needs no grasp of the mathematics or physics involved. Greene’s analogies are helpful — although early on, his use of filing a tax return may have turned this reader off (as my accountant brother will attest, the tax return is not something that draws me in). Happily we are soon asked to imagine a deck of cards shuffled in only a finite number of orders, and later ‘South Park’ character Eric Cartman’s energy changing as he climbs then rolls down a slope.

There are too many beautiful, astounding metaphors to mention them all, but the right amount of matter described as a single raindrop of energy in every Earth-sized volume, or a region of space the size of a pea being stretched to the size of the Universe to illustrate an incomprehensibly large number, are two that stood out for me.

Many books on theoretical physics or similarly complex fields provide a confusing — though of course ultimately finite — array of analogies. Brian Greene demonstrates his uncluttered thinking in this volume, and to me this is his triumph. The analogies illuminate the dark recesses of multiverses, and though I had to grapple, and admit defeat with some ideas, by the end of each chapter the ideas are pulled together.

If his aim is that “when you leave this book, your sense of what might be — your perspective on how the boundaries of reality may one day be redrawn […] — will be far more rich and vivid”, he goes a long way towards achieving that — though I’m not confident that I would be able to explain the details.

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