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The Elegant Universe (Nova Series) - Thoughts?

  1. Jan 26, 2010 #1
    I just finished watching the "Elegant Universe" series recently, diving in hoping to be fascinated by the ideas behind string theory. Unfortunately, I left the series as more of a skeptic than a believer.

    First a disclaimer. This video is essentially where I got all my information about string theory from. Therefore I am not trying to discredit string theory or even make any judgments at all on it. I'll leave that for another day when I do more research. What I'm criticizing here is this series and its failure at trying to convince me in the "truth" of string theory.
    EDIT: I have also not yet read the book, but it's coming in the mail :-)

    The first part of the series was interesting. It explained some currently well established theories of the universe, as well as tossing in a bit of history on the discoveries in physics. Everything that was presented seemed to be well backed up by experiments and also by the interviewees in the series.

    Then it finally got to the string theory part. At this point, I can't seem to tell if the video is supporting the theory, or mocking it. The rest of the series basically tells the story of:

    - Physicist discovers string theory, expects parade
    - Gets back a letter saying "this paper sucks"
    - Physicist gets drunk
    - New particles are discovered
    - String theorist exclaim, "Hey maybe forces are particles too!"
    - String theorists go on a full out hunt for these particles.... so far no luck
    - String theorists come up with 5 conflicting theories that all "fit the bill". Which one is right?
    - Guy says, lets just smash all these theories together, and problem solved!
    - "Lets call it... magic... no, mystery! NOOO MATTRIXX THEORY!" (btw... I just can't take that guy seriously)
    - Theory has to do with closed loop stings
    - No wait, open ended stings moving on a surface
    - No wait, branes! yess delicious branes!!!

    Da** it make up your mind.

    I know, I know, long pointless post, but I had to rant.

    I think what really bothered me was this kind of "certainty" the narrator had. He made it seem like string theory was already deemed as correct when in fact, the whole video just showed that string theory is like a laughing stock of physics. In fact, if you didn't notice, many of the scientists interviewed seemed to hold a view that string theory is wack. Some interviews were even extremely edited to the point where their statements are so vague that you have no idea what point they're trying to get through. The only thing I can take from the interviewed is that string theory is almost impossible to verify (or deny). Okay... well so is the idea of a God. Does that mean people should start preaching that God is trut- wait, nvm.

    Anyway my last beef with this series is that I kept waiting for it to explain to me the reasoning behind string theory, but I just kept getting hit with that vibrating strings of a cello analogy. GAHHHHHHHHHHHHH
    Last edited: Jan 27, 2010
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  3. Jan 26, 2010 #2
    Thanks. This is exactly what I reproach Brian Greene with : lack of lucidity, of intellectual honesty, to the point that when I read/listen to him, where I wonder : does he think I am stupid, or is it him ?

    There are other much better accounts of string theory out there. Take Randall's book for instance. Even the style does not compare.
  4. Jan 26, 2010 #3


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    I found the TV program to be a faint ghost of the book. I'm not sure I even finished watching it.

    The book on the other hand, contrary to humanino's take, was one of the most illuminating and comprehensive textbooks I've ever read. I could actually feel my brain stretching with each chapter and each concept he elucidated.
  5. Jan 27, 2010 #4
    It appears there are various opinions, and I must admit mine must be in the minority, since Green's book sells so well. I must say I did read Greene's book "the elegant Universe". I also have seen his Nova show, and I have seen several talks given by him. I think I took all reasonable steps before displaying my opinion. I admit I did not talked to him, yet I do not count that step as "reasonable".

    I thought for a long time my problem with his style was that I have some amount of technical familiarity with the subject. I was interested by khkwang because he appears not to be familiar with it before he read Greene's book. It may be that khkwang has a passion for mathematics and rigor in physics.

    I remember someone saying they preferred Greene's book to Randall's on this forum. Did you read Randall's book "Warped Passages: Unraveling the Universe's Hidden Dimensions" ?
  6. Jan 27, 2010 #5
    Hey humanino, I actually haven't read the book yet... but you just made me realize that it's written by the narrator of the series. I really wish you hadn't made me realize that, because now I can't help be be subconsciously bias when reading the book. God do I want to punch him (Green) in the face haha.

    To clarify, I actually dread math (was fun as a kid... but calculus slowly abolished all the love I had left for it. In fact, I'm a computer scientist with a passion for physics.

    Also, something that I'm not exactly proud of is the fact my English skills are not the best (something that computer scientists have in common) so you're going to have to define "rigor" here for me *sweat drop*.

    Yes I agree with you on Green's presentation style. I find his (undeserved?) arrogance extremely annoying. Also in the series, I was really surprised to find out that he was a professor. I thought he was just some no named actor hired to narrate!

    Anyway, I'll definitely make sure to check out Randall's book as well as Green's.
  7. Jan 27, 2010 #6


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    Well, don't be biased; he's a writer, not a presenter.

    Yes, the book is definitely aimed at the non-professional in the math/physics field. It would not surprise me if someone who had an in-depth technical knowledge of the subject-matter found it objectionable; it has to be simplified, otherwise all you get is equations.
  8. Jan 29, 2010 #7
    Oh yea, what I said was really just a joke. Unless I really do become subconsciously biased, which would mean I won't be able to really control it... but that's another topic.
  9. Jan 29, 2010 #8
    I enjoyed the book. I learned some things from it.

    There were plenty of questions left unanswered like, what is the physical meaning of tears and rips? what is string theory able to calculate? aren't there easier ways to deal with infinities at zero distance like a nice lattice gauge? etc...
  10. Jan 29, 2010 #9
    Are you serious! Edward Witten is undoubtably a genius. Not only is he a leader in the field of theoretical physics (ie string theory) but he is also know as a leader in the field of mathematics. In 1990 he won the fields medal, which is regarded as the nobel prize of mathematics!

    Perhaps you were not paying attention throughout this whole documentary! As said above, and referenced in Part 2, which gave a concise history of string theory, it came from an interpretation of a particular (set of) equations related to the strong force. And if you continued to pay attention, you would have understood the reasoning after.

    Perhaps you should read a bit more! Although string theory has no evidence it doesnt make it useless. The reason its "impossible to verify" is because we dont have machinery with a high enough power to search for direct evidence of string theory. But there is the possibility that the LHC in Geneva could shed light on supersymmetry (which is also explained in the doccumentary!)

    Furthermore the development has led to many advances in fields of mathematics ranging from PDEs to Algebra with developments such as the notion of quantum groups etc It has been claimed string theory could be the key to solving one of the most infamous problems in contemporary mathematics ie the yang-mills theory!
  11. Jan 30, 2010 #10


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    But still it is a problem to induce people to believe that string theory was produced in an Eureka moment as a "cello analogy". The cello analogy come something in the middle, after the discovery of the theory but before the incorporation of fermions. But it is not the origin of string theory.

    Of course anyone with this Eureka moment had asked for general extended objects, not only strings. This is done in the theory of the "brane scan", see eg references in http://arxiv.org/abs/hep-th/9207060, in some sense the germ of M-theory, but probably muddled by ego wars or questions of notation and interpretation.
  12. Jan 30, 2010 #11

    I said earlier in my post that I wasn't judging the validity of String Theory. I was just criticizing the effectiveness of the movie.

    Edward Witten might be a genius, but all I know of him is what I saw in the video. Based solely on the video... he's wasn't the most "professional" physicist I've seen.

    And the movie did explain where string theory came from, but it didn't even try to explain the observations or the reasoning behind their beliefs. Just that it was derived from eulers equation or something. (Though I do understand that this was to "dumb down" the video so it'd be less intimidating).

    Finally, I never said String Theory was useless. I'm sure it predicts lots of things, otherwise there wouldn't be a strong following. BUT from the movie itself, none of these correct predictions were presented. Only that "String Theory predicts that there exists a graviton, and we're trying desperately to find it". The movie also didn't speak of any of the developments you've mentioned.

    So yeah, like I said, I'm not making any judgments about string theory (at least not until I read more about it). I'm just criticizing the movie itself :wink:.
  13. Jan 30, 2010 #12
    Fair enough. I do agree that there are a few "faults" in this documentary but im of the belief that it was not made to satisfy the intellectual curiosities of people like us but more so the target audience was intended to be more broader as to accommodate the "laymen".
  14. Jan 30, 2010 #13


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    IMO, the book was aimed at the layperson; the film was aimed at the average joe.
  15. Jan 31, 2010 #14
    Rest assured that Ed Witten has proven himself among the highest rank theoreticians even before publishing anything above string theory. Every single paper he writes is a masterpiece.
  16. Jan 31, 2010 #15
    imho, i found the movie to be slightly dissappointing, only because i wanted something (slightly) more technical. i love science, but haven't progressed passed layman status. so i read lots of books directed at the layman about quantum mechanics, relativity, and some other subjects, and i learned facts, such as time dilation, e.g. but i knew them more as facts, rather than concepts. the book of the elegant universe and the fabric of the cosmos helped me understand the ideas better, moreso than just knowing that, yeah, if you travel close to the speed of light, time slows down. i haven't read the other book people are talking about. but at any rate, i enjoyed the books.

    i never got around to doing so, but i wanted to have a drinking game with my friends, where we'd watch the nova episodes and take a drink every time greene said string theory. i figured we'd get wasted. has anyone ever done a count of how many times he says that phrase?
  17. Jan 31, 2010 #16


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    There's a difference? :wink:

    I watched part of the NOVA series back when I was in high school, and I wasn't too impressed. I seem to remember lots of flashy graphics (which were nice, don't get me wrong), but it's the same old stuff you get in any popular science depiction of string theory. The book was better, because every so often he gives an equation or a technical note for advanced readers in a footnote. It was the first (and perhaps still the only) science book I've ever read that was aimed at a general audience and yet didn't seem to treat advanced mathematics as some sort of intellectual toxin, only to be exposed to trained experts.
  18. Jan 31, 2010 #17


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    Yeah. I'm a layperson. I am quite familiar with the physics involved but I'm lacking the math. The book is about as explanatory as it can be without simply being a math text.

    The average Joe has high school physics at best. The TV show was about as basic as it could be.
  19. Jan 31, 2010 #18
    meh. He hasn't proven himself as a great physicist yet. But time will tell on this. Physics is an experimental science. He's a great mathematician he can calculate things quicker and more elegantly than anyone else. If you compare him to Einstein, how instance, they are very different types of thinkers.
  20. Jan 31, 2010 #19


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    Who has? o:) In the last 20 years, lets say.
  21. Jan 31, 2010 #20
    I will brave an answer to your question.

    There are two parts to physics, experiment and theory. In the last 20 years we have from experiment neutrino oscillation (=> neutrino mass), Hubble expansion rate increase, correlation between versus angle in the CMB (information on pressure waves in the early universe, this may be wrong please feel free to correct thanks).

    I can not think of any testable and tested theory results in the last 20 years. I also can not think of any particle physics experimental results in the last 20 years of importance. I hope I am missing many wonderful results from both of these fields and you and others can fill me in. Thanks.
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