Brian Greene – Until the End of Time (Book Review)

I haven’t yet been to a bookstore to see how big Brian Greene’s new book is in real life. I read the Kindle version. But this book is loooong. It just keeps going and going and going.

So you may prefer the abridged book talk version, for example this one:

I will confess up front, that normally I’m not a fan of Brian Greene. I like my physics teachers to be facts up front and to the point, and while Greene always seemed perfectly knowledgable, he always seemed to suborn his physics to metaphors, warm fuzzy analogies and thinly veiled attempts to engage my enthusiasm in a subject I was already plenty interested in to begin with.

I had also seen him live in Toronto in conversation with Sam Harris. Again perfectly respectable as a physicist, but they came to issues of religion and moral philosophy and took a position which struck me as too accommodationist. As a professional science communicator (he is in charge of the World Science Festival) he is probably wise to be as apolitical as possible, and in the US, religion and politics are firmly joined at the hip. But the subtext of his side of the conversation was that we really shouldn’t mind too much if people believe things that aren’t true; a philosophy of “why rock the boat?”

My feelings about him changed during the lockdown when he under took a fabulous project on YouTube “Your Daily Equation” (playlist) where he would take an equation from physics and delve into it. Now this was my kind of physics, with equations and (some) rigour. And his handwriting with an Apple Pencil is shockingly good and I’m jealous.

[Update: The series seems to have been abruptly cut short following the passing of Brian’s mother. So really wishing his family the best as right now dealing with that can offer nothing but a sea of unpleasant complications.]

So with this new Brian Greene in mind, I was encouraged to pick up a copy of his latest book and give it a try. My results were… mixed. This was the old Brian Greene, who liked to wax poetic. If I had to guess, he had worked out a contract with his publisher, not only to to get paid by the word, but paid by the metaphor. And since it is a personality quirk of mine not to leave a book half-read, pushing through to the end did feel like a little bit of a chore.

Now having finished. The book is a sandwich. The book has a strong beginning and end and the middle is just plain odd.

Now writing a mainstream physics book is a certainly a challenge. When we learn science and math in school, most curricula are just recapitulating the discovery of human knowledge more or less in chronological order. And since history doesn’t go anywhere, it just keeps piling up higher and higher, by the time you get to the end of high school, you get about as far as 1915 before you just run out of time and everything after that, like quantum weirdness, inflation or black holes, you have to get form pop culture.* So every book ever written needs to more or less start from scratch and lay groundwork before getting to the good bits.

*Biology is different. They can get much further, chronologically speaking, because they’re content to just have you memorize a lot of facts, there’s much less need to actually *do* anything in the way you have to learn to do a conservation of momentum problem.

The bits that particularly jumped out to me as well done were:

His treatment of entropy.
In particular I learned a great deal that was actually new in spite of all of the science I casually consume, especially in the formation of stars.

His explanation of free will.
Greene is, like Daniel Dennett, a compatibilist. Compatibilism is a bit of a weaselly position. It says to people who believe in libertarian free will that what they believe in doesn’t really exist, but that we can find some other concept which can justify your feeling that you have free will but is qualitatively completely different. So even though you’re wrong, we’re going to still call the new thing “free will” so you feel better. Which has the unfortunate practical problem of letting them slide back to their original definition. (This is caused by the practical problem is that most people’s intuitive sense of criminal justice and accountability is leans almost entirely on the kind of free will that doesn’t exist. So if you disprove the false notion of free will you immediately have to build them a new moral framework on the spot or you’re in serious trouble.

It actually snuck up on me how directly Greene comes down on the side of determinism: the idea that human choices aren’t magical interventions in the universe but direct consequences of the laws of physics that are explicit and unambiguous. He also goes to great lengths to dispel the idea that quantum weirdness might somehow leave the door open for some of that magic to sneak back in. And then builds up a definition of free will from the ground up and just does a terrific and articulate job of it. As they say, worth the price of the book.

His explanation of the end of the universe.
He has an interesting metaphor (one of the few in the book that wasn’t immediately irritating) for exploring the far future, literally summarizing squillions of years.

The yucky bit in the middle was his multi-chapter detour to explore why humans have developed language, culture and most importantly art. Having listened to his love of flowery language and metaphor, this is clearly a book that he has been wanting to write for a very long time. Although he moves from an area where he is a legitimate subject matter expert to an area where he writing a humanities essay. Granted he knows how to cite his sources far better than your typical undergraduate English major. But most of it is a collection of quotes from artists and social scientists he likes.

But I did make it all the way through and I learned my lesson: My enjoyment of Brian Greene content is proportional to the number of Greek letters that show up in it.

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