You might recall that a while back I posted about a review of Brian Greene’s The Hidden Reality. I quoted things from the review like:

Strings that get entangled in space early on can be stretched out by cosmic expansion to become hyperdimensional “branes.” A brane may, in Greene’s words, resemble “a gargantuan flag whose surface extends indefinitely.”

And wrote things like:

Anyway, there is a little bit of this article that’s not too difficult to grasp, although you risk spraining your mind when you do so. Consider the fact that computers are already pretty good at simulating a lot of physical, chemical and biological systems…

Just recently (probably a few weeks ago now. You might have noticed a bit of a gap in postings on this blog. Sorry) I came across another review, in The Millions this time, of the same book and am sufficiently excited to post about it again; this indicates I should just buy it and read it already, but whatever: I have a big pile of books to get through still. So, to get to the point: 

What excites me about this review is what it says about Greene’s approach to science in general, and particularly to writing. On science in general: Greene is a big defender of string theory, against those who would exclude it from being classified as “science” due to its failure to produce a testable hypothesis in its 30 years of existence. To elaborate on this, our existing understanding of the universe is incomplete: there is no one theory that accounts for all the fundamental particles and forces we have discovered plus the large-scale structure of the universe. String theory may be the most elegant way we have so far developed that brings these disparate elements under one conceptual roof, yet the theory relies on the universe having certain characteristics that we don’t know how to measure (or that, more problematically, are excluded by definition from being measured at all). Some would hold that without empirical verifiability, the theory is fundamentally unscientific, since empiricism is at the foundation of science. Greene seems to take the view that you shouldn’t stop investigating on a theoretical level just because there are no experiments to back you up: the earlier science has raised questions and it’s our duty to answer them however we can. So we plough on with string theory because it’s elegant and interesting, and maybe experiment will catch up, or the theory will lead to some predictions about the outcomes of plausible experiments.

On writing (and writing about science), the review quotes a lovely anecdote from an earlier book of Greene’s, about a game he and his father played when he was a kid:

One of us would look around, secretly fix on something that was happening—a bus rushing by, a pigeon landing on a windowsill, a man accidentally dropping a coin—and describe how it would look from an unusual perspective such as the wheel of the bus, the pigeon in flight, or the quarter falling earthward. The challenge was to take an unfamiliar description like “I’m walking on a dark, cylindrical surface surrounded by low, textured walls, and an unruly bunch of thick white tendrils is descending from the sky,” and figure out that it was the view of an ant walking on a hot dog that a street vendor was garnishing with sauerkraut.

This just seems awesome in so many ways: what better way to exercise your muscles of noticing, observation, imagination and description than retelling the scene in front of you from a novel point of view? I’m not gonna say I wish I had his dad, because I don’t wish I didn’t have my dad, but that dad was pretty cool.

Random connection: the “noticing” thing is huge for writers: James Wood goes on about it for ages in How Fiction Works, which you should read. It’s like Greene’s dad was training him to be a flaneur!