Greene, From The Fabric of the Cosmos

Greene, Brian. “Roads to Reality.” The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality. New York: Vintage Books, 2005. 3-22. Print.

The chapter title, “Roads to Reality,” suggesting a plurality of methods toward a presupposed “reality” that is singular in nature.  Greene opens the chapter with an anecdote from his youth, when he pulled Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus off his father’s shelf, and was struck by Camus’ point about assessing the value of life and existence, noting that Sisyphus’ choice to accept his meaningless task is a form of letting go of what is not there, and accepting direct experience (3; 21). He comes back to this myth throughout the chapter, as he considers how meaning, understanding, truth, reality, nature, existence, and knowledge change or interact with principles of modern physics such as relativity, probability, flexibility, and our experience of the directionality of time (Greene).

Rather than summarizing, I’ll just post a selection of quotes worth considering metaphorically and epistemologically, to help me examine how Greene uses rhetorical tropes and makes (or does not make) knowledge claims.


The overarching lesson that has emerged from scientific inquiry over the last century is that human experience is often a misleading guide to the true nature of reality” (Greene 5).

“Lying just beneath the surface of the everyday is a world we’d hardly recognize. Followers of the occult, devotees of astrology, and those who hold to religious principles that speak to a reality beyond experience have, from widely varying perspectives, long since arrived at a similar conclusion. But that’s not what I have in mind. I’m referring to the work of …. Men and women of science who have peeled back layer after layer of the cosmic onion” (Greene 5).

“Assessing life through the lens of everyday experience is like gazing at a Van Gogh through an empty coke bottle (Greene 5).

“Assessing existence while failing to embrace the insights of modern physics would be like wrestling in the dark with an unknown opponent” (Greene 5).

“we won’t arrive at any final assessments. But we will encounter a series of developments . . . that will show how close we’ve come to wrapping our mind around the fabric of the cosmos and touching the true texture of reality” (Greene 6).

"The developments we’ll cover in this book interweave the fabric of space and time in various ways" (Greene 6).

Newton wondered “what is space? . . . because without taking a stand on the meaning of space and time, his equations describing motion would prove meaningless. Understanding requires context; insight must be anchored” (Greene 8).

Relativity: Einstein looked at Maxwell’s work on electromagnetism and Kelvin’s work on radiation, both of which were revolutionary changes—and “determined that space and time are not independent and absolute . . . but are enmeshed and relative in a manner that flies in the face of common experience” (Greene 9).

Flexibility: In addition to looking at as a single entity, Einstein “also showed that by warping and curving they participate in cosmic evolution. Far from being the rigid, unchanging structures envisioned by Newton, space and time in Einstein’s reworking are flexible and dynamic” (Greene 10).

Probability: “The universe, according to quantum mechanics, is not etched into the present; the universe, according to quantum mechanics, participates in a game of chance. Although there is still controversy over precisely how these developments should be interpreted, most physicists agree that probability is deeply woven into the fabric of quantum reality. Whereas human intuition, and its embodiment in classical physics, envision a reality in which things are always definitely one way or another, quantum mechanics describes a reality in which things sometimes hover in a haze of being partly one way and partly another. Things become definite only when a suitable observation forces them to relinquish quantum possibilities and settle on a specific outcome . . . We are unused to a reality that remains ambiguous until perceived” (Greene 11). 

Entanglement: quantum mechanics “implies that something you do over here can be instantaneously linked to something happening over there, regardless of distance” (Greene 11).

The "arrow of time": “each direction in time, forward and backward, is treated by the laws without distinction. And that’s the origin of a huge puzzle. Nothing in the equations of fundamental physics shows any sign of treating one direction in time differently from the other, and that is totally at odds with everything we experience” (Greene 13).    Boltzmann, Penrose, and others have suggested that the directionality of time from the past toward the future may have been a product of the big bang: “special physical conditions at the universe’s inception (a highly ordered environment at or just after the big bang) may have imprinted a direction on time, rather as winding up a clock twisting its spring into a highly ordered initial state, allows it to tick forward” (Greene 13).

No unified theory: “The problem, though, is that when the equations of general relativity commingle with those of quantum mechanics, the result is disastrous. The equations break down entirely . . . it’s not an overstatement to describe this situation as a theoretician’s nightmare: the absence of mathematical tools with which to analyze a vital realm that lies beyond experimental accessibility. And since space and time are so thoroughly entwined with this particular inaccessible realm—the origin of the universe—understanding space and time fully” requires new equations and a yet-nonexistent “unified theory” (Greene 15).

Looking at black holes because they are at once very massive and very small: “A conflict in the known laws of physics means a failure to grasp a deep truth and that was enough to keep these scientists from resting easy. Those who plunged in, though, found the waters deep and the currents rough” (Greene 17).

Superstring Theory: Those who have looked at what is both large and small The approach that many agree is a leading contender is superstring theory” . . .  “these particles are not dots. Instead, according to superstring theory, every particle is composed of a tiny filament of energy” (Greene 17).  . . . “which is shaped like a little string. And just as a violin string can vibrate in different patterns, each of which produces a different musical tone, the filaments of superstring theory can also vibrate in different patterns” to “produce different particle properties” (Greene 18).

“All species of particles are unified in superstring theory since each arises from a different vibrational pattern executed by the same underlying entity” (Greene 18).

“Superstring theory has revealed the breadth necessary to stitch all of nature’s forces and all of matter into the same theoretical tapestry. In short, superstring theory is a prime candidate for Einstein’s unified theory” (Greene 18). Its “proposed fusion of general relativity and quantum mechanics is mathematically sensible only if . . . instead of the three spatial dimensions and on time dimension of common experience, superstring theory requires nine spatial dimensions and one time dimension” or in M-theory, ten space dimensions (Greene 18). “As we don’t see these extra dimensions, superstring theory is telling us that we’ve so far glimpsed but a meager slice of reality” (Greene 18).

“String theorists . . . have found that extra dimensions might be so tightly crumpled that they’re too small for us or any of our existing equipment to see (Chapter 12), or they might be large but invisible to the ways we probe the universe (Chapter 13)” (Greene 19).

“If superstring theory is proven correct, we will be forced to accept that the reality we have known is but a delicate chiffon draped over a thick and richly textured cosmic fabric” (Greene 19).

Back to time’s arrow: “The question of time’s arrow provides a common thread that runs through many of the developments we’ll discuss, and it will surface repeatedly in the chapters that follow. This is fitting (Greene 20).

“Promising ideas more often than not, lead nowhere. That’s the nature of scientific research . . . you can come to know the universe not only by resolving its mysteries, but also by immersing yourself within them” (Greene 21).

Comparison to Sisyphus: “In pushing the rock up the mountain, we undertake the most exquisite and noble tasks: to unveil this place we call home, to revel in the wonders we discover, and to hand of our knowledge to those who follow” (Greene 22).

“And as we’ve continued to slowly unmask the cosmos, we’ve gained the intimacy that comes only from closing in on the clarity of truth” (Greene 22).