In this short space we have been able to sample only a few of the riches contained in this treasurable book. Greene looks at the world with a clear eye. For him, our finitude is at once our tragedy and our consolation. We are ephemeral, he writes, and “the enormous sweep of time only adds weight to the nearly unbearable lightness of being . . . Looking for the universe to hug us, its transient conscious squatters, is understandable, but that’s just not what the universe does. . . And so, in our quest to fathom the human condition, the only direction to look is inward.”
Until The End of Time is, he promises, a hopeful book. There are many things it succeeds at admirably. It takes us from the biggest things in the universe to the smallest things in our body. It discusses the nature of consciousness and the paradox of free will. It makes vertiginous leaps through space and time, through physics and metaphysics, without ever feeling forced or confusing. It is, that rarity for a theoretical physics book, actually comprehensible. With that praise out of the way, I trust Greene will forgive me if I say he failed to convince me on his central goal — that this book is also hopeful.
Greene serves up plenty of revelatory detail along the way. There’s the eccentric method all known life uses to extract energy from its environment: of the innumerable mechanisms available (fusion, fission, electromagnetism and so on), living entities stubbornly choose just one: a baroque series of chemical reactions involving electron transfer called redox reactions. Or there’s the terrific explanation of entropy involving the smell of baking bread: the way the molecules carrying that smell disperse through your house is one delicious example of the way the universe is drifting inexorably from order to chaos.