New NYRB

Some fairly interesting items in the new issue, though behind the paywall. That would include Phillip Lopate on “The Best German Novelist of His Time,” aka Theodor Fontane.

Diane Johnson on TC Boyle’s new novel sounds fairly interesting.

Relatedly, the new BookForum is also out, although with most of the items grayed out at this point. Rivka Galchen’s essay on Lydia Davis’s new Madame Bovary strikes an unnecessarily grating tone at points, though is not without some insight and charm at other points.

And, if this is the kind of thing you like there’s a very fair and interesting review of Brian Greene’s latest book on our understanding of the cosmos:

But this was a vast mistake—the string community had unwittingly made a much more extreme underestimate than, say, calculating that the ocean contains a thimbleful of water. Physicists discovered in the early 2000s, much to their surprise, that there are at least 10⁵⁰⁰ Calabi-Yau manifolds out there. This is an ungodly—and unphysical—number. If you were to stick one hundred thousand manifolds on every single particle in the universe, you wouldn’t even make a dent in the catalogue. String theory was describing an unimaginably large, and perhaps even infinite, number of universes. In the mid-2000s, critics, such as physicist Lee Smolin, attacked string theory, arguing that it had become so all-encompassing, so accepting of the enormous landscape of fictional universes, that it had completely lost whatever tenuous connection with physical reality it had once had. Instead of a “theory of everything,” string theory had become a “theory of anything” and thus impervious to falsification. No matter what experiments might show, Smolin wrote in The Trouble with Physics (2006), “string theory cannot be disproved.”

The critics, however, were unable to dent Greene’s faith. If anything, his enthusiasm has grown stronger over the years. In The Hidden Reality, Greene answers naysayers by turning their most damning evidence against string theory into an asset. The panoply of universes described by string theory, argues Greene, isn’t a failure of an overbroad mathematical framework. Instead, string theory is, in fact, tapping into a mind-blowing truth: that our cosmos is just one of a nearly uncountable panoply of cosmoses—that we inhabit a “multiverse” rather than a single universe.

If this seems like a drastic solution to the landscape problem, it is. This is not an elegant universe; it’s a byzantine mess with enormous philosophical implications. For example, the inhabitant of a multiverse is shadowed by countless doppelgängers identical to her in every possible way, as well as infinite others who are subtly and bizarrely different. For example, there would be a copy of you reading this review in Fookborum right now—and stumbling across this sentence would cause you to scratch your head in amazement with your prehensile tail. “You might argue that the bizarre nature of where we’ve gotten—infinite copies of you and everyone and everything—is evidence of the faulty nature of one or more of the assumptions that led us here,” Greene writes. Even though the consequences are indeed bizarre, he is rightly able to draw on the support of a large number of scientists who are now being driven to the same conclusion for reasons that have nothing to do with string theory. The most commonly accepted versions of the physical processes that took hold shortly after the big bang, for example, lead to the widely held belief that we live in one of countless bubble universes that are floating in an infinite cosmic plenum. As Greene writes, multiverses are an almost inevitable conclusion of our current understanding of the laws of physics.



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