Fabric of the Cosmos (So Many Books)

Stefanie Hollmichel loves books. A circulation assistant at a university library, Hollmichel describes herself as an “omnivorous reader,” a term I will be blatantly lifting for my own nefarious purposes from now on. In addition to being an omnivorous reader, she’s clearly a prolific one – Her “Books Read in 2012” list is in the 50s right now, an impressive feat when considering the depth and breadth of her selections.

The appropriately titled So Many Books is Hollmichel’s personal blog, where she writes bite-sized reviews/musings on what she’s read, as well as some other fun tidbits like excerpts from letters (I found one from C.S. Lewis on how to write that I think I’ll be putting on my wall) or the importance of reading banned books. I’ve been exploring some of her older posts, as well as keeping up with her near-daily updates, and I haven’t been disappointed! Her wide selection of titles and her lack of pretension remind me of myself (or how I’d like to think of myself, at least). What really sealed the deal for me, though, besides her very extensive list of “bookish quotes” (“It is the good reader that makes the good book.” – Emerson) was the discovery of one of my favorite science books in her past reading lists: The Fabric of the Cosmos.

Brian Greene’s The Fabric of the Cosmos is the second of his three popular books on complex modern physics, and, in my opinion, the best one. Greene is perhaps the world’s leading expert in string theory, a new area of study in physics aimed at modeling the universe in a way that can unify Einstein and Newton’s currently incompatible theories of relativity and motion, respectively. Nerd-speak aside, the science addressed in Greene’s work is mind-boggling at the very least. What makes Cosmos (not to be confused with Carl Sagan’s also-excellent book) remarkable is its accessibility despite the inherent complexity of the topics addressed. Greene starts readers with a basic introduction of Newton, Einstein, and Mach, then takes a turn for the weird as he addresses quantum mechanics, the linearity and flow of time, spacetime symmetry and inflationary cosmology, and unification of theoretical physics. Rad.

Hollmichel puts the reading experience of Cosmos rather well:

“The book made my head hurt but it was a good hurt, the kind that comes from thinking hard. And sometimes I thought I grasped what Greene was talking about when I closed the book and then the next day when I picked it up I realized I only understood a little bit…More things than you expect will stick and some things that didn’t make sense in chapter four will suddenly make sense–mostly–in chapter thirteen.”

The fact that Hollmichel, whose reading list for this year includes Dickens, Euripides, and Kafka, not only read but apparently immensely enjoyed it (“I’ve not read Elegant Universe [Greene’s first book] but now I’ll have to”) speaks to the repressed Renaissance man in me. The desire to read in a thousand directions and the desperation that comes with knowing you can never read as much as you want to are all too familiar, and the quiet enthusiasm for words (“I also like to read ingredient labels, but won’t talk about that here”) is endearing and relaxing. It’s appropriate, I suppose, that a blog about books should be comfortable in tone, like sitting in a squishy armchair and talking to a friend about your respective book lists over a cup of coffee. On a rainy day.

In a sweater.

Besides convincing me to follow So Many Books (and maybe try to record my own reading lists?), Hollmichel’s “The Universe is a Weird Place” post reminds me why everyone, not just physics phans, should be reading this book. Wonder! I very vividly remember, for some reason, finishing a chapter in Fabric of the Cosmos at the barbershop freshman year, flipping back, and starting it over because I needed a second go-around just to grasp what was going on around me. It’s such a great feeling to blow your mind, to look around and see everything with a fresh eye. Too often we get caught up in the mundanity and minutiae of everyday tasks, or consider watching the Presidential debates to be thinking big. A few chapters of this book and a minute or two looking up at the stars in a glorious daze is my prescription for that particular problem, so go read! Science is waiting to show you how crazy the universe is, and your brain is waiting for the good exercise. I’ll be here catching up on So Many Books – I’ve got a few years’ worth of lists to get through!

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