We continue to respect our heritage/amorous affair with our mother-magazine, The Blue & White by posting each issue of the magazine online. The latest issue, available this week around campus, is a cornucopia of delights: a harrowing (and fictional) account of the muscles that guard the cheeses at Westside , the shockingly sincere history of Barnard’s Greek Games, and a strikingly beautiful account of a detour into Pennsylvania coal country. In the Conversation, the magazine locates a cool person, and sits down to talk to them for the benefit of all—simple as that. This month senior editor Claire Sabel and staff writer Brian Wagner sat down for a chat with physicist extraordinaire Brian Greene.
Illustration by Eloise Owens
To many people, Brian Greene is the face of modern physics. After the astonishing success of his book on string theory, The Elegant Universe, he found himself an impromptu spokesman for the field. Splitting time between the lab, film sets, and book tours, Greene still finds time to teach undergraduate classes at Columbia. Minutes after wrapping up filming for his latest NOVA special in his Riverside apartment, Greene spoke to The Blue and White about his goals, motivations, and how he combines science and his celebrity image.
The Blue & White: You have done much in recent years with both science and media. Do you think of yourself as being equal parts public figure and researcher? How do those roles influence each other?
Brian Greene: It’s always a big struggle and challenge for me to find the right balance between the pure research side of things and the public side of bringing these ideas out to general audiences. There are periods when I’m doing very little general public-type stuff and the focus is almost purely on research. But then there are stretches where it flips the other way. So, you know lately I’ve been filming a four-part series for NOVA, working on the World Science Festival, I just finished that book (motions to a copy of The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos on a nearby bookshelf), so I was on a long book tour… so for the past month and a half it’s been hard to sit down and focus on physics.
But as all this stuff draws to a close I’m looking forward to very soon—like in a week or so—being able to spend much more time focusing on physics. So, as far as time goes, it’s really depending upon when… in terms of my own view, I don’t see them as different as they might appear—the two roles. Because I couldn’t feel comfortable talking to a general audience, bringing these ideas to the general public if I wasn’t engaged in the research, because I wouldn’t feel like I understood it or had my finger on the pulse well enough to be a good translator. And at the same time, when I’m out there talking to the general public it helps me figure out for my own self, what are the most vital ideas of what we’re working on; and what are the pieces that really need to be pushed forward? So there really is a kind of give and take that I find productive.
B&W: So do you think that the non-physicist has an important say in what is important in physics?
BG: An important say in terms of what we work on?
BG: I would say that there are certain very basic questions that someone who is not trained in the field can recognize the value of pursuing. Things like, “How did the universe begin?” or, “What is time?” or, “Is space a real thing?” or, “Will the universe end?” or, “Does space go on forever?” or, “Do any of these ideas suggest that there might be other universes?” or, “Might there be other copies of me out there?” All of these questions are so straightforward and so compelling that you don’t have to be a scientist to find them interesting and exciting. So, from that perspective, I think the general public has the capacity to engage in the conversation, and ultimately that, to me, is what’s important.
I don’t like the idea of science taking place in a cut-off, isolated, silo-ed environment where the connection to the larger world is weak or nonexistent. I mean, the reason we do what we do is to answer questions that matter to everyone, and for that reason as we make progress, everyone should be able to—at least at some level—participate in the joy of discovery, and that is what I try to help make happen.
Read more after the jump!