May

15

From the Issue: The Elegant Physicist

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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.

Drawn in beautiful eleven-dimension-vision!

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?

B&W: Yes.

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.

B&W: What do you think is so valuable about the answers to these questions, other than how compelling they are?

BG: I think that we’re all in one way or another searching for some kind of truth. You know, if you’re doing literature, you’re trying to find truth through the way the written word can communicate who we are and why we’re here. If you’re studying theology, you’re doing it from a different perspective. In music, you’re trying to find the deep truths of what kind of sounds moves us. And if you’re a scientist, like me, you’re trying to do the same thing, but by analyzing the nature of reality and trying to pierce the veil, the hazy veil, that prevents us from seeing the truth, but which mathematics is a pretty good tool for getting through. And opening up a reality that you wouldn’t expect based on everyday experience. So, I think we’re all in it for the same reason, and these questions from the scientific perspective, that’s our contribution. That’s science’s contribution to the collective effort of the species to understand the nature of why we’re here.

B&W: Do you think that there can be a conflict of interest between the desire to find truth from the results and the desire that people have to find truth in their meaning? It seems too tantalizing to find answers like string theory or multiple universes.

BG: I can imagine it looks like that from the outside. But the thing that really needs to be emphasized, and which I try to communicate as best I can, [is that] it’s very rare that we physicists are sitting in a room or at our desks and saying, “Here’s this spectacularly interesting possibility—maybe it’s strings!” And then say, “Okay, how can we take that idea and inject it into our understanding of the world?” It’s the reverse of that.

B&W: Right.

BG: We start with the very basic ideas that come to us from the historical discoveries—Newton, Maxwell, Einstein—and we say, “Okay, here’s where they have taken us, how can we take those ideas and advance them to explain the things that we actually can see?” And the remarkable thing is that when we follow the math to the next step, sometimes these ideas emerge from the mathematics: the possibility of other universes or that the universe is made of strings. We don’t come up with these ideas and then put the math to it; we do the math and that’s where it takes us. We have no choice but to take these ideas seriously, because the ideas kind of jump off the page of mathematics and grab us by the lapels, and say, “Look, this is where the math is leading!” Even old ideas like the slowing of time in relativity or the contraction of space in relativity… you know you couldn’t come up with a more interesting idea if you were pressed to think of one. And yet this is the idea that the very simple algebraic math—you only need high school math and a strong brain like Einstein’s to come to the conclusion.

B&W: Has your experience in physics changed the way that you see the world?

Is it the smoke moster from Lost, or the demon that haunts my dreams, or is it science!?

Illustration by Eloise Owens

BG: I would say yes and no. When I’m walking around with my kids in the park, when we go to the supermarket and buy stuff, I think my experience is more or less the same as everybody else’s. You know, buying milk is buying milk. And when I want to look at the world more deeply, when I want to look into a flower, and understand how it works, I can do that. When I walk down the street and want to really live the ideas that I’ve learned—for instance, to recognize that time for me is elapsing slower than time for somebody else because I might be on the ground floor of a building and they’re in the top floor, or I’m moving quickly and they’re not—I can do that, and I do do that at times, because there’s a certain kind of pleasure that I take in recognizing how poor a guide everyday experience is to the true nature of reality. I love to sometimes say to myself, “Okay, can I really experience—or at least try to experience—the things that science has revealed?” And I can do that and I do do that, and it’s not that I’m doing it all the time, but I’m doing it sometimes, and that capacity to experience the world on multiple levels, I think, is what science provides for me in particular.

The other side of it, which I think is there all the time, is that I have a fundamental sense that we’re not separate from the physical universe. I think part of what’s happened, as technology has evolved in particular, is we have thought of ourselves as ever more separate from the environment. But when you think about the world in terms of physics and you recognize that the same particles that make up me are the same particles that are out in the flowers and trees, and those particles are merged in supernova explosions out in space, and those stars form because gaseous clouds that emerged from the big bang coalesced under the very same force of gravity that keeps my feet planted to the earth, there’s an interconnectedness with a wider reality that physics just forces upon you, and I think that is a way of looking at the world that is unique to physics, and one that I certainly feel all the time.

B&W: Does your motivation to write books and appear on television shows stem from an urge to share this perspective with other people?

BG: It definitely does. One of the grand tragedies that I see in the modern world is the unfortunate fact that many people think that science is not something they want to know anything about. They feel that it is something that they may have been forced to take a class in, but once the class is over they’ve done their duty and now can move on to the real things of life. And to me, the real things in life are organically interwoven with science. And part of what I hope to do through the books and through some of the other ways that I’m sometimes out there is to help science migrate from the outskirts of culture to the center of culture, where I think one day it will stand right beside the usual things: music, film, literature, art, theater. Because science is something that you can’t disregard. And moreover, life isn’t as full as it could be…

[his small child knocks at the door]

B&W: Someone’s at the door.

[Greene rolls over to door]

BANG [doorknob falls off]

BG: Wow, physics!

[Chuckles, regains composure, has brief conversation about dinner with child]

B&W: It seems like, in some ways, that science is becoming more popularized, but I’m not sure whether the democratization and dissemination of science—everyone has iPhones and Wikipedia— doesn’t cause people to take it more and more for granted. There isn’t as much reverence for the everyday experience of science as there maybe could be.

BG: You know, that’s an interesting point. I think there are perhaps greater opportunities for grabbing snippets of science—if it’s a podcast, if it’s a blog, or you know, if it’s a snippet of some NOVA program that you wouldn’t have watched on television but you catch a piece of it on YouTube… and I think that that is all good. I think what we’ve failed so far to achieve is a broad public recognition that science is something that anybody can grasp. It’s not some subject that is beyond the average person; it’s not that—if it’s presented in a way that’s beyond the average person, then sure—by definition it will be something that’s pretty hard. But there are ways of communicating these ideas that are widely accessible and broadly interesting. And I think that is something which has begun and it’s great that the Obama administration talks about the value of science. I think that that is a very good step. But I think we’re still pretty far from science being viewed as an indispensable part of life, as opposed to something that we turn to when there’s a problem, or something that maybe makes our life better because of some gadget. Science is more than just that.

B&W: When did we lose that reverence? Or have we just never had it?

BG: I mean, I don’t really know. There was a time, certainly—I think it goes in waves—in the 1800s, when people like Sir Humphrey Davies—when he would give a public lecture, it would kind of be the talk of the town. It would be the hot ticket to go to, and I think as science progressed even further, it slowly became ever further from everyday life because we understood the physics of everyday life, so we went further. And as we went further, and the language became more specialized, people got left behind. I think that probably started to happen with quantum mechanics and with relativity, and I think we’re now trying to repair some of the damage that was done by not paying enough attention to keeping these ideas a vibrant part of the public conversation.

B&W: Do you have any sense of what it would take to get us there? If we find the Higgs mechanism (theoretical explanation for why mass exists) at CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research)?

BG: Well, I think that great discoveries have a galvanizing effect, but I don’t think they’re enough. We need a sustained, transformative approach to education, I think that’s the real issue. You know, when kids take a science course and it’s taught by someone who doesn’t really understand science or maybe understands science but isn’t passionate about science, that has a tremendous impact. If that kid takes a course from someone who does understand science, is passionate about science, and really wants to communicate the ideas, then it’s a huge impact too. I think that’s the bottom line. I think that’s where it really needs to change. I mean, [the World Science Festival] is sort of an attempt to stand outside the educational system but yet provide an environment where, for five days, people can immerse themselves in the best kind of science programming—I hope—programming where [science] really integrates with life in a manner that feels real and makes you want to understand more about the science. And moreover, our online presence: you know we just started this World Science Festival TV, this online portal, and the traffic there is starting to build hugely, and that’s great.

B&W: But then you see some of the most highly educated, most brilliant physicists going into things like hedge funds.

BG: Yeah, my own students… Numbers of my students have not gone on in physics and have gone into the hedge fund world, the financial world, and that’s okay. I don’t think that everybody needs to be a scientist; I don’t think that everybody trained in science needs to be a scientist. In fact, I think it’s kind of a good thing that people trained in science go off and do other things, so that there’s a certain kind of solid, rational basis for things that are happening in other fields. So, I think that’s okay… the sad part is that when somebody who is good enough and should go on in science and wants to can’t get a job, and is forced to go into the financial world—that’s always a bit of a heartbreak. But that’s part of the reality of limited resources too: there simply will never be enough jobs for everybody to do exactly what they want to do.

B&W: Do you have any opinion on the recent news from the Fermilab collider? (Physicists think they may have found evidence of a new elementary particle which would contradict part of the Standard Model of particle physics.)

BG: Well, it’s still too early to take it very seriously… more data is required before it would be a convincing experimental signature, and if it were to hold up, that would be great. It’s the kind of thing that we live for. Something that doesn’t fit into existing theories and forces us to rethink and to come up with new ideas. So it would be thrilling if it’s true; at the moment I’d say caution needs to be respected, and to take it very slowly and say we’ll only believe it when there’s more data, but it would be great.

B&W: There were hundreds of signatures on that report. Do you think this kind of collaborative research is the future of experimental physics?

BG: Yes, for a certain kind of experimental undertaking there is simply no way to make progress without an enormous team. You need people who can build the machines, people who can analyze the data, people who can design the machines, people who can design the information flow in the machine to the people who can do the analysis. I think it is basically the only way to go forward. The question will be, if these machines don’t find anything new… that would actually be very interesting—it would force us to rethink a lot of theories. But will the funders recognize that as an interesting result and build the next machine? I hope it doesn’t come to that… maybe this [result] or other [experimental] signatures will really come through. But I do like to caution people that even finding nothing is interesting.

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10 Comments

  1. HOLY SHIT LOL

    I SWEAR TO GOD I CAME HERE JUST TO COMMENT
    "TOO LONG DIDN'T READ"

    AGGHHHHHHHH YOU BEAT ME 4 MINUTES TO IT!!!

    PROPS.

  2. Anonymous  

    "You know, when kids take a science course and it’s taught by someone who [..] isn’t passionate about science, that has a tremendous impact. If that kid takes a course from someone who [...] is passionate about science, and really wants to communicate the ideas, then it’s a huge impact too. I think that’s the bottom line. I think that’s where it really needs to change."

    Like in any field, if you have passionate instructors, it's usually contagious to the students and makes for a better learning experience/environment. I sort of wish, as humbling as it is to be taught by hugely successful and famous professors here at Columbia, that there were more instructors who actually could communicate their passion better, thus making for better teachers. As it is, too many instructors are merely interested in their own research, although maybe that's just the case in the sciences...

  3. OMG  

    i just realized i watched his PBS special on string theory nonstop in AP physics for like two weeks because my teacher was too lazy to actually teach anything. ahahah i KNEW he looked familiar.

  4. hello!  

    Which fucking lab does Greene, a THEORETICAL physicist work at? eh? eh?

  5. Anonymous  

    You could have asked what he thinks of Peter Woit.

  6. Love this guy

    He basically got me into Columbia, I wrote an essay about wanting to study with him and being inspired by his book the Fabric of the Cosmos.

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