Last night, Miller Theater was transformed yet again into a realm of mystique and wonder, courtesy of PBS, and Bwog’s favorite physicist, Brian Greene. A sizable crowd assembled to watch the premiere of the new NOVA special, The Fabric of the Cosmos, based on Greene’s book of the same title. The real treat, however, was a live webcast (jointly hosted by the World Science Festival) with Brian Greene after the showing as he answered questions about physics, space, and nearly everything else. Brian Wagner, Bwog’s passionate spacetime enthusiast, was on hand.
Amber Miller, the Dean of Sciences, opened the evening on behalf of PrezBo, who was unable to attend due to his European vacation. After more remarks by folks from the World Science Festival and PBS’s obligatory five minutes of donor-thanking, the show actually began.
Episode 1 of the sciencey special is entitled “What is Space?” The show first asks you to consider all the “stuff” surrounding us in the world. Now what happens if you take away all the “stuff?” What are you left with? If you guessed nothing, you’re kind of right. But mostly wrong. You’re left with space. And though we don’t really know what space is, it’s definitely…something. It can bend and twist (but not shout). Taking a chronological tour (oh, by the way, time might not be real, but you’ll have to wait for Episode 2 for that one) through the history of scientific explanations of space, Fabric explains that space is not a passive “stage,” as Newton conceived of it. In the last century, Einstein discovered that space actually bends and stretches in order to keep the speed of light constant, and this is where gravity comes from. With the help of some fancy CGI Brian Greene explained that space is kind of like a pool table with a stretchy, elastic surface. When you put something heavy on it (i.e. a planet), it creates an indentation. Then when something smaller (like a moon) comes rolling by, it falls into the indentation and begins rolling along the edge of the curve, in effect rotating around the planet.
So space can bend. Got it. What’s actually bending then? At the subatomic level, space is a pretty crowded place, full of elementary particles whizzing around, with pairs appearing and then annihilating each other at an alarming rate. The interesting part is that these little guys have different masses, and we don’t really know why. Actually, we don’t really know what mass is. The current theory, proposed by Peter Higgs, is that space contains a “field,” which particles move through and pick up mass. Fabric invites you to picture it like a crowd of paparazzi. Lesser-known actors, in this case representing lighter particles, are able to move through the crowd without much effort. The George Clooneys of the particle zoo, however, attract rampant attention, and move slower and slower as they progress through the field, picking up more and more “mass.” But what makes some particles Alec Baldwins and others nameless part-time waiters is still unknown.
Assuming we find the Higgs, we’ll be able to explain with more detail what space is. But there’s still a ton about space we don’t know anything about. After the Big Bang, the Universe never stopped expanding. The Universe has gravity pulling it inward (remember the balls on the stretchy stuff), and, for a while, people worried that the Universe might eventually be overcome by its own gravity and start collapsing inward. It turns out that the reverse is true: some force is pushing the Universe outward, harder than the opposing force of gravity. That force is called dark energy, and it makes up about 70% of space. We’re pretty clueless about the details on this one also.
The biggest mind-bender was saved for last. The world as we perceive it is three-dimensional, but that three-dimensional model might be wrong. There is a growing theory that everything we observe may simply be a sort of hologram (like that shiny thing on your credit card, or the really rare Pokemon cards). This doubt comes from something scientists observed around black holes: When something falls into a black hole, the “information” making up the object ends up “stored” along the surface of the black hole, which illustrates that all of the data needed to represent a three-dimensional object can be stored in two dimensions. Thus, there’s a possibility that our world is merely a projection of data stored on the edge of some black hole-type phenomena. Does you head hurt yet?
With that, the episode of Fabric came to an end, and Brian Greene (or at least his three-dimensional projection) came onstage to take questions. With eloquence and a wit that both cut and sparkled like diamond, Greene tackled a gamut of questions that spanned from “What about how neutrinos might be faster than light?” (Greene bets they aren’t) to “Is there a better way than math to explain the Universe?” (He’s open to the possibility, though what it would be he’s not sure). The Q&A session featured Skype appearances by Leonard Susskind and Saul Perlmutter (winner of the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics) who elaborated on some of the topics from the episode. Unusually for Q&A sessions, the follow-up was fantastically engaging, as Greene dazzled the audience with his clear, intelligent answers (explaining string theory, describing the effects of black holes) as well as his charm and humor (pretending to ignore a question on the lack of experimental support for string theory). Using a pair of iPads at his podium, Greene took answers from both live audience members as well as fans on Twitter and Facebook. At the end of the night, pressed for time, Greene decided to just answer as many questions from the internet as quickly as possible. Gems such as “Where does inertia come from? …A big Chinese dinner,” and “What do you think of consciousness? …I’m for it!” had most audience members laughing out loud, but the funniest moment came courtesy of a curveball Facebook query— “Why isn’t more research done on glial cells, considering how prevalent they are in the brain?” For a second, Greene paused. Then, “I have no fucking idea,” and the audience was in stitches. With a quick few closing remarks, the Brian Greene show came to a jovial end.
If you missed it, catch a recording of the webcast here, and tune in November 9th at 9 pm to watch episode two of Fabric of the Cosmos.