Theoretical physicist Brian Greene is without a doubt the poster child of string theory. Being a good-looking geek who is also a Hollywood savvy physics genius would be hard to pull off, but Greene makes it all look so easy.
The best-selling author of the Pulitzer nominated book The Elegant Universe has helped write dialogue for 3rd Rock From the Sun, lent cameos to films like Mimzy and guested on The Colbert Report, Late Night with Conan O’Brien and Letterman when he isn’t busy figuring out the nature of the Universe. But as any scientist can tell you, a big part of finding big answers is asking big questions. Greene happens to be a master at asking big questions as you'll read in his interview with with Common Ground's Jamie Friddle.
“Probably the most powerful thing is when I’m in the midst of trying to solve some mathematical system or set of equations. There’s something quite wondrous about being so involved in an intellectual pursuit that the mind can’t let off, just won’t let off; there’s a certain kind of enjoyment from the exhaustion that comes from that kind of an undertaking. But if you take a step back and ask, from an overarching perspective, what are the kinds of thoughts that take over my mental energies, it’s really the big questions: Where does time come from? Can you imagine a world without time? Did time come into existence with the origin of the universe, or is it something that humans have imposed upon reality in order to organize our thoughts in a more coherent manner? Those are the kinds of questions that keep me puzzling for hours and days on end,” says Greene.
A professor of math and physics at New York’s Columbia University and co-director of its Institute for Strings, Cosmology and Astroparticle Physics, Greene is dedicated to finding out how the universe works. His focus is string theory, also known as unified field theory. Greene is known for his determination, but he is more than willing to redirect his thinking when faced with new information. It’s hard to get things right when you don’t have all of the facts, he notes. He recalls a funny story from his childhood when he became a salami-eating vegetarian, for example.
“I became vegetarian when I was nine because my mother cooked spare ribs in a manner that made the connection to meat from an animal particularly clear.” Greene explains. “So at that point I said I’m never eating meat again and proceeded to go to the refrigerator and make a salami sandwich, because, a city kid, you know, what is meat? You don’t know what meat is, really. And my parents said, ‘Well, that salami is meat,’ at which point I just put down the sandwich and never ate meat again.”
Greene has basically the same take on string theory—you can believe whatever you want, but you have to be open to new ideas. In the same way that Greene was (for a very short time) a salami-eating vegetarian, science is still unsure about what things are made of.
“I think there is a lot to be critical [of] about string theory,” Green admits. “I think a healthy attitude to all unproven science is to be skeptical. But I’d say the main thing is, we string theorists fully acknowledge — without any hesitation — that we won’t believe the theory until it can be tested by experiments. And we’re working very had to get to that end. So I think it’s premature to judge a theory, especially one that has made fantastic progress toward its goals, but is just not there yet. It takes time for science to make progress. And when that science is trying to answer the biggest of questions, it takes even more time. And that’s all there is to it.”
So while the rest of us are trying to figure out why our socks smell weird, or what that whirring sound in our car engine could be, Green is trying to figure out how to unravel the mystery of whether these tiny energy loops, or “strings,” that would be smaller than the smallest subatomic particles, are the energetic building blocks of everything. If so, how do these “strings” that are mostly empty space and pure probability cause things to end up as “this or that”?
“The more common idea is that what we call the universe — Earth, the other planets, the galaxy, the hundred billion stars in the galaxy, the hundred billion other galaxies — is all there is, the entirety of creation. But from a variety of different directions in quantum theory and in string theory and in cosmology, we’re led to a different idea: that all of this stuff is just one bubble, one pocket, one piece of a much grander cosmos that has other pockets, other bubbles, other regions, in which the inhabitants might also, for a long time, [think] that they constituted the whole universe. Now, we’re recognizing that we may have a bubble bath of universes, and we’re just one bubble.”
It may all sound so esoteric and impractical, admits Greene, but these kind of big questions lead to tangible things, as well. He points out that anyone who owns an iPod can thank quantum physics for their conveniently stored music cache.
“I think the general role of science is not as appreciated as it should be. There’s still a great sense that science is what takes place in laboratories, by scientists, without a recognition of how it so fully informs almost every aspect of everyday life — from cell phones to iPods…to personal computers to all manner of technology, medical and otherwise. A computer chip owes its existence to quantum physics. This esoteric sounding subject developed in the 1920s and ’30s is what allows these things to exist.”
Posted by Rebecca Sato. Adapted from Brian Greene's Common Ground Interview.
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