A Scientist's Quest to Make Us Care About the Cosmos

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Andrea Cross for WGBH

Brian Greene has devoted his career to making the mysteries of science accessible to the non-expert public. A Columbia professor who specializes in string theory, Greene has written three general-interest books, hosted a PBS television special about the universe, and advocated for better school science classes in columns for the New York Times. This week, he's participating in the World Science Festival in New York, a five-day event he organized in an effort to merge the worlds of science and the arts. Here, he discusses Carl Sagan, faith's relationship with science, and the experience of working with composer Philip Glass on a performance piece about the complications of scientific discovery.


Tell me about Icarus at the Edge of Time, the performance piece that's debuting at the festival this week.

It's a retelling of the classic Greek myth of Icarus. The main difference this time is that the boy doesn't die. He doesn't fly too close to the sun; instead he flies near a black hole. And what happens there is that real physics—the real discoveries of Einstein and his general theory of relativity—wind up being the lynch pin of the narrative, and science dictates what happens next. The boy returns from his journey to the black hole and finds that although he spends an hour there it turns out 1,000 years have passed for everybody else. So there's a brand new reality for him to cope with.

Why did you think it was important to recast the Icarus story?

Two reasons, really. The first is when I first was introduced to Icarus as a kid, the story always bothered me. Here you have a young boy. He goes against authority, he does what he's not supposed to do, and what does he get for it? He pays with his life for it. Whereas when I got older—and even intuitively when I was young—it was so clear to me that the way you change the world, the way you make great discoveries is by doing just that: by not doing what you're told, by going against perceived wisdom, by going against authority.

And that's what makes a great scientist. It's not that you pay for such revolutionary acts with your life, but you do however sometimes change the world in a very traumatic way, and you may have to cope with a very unfamiliar reality based on your own exploration. And indeed, that's what happens in the story. He has to cope with a new reality, and that ends up being a wonderful, more accurate reflection what discovery is all about.

The second reason for doing this is I so want kids to realize that science is not just a subject they study in the classroom. I want them to see science is a wonderful, dramatic adventure story. And by putting science into a drama of this sort, I think that has the chance to help kids see science differently.

Going back to your first point about not wanting to have Icarus pay with his life, but having him cope with a new reality. When he gets back from the black hole, 1,000 years have passed for everyone else, so everyone he knew is gone.

Yeah. He loses his father. Here is the father, and he tells Icarus, "Don't go near the black hole, you're not going to survive, you can't make it." And he doesn't listen. And when he comes back, he's so excited to speak to his dad. "Dad," he says, "I'm the first person ever to travel to a black hole." But there's no response because his dad is gone.

And how does that reflect or echo the experience of scientific discovery?

Well, to take an example, we discovered in the 1940s how to split the atom. An amazing discovery, a discovery that really went against what many people in the past would have thought possible. It took revolutionary thinkers to make that step, and when they did make that step, the reality with which they were familiar disappeared. We entered the nuclear age. And we had to cope with newfound power that could both be positive and destructive. It's a very painful process sometimes, and we're still going through it. But that's what progress is about.

What was it like working with Philip Glass?

It was wonderful working with Philip. I'd known him for a long time, here and there, and we'd be in touch. He'd call me if he had a question with one of my books or something. But to really work with him in a very concerted way the way we did with this project was tremendously exciting.

He called me up one night, and he was trying to work with the music about the slowing of time near a black hole. He said, "Will you come down to my studio? I have some ideas and I'd like to try them out on you." So I went down there, to lower Manhattan late at night to his studio, and he played for me various things that he was developing to represent musically the slowing of time. And I kind of had the audacity to say, "Well, you know, would you consider trying this? You know, maybe for the father who stays away, time is going really fast in compared with his son, so maybe it's a really high frequency of music at that point." And he said, "Yeah, let's try that." And he sits down at the keyboard and he plays away and he tries to hear that. And you know, it's kind of thrilling, to watch the developments right before your eyes.

There's a general perception that you're one type of person or another: a scientific person or an artistic person, and these are two separate worlds. How do the Icarus piece and the festival as a whole challenge that idea?

One of the main themes of the festival is that science can be experienced in ways that you wouldn't have anticipated. So one of the things we try to do at the festival is to bring together the worlds of art and science.

Bringing these two worlds together is vital because they're not as separate as you would think. Art and science are two different pathways to try to understand the universe, and each can illuminate the other, as I think happens in this Icarus piece. I think there's a real coming together of the things that make us human. Art makes us human, music makes us human, and I deeply feel that science makes us human. And to have them all coalesce in a single piece I think really helps get that across.

In a New York Times op-ed from 2008, you describe getting a letter from a soldier in Iraq who said your book had provided comfort to him. Many readers saw that as proof that science can serve as a stand-in for religion. Do you agree? Do you think science removes the need for religious belief?

I think it's a question that everyone needs to answer for themselves. I don't think there's a universal answer that works for everyone. My own feeling is that science and religion can co-exist.

Science is very good at answering the "how" questions: How did the universe come to be? How is it that matter has this or that property? But science isn't particularly good at answering the "why" questions.

Some people say, "There are no answers to these questions. This is just how things are." There are others who turn to other approaches—faith, religion—to answer the "why" questions.

Science and religion both have some things to offer some people. There are some people for whom religion helps fill in the "why" questions, and it adds meaning to their lives that otherwise they have difficulty finding. And there are others for whom science perhaps is enough. I'm one of those people. Just thinking about the universe, just contemplating the deep mysteries and trying to find scientific answers to some of those mysteries I find so thrilling and so satisfying that I don't find the need to look elsewhere.

For some of those very deep questions, I can go back and it's very clear I can't answer them, and for some people that's not really enough. And that's ok with me. The fact that I don't have any particular need for religion doesn't mean that I have a need to cast religion aside the way some of my colleagues do.

Your career has been so focused on making science accessible to lay people, and showing that science is a way to explore these greater mysteries of life. Can you point to a specific experience that made you decide to make this your life's work?

There wasn't a particular moment, but I was certainly taken with Carl Sagan when I was younger, and this ability to bring science forward in a way that's so different than the way I was experiencing it in the classroom. It just showed so much richness of thought to the scientific undertaking, and I just felt that anybody who had the capacity to allow the wider public to experience that richness, it would be a valuable thing for them to pursue that. For me it's been very exciting to contribute to the public's understanding of how rich and wondrous science is.

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Eleanor Barkhorn is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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