Interviews May 2004

The Universe Made Simple

Brian Greene, the author of The Fabric of the Cosmos, on opening readers' eyes to the hidden forces that govern our world
book cover

The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality
[Click the title
to buy this book]

by Brian Greene
Knopf
576 pages, $28.95

Can you access the flash of emancipation you felt the first time you were able to stay up on a bike or propel yourself through the water? Can you remember the way your new knowledge enhanced your life? And can you recall the gratitude you felt toward those people who had the skill and the patience to pass that knowledge along to you?

While many of us have successfully moved past the learning challenges associated with biking and swimming, there remain concepts to master. Among them are phenomena that impact everything we think, do, and say—including biking and swimming. I speak of such beasts as the theories of Maxwell, Mach, Newton, Einstein, and others. Yet unless we are scientifically inclined, we avoid trying to understand them. If we accidentally happen upon one, we tend to pull up our collars, pull down our brims, and slink away. Few scientists have come along to make regular folks feel confident enough to try to comprehend such sophisticated concepts as general relativity, for example.

Enter Brian Greene, the author of The Fabric of the Cosmos: Time, Space, and the Texture of Reality. While history is studded with geniuses who have had success at defining the elusive processes that keep the universe humming, few have Brian Green's gift for making these processes transparent. Greene is adept at painting mental pictures in his own mind to flesh out the abstract concepts common to his work, and he is not afraid of casting such familiar characters as The Simpsons in his colorful translations of these concepts for us.

Much of Greene's work focuses on string theory, a hypothesis that while as yet empirically unproved, is based on math so nearly perfect that many physicists believe there must be something to it. String theory seems to stand up better in situations like "time zero" than Einstein's relativity theories, which fail when applied to the very first instant of the Big Bang

Previously, tiny particles called quarks were thought to be the basic building blocks of the universe. String theory postulates that at an even more elemental level the cosmos is built of filaments, or strings, that vibrate as various frequencies. Because of the limitations of our senses, the reality that results from accepting string theory is wildly different from the one that we experience. In Greene's bold new world, for example, there are eleven dimensions and time moves not only forward, but in all directions.

Dr. Greene, a professor of physics at Columbia University, is currently engaged in finding a way to empirically prove string theory. I decided to track him down to find out more. I caught up with him by telephone in a Denver hotel room this March.

—Bradley Jay


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Photo credit

Brian Greene
 

Early in Fabric you quote Camus's book The Myth of Sisyphus: "There is only one philosophical question, and that is suicide." With this Camus seems to relegate questions of physics secondary to questions of how one lives one's life. But you disagree with Camus. Why?

Well, it's not that I fully disagree with him. I fully agree with him that there is no more important question than whether life is worth living. Where I disagree is that I think you can't assess life, you can't truly assess what it is to be part of this universe, if you don't really know what this universe is. That's why I think it's important to answer questions like how the universe came to be, what it's made of, how it evolved, what forces are at work, and what things we may be missing by virtue of relying too heavily on our everyday senses. I think those kinds of issues need to be resolved before you can even assess what it is to be part of this world.

Why should someone who is not a scientist expend the energy to try to understand concepts that are even more advanced than ideas they probably long ago filed in a corner of their brain labeled "stuff I will never really grasp anyway, so why bother?"

There was a physicist who died about fifteen years ago, Richard Feynman, and he was asked, "What do you experience when you look at a rose? Is it the same experience that the rest of us have?" And he said, "Well, I can certainly still take in the rich red color. I can still smell the wondrous aroma of the rose. But I can go further, because I can see the molecular interaction that gives rise to the color, and the interaction between the atoms that gives rise to the aroma." So the experience of the rose is richer—it's deeper, because one can actually see what it is that's making the rose appear as it does. And I think that's what physics does more generally for the world around us.

Kind of like how people enjoy football or baseball much more if they know how it works.

Yeah, exactly. If you're watching the game but don't know the rules, you might enjoy seeing the guy slide into home plate and knock the catcher over. It might be fun to watch. But if you don't really know what's going on it takes away from the experience.

Newton said time and space are rigid, whereas Einstein's theory showed time and space to be flexible and dynamic. Do you have a few similes or metaphors to help us get a handle on each view before we move into string theory?

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Bradley Jay is a broadcaster living in the Boston area.

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