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‘Science is this spectacular, dramatic journey of discovery’: Talking with Dr Brian Greene, the man who saw what Einstein missed

As NASA announces the discovery of seven ‘Earth-like’ planets in deep outer space, Don Rowe chats to certified super genius Dr Brian Greene about space, the multiverse and the frontiers of theoretical physics.

It took seven and a half minutes before the conversation turned to wizards.

Professor Brian Greene, co-founder of the World Science Festival, specialises in the esoteric field of superstring theory. The author of four best-selling books, including a Pulitzer finalist, Dr Greene is also credited with the discovery of topology change, which apparently suggests possible tears in spacetime – something Einstein missed in his general theory of relativity. The Columbia University professor visits Auckland next month with his science storytelling show A Time Traveler’s Tale.

Hailed by The Washington Post as “the single best explainer of abstruse concepts in the world today,” Dr Greene spoke to me on Skype while I crouched on the floor of The Spinoff’s bathroom, sandwiched between the shower and the wall like a box of old towels.

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So NASA has announced the discovery of seven potentially earth-like planets, and one thing that stuck out to me in the Guardian’s coverage was a paragraph about how if you were to live on those planets, and you looked up at the sky, you’d see a gigantic salmon-pink sun, and three or four planets twice the size of our moon orbiting it. It reminded me of your work, in that there’s this beautiful imagery which contains within it complex science like the prerequisites for life or the mechanics of the orbits of planets. In your opinion, how important is it to touch people emotively like that in order to maintain a public interest in science? 

I think it’s vital. For so many people, they see science as just this subject in the classroom, where you have to learn some stuff, memorise some stuff and spit it back out in an exam. But in reality, science is this spectacular, dramatic journey of discovery where we’re thrilled to reveal how the world actually works. That to me is where the excitement is found – it’s all part of the human quest for understanding.

In this NASA digital illustration handout released on February 22, 2017, an artist’s concept allows us to imagine what it would be like to stand on the surface of the exoplanet TRAPPIST-1f, located in the TRAPPIST-1 system in the constellation Aquarius. (Photo digital Illustration by NASA/NASA via Getty Images)

Your show is called A Time Traveler’s Tale, and it reminded me of the HG Wells short story The Time Traveler. He did a similar thing, just with a 19th century understanding of the science. There were these scenes where, after thousands of years of being pulled together, the sun is almost touching the earth, but it’s so far into the future that the energy has all but burned out. It’s so emotive and enduring. Do you think there’s an opportunity for such art to bolster a public understanding of – and enthusiasm for –science, as opposed to being juxtaposed against it? 

That’s frankly exactly how I think about it. The powerful quality of the arts is that they have a clear, direct link to the emotional side of human nature. You listen to a great piece of music and you’re moved. You look at a great work of art and you’re moved. Typically science does not have the same effect on people. But if you can blend science and art in an organic way – doing it an inorganic and forced way is awful – but if you can find an organic melding of art and science, you can use the art to really touch the human soul with the science coming along with it. That way people experience science completely differently. They experience science as something that is thrilling, something that gives you the chills up and down your spine. If it’s presented the right way, you’re talking about the big results that our species has found. So yes, I think there’s a huge opportunity for science and art to come together in a way that makes a more holistic experience of some of the most spectacular ideas of human discovery.

It’s interesting to me that during the Space Race the dream of going to space permeated American pop culture in an unprecedented way, even aesthetically. Every little kid wanted to be an astronaut, and a mythology grew up around that. But it seems that while these incredible discoveries are still being made, for example the Higgs Boson, they don’t cut through in quite the same way. They don’t capture the imagination in the same way. What, in your opinion, could change that? What’s the next Space Race, the next scientific quest?

I don’t necessarily think it has to be tied to a specific goal. It’s certainly the case that Kennedy spoke about landing humankind on the moon and it was this enormous challenge, and there was a competitor – it felt like perhaps a life or death situation, we had to get into space – so there’s a great deal of excitement, a great deal of dreaming, a great deal of imagining that we could do things that perhaps seemed unimaginable a few years earlier. That’s really what needs to happen.

We need a culture that values that kind of forward-thinking, innovative, curiosity-driven journeys of discovery. Really to me it could be any subject, it could be anything from the challenges of climate change, to trying to understand the Big Bang, to the possibilities of using gravitational waves that were just detected to perhaps listen to the rumbles of creation. There are so many domains in which kids and adults can dream about achieving the impossible, and it’s really about the culture. The culture needs to value that kind of pure, curiosity-driven discovery, as opposed to focusing solely on things with an application, things that will increase the bottom line, things that will make a profit. You have to go back to basics and recognise that it is fundamental research that is ultimately the engine of all innovation.

Is that why, as a science communicator, you’re essentially reducing these concepts to something that can be understood – with a little work – by the layman? You necessarily use analogy and metaphor and things like that, which take away some of the complexity, in order to light a spark in people’s minds. Is that a trade-off worth making?

I say if you do it with care, and you do it with real integrity, then the answer to the question is absolutely yes. I have encountered, and no doubt you have too, examples where scientists or writers have, in the effort of simplification, so watered-down ideas that they are no longer reflective of the true scientific principles that they’re trying to communicate. And that’s not a good thing. Every writer has a different comfort level when it comes to simplification. I like to get the real ideas across but break it down, step by step by step, and use analogies and stories so that the uninitiated can understand each step. But I try not to leave out anything vital, so that the person who’s willing to do a little bit of work can connect all of those dots and have a non-mathematical but real understanding of the ideas that I’m trying to communicate.

One concept that stuck with me was when you were talking about the energy contained in the mass of a baseball, and using the analogy of carrying your money in a box made of pure gold, only to realise where the real value is. To me it feels like theoretical physicists, those on the cutting edge of this, are essentially wizards. You’re dealing with mysterious and hidden forces. Do you ever feel like you’re dealing with magic? 

Well there’s a famous phrase that any sufficiently advanced science or technology will feel like magic to the uninitiated, and that’s totally understandable. Magic is the stuff that takes your breath away because it seems to be impossible. It’s counter-intuitive and it goes against what you’ve experienced. It’s the case that modern physics has shown its true colours by penetrating realms that neither you nor I nor anybody else can see with the naked eye. Quantum mechanics talks about fantastically small particles operating on tiny distance scales. General relativity talks about incredibly massive objects, neutron stars and black holes, out there in the cosmos. These are realms that we’ve never visited. So sure, when we talk about the ideas it can seem fanciful and almost science fiction. It can seem like magic. But the beauty of these ideas as opposed to what happens in Hollywood is that they’re real. These ideas are more exciting and more thrilling than anything that comes out of a Hollywood screenwriters creative imagination. The universe is more creative than the human mind, and that’s what makes bringing these ideas to the public so exciting.

It seems like a lot of the true facts of the universe, if you were to pitch them as a screenplay, would get you laughed out of the room.

That’s right.

You’ve done a lot of work around the multiverse and string theory and the more theoretical side of physics. To someone entirely average, like me, the multiverse is something that comes up after a couple of beers, and everyone just spouts their half-baked understanding of the theory. But in your mind, if you had definitive proof of the validity of the theory, what would be the practical implications? Are these worlds locked away from us forever?

There may not be a practical application, or for me to even conjecture one would be so hypothetical as to be worthless, but I would say that at the level of how we think of ourselves, not at the level of a new technology, the multiverse could have a radical impact. Because in some versions, you can establish with near-certainty that there are versions of us, copies of us, out there in this wider multiverse, this wider landscape of reality. Think about it – how shocking would it be to face up to the possibility that there’s another version of you out there somewhere in this wider realm. And perhaps there might even be infinitely many versions of you. To me, that challenges all notions of personal identity, it challenges all sense of self. Really, if you take it in fully, it’s a radical variation on the perspective that we hold when we imagine one universe. So sure, it’s not going to make a new iPhone or iWatch or anything like that, but it can have a radical philosophical implication around how we think of ourselves.

It would make the Copernican revolution look like a stubbed toe to the ego. It’d be the ultimate shattering.

Completely. We’ve suffered one demotion after another since Copernicus. Earth is not the centre, the suns not the centre, our galaxy isn’t the only galaxy and perhaps the final step: we’re not even the only universe.

My basic conception of the multiverse theory is that if there are infinite universes, anything that’s possible within the laws of physics, could potentially – and probably has – taken place, right? So there could be a universe in which I’m the genius and you’re interviewing me. Is that a reasonable approximation? 

That’s a fine way to think about it. You said it right, and I want to re-emphasise the point that anything can happen so long as it truly is consistent with the laws of physics, and that is a very, very sharp cut through the space of all possibilities. So it’s not that any wild craziness that you can think of can happen, but if the laws of physics allow it to happen, then there’s likely to be a universe where it did happen.

It’s just amazing. Where do you even start with that sort of knowledge?

I have to say, some people consider this to no longer be science because if anything that’s allowed by the laws of physics can happen, then where are your predictions? Where are your definitive statements of things that you can test? Because if anything that’s compatible with the laws of physics can take place, there’s some universe in which any outcome that’s legal will have taken place. It’s an interesting debate, one that is far from settled. And there are people on opposite sides of this issue that vigorously debate one approach or another as to whether this is a viable way to thinking about reality.

If you were to imagine your work as a rock-climbing wall, with the ultimate goal at the top, and you’re halfway up, where would the next handhold be? What are you reaching towards?

I’d say that we’re reaching towards understanding the fundamental make-up of space and time. Ever since Newton, when we formulated understandings of the universe, we’ve always imagined that space and time are there, and the interesting stuff takes place within space and time. But now we’re going a little bit further, and wondering whether space and time themselves are made up of something more fundamental, sort of the atoms and molecules of space and time themselves. And remarkably, just the last couple of years – this is part of what we’ll be talking about in Auckland – in the last couple years there’s been great progress in understanding the quantum nature of space and time.

This is cutting edge research, but we’re starting to understand the threads that stitch together the fabric of space-time itself. That’s something I wouldn’t have said a few years ago. I would have thought it wouldn’t happen within my lifetime. So it’s a wonderful development and we’re now starting to make progress. Or in your metaphor, we’re starting to really reach for that next hand-hold, and when we grab hold of it fully, I think we’re going to start to see a radical change in how we describe what we know.

Dr Brian Greene: A Time Traveller’s Tale. Sunday March 26, Bruce Mason Centre, Auckland. Buy tickets here.


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