Today, we continue our week long coverage of last week’s Origins Symposium with a real treat: The first half of an exclusive interview with renound theoretical physicist Brian Greene, all thanks to our southwest correspondent, Alaina Levine.
While in the Phoenix area attending the Origins Symposium, I had the opportunity to sit down with Brian Greene, Professor of Mathematics and Physics at Columbia University, author, lecturer, and of course, string theorist extraordinaire. In town to present a few lectures about the origin of the universe, he was gracious enough to take time out of his busy schedule to chat with me about origins, science public outreach, and physics as celebrity. I asked him about the World Science Festival, which he co-founded and launched last year in New York City. Described by Claudia Dreifus of The New York Times as “monumental” in its approach and the fact that it involved the whole city, the Festival brought together a diversity of scientists, artists, musicians, and other performers and scholars to present four days of events dedicated to exciting the public about all aspects of science. 120,000 people attended in 2008, and it is expected to draw even more this year when it is held June 10-14.
Alaina G. Levine: What were you hoping to learn from coming to this conference?
Brian Greene: I think that the big three questions that in my mind drive almost everything that I find interesting are how did the universe begin, how did life begin, and how did consciousness begin. It’s three questions about origins and this conference is all about origins, so if you ask what I’d hope to learn it would be where are we at the cutting edge on the two areas of that, namely life and consciousness. I have a pretty good sense of where we are on the first one, the origin of the universe.
AGL: Do you think you’ll be able to get answers or spark some ideas from this conference?
BG: Talking to people in other areas is a very valuable way of having your own thoughts be steered in novel directions, so to me it’s not so much about necessarily sitting and listening to presentations, but it’s more the informal interactions…just to get a sense of how people approach the problems that they’re focused on, especially when they’re in a different area.
AGL: Do you think physicists relish the opportunity to interact with scientists from other realms?
BG: I don’t think there’s a uniform answer. I think maybe some people don’t recognize this – physicists are just people. And just like there are some people who love to interact with a whole array of different people and learn about what they’re doing and try to get a sense of their approach, there are others who are less enthusiastic about that. It’s a broad range.
AGL: What do you hope your colleagues at this conference will get from you being here?
BG: Our particular panel was trying to get across not only the great accomplishments that our species can rightly be proud of (we understand the universe back to a 100th or a 1000th of a second after the beginning, which is pretty spectacular), but we also tried to get across the remaining problems which are severe and challenging, and I think we did that. Perhaps we emphasized that too much, as there seemed to be a sense of almost pessimism of some of the really, really big challenges we face, but I think our view is that big challenges are cause for big excitement because there’s big opportunity.
AGL: What are you hoping to communicate to the public?
BG: Public events…are a great opportunity for people to recognize how exciting science is and to recognize that they can understand the basic ideas. A lot of people are intimidated by science. I think these types of gatherings have the capacity to change peoples’ perceptions and make them realize that science is something they really can enjoy and gain much gratification from.
AGL: Claudia (Dreifus of the New York Times) was saying that one of the reasons the World Science Festival was so amazing and monumental and novel was that it communicated the love of science on a very large scale, it involved the entire city, and made it understandable and also fun and entertaining and relevant to the general public at all levels for all ages. Do you think the concept of presenting the World Science Festival could form a movement or that it could spread across the United States?
BG: Certainly. As we went around before the first Festival had happened and were explaining to people what the vision was, that was the language that we used: that the Festival does have the capacity to spark a movement of change that can really create a different kind of climate for science. And now with a new administration that itself seems to focus on similar goals, I think the opportunity is even greater.
AGL: So what can the average physicist do to further this concept?
BG: Science can be brought to the public on a huge number of different scales. The World Science Festival certainly does it on a relatively large scale but a program like NOVA does it on a yet different scale in a different way. So I think the individual scientist can do a variety of things, from these “Café Scientifiques” that have been happening all around…, which I think are a really good way for the individual to get out there, (to) organizing (like Larry Krauss is doing here) a day of public events where people come and immerse themselves in science…But it’s not the case that everybody in science is or should be interested (in public outreach). But for those who are, there are a number of outlets where they can really have impact.
AGL: Do you feel that it’s the obligation of a scientist, and in particular a physicist, to do public outreach?
BG: No, I don’t. It has to be something that comes from an internal passion as opposed to an obligation. I think if you’re only doing it because you feel obligated to do it, then it’s likely not to hit the mark. And I do think we have enough scientists that do either manifestly have the passion for bringing their work to the public, or in the right environment, would find that spark lit. We found this with the Festival- these scientists who were at first perhaps a little bit uncertain about (whether) this was something they wanted to be involved with, and then they were and they left the Festival with this energized sense of how exciting and important it was to be part of this. So I don’t think it should be viewed as an obligation. I think it should be viewed as an opportunity for those who find it interesting and relevant.
Tomorrow Brian Greene Interview: Part 2 of 2
(images courtesy of Origins-Edge)