The Origins Symposium Part 5 of 5

Today we wrap-up our coverage of last week’s Origins Symposium with part 2 of our Southwest correspondent, Alaina Levine’s exclusive interview with acclaimed theoretical physicist Brian Greene.

Brian Greene Interview: Part 2 of 2

Alaina G. Levine: Getting back to the Origins Symposium, when you hear the word “Origins” what is the first thing that pops into your mind?

Brian Greene: It is always the origin of the universe because that’s what I really hold out is the main reason why we’re studying fields like string theory and quantum gravity, things of that sort.

AGL: Related to your research, what are you working on now?

BG: Trying to apply string theory to cosmology and see whether the unusual features of string theory like the need for extra dimensions and things of that sort, can help us resolve various puzzles and problems that the standard approach can’t deal with.

AGL: Such as?

BG: The thing I’m working on now is a problem of string theory’s own making, which is the theory demands more than three dimensions of space that we don’t see. We often describe those extra dimensions as being small and curled up, evading detection, but you’d really like to explain using cosmology why three dimensions grew large and the others didn’t. And that’s a problem we’ve been working on for a while and I think we’ve made some progress recently.

AGL: Will we be seeing this in published papers soon?

BG: Yeah, we’ve been working on publishing a series of papers but they’ve all recently been negative, where various ideas that we thought would work that people had put forward we more or less established they didn’t work. But now we at least found the glimmer of hope of one approach that seems to be doing good things, and yes we’ll be writing that up in a week or two.

AGL: This reminds me of what (someone) was saying on the panel (at the Origins Symposium) about the idea that (there is a possible hope) that the Large Hadron Collider might produce nothing, because then you’ll at least be able to show that…something is wrong…with the theory that you have. Would you say that your “negative” papers are actually positive because they gave you an understanding?

BG: They definitely took our understanding further. I want to rephrase something: I wouldn’t say that we hope that nothing happens at the LHC. We hope that great things happen. But what we are saying is that if nothing happens, that will be an interesting state of affairs where we’ll be faced with some very big theoretical problems to solve, and yes that is exciting. So it’s really a matter of “it will be what it will be” and almost regardless of what happens there’s going to be interesting work to be done.

AGL: I know that you are interested in many, many different things, you took acting when you were in graduate school and have been involved with other things as well, but if you were…on a desert island and you could literally only do one subject, would it be physics?

BG: I think it’s the only subject I can do.(laughs) Everything else is a hobby.

AGL: But do you think you do those things well?

BG: Some of them I do ok, but to my mind almost all the other things I do are means of recharging the spent fuel cells when the physics research is exhausted.

AGL: So perhaps when you reach an impasse?

BG: Or, it’s hard to do physics research for many, many hours in a day, but there are many hours in the day, so what do you do with the rest of them?

AGL: I know there are some physicists, maybe many, who constantly think of physics…are you like that?

BG: Sometimes, like when a problem is very captivating. Certainly. But I have involved myself in other things that do require attention and do take away time from thinking about physics which is a hard thing. Finding the right balance for me is always a challenge that I don’t always navigate particularly well. So yes, I love that experience when there’s almost nothing else that matters when you’re really involved in a problem. But I certainly do spend time thinking about other things.

AGL: What percentage of your time do you spend doing research?

BG: It changes from day to day. On good days, a lot. On other days, when I have to deal with say, World Science Festival things, or if I’m writing some article or some book or something and I have to pay attention to that, it’s less. But it changes, and it changes in phases too. There are periods of time when I have no writing projects and very little else going on, and the majority of my time is on research. It just varies a lot.

AGL: When you are working on a problem in the very early stages, how do you work? Do you have a pencil and a paper and are you working out equations or do you go to the computer to work out simulations?

BG: It’s almost always paper and pencil, paper and pen. Often people have the wrong impression – it’s not just sitting there and free associating. Usually you’re reading other people’s papers, seeing what they’ve done, making sure you can derive all of their equations, then seeing how those equations are relevant to whatever puzzle you’re trying to apply them to, so it’s very incremental. But that’s pretty close to it.

AGL: In Columbia Magazine in Spring 2006, there was a big article about you, and you said “I really view physics as the celebrity that people have newly discovered.” Can you explain what you meant by that.

BG: I’m sure that was in response to a question that in some way shape or form indicated the possible interpretation of me as a celebrity, which I always recoil at because I work on this stuff, I’m involved in it, but ultimately in the public setting, I’m the messenger for what it is the community that I’m involved with has discovered, and the excitement and the focus is because of those ideas and because of the physics. And in that sense it’s the physics is the celebrity. It’s the exciting new thing that people discover as opposed to the messenger.

AGL: On the panel, it was said “there is no other science, there’s only physics.”

BG: Yeah, that was Steven Weinberg.

AGL: So you agree with that?

BG: It can sound off-putting to other scientists and that’s not what he really meant by that. What he meant when you get down to it, it’s the laws of physics that are governing everything. Now the chemist does chemistry using the effective rules that are most relevant for the problems being studied, he was simply saying that if you follow those rules to their origin, you find the laws of physics.

AGL: Is there anything you want the physics community to know about this conference, what your views are on origins, or what’s next for you?

BG: That’s a really big question and I think the most overarching answer is that when we started out there’s been a lot of progress in each of these origin-like questions but there’s a tremendous amount still to be done. There is sometimes unfortunately a sense of, we’re reaching the end of fundamental discovery, that we more or less sorted everything out, which is not only unfortunate and silly, but it’s kind of dangerous.

AGL: The danger is to think that?

BG: Well it’s dangerous to suggest that that’s the attitude amongst scientists, which it’s not. The attitude of scientists is the fact that the answer to this question opens up a whole new domain of questions that you didn’t even have the capacity to ask until you went this step further. So young kids need to really be aware of the tremendous opportunities in fundamental science, not to feel “eh, its basically a done-deal, I’ll go on to something else.”

AGL: Is there a common misconception in physics that the public has that really irks you?

BG: Not any single one. I am asked a huge range of questions through email and letters and when I give lectures, and I’m actually impressed by and large that people do have a reasonably good grasp, at least the ones that are willing to ask questions. Every so often there are ones that sort of reflect a misconception, but that doesn’t irritate me, it strikes me as wonderful that the person was willing to try. And (I) try to help them get to the next level.

AGL: A common thought right now is that the 20th Century was the “Age of Physics” and the 21st Century will be the “Age of Biology”. I was wondering if you could comment on that.

BG: I think there’s some truth to that, in that biology is getting to a higher level of maturity than it was in the 20th century, just as physics got to a higher level of maturity in the early part and middle part of the 20th century, and I think that’s a stupendous moment for science, when it gets to that next level of rigor, that next level of quantitative analysis, not just qualitative analysis. Having said that, when you get to that level of maturity, physics got there first, to me it just opens up a new class of questions that are very, very far reaching and perhaps more difficult, so it’s not that the opportunities are less in physics than in biology, it’s just that the challenges are greater which means the payoff is greater. So it’s really just a matter of personal taste, of which kinds of questions one likes to address, and whether one wants to be part of many, many incremental steps or possibly take a big giant step.

Yesterday: The Brian Greene Interview: Part 1 of 2

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