Time International - 02.03.2020

(Jacob Rumans) #1
Time March 2–9, 2020

When he makes his way from desk to couch, he
drops down gratefully. Behind him is a whiteboard
with a storm of equations written on it. The num-
bers and glyphs frame his face in a perfect meta-
phor for the impossibly complex ideas that play
out in his head, then somehow emerge comprehen-
sibly and coherently on the page.

It’s a busy tIme for Greene. His World Science
Festival will begin its 13th season in May in New
York City and its fifth year in its satellite venue in
Brisbane, Australia, in March. The Down Under
version attracted a total of 700,000 visitors in its
first four years. The New York edition has drawn
a cumulative 2 million people and more than
40 million online views of its content.
Greene, 57, is also preparing for a promotional
tour for his new book, and keeps up a full sched-
ule of teaching, holding office hours and advising
graduate students. During our conversation, he
mentioned that he was booked to give an evening
talk on super string theory to a gathering of the
university’s Society of Physics Students. It’s a Fri-
day night, a party night, but for the students and
Greene, talking superstrings is a party.
“I’ve found that the theoretical physicists I’ve
spent the most time with are the ones who are
just enthralled by the ideas and the minutiae of
an equation working out,” he says. “The only dif-
ference I have seen relative to my colleagues is
I’ve never found pure research to be enough. I’ve
always felt like the world is so big and rich that I
need to engage with it in different ways. And that
can be the books, it can be the TV shows.”
Greene comes by his love of performance
rightly. His father was a vaudeville entertainer as
well as a composer and voice coach. But Greene’s
own passion was math and science and then big
science—the kind that seduces you with questions
that both demand and defy answers, that can cross
the line from science to something else entirely.
Here, too, a close family member helped.
“My brother is a Hare Krishna devotee,” Greene
says. “He’s 13 years older than I am. When I was
little and getting interested in math and physics,
he’d say, ‘What are you learning?’ I’d describe the
Big Bang, and he’d pull out the Vedas and read to
me from them. It was a very interesting back-and-
forth over the decades between the scientific path-
way toward a certain kind of truth and the spiri-
tual, religious pathway to a certain kind of truth.”
That tension plays out elegantly in Greene’s
new book, and to make sure no one misses the
dialectic, the chapter names make it clear: “Dura-
tion and Impermanence,” “Origins and Entropy,”
“Particles and Consciousness.” Greene takes one
of his most powerful whacks at entropy, attack-
ing the nettlesome business of the second law of

if you’re feeling all dreamy abouT The
universe, here’s a pro tip: don’t tell Brian Greene.
That guy can chill your cosmic buzz fast. I recently
swung by the office of the Columbia University
theoretical physicist full of happy, giddy ques-
tions and came away pretty much empty. Is there
such a thing as a natural moral order? I wondered.
Not in this universe, there isn’t. What about a pur-
pose to the universe, then—the reason the whole
13.8 billion-year-old shebang with its hundreds of
billions of galaxies and trillions of planets happened
in the first place? Nope, Greene says, no such pur-
pose, adding, “And that’s O.K.” Maybe for him it is.
Surely, though, Greene will grant the existence
of free will—that first item on the wish list of every
freshman- year philosophy student who ever lived.
Sorry, not a chance.
“Your particles are just obeying their quantum-
mechanical marching orders,” Greene says. “You
have no ability to intercede in that quantum-
mechanical unfolding. None whatsoever.”
But here’s the thing about Greene, founder of
the World Science Festival; host of multiple TV
series on PBS; and the author of five books, includ-
ing the blockbuster The Elegant Universe and the
just- released Until the End of Time: he says it all
with such ebullience, such ingenuous enthusiasm,
that if he told you the whole cold, amoral universe
was ending tomorrow you’d roll with it the way he
would—as just one more dramatic chapter in an
extraordinary tale in which we all have a precious
if fleeting role. That’s not to say everyone embraces
his cosmic view so easily.
“I’ll be frank,” Greene says. “I have some stu-
dents come in crying. And they say, ‘This is kind
of shaking my world up,’ and I say to them, ‘That’s
not a bad thing. It’s fine to have your world shook.
The pieces may fall back in the end to where you
were, and they may not.’ ”
On the day I saw him, the man who has made
himself the master of some of the most abstruse
aspects of physics—superstring theory, spatial
topography —was instead being mastered by one
of the more basic ones: gravity. He was struggling
about on crutches, the result of two ruptured spi-
nal disks, which can give out over time whether or
not you’re the kind of person who can explain the
attraction between the mass of the earth and the
mass of your back.




Science as
Einstein to
the stage last
May, with a
of the great
of general

And on the
small screen
He has
worked as a
consultant on
the TV series
3rd Rock
From the Sun
and appeared
on The Big
Bang Theory.

Showbiz duo
Greene’s wife
is former
ABC News
Tracy Day,
with whom he
founded the
World Science

TheBrief TIME with ...

String theorist Brian

Greene wants to help

you understand the

cold, cruel universe

By Jeffrey Kluger


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