The Elegance of Hard Science: Reporting on a talk and recommending a book
By Brenda Cooper, 2004
“Brian Greene studies, writes about, and teaches string theory, which is the latest serious and well-accepted attempt to create a unified field theory.”
I recently attended a lecture by Brian Greene, who has the fortunate gift of being able to communicate at least some of the beauty of physics to a non-mathematical audience. Brian Greene studies, writes about, and teaches string theory, which is the latest serious and well-accepted attempt to create a unified field theory. The best way I can (perhaps badly) explain a unified field theory is that it explains the apparent disconnect between how the world we see and touch everyday works, and how we’ve experimentally demonstrated that quantum mechanics works.
The stuff we are made of doesn’t seem to work the way we work. String theory tries to explain why.
But enough on that – I actually recommend that you read the book(s) if you want to know the details. I’d like to offer some observations about the lecture. It was in a pretty big place; town hall in Seattle. It was packed. Best yet, even though the majority of the audience was, predictably, white men, there was a reasonably diverse turnout. Lots of people are interested in pure science.
Professor Greene delivered about forty-five minutes of excellent lecture on the paradigm-shifting journey from Newton to String Theory (or Newton to Greene), followed by questions. The questions were wonderful. One of Greene’s responses to a question brought the best applause of the night: If we’d built the collider in Texas, it would have been cheaper, and told us more about the universe, than going over to Iraq and killing a bunch of people. This was clearly a butter crowd rather than a guns crowd.
On to the other questions. I’m paraphrasing, but they ranged from ‘I meditate a lot and I think you’re finally getting what the enlightened people of the world have known for a long time. Are you?’ to ‘I’m not sure if I can think about hard physics topic one and hard physics topic two at the same time. Are they related?’ to ‘I have a unified field theory – the answer to everything is to chant unintelligible-to-the-audience-word until you die. Would you like me to repeat that?’ The very best question was, ‘Why do I care? So we prove string theory by either smashing atoms or looking for leftover evidence from the big bang. What difference does that make to me?’ This is the oldest question in the world about science. Why do I care how things work?
Brian Green’s answer was great.
First, he said that the more we understand how the universe works, the more deeply we feel connected to it. Second, he said, ‘I don’t know how.’ Then he explained that the physicists who formulated quantum theory didn’t realize what would come from it, yet quantum theory is directly or indirectly responsible for a number of inventions including cell phones, motion pictures, and other elements of our everyday life. He has no idea how evidence to support string theory will affect the future, be he’s sure that it will.
Brian Greene’s hugely successful book, which I have read: The Elegant Universe : Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory, Vintage Press.
The new Book, which I haven’t finished yet: Brian Greene’s The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality, Knopf.
String People: Brian Greene.
Nova Programming: The Elegant Universe.