4 April, 2011Issue 15.6InterviewsScience

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An Interview with Brian Greene

Josh Rosaler

© Penguin Books Ltd.

Brian Greene is a professor of physics and mathematics at Columbia University and one of the world’s leading string theorists. His first book, The Elegant Universe, introduces general readers to physicists’ quest for a “theory of everything” and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. His second, The Fabric of the Cosmos, covers the evolution of our concepts of space and time, and was a New York Times bestseller. In 2008, Greene created the World Science Festival, an annual week-long affair geared toward general audiences which assembles leading authorities from around the world to discuss central issues raised by developments in science and the connections between science and other areas of inquiry and of life.

His new book, The Hidden Reality, explains the many ways in which the concept of parallel universes emerges naturally from current research in theoretical physics, and argues that what we typically conceive of as our own universe may turn out to be a miniscule portion of a much vaster “multiverse”.

Among other things, Greene spoke to the Oxonian Review about parallel worlds, the new atheism, and the relationship between sciences and the humanities. This interview was made possible by St Cross College and the St Cross Science Lecture Series.

In your book, you explain how physicists invoke the idea of a multiverse to explain things that our current theories simply postulatefor example, things like the electron’s mass and charge and the cosmological constant. Do you ever imagine a situation in which we’ll have a theory that won’t make us feel compelled to look for deeper explanations? Assuming that some of the multiverse proposals that you describe in your book are correct, do you think they could finally quell our need to keep asking why questions?

No, I think it’s hard to really imagine in any realistic or semi-realistic sense that we’d come to an understanding that eliminates the capacity to ask further “why” questions. Multiverse or not, whatever proposal is on the table, one can always say, “why those laws, why that approach, why that framework?” Now in the best of all worlds, you can imagine that we come to such a deep understanding that logical consistency alone would dictate a particular scientific physical framework and to deviate from that would be to abandon logic. If we could find a theory that was that tightly constructed and that inevitable in its formulation, then maybe there wouldn’t be any further why questions.

But we’re so far from anything like that that what we’re really talking about here is pretty fanciful.

Do you think that’s even a possibility that logic alone will uniquely dictate a theory?

Well, logic supplemented with some very rudimentary observations. For instance I could imagine that if you demand that the universe have gravity and quantum mechanics, that perhaps those features alone would be enough to dictate a physical framework that embraces them in a logically consistent way. But again, we’re far from that.

Do you feel that you get anything out of writing the books in terms of your own understanding of the materialeither in terms of having to consolidate it or explain it in simple language?

Yeah, very much so. My approach to writing these books is a) you’ve got to know the material deeply and b) you then need to be able hone in on those aspects that are really central and be able to carve away the parts that, while important mathematically for detailed research, are not critical for the general reader to fully understand or be aware of. And then [you need to] find a way of framing it that is interesting and accessible to the general reader. I have found that research projects have come out for me from that process, so it does help clarify my own thinking for sure.

A number of leading scientists are deeply religious. Do you think it’s possible to reconcile deeply held metaphysical religious belief in God with established claims of theoretical physics, or do you think that when serious scientists are religious, it’s because they keep their work and their spiritual lives separate?

I think there’s a compatibility as long as your religious sensibility’s not literal. If you try to literally interpret teachings of the Bible you run smack into some pretty significant problems with what we’ve discovered in science. But if you’re willing to view religion more in a Spinozan or even Einsteinian way—that there is an overarching order and harmony that the laws of physics represent and reveal, and that order and harmony, if you want, ascribe it to some deeper theological origin—then I don’t think science has much to say about that. What science is pretty good at ruling out is the so-called “God of the gaps”—the traditional way of invoking God whenever there’s something in science that we haven’t figured out. The problem is, once we figure it out, that particular invocation of God is no longer necessary; it gets pushed to the side. So that’s a recipe for God getting squeezed to the margins. But if you don’t view God as the reservoir of temporary answers to issues we haven’t solved scientifically, but rather as some overarching structure within which science takes place, and if that makes you happy and satisfied, so be it. I don’t see the need for that; others do.

How do you feel about the “new atheism” that’s become prevalent especially in the writings of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens?

There’s much in it that resonates with me because I personally don’t find the need to invoke religious explanation. On the other hand, as a strategy for spreading a scientific worldview, I don’t know how effective it is. I think those [who are already atheist] can nod their head in agreement. I don’t know how many people are convinced by [Dawkins’s and Hitchens’s] approach, so that their previous religious perspective no longer is one worthy of attention. I wonder if any studies have been done; I don’t know. My own approach is less confrontational, less antagonistic. Some of that crowd have called me an accommodationist because of that.

Have you spoken to them?

Not directly. I’ve seen unflattering comments here and there. (Smirks.) For instance, at the World Science Festival, we’ve had a program each year called Faith and Science, which some of that community have questioned: does that belong in a science festival? My view is absolutely. A science festival is a wonderful environment in which the long reach of science…can be described and exposed and discussed and made exciting. And a good fraction of the world’s population does have a religious perspective, so to have a conversation about how science reaches into some of the issues that others have long thought were solely the purview of religion, I think that’s a good conversation to have.

Do you see a division or antagonism between the cultures of the sciences and humanities?

I see a division between the two cultures insofar as society has willfully allowed people to be okay about not knowing science, but has not allowed them to be okay about not knowing humanities and art. I think that is one of the major barriers that we need to tear down in order that science take its rightful place in the culture alongside music, art, theatre, dance, literature as something that you cannot dispense with [if you want to] consider yourself educated [and] engaged in the world conversation. And slowly, I think, that will happen.

When Larry Summers made his remarks about women in science, what was your feeling about the remarks themselves and also about the academic community’s reaction to them?

It’s not one of those things I followed in great detail…But extracting away from what he did or did not say or what he did or did not mean, the notion that women are not well-equipped to succeed in science is one that’s clearly false and certainly got him into hot water. Regardless of what he meant, that was how it was interpreted. I think that our charge in the scientific community is to open the field up more broadly so that there are more role models in science for women and for minorities, because that ultimately is what gets the young kids excited. You see someone like yourself succeeding in cosmology, astronomy, physics, chemistry, and that fires you up to try to follow in their footsteps.

Science and especially physics seems to suggest a view of the world in which reality is reducible to mathematical laws. Scholars outside the sciences are more likely to be hostile to the view that everything, including human experience, can be reduced to something so coldly mechanistic. Do you see any potential for reconciliation between these two points of view?

I would say it’s more than arts or humanities. I would say there’s a more general tendency to find larger purpose or meaning that, when reality’s reduced to laws and particles and equations, feels somehow devoid of meaning. My view is that there’s a barebones reality within which we exist and we tell ourselves stories and we build ourselves narratives to try to inject meaning on top of it, but ultimately that’s a human undertaking—a valuable one, an important one, but not one that I think the universe comes equipped with from the get go.

Josh Rosaler is reading for a DPhil in Philosophy at Pembroke College, Oxford. Josh is a senior editor at the Oxonian Review.