Brian Greene seems to go where no theoretical physicist and string theorist has gone before. Like his guest spot on the CBS hit TV geek show The Big Bang Theory. Or Norway, where he had an audience with the king. He had just returned from the last one when I reached him at his own headquarters at the World Science Festival building in New York.
He’s a science celebrity (the Washington Post calls him the “single best explainer of abstruse concepts in the world today”) with the imprimatur of Harvard, Oxford (where he was a Rhodes Scholar), Cornell and Columbia (where he teaches physics and mathematics). He’s also the author of several well-received books, including The Elegant Universe (a finalist for the Pulitzer in general nonfiction), and was host of a four-part NOVA series called The Fabric of the Cosmos.
Being adept at the interpretation and public presentation of scientific ideas puts him in the company of peers like Bill Nye, Carl Sagan, Sylvia Earle, Stephen Hawking and Neil deGrasse Tyson. The common bond seems to be an abiding love for their subject. And that’s, ultimately, fueling the engine of Icarus at the Edge of Time, a multimedia show he built up from his children’s book of the same name, with Philip Glass scoring the music and the directing coming from a duo called Al + Al. It’s a reinterpretation of the Greek Icarus myth, set in the future, transposed into space, with a black hole as a major plot element.
Green is credited with, among other things, the “discovery of topology change, which showed that unlike Einstein’s General Relativity, in string theory the fabric of space can tear apart.” And if that weren’t enough, he’s also a highly studied pianist. So he bridges both the art and the science of the Days and Nights Festival. That metaphor, the bridge, is a key component of what Greene is best known for.
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I’ve heard people describe music as a mathematical language. Would you describe Philip Glass’ music in those terms?
In gross overall detail, yes. Physics is all about finding patterns in the universe. We encapsulate them in mathematical language. Music too is all about patterns, finding novel, interesting, pleasing, sometimes disturbing patterns of musical notes and rhythms that communicate something deep to an audience. It’s interesting to equate the patterns in both languages.
What precipitated you putting the Icarus myth together with black hole exploration? How did you make that leap?
I knew of the myth from grade school. It always had impressed me as a dramatic statement about what happens when you go against authority. As I got older, the myth continued to increasingly bother me. This notion that if you go against authority you pay the ultimate price. No. That’s one reading. As I became a scientist, I saw that as a strange [dichotomy] because you go against authority to discover new breakthroughs. Then you acclimate to a new reality. Like atomic theory. [In my] new Icarus myth, he doesn’t die, but when he comes back he has to acclimate to a dramatically new reality.
Why did you want Philip to score the film?
Philip and I knew each other from 10-15 years before, when we were both on a panel together. He might not remember. I remember because being on that panel led me to meet the woman who would be my wife. It might have been more momentous for me. [Laughs.] We stayed in contact. He sometimes would call me with questions on physics. When I wrote the book, it was with the idea of a performance in music. The journey into the black hole, the driving pulse of the music, it occurred to me that Philip should do the music. He was natural.
Do you know [musician/computer scientist] Jaron Lanier, who’s also performing at Days and Nights? What are your thoughts on him and his work?
I know him pretty well. I’ve known him probably close to 10 years. Don’t recall how we met. He has a deep interest in physics and the universe, and has a very unusual take on things. He’s [got] a very musical mind, and an astounding collection of musical instruments he showed me in his apartment in New York – every square foot taken up.
Who are your science heros of the past? Who do you admire now?
The obvious ones are Newton – an absolute force of nature who basically started science on its modern trajectory. Einstein, of course. Before and after Einstein, the understanding [of the universe] so radically changed. It’s hard to think of anyone whose mind and contribution was more powerful. Archimedes, Maxwell, the more modern greats like Richard Feynman. It’s so thrilling to be part of this community of thinkers.
Can you describe to me a complex concept, string theory maybe, in language you would talk to colleagues, then in language for lay people?
To a colleague, it’s a theory that melds Einstein’s general relativity and quantum mechanics into a single structure that unified them in a way that Einstein would be pleased with. [For lay people], it’s a description of matter, what stuff is made of. Inside every particle is something else: a tiny vibrating filament of energy. Like a string. The universe would be reduced to a symphony of vibrating strings.
How do you, in your mind, do that interpretation?
I view science [as something] for anybody to understand, as a bridge to unfamiliar ideas, to the experience and concept of everyday life. I’m interested in building a bridge people are excited to cross, metaphors and narratives to tell stories. People love the drama of it as much as a Hollywood film.
Where does your comfort with, or attraction to, performance come from? Your performer dad?
I would say it’s likely a link there. My dad was a vaudevillian performer. That notion of communicating in a manner that’s entertaining and enjoyable and fun. I meld that with the content being informative and educational.
You seem to have a playful sparring public relationship with Neil DeGrasse Tyson. What’s that relationship like?
Fundamentally, we enjoy each other enormously. But often in a public setting the way that it comes out is a jocular, pointed kind of engagement. It allows us each to express our own [points of view] in an environment that’s friendly.
If someone were to play you in a film, who would that be?
Have not given it much thought. Keanu Reeves comes to mind, because of The Matrix. What we [physicists] do seems to mirror that world.
Are you involved in the mix of science with politics?
I typically have stayed on the sideline and followed from afar. I’ve always wanted my public presence to be associated with the ideas of science and not the political use of it. But as I get older I recognize the importance of public policy.
What is a good starter science book, one that can inspire curiosity and wonder in kids?
The Icarus story, mine, does exist as a kids book. Stephen Hawking did one with his daughter Lucy – George’s Secret Key to the Universe. The old classics, at least not scientific, like A Wrinkle in Time, anything from Ray Bradbury. He had this unbelievable ability to capture the most awe inspiring and visceral stories. They’re called sci-fi, but I think they’re just great stories about the world, and the larger questions.
ICARUS AT THE EDGE OF TIME is performed 7pm Saturday at Sunset Center, Ninth and San Carlos, Carmel. Free/kids 14 and under; $10/student with ID; $45-$65/general. 620-2048, www.daysandnightsfestival.com