Brian Greene, author of The Elegant Universe
Brian Greene, author of the bestselling
book about string theory, The Elegant
Universe, was educated at Harvard
and Oxford, graduating in 1987. After spending time at Harvard and Cornell,
he is currently a Professor of Physics and Mathematics at Columbia.
So Brian, the title of your new book is The
Elegant Universe. What does that phrase mean to you?
Physicists often use the term elegant to describe a solution to a problem
that is as powerful as it is simple. It's a solution which cuts to the
heart of an important problem with such clarity that it almost leaves
no doubt that the solution is either right or at least on the right
track. And string theory is just that kind of solution. It provides
the first way of putting quantum mechanics and general relativity together
-- that is, merging the laws of the small and the laws of the large
-- and it does it in such a sleek manner that it is quite breathtaking.
And the term elegant really describes that kind of solution.
So, being an intelligent person, you could have
chosen many careers. Why did you choose physics and why, out of all
physics, string theory?
Well, I think as an adolescent I had many of the questions and concerns
that many adolescents do, you know -- what's it all about, why are we
here, what are we meant to be doing with our time and so forth. And
it just occurred to me that many people much smarter than I had thought
of these questions through the ages and come up with various solutions,
none of which I guess were completely satisfying, and it didn't seem
to me that I was going to come up with a solution to those particular
But it seemed to me that if one could gain a deep familiarity with the
questions, a real profound understanding of the questions themselves
-- that is, why is there space, why is there time, why is there a Universe
-- then at least that would be the first step towards coming to answers.
And physics is the field that has these questions as its real central
motivating force behind the work that is done. So that was the main
reason for physics.
And then string theory -- well, I was a graduate student in 1984 in
Oxford when John Schwarz and Michael Green came up with the first real
evidence that string theory could well be the Final Theory, that the
Theory of Everything, and there was nothing more exciting to work on
at that point, and I've stayed with string theory ever since.
We have many high school students in our audience.
What advice would you give to young people who are feeling very inspired
by physics and are interested in studying string theory?
Well, I think the advice I would give is that in order to pursue research
in string theory, one needs a great deal of mathematical background,
and one should study as much mathematics as possible: geometry, algebra,
things of that sort.
And then the other key thing is to at the same time build up a physical
intuition immersing oneself in the study of physics, in the study of
real physical problems in the world around us that one can really get
one's mind around in a real concrete manner. So it's that dual track
of building up a physical intuition and supporting it by rigorous mathematical
In recent years we've seen enrollment dropping
in physics programs. Do you have any comments as to the cause of that
problem and how we can solve it?
I don't really know what the cause of that problem is, but I think one
key way to keep enrollment up and to make it grow is to have the ideas
of science communicated at a very early age to students. Because the
ideas are terribly exciting. But sometimes I do get the sense that students
are put off by the difficulty of the technical side of physics and of
mathematics. But I think students would be more willing to engage with
that difficult technical material if they were real fired up about the
ideas. And the ideas themselves are so rich and rewarding that if they
are presented in a way that can be absorbed without the technical side
at an earlier stage, I think the willingness to go forward in these
difficult areas would be stronger.
Physics is a wonderfully absorbing activity.
Do you have a favorite science outside of physics?
Well, the thing that excites me about physics is that it really seeks
to answer some of the deepest questions about the physical universe.
And besides physics, the other area of science which I think is on par
with it but in a different arena is the science of the mind. One can
call it psychology or cognitive science or things of that sort but what
is it that allows the brain to produce mind? What is consciousness?
Does it have a physical basis that we can describe by understanding
the circuitry of the brain? Will we one day be able to reverse-engineer
the brain and be able to build computers that can mimic the brain and
in that way perhaps have robots that actually claim to have these sensations
and emotions of living, sentient beings? I think those are some of the
deepest questions about life, and outside of physics, I'd say those
for me are the most absorbing questions.