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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?
Play sound . 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?
Play sound . 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 problems.
. 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?
Play sound . 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 training.

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?
Play sound . 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? Play sound
. 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.

Brian Greene, author of The Elegant Universe, photo by Dan Deitch
Brian Greene - string theory's answer to John Cusack?

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