"In science, you've got to go against what the elders are saying"

The string theorist Brian Greene has grown from maths prodigy to physics iconoclast. Now he hopes to

As a child, Brian Greene interpreted the story of Icarus differently to most people. "In my naivety, I thought that it was a story about a boy who was bucking authority, not doing what his father said and yet he was paying the ultimate price," he says. "As I got older and became a scientist, it seemed more off-base, because in order to have great breakthroughs in science, you've got to go against what the elders are saying."

Greene has spent his career as a physics professor doing exactly that, exploring the wild frontiers of superstring theory: an unproven, untested and possibly untestable outcrop of theoretical physics. It's an attempt to resolve a conundrum: that we have working explanations of the universe on a grand scale (Einstein's general relativity) and the subatomic scale (quantum mechanics) but no one can reconcile the two. String theory tries to provide a "theory of everything" by suggesting that all matter is, at its smallest level, made of one-dimensional, vibrating loops, whose oscillation patterns determine their mass and "flavour".

For more than a decade, this 48-year-old vegan has been its most compelling advocate. As he wrote in 1999, "String theory has the potential to show that all of the wondrous happenings in the universe -- from the frantic dance of subatomic quarks to the stately waltz of orbiting binary stars; from the primordial fireball of the big bang to the majestic swirl of heavenly galaxies -- are reflections of one, grand physical principle, one master equation."

Greene now lives in upstate New York but he was born in what was, in 1963, a rough district of Manhattan. His father, Alan, a high-school drop-out who became a professional musician and composer, spotted his son's precocious mathematical ability when he was just five and set him to work multiplying 30-digit numbers on huge sheets of construction paper. When that began to pall, he asked the young Brian to calculate the number of inches between the earth and the Andromeda galaxy. "That is a very straightforward calculation," he tells me now, sitting in the tea room of a London hotel, "because people know how far away it is in light years. Then you need to convert light years into miles, miles into feet and feet into inches."

His mother has always been less impressed by what he does. "My mom says: 'Why aren't you a doctor?' and I'm like, 'I am a doctor!' and she's all, 'No, I mean a real doctor.' She reads my books but she says they give her a headache."

His run-down school ran out of things to teach him when he was 11, so one of the staff sent him knocking on the doors of the graduate students at Columbia University, bearing a note: "Take this kid on, he's hungry to learn." Thankfully, one of them did. "For no money," he points out. "Because we didn't have any money. He just did this for the love of learning."

Time travel

It is fitting that Greene is now a professor at Columbia and co-director of its Institute for Strings, Cosmology and Astroparticle Physics. Every few years, he gives what he calls a "report from the trenches" of cutting-edge theoretical physics. In 1999, he wrote an introduction to the subject, The Elegant Universe, followed in 2004 by a book on space-time and the nature of reality. This year, it's parallel universes.

His latest book, The Hidden Reality, suggests that our universe could be one of many, "like slices of bread in a cosmic loaf" or "one expanding bubble in a grand, cosmic bubble bath". He explains the idea of a literal "fabric" of space-time by telling me that a spinning black hole exerts a drag on the space around it, "like a pebble in a vat of molasses -- as the pebble spins, the molasses spins with it". His relaxed, metaphorical prose style has got him into trouble before. One reviewer complained that he "indulge[d] in a pandering sort of lyricism", but of greater concern to Greene were those who read his clear explanations and then turned up at his graduate class expecting to understand the content. One man spent ten years in his basement trying to take his first book's ideas to the next level. "He wrote how his wife almost left him because he wouldn't come out of the basement," Greene tells me. "It was heartbreaking."

Asked to name his scientific hero, he picks Albert Einstein, along with Edward Witten, a Princeton physicist. At the start of the 20th century, Einstein overturned the principles of physics by rejecting Isaac Newton's theory of gravity because it conflicted with his discovery that nothing travels faster than the speed of light. "So many of us," Greene says, "revere [Einstein] but it needs to be said -- because I've seen it reported in an odd way -- that we don't revere Einstein like some gurus of New Age cults may be revered, or some religious leaders. We are constantly critical of everyone's contributions, even Witten's. We look at a given paper, we bang it around, knock it, try to break it."

The same goes for string theory, which could turn out to be completely wrong. "It's a highly speculative subject but I don't shrink from that," he says. "If you ask me: 'Do I believe in string theory?' The answer is: no, I don't. I don't believe anything until it is experimentally proven [and] observationally confirmed."

How would he feel if it turned out to be a blind alley? His answer is surprising. "I would be thrilled." He explains: "I don't mean that in an off-handed way. My emotional investment is in finding truth. If string theory is wrong, I'd like to have known that yesterday. But if we can show it today or tomorrow, fantastic . . . It would allow us to focus our attention on approaches that have a better chance of revealing truth."

This isn't a discipline for the faint-hearted. When Greene was studying for his PhD at Oxford in the 1980s, he was tackling one of the fundamental ideas required to make the maths of string theory work: that there are more than three spatial dimensions. "Our eyes only see the big dimensions but beyond those there are others that escape detection because they are so small," he says. "Yet the exact shape of the extra dimensions has a profound effect on things that we can see, like what the electron weighs, its mass, the strength of gravity."

When he began his doctoral research, there were five possible shapes, one of which he ruled out by mathematical analysis. "The problem was, when I turned back to the list of shapes to look at the second, the list had grown. It was 100. Then 1,000, then 10,000. Ten thousand is still potentially doable -- it would keep an army of graduate students busy for a while -- but, nowadays, it has reached ten to the power of 500, which is an unimaginably huge number; the number of the particles in the observable universe is about ten to the power of 80."

Faced with this abundance, some physicists have decided to abandon the search, while others (including Greene) are trying to find equations to narrow down the field. A third group has a more radical proposal. "Those physicists have said we should take seriously the failure to pick out one shape from the many, because maybe that's telling us there is no unique shape. Maybe the maths is telling us that there are many universes and in each universe one of those shapes is in the limelight."

Mind the gap

Physicists can be an iconoclastic bunch but is there not a danger that their conviction gives fuel to the climate sceptics and creationists who say that science is a belief system, too? "Science is a self-correcting discipline that can, in subsequent generations, show that previous ideas were not correct," Greene counters. "When it comes to climate change . . . [and] the preponderance of data is pointing in a given direction, your confidence needs to rise proportionate to that. The data is very convincing."

He also has trenchant views about religious belief. "My view is that science only has something to say about a very particular notion of God, which goes by the name of 'god of the gaps'. If science hasn't given an explanation for some phenomenon, you could step back and say, 'Oh, that's God.' Then, when science does explain that phenomenon -- as it eventually does -- God gets squeezed out. I think the appropriate response for a physicist is: 'I do not find the concept of God very interesting, because I cannot test it.'"

Before I leave, I raise the idea of the "infinite multiverse", where every possible outcome of an event spins off a different universe. Dropped your piece of toast, buttered side down? There's now a universe where the opposite happened and you didn't have to scrape the fluff off your breakfast. It's one way of dealing with the fact that although a given outcome might have 30 per cent probability, and another might have 70 per cent, nowhere in the laws of physics is there a reason why one happens and not the other.

Doesn't that render the idea of free will redundant? "Yes," he says baldly. "We do not see free will in the equations: you and I are just particles governed by particular laws. Every individual, faced with five choices, would make all five -- one per universe. And all of the choices would be as real as the others." Don't we deserve credit for picking the choice that keeps us in this universe? Greene shakes his head. "Not really, because you are following one trajectory of choices. It is not as though there was a place in the mathematics where your free will dictated that particular set of choices. You are knocked around by the laws of physics, just like all your copies in the other universes."

I look at the preppy professor sitting opposite me drinking a cup of chai and wonder if there is a Brian Greene in another universe who was turned away by every grad student he asked for help. "And joined some gang and just been a street thug?" he says, smiling. "It is possible."

Brian Greene's "The Hidden Reality" is published by Allen Lane (£25)

Helen Lewis-Hasteley is an assistant editor of the New Statesman

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 06 June 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Are we all doomed?

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The Jewish lawyers who reinvented justice

Two new books explore the trials of Nazis – and asks how they changed our conception of justice.

In August 1942, Hans Frank, Hitler’s lawyer and governor general of occupied Poland, arrived in Lvov. “We knew that his visit did not bode well,” a Jewish resident later recalled. That month, writes Philippe Sands, Frank gave a lecture in a university building “in which he announced the extermination of the city’s Jews”.

Frank and other leading Nazis were tried at Nuremberg after the war. It was, writes Sands, “the first time in human history that the leaders of a state were put on trial before an international court for crimes against
humanity and genocide, two new crimes”.

For Sands, this is the story of some of the great humanitarian ideas of the 20th century. A T Williams, however, is more sceptical. For him, the search for justice after 1945 was a wasted opportunity. “It began,” he writes, “as a romantic gesture. And like any romance and like any gesture, the gloss of virtue soon fell away to reveal a hard, pragmatic undercoat.” Did the trials of 1945 and beyond provide any justice to the victims? How many more deaths and tortures were ignored and how many perpetrators escaped?

Together these books ask important questions. Were the trials and the new legal ideas – international human rights, war crimes, genocide – among the crowning achievements of our time, the foundations of how we think about justice today? Or were they, as Williams concludes, “an impersonal and imperfect reaction to human cruelty and human suffering”?

Williams won the Orwell Prize for political writing in 2013 for A Very British Killing: the Death of Baha Mousa. His new book reads as if it were several works in one. Each chapter begins with the author visiting the remains of a different Nazi concentration camp – intriguing travelogues that might have made a fascinating book in their own right. He then looks at what happened in these camps (some familiar, such as Buchenwald and Dachau; others barely known, such as Neuengamme and Neustadt). The single reference to Nikolaus Wachsmann’s KL: a History of the Nazi Concentration Camps, published last year, suggests that it came out too late for Williams to use.

A Passing Fury starts with an atrocity at Neuengamme, near Hamburg, where, in the last days of the war, the concentration camp’s inmates were put to sea by Nazis in the knowledge that they would almost certainly be killed by Allied bombers. Williams buys a pamphlet at the visitors’ centre on the site of the camp. It informs him: “Almost 7,000 prisoners were either killed in the flames, drowned or were shot trying to save their lives.” His interest in the subsequent trial leads him to look at other Nazi trials after the war. His central argument is that these were not a victory for rational and civilised behaviour – the widespread assumption that they were, he writes, is simply a myth.

Williams has plenty of insights and is especially good on the Allies’ lack of manpower and resources in 1945. There was also enormous pressure on the prosecutors to gather information and go to trial within a few months. The obstacles they faced were huge. How to find witnesses and make sure that they stayed for the trials, months later, when they were desperate to be reunited with their families or to find safety in Palestine or the US?

The lawyers also felt that they were “operating in a legal void”. These crimes were unprecedented. What should the SS men and women be charged with? “They needed new terms,” writes Williams, “a completely fresh language to express the enormity of all that they were hearing.” This is exactly what the Jewish lawyers Hersch Lauterpacht and Raphael Lemkin, who play major roles in Sands’s book, were providing – but they are almost completely absent here.

Williams is also troubled by what he sees as flaws in the British legal system. Defence lawyers focused ruthlessly on the inconsistencies of witnesses, forcing them to recall the most terrible ordeals. One particularly devastating account of a cross-examination raises questions about the humanity of the process. The disturbing statements of British lawyers make one wonder about their assumptions about Jews and other camp inmates. “The type of internee who came to these concentration camps was a very low type,” said Major Thomas Winwood, defending the accused in the Bergen-Belsen trial. “I would go so far as to say that by the time we got to Auschwitz and Belsen, the vast majority of the inhabitants of the concentration camps were the dregs of the ghettoes of middle Europe.”

Williams has put together an original polemic against our assumptions about these trials, including those at Nuremberg. Sands, a leading lawyer in the field of war crimes and crimes against humanity, presents a completely different view of Nuremberg and the revolution in justice it introduced. His is a story of heroes and loss.

Lvov is at the heart of Sands’s book. Now in Ukraine, the city changed hands (and names) eight times between 1914 and 1945 – it is known today as Lviv. This is where his grandfather Leon Buchholz was born in 1904. Leon had over 70 relatives. He was the only one to survive the Holocaust.

In 1915, Hersch Lauterpacht came to Lvov to study law. He became one of the great figures in international law, “a father of the modern human rights movement”. Six years later, in 1921, Raphael Lemkin also began his law studies in Lvov; in 1944, he coined the term “genocide” in his book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe.

Both Lauterpacht and Lemkin, like Leon, lost members of their family during the Nazi occupation of Poland. Sands interweaves the stories of these three Jews and how their lives and their ideas were affected by what happened in Lvov. This is an important question. We forget how many of the greatest films, works and ideas of the postwar period were profoundly affected by displacement and loss.

East West Street is an outstanding book. It is a moving history of Sands’s family and especially his grandparents but, at times, it reads like a detective story, as the author tries to find out what happened to his relatives, tracking down figures such as “Miss Tilney of Norwich”, “the Man in a Bow Tie” and “the Child Who Stands Alone” – all involved in some way in a mystery surrounding the author’s mother and her escape from pre-war Vienna. But Sands’s greatest achievement is the way he moves between this family story and the lives of Lauterpacht and Lemkin and how he brings their complex work to life.

There is a crucial fourth figure: Hans Frank, the Nazi lawyer who was responsible for the murder of millions. Sands uses his story to focus his account of Nazi war crimes. Frank was brought to justice at Nuremberg, where Lauterpacht and Lemkin were creating a revolution in international law. Lauterpacht’s emphasis was on individual rights, Lemkin’s on crimes against the group.

This is the best kind of intellectual history. Sands puts the ideas of Lemkin and Lauterpacht in context and shows how they still resonate today, influencing Tony Blair, David Cameron and Barack Obama. When we think of the atrocities committed by Slobodan Milosevic or Bashar al-Assad, it is the ideas of these two Jewish refugees we turn to. Sands shows us in a clear, astonishing story where they came from. 

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster