"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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Russian pools, despatches from the Pole, and disagreeing with my son Boris on Brexit

My week, from Moscow to Westminster Hour.

With the weather in Moscow last week warm, if not balmy, I thought about taking a dip in the vast heated open-air swimming pool that I remembered from a previous visit. My Russian host shook his head. “That would have been the great Moskva Pool. Stalin actually tore down the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour to make way for it. But, after perestroika, they filled in the pool and rebuilt the church!” So I didn’t have my open-air swim, though I did visit the cathedral instead.

In the evening, spiritually if not physically refreshed, I addressed a gathering of Russian businessmen and bankers who were keen to learn what impact Brexit might have on the London property and investment scene, the UK being a prime destination for their money. We met in the old Ukraina Hotel, now splendidly refurbished and relaunched as the Radisson Royal, Moscow. A Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith was parked in the foyer, a snip at £150,000. “There is a great democratic debate going on in Britain at the moment,” I told my audience. “The issues are finely balanced. I’m for staying in. But on 23 June, the British people, not the politicians, not the tycoons, nor the lobbyists, will decide.”

I noted some uneasy laughter at this point. Russia’s fledgling democracy probably still has some way to go before matters of such moment are left to the people.

 

Culture club

I spent the next afternoon in the Tretyakov Gallery. A rich businessman, Pavel Tretyakov, collected thousands of items of Russian art (mainly icons and paintings) and donated both them and his magnificent house to the state in 1892. Over time, the state has added many more artefacts, including some from the vast storerooms of the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg.

My guide, Tatiana Gubanova, a senior curator, had recently organised the loan of several items from the Tretyakov to London’s National Portrait Gallery, where they are currently still on display in the splendid “Russia and the Arts” exhibition. She said that she was looking forward to returning to London next year: “The Royal Academy is planning a special exhibition to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution.” Whatever happens at the political level, it is good to know that our cultural links with Russia are still flourishing.

 

Heading south

Just before I left for Moscow, I attended ­Adrian Camrose’s funeral in St Bride’s Church, off Fleet Street. The scion of a great newspaper family, Adrian made his mark as the Daily Telegraph’s science correspondent.

In early 1984, I went to Antarctica with him. We shared a cabin on a British Antarctic Survey ship while it visited research ­stations “down south”. I was writing a book on Antarctica, subtitled “the Last Great Wilderness”, while Adrian sent a series of crisp despatches to the Telegraph via the ship’s radio-telex. Adrian’s dateline was “On board the John Biscoe, Antarctica”. Distant galaxies were Adrian’s consuming passion. I am sure he is filing stories from the spaceship Spacey McSpaceFace even as I write.

 

Green surge

As co-chairman with Baroness (Barbara) Young of Environmentalists for Europe, my life has been fairly hectic recently. I am sure it will get more so as the referendum day approaches. I know perfectly well that one of the reasons the invitations to speak or write articles ping into my inbox is the titillation factor. Are Families Divided on the Referendum? Is “Boris’s Dad” (that’s me!) going to Disagree with Boris?

Notwithstanding the family relationship, which I deeply treasure, the answer is “yes”. I am going to disagree. Boris and Michael Gove and other key members of the Brexit team have injected a wonderful level of vigour and energy into the referendum debate. They have raised issues, besides the economy, which needed to be discussed, particularly sovereignty, immigration and the EU’s general direction of travel. For this, the nation owes them a debt of gratitude. That said, I am convinced that this is not the moment to call time on the UK’s membership of the EU. As I see it, the best way to address the obvious problems is not to leave the EU but to “Remain” and to fight for change from within. In the end, this will benefit not just the UK but Europe as a whole.

 

Quiet no more

Last Sunday evening, I took part in the BBC Radio 4 programme Westminster Hour. My fellow panellists were the former work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith and Baroness Smith of Basildon, formerly Angela Smith MP, now the shadow leader of the House of Lords.

We had a very lively and sometimes rowdy discussion. IDS is the “quiet man” who, since his resignation from the cabinet a couple of months ago, has regained his voice in no uncertain terms. Baroness Smith, a delightfully unpushy lady, sometimes found it difficult to get a word in edgeways. I don’t think I did so well myself.

But I did, I hope, make it clear that, from my point of view, there was still time to build on all that was good in the EU (such as its environmental record), while seeking common rather than unilateral solutions for the problems that persist.

On 24 June, if the Remain side wins, the government should go into action in Europe with all cylinders firing and with our politicians and diplomats working overtime, to get the arrangements that we need and deserve. On the way out, IDS said to me, “It won’t work. They won’t have it.”

He may be right. But I still think we should give it a go. You don’t file for divorce as a result of a single tiff, not after more than 40 years of marriage.

On the issues of immigration, for example, and possible changes to the EU’s freedom of movement rules, we may find more allies in Europe than we think.

Stanley Johnson is co-chairman of Environmentalists for Europe: environmentalistsforeurope.org

Stanley Johnson is an author, journalist and former Conservative member of the European Parliament. He has also worked in the European Commission. In 1984 Stanley was awarded the Greenpeace Prize for Outstanding Services to the Environment and in the same year the RSPCA Richard Martin award for services to animal welfare. In 1962 he won the Newdigate Prize for Poetry. He also happens to be the father of Boris Johnson.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad