"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 Wallets

A short story by Colin Barrett.

Doon was doing nothing, just killing time, while he waited for his mam to finish at meeting. Once she went down the steps into the basement he got out of there. The hour was too long to wait and he did not like seeing the others. There was always one freshly dire specimen hanging around outside, wrung-eyed and jitter-limbed and making a pitiable hames of trying to light up a cigarette. Sometimes he recognised the parent of some kid out of his class. He didn’t want to see the parents and he didn’t want them to see him. The meetings were another world. His mam went down there and an hour later she came back out.

He did laps of the town with his hoodie up. The drawstrings of his hoodie had little laminate tubes at the end that flailed as he walked. It was autumn, blond and ochre and umber leaves matted together and turning to slick mush underfoot. He was wearing dark olive combat boots laced tight, the ends of his combat trousers crimped into the tops of the boots. Passing an apartment block he saw something on the blue wooden slats of a bench seat. It was a wallet. He commended himself for noticing it and kept right on walking. As he walked he clenched his stomach muscles, an isometric exercise to promote definition and also a means of keeping warm.

He browsed a Men’s Fitness magazine in a newsagents, reread three times an article detailing the correct techniques for executing power cleans and deadlifts off the rack, and bought a large raspberry slushie. He’d loved slushies as a kid. Every six months or so, usually in one of the small newsagents still scattered around the town, he’d notice the plastic rotors mesmerically churning the blue- and blood-coloured ice in their transparent bins, and would buy one. Only after tasting it would he remember how nauseating they were. Three strawfuls in and there was already the sickly sensation of the syrup turning in his stomach and a bout of brainfreeze running through his head like static.

He went a few doors down, into the lobby of the Western Range Hotel. Still stubbornly sucking on the slushie, he strolled into the hotel bar. The bar was a spacious rectangle of smoked glass, carved teak and piped muzak, and went back a long way. Four men in suits were stalled by the counter, luggage cases on wheels poised beside them like immaculately behaved pets. A pair of them bid goodbye to the others, and headed towards the lobby. Doon watched the automated doors, the way they seemed to flinch before smoothly and decisively giving way. To escape the chatter of the remaining men he went and stood at the far end of the room. A recessed bank of floor-to-ceiling windows yielded a direct view on to the town’s main street, already streaming with Saturday morning shoppers. He watched the flow of bodies, the pockets of arrest within the flow. Directly across the street was the gated rear entrance to the county district court. The gating was innocuous, black bars without identifying signage, and if you did not know it led into the court, you would not have been able to tell. The gate was ajar, a concrete step leading down into the narrow mouth of an alley. In the alley a tall redheaded woman in a suit jacket was urgently conferring with a rough unit on one crutch. The man’s smashed-and-resmashed-looking face, the colour of baked clay, was tilted towards the sky. It was impossible to tell his age. He was leaning on his crutch and staring into the blazing nullity of the sky as the woman attempted to direct his attention to something in the heavy-looking black ledger she was holding tucked against her diaphragm. A page lifted up, levitated free of the ledger and fluttered down the street. The woman cursed, slammed closed the ledger, and stooped after the page as it curlicued along at shin level. The man turned his face from the sky and stared with bovine dispassion at her scooting, bobbing rump.

“You can’t eat that in here.”

Doon turned. The barman was behind him, a kid not much older than Doon with awry lugs glowing either side of his head, his black barman’s shirt squeezed over a snub-nosed paunch.

“I’m not eating anything.”

“That.” The barman pointed at the slushie. “Can’t eat that in here.”

“Don’t make me correct you again, I’m not eating anything,” Doon said, and took an emphatic suck of the slushie. From the depth of the plastic cup came a clotted suctioning noise that reminded him of being at the dentist: Snnnrgggkkk.

“C’mon man,” the barman said, his fussy little face turning the same colour as his lugs. “Just go finish it outside.”

“You get at all your potential customers like this?”

“You’re not a customer.”

“Could’ve been a case I was about to be.”

Snnnrgggkkk.

“Even if you want something, you’ve to finish that outside first.”

Snnnrgggkkk.

“So no one’s allowed just stand here for five minutes, make their mind up on giving you their custom.”

“Not no one,” the barman said, “but you’re you. You’ve to take that outside.”

“Nah.”

“C’mon.”

“This is profiling, lad,” Doon said.

The two men remaining at the bar were watching this exchange. The older, a tall lean man with grey hair, laughed, then cut the air with his hand, like enough.

“Lad’s got a point,” the grey-haired man said to the barman, indicating Doon with a nod of his head.

“We have a policy,” the barman croaked.

“What’s that?” The man went on, “Harass the kid with the skint head and hoodie? So he’s eating a slushie, so what? I worked in a bar myself when I was a young buck. Just let the shift see itself out if it’s going quiet, lad and don’t give patrons grief that aren’t giving you grief.”

Snnnrgggkkk.

“See, listen to the oul fella,” Doon said and grinned at the man.

The man grinned back.

“Let’s resolve this simply,” the man said, taking out his wallet. “I’ll get him something, so then he counts as a customer, and we can all let him finish his drink in peace. Do you want a Coke or a coffee, lad?”

“Pint of Guinness, fella,” Doon said.

“Ha, now, lad. What age are you? I’ll buy you a coffee but I’m not buying a minor a pint on a Saturday morning.”

Doon took an extended, convulsive suck of the slushie’s remnants as the barman beetled in behind the counter. When it was empty, Doon placed the cup on the bartop.

“You’re alright so then. Coffee’s worse for you than drink,” Doon said. He considered the two men again, and grinned. “You boys are in a savagely dapper condition for this town, even of a Saturday afternoon. Is there a wedding in or something?”

The men smiled at each other. The younger one, who had a V-shaped hairline with a bald patch spreading out from his crown, like Zinedine Zidane, shook his head. “We were in for a convention. Sales conference for the NorthWest Connaught Regional Estate Agents Association.”

“Christ, I lost interest halfway through that sentence,” Doon said.

The grey-haired man grinned again.

“So,” the barman interjected, but talking to the man, not Doon. “Did you want a coffee then, or?”

“You heard me decline the fella, didn’t you?” Doon sneered. Now he turned his back on the men, to focus his ire squarely upon the barman. “Congratulations, son, three souls in your dying-on-it’s-hole bar and you’re successfully chasing a third of them off. Profiling is what you were doing.”

Doon began walking backwards towards the lobby, his face bright with contempt.

“Your mam’ll be well proud. Speaking of which, tell her I said hello,” Doon said, and stuck his raspberry-coated tongue all the way out.

He heard the two men behind him chuckle again and his leading heel struck something. “Watch,” he heard the grey-haired man say as he swung his other heel into place alongside the first. He turned, knocking over the carry cases. “Jesus,” Doon said, stepping across the two men at the exact moment they stepped forward to right their luggage. “Sorry,” he said, feinting to step one way, then another, but somehow ending up still between them and the cases. He faced the grey-haired man and grabbed hold of his forearms, as if balancing or restraining him. The man stepped back and Doon stepped with him, like a dance partner.

“Sorry, lads, sorry,” he said to the man. He was close to the man’s face. The man’s face was indrawn and baffled. Then Doon stepped off him. He turned, picked up and righted the man’s case.

“I’m all of a daze with the harassment,” he said, gripping the case’s handle and yanking it twice to extend it out, before offering the handle to the man. The man looked at it, looked at Doon, and took it. Doon was already walking straight towards the automated doors.

He went through the lobby and out on to the street. He looked left and right, because that’s what people do. He checked the wallet, took the nice big fifty, left the two tens and a fiver. He went back in, said, “Found that outside, doll,” to the best-looking receptionist, dropped the wallet on the counter and went straight back out again.

 

***

 

His mother, as usual, was one of the first ones out. She came straight up the steps with her head facing forward and did not look back. She handed him the car keys and they walked towards the car park. They passed the apartment block. The wallet was still there, on the bench, and the instant Doon knew his mother would see it, she did. She stopped. “Look at that wallet some eejit’s after leaving there.”

“Come on,” Doon said.

“Check it to see if it says whose it is,” she said, nudging him.

Doon stayed in place. “Leave it. It’s not our concern.”

His mam looked at Doon and smiled. “‘Not our concern,’” she repeated. “Christ lad, where you get your talk from sometimes. You sound like a policeman.”

“A policeman’d be over there rooting through it with his big snout.”

“I don’t mean the sentiment,” his mam said, “I mean the tone.”

“Feck off,” Doon said.

“Now, now, don’t be regressing to sewer-mouthery just cos I’ve hit a nerve.”

“You’ve NOT touched a nerve,” Doon snapped.

She placed her hand on his neck.

“I mean you’ve got this authority to you,” she said. “It’s just your way. My lad. Soul of a policeman.”

Colin Barrett’s debut short story collection, “Young Skins” (Vintage), won the Guardian First Book Award and the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge