"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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Paula Hawkins: a pulp-feminist follow-up on The Girl on the Train

Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion in misogyny. 

A couple of years ago, Paula Hawkins, an Oxford graduate with a run of chick-lit novels to her name (well, to her nom de plume Amy Silver), became the latest example of various splashy phenomena. Most obviously, The Girl on the Train, her first thriller, made Hawkins an out-of-nowhere, book-clubtastic, “movie rights gone in a flash” sensation, on the model of E L James. It also made Hawkins, who had formerly worked at the Times, one of those journalist-turned-juggernaut figures, like Robert Harris and Gillian Flynn, a beacon of light to every deadline-haunted hack.

Not so publicised was the kind of writer the book showed Hawkins to be. The Flynn comparisons were perfunctory, the overlap limited to shared use of multiple narrators and that not uncommon word, “girl”. A puff from Stephen King was a little more in tune with Hawkins’s sensibility, a taste for the Gothic intensities that lurk beneath the everyday; but King’s praise – it kept him up all night – still missed her strangest virtue: not the gift for making people turn a lot of pages and feel foggy on the next day’s commute, but for using the mystery thriller form as a back-door polemic, every revelation bringing an adjustment of world-view, every twist of the plot putting a spin on what we thought she thought. More striking than Hawkins’s late success or old career was her emergence as a new practitioner of feminist pulp, the sub-subgenre in which men destroy and women suffer, whose most recent classic had been Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones and whose presiding genius – its queen for fifty years and counting – is the hydra-headed literary combustion engine who usually signs herself Joyce Carol Oates.

Hawkins’s new novel, Into the Water, serves to make things clearer. It enables her readers to sketch a Venn diagram to identify what was incidental to The Girl on the Train – what merely helped to grease the wheels – and what she is obsessed with. Why call it an obsession and not a crutch, a formula, the hardening of habit? Not because what Hawkins is up to conflicts with readability – clearly that isn’t the case – but because she is building novels more intricate, more packed with implication, than readability demands.

Like The Girl on the Train, the new novel centres on a female victim with alleged deficiencies as a woman and mother. The body of Danielle “Nel” Abbott, a writer and photographer, is discovered in the part of a lake known as “the drowning pool”. Nel wasn’t much liked by the other local women. She had ideas above her station. She was a “slattern”. In fact, Nel’s death goes unmourned by everyone except her wild 15-year-old daughter, Lena, who is convinced her mother jumped, but for a good – withheld – reason. To Nel’s unmarried sister, Jules, who ignored a number of phone calls and messages, and who has travelled from London to watch over Lena and identify the body, Nel’s death is the final insult, another way of upsetting her existence.

Into the Water follows its predecessor in applying laser scrutiny to a small patch, but there are signs of growth and greater ambition. Last time the setting was a pair of houses on Blenheim Road, Bucks. Here it is the community of Beckford, a village in or near Northumberland, several hours’ drive from anywhere civilised – “if you consider Newcastle civilised”, in the words of one character. The Girl on the Train had three female narrators describing events, in mildly jagged order, that occurred across a single summer. The new novel features testimony from five characters, including Jules, Lena and the brother of Lena’s dead best friend, and provides close access, in the third person, to another five, including the best friend’s mother. Alongside these ten voices are sections narrated by Jules in 1993 – her experiences carry echoes of Stephen King’s Carrie – as well as passages from Nel’s unfinished manuscript: a photographic history of the Beckford lake called The Drowning Pool, containing a prologue and descriptions of three previous deaths, dating from 1920, 1983 and 1679.

The book isn’t free of cliché – the phrase “out of the woods” is not a reference to the rural setting – and some of Hawkins’s devices border on cheating. At various points a narrator starts talking about a previously shrouded incident soon after it has been revealed elsewhere, as if the characters were in cahoots, conspiring how best to frustrate the reader. There’s much recourse to the undefined event, the word “it”. (What?!) The outsider figure, Detective Sergeant Erin Morgan, is severely restricted in her role as a conduit for backstory. “Have you not seen any background on this?” her superior asks. No, she hasn’t. But Erin “should have been given the files”. Well, she wasn’t.

But most of the time, the novel is plausible and grimly gripping, and Hawkins plays fair. Characters aren’t only lying to us, they are often lying to themselves, or else they’re misinformed. The reader always knows more than any one character but never knows all that a character knows, and Hawkins trusts that the promise of enlightenment is sufficiently seductive to deliver information by the drip.

So, Into the Water is on a par with The Girl on a Train – and of a piece with it, too. Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion not just in patriarchal structures, but in misogyny. The blame lies with men, who react with violence and psychological abuse to the perceived threat of a woman’s independence. But one of the main products of this mistreatment is that the female characters overlook the role played by such damage when considering other women’s behaviour and subscribe instead to a male-sanctioned narrative of stubborn irrationality or wilful coldness.

Hawkins seems more engaged with the second part of the equation, the way that women see themselves and each other. The radicalism of The Girl on the Train and Into the Water depends partly on the persuasive depiction of figures such as (in Girl) the pathetic drunk and the unrepentant home-wrecker, and in the new novel the money-grabbing mystic, the joyless spinster, the trouble-making man-eater. Then Hawkins exposes the truth behind the cardboard, the way these images have been constructed and perpetuated. Her plotting works as an ambush and also as a rebuke. “You didn’t believe that nonsense, did you?” she seems to be saying. “Oh, you did – and here’s why.”

The effect is less patronising than perhaps it sounds. The rebuke is aimed at the reader not as a citizen but as a participant in the thriller tradition. After all, the victim who deserved it is a familiar character: we have little trouble believing the type. Hawkins has set herself the challenge of adding a third dimension to the dramatis personae bequeathed by Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler. We are accustomed to characters shifting shape as a story develops. The obvious suspect – twitchy, tattooed, alibi-less – was all along a Good Samaritan; the spotless widow has a cellar full of skulls. Hawkins goes further, showing how narrative presumptions betray unconscious beliefs, upending clichés of other people’s making. You might dismiss her as a killjoy if she wasn’t so addictive. 

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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