"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?

Jonathan Galione - Moment
Show Hide image

What do animals really think of us?

Animals are our fellow travellers on this earth. It's time we heard what they have to say.

The debate about what divides our species from the rest of the natural world is not a new one. In 180AD, the Greco-Roman poet Oppian of Cilicia declared that hunting “the kingly dolphin” was immoral, on the grounds that dolphins were once ­human beings but had exchanged the land for the sea, yet “even now the righteous spirit of men in them preserves human thoughts and human deeds”. The ancient Greeks deemed the killing of a dolphin equal to murder, and punishable by death. In the latter part of the 18th century Jeremy Bentham wrote:

It may one day come to be recognised that the number of the legs, the villosity of the skin, or the termination of the os sacrum, are reasons equally insufficient for abandoning a sensitive being to the same fate . . . The question is not, Can they reason? nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?

Charles Darwin observed that the ­mental difference between human beings and other animals is one of degree rather than kind. In November 1870 Thomas Huxley, known as “Darwin’s bulldog”, lectured the Metaphysical Society in Oxford under the title: “Has a Frog a Soul? and if so, of what Nature is that Soul?” And, a generation later, Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote: “If a lion could speak, we could not understand him.”

In our hierarchical world, there are levels of awareness yet to be resolved. As we move through the post-imperial age of the Anthropocene, through what has become known as the Great Acceleration – the relentless sixth mass extinction that scientists and conservationists date to approximately the middle of the 20th century – the questions seem to be ever more urgent. We are faced, in other species, with the mirror of our own depredations.

The other day, almost by accident, I went to the zoo. Turning a corner, I saw what all the fuss was about. A crowd of people was gathered at the window, peering intently, holding up smartphones. Looking over their heads, I couldn’t see anything at first. Then, with a shock, I saw it. Sitting on a ledge, with its back to the wall, at one side of the glass pane: a gorilla.

It was so big I could barely believe it. I couldn’t compute it as a living creature; it looked more animatronic than animate. The largest person could easily sit inside it, and still be overwhelmed by its physical presence. It might even have been a person in a fancy-dress suit. It made me feel breathless. Against what I presumptuously consider to be my better nature, I kept looking at the primate, the prime ape. It was moving gently, and seemed to be muttering to itself. As I peered through the slightly misty, smeary glass, I felt deeply uncomfortable. Actually, I couldn’t look at it at all, for fear that it might look at me, that its gaze might meet mine and that, in its eyes, I might see my own reflection.

Our relationship with animals has been made even more urgent, and yet more remote, by the way they have become part of the 24/7 media cycle. A killer whale named Tilikum languishes in captivity and, in an apparently paranoid state, kills his trainer. A documentary turns the story around; as a result, the whale’s captors find their takings and stock value plummeting. Cecil the lion is shot in Zimbabwe by an American dentist and the outcry rings around the world. A small boy climbs into a Cincinnati gorilla enclosure and Harambe, a 17-year-old silver­back, gets shot. The very fact that these animals have names speaks to the notion that we know almost nothing about them. What they want, what they feel, what they say.

These narratives – the identities we impose on animals – say more about us than they do about the creatures. People speak for primates and cetaceans. Opinion is outraged. Action is demanded. Yet we have never been further from the natural world. Most of us experience it only vicariously, through such news stories, or in lovingly crafted documentaries that leave us stunned by the beauty of other species but utterly helpless, apparently, to save them from a destruction that we have set in train. There was never a better time to ask: what do animals really think of us?

To the Belgian philosopher, photographer and artist Chris Herzfeld, it is clear. In her book Wattana: an Orang-utan in Paris, she draws on one ape’s story to stand up, shakily, balancing on the back of its bipedal legs, for all the others. In wonderfully concise and restrained prose (translated from the original French by Oliver Y and Robert D Martin), Herzfeld lays out the evidence for primate culture. Her particular area of study is that of apes in human captivity, a shared history of species which has a three-centuries-old history in the menagerie of the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. Here, and in hundreds of other zoos around the world, the boundaries between Homo sapiens and their nearest genetic neighbours are blurred.

Imprisoned non-human primates are “denatured”, she says: “false apes as opposed to natural apes”. Assimilated into our society, they have become unclassifiable and therefore problematic (hence the furore about the boy in the gorilla enclosure). From entertaining old French nobility – who would often be wearing their own fancy dress – to tracing their leathery, agile fingers over the touchscreen of an i-Pad, they “show a considerable good will in collaborating with humans”. Yet in adopting our characteristics (not least in popular culture, from the PG Tips chimps to Planet of the Apes), primates only underline the “fundamental trait of hominoids: ­plasticity”, an almost pathetic adaptability.

Wattana and her conspecifics can tie knots, using dexterous digits and even their mouths, in an almost abstract expression of art and craft. They decorate their captive spaces in simulacra of their wild nests; Herzfeld notes that in their native forests primates spend up to half their lives in such cosy shelters. She makes a telling point in noting how we give an anthropocentric account of their stories, observing that our natural history of apes focuses on their ability, or not, to use tools, disregarding their craft of such nests. This is an implicitly gendered bias, she hints. Biologists and other scientists, often men, rely on the “omnipresence of the tool”, a hard function, as opposed to the soft function of (home)making, of weaving, of fabrics. (Elaine Morgan, who revived the alternative evolutionary theory of the “aquatic ape”, faced a hostile reception to her ideas in the 1980s.)

Anthropomorphy may be a besetting sin for science; yet it also downgrades the experience and knowledge of the human keepers of captive animals. Their attachment to their charges is the “love that correctly reveals the kinship”, as Herzfeld puts it. If apes produce artefacts, then surely the most astounding notion in her book is that of an intrinsic aesthetic sensibility among primates. Chimpanzees are adept at creating art, painting and drawing if given the materials. They will compose and make marks, and consider their artwork with a degree of concentration that seems to indicate artistic expression.

Nor do they need the tools and media we supply. In Sri Lanka, elephants have been seen to draw in the sand with their trunks. For Herzfeld, this is an example of Funktionslust in other animals, “a pleasure in doing what they know they do well”. But is it art, too: a blackbird singing, long after the urge to reproduce has been satisfied; a raven exulting in its aerial acrobatics; a dog “excited by the tumult of the waves”; a bower bird painting its twig-and-leaf-litter constructions with sticks daubed in berry juice?

It is arrogance on our part to argue that these are mere mechanics. Darwin – who was disconcerted by the extravagance of peacocks – believed that birds have “a taste for the beautiful”. A scene in Wattana haunts with its potent poetry: that of Chantek the orang-utan, taught to communicate in sign language by the anthropologist Lyn Miles and taken out for an evening walk in the Tennessee hills. Chantek points up at the moon and asks, “What is that?”

Frans de Waal has been working with apes for forty years. As an ethologist, he too is keen to address animal cognition. In his book Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, he turns the ­argument neatly on its head. He not only disregards the doctrinaire scientific scepticism about anthropomorphy but positively celebrates it, describing the isolationist attitudes of ­animal behavourists and their studies of “non-humans” as “anthrodenial”. (De Waal is inordinately fond of arcane terms – my favourite being “theriomorphic”, indicating the state of transformation from human to animal.) He makes clear that what was once regarded as the crucial potential in our relationship with other species – that they may possess the ability to use language, 
like us – is really not the point. Unlike the hopes of 1960s renegade scientists such as John Cunningham Lilly, who believed we might one day speak to captive cetaceans in “dolphinese”, De Waal’s accent is on more important assets that we share: culture, empathy, morality, even politics.

He draws these conclusions from his first-hand experience with primates. “I regularly have this eerie impression that apes look right through me,” he writes, “perhaps because they are not distracted by language.” His recurrent trope is the notion that we are set apart from other species. He reasons that this denies the process of evolution which led to us, and is frustrated by the argument that “human evolution stopped at the head”: that our brains are so far in advance of the rest of the animal world that we represent a step change in development which can never be breached or rivalled.

Previous experiments in animal cognition have been tainted by this approach. Primates are said to do less well in tests than children; yet when the latter are in the laboratory, they are accompanied by parents or carers, who inevitably give their charges unconscious clues that allow them to respond to the task in hand. Chimpanzees – which respond equally well to emotion and social stimulation – are left alone, without reassurance, and consequently do less well. We dismiss their wondrous ability to imitate us as “aping”, a pejorative term that would be better seen for what it is: an acute awareness of our otherness, and, perhaps, their own attempt to bridge that gap. De Waal draws on his own experience and a vast array of scientific papers to support his ideas. His book is rich and digressive, if occasionally repetitious and circuitous. It is certainly a significant contribution to the debate.

Carl Safina is a more obviously empathetic guide. In Beyond Words, he takes us out of the laboratory and the zoo and into the wider, wilder world. We encounter elephants in Kenya which are able to sense the distress of fellow elephants that are being culled hundreds of miles away. Much of what they are “saying” to each other is below the frequencies we can hear. Their calls seem to be transmitted through the land, the very soil; pachyderms have a sense organ in their feet which allow them to “hear” others of their species. In this sense, they feel the Earth of which they are – or were – an integral part; as if their monumentality were an echo of their abiding but dwindling place on a vast continent. Safina stitches together 
human and natural history in a telling, salutary manner. He equates the slaughter of elephants with the terrible trade in human beings: the ships that bore slaves out of Africa were laden with ivory, too. The same trade is still going on, in the same place: elephants killed for their tusks, human beings exploited for their misery – refugees, all. “And,” as Safina argues, “because of human expansion, no refuge is safe long-term.”

He seeks to write around this world – a world of wolves intimately linked by family and association, and one of orca (killer) whales, whose social units are so tightly bound and expressed that for the duration of their lives males will never leave their mother. Safina ends up on the north-west Pacific coast, where he makes his most ­direct plea for interspecies understanding as he watches pods of orcas surf through the waters. Twenty-five million years ago, he notes, they were “in possession of our solar system’s brightest brain. In many ways it would be nice if they still were.” Only people create problems, he concludes. Orcas have never been observed to use any violence on their own species.

Elsewhere, scientists such as Hal Whitehead and Luke Rendell – whose groundbreaking book The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins was published in 2015 – suggest that it is because these animals live in such large social groups that they have developed a high degree of emotional maturity: a kind of morality, in order to regulate and codify interactions. Others note that dolphins have highly developed amygdalae, the parts of the brain which process emotion. The American philosopher Thomas I White has even suggested that dolphins may be more emotionally mature than human beings. (Insert your own quip here.)

But it is easy to slip into post-human utopianism. I know many people who would prefer to share their lives with animals rather than with their own species. Some even try to become wild animals in their own right. The question remains: what keeps us apart, and will it end up being the death of us both? You won’t find an answer in any of these three books. But you will find some vital questions. Animals “are not brethren, they are not underlings”, as the naturalist Henry Beston wrote from his Cape Cod shack in the 1920s. He saw them as “gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear . . . other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the Earth”. Animals are our other, our fellow-travellers. For that reason, if for no other, we would do well to listen to them, even if we don’t want to hear what they say.

Philip Hoare’s “The Sea Inside” is published by Fourth Estate

Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel  by Carl Safina is published by Henry Holt & Co (461pp, $32)

Are We Smart Enough to Know  How Smart Animals Are? by Frans de Waal is published by Granta Books (336pp, £14.99)

Wattana: an Orang-utan in Paris by Chris Herzfeld is published by University of Chicago Press (192pp, $26)

Philip Hoare’s books include Wilde’s Last Stand, England’s Lost Eden, and Spike IslandLeviathan or, The Whale won the Samuel Johnson Prize for 2009, and The Sea Inside was published in 2013. He is professor of creative writing at the University of Southampton, and co-curator of the Moby-Dick Big Read. His website is www.philiphoare.co.uk, and he is on Twitter @philipwhale.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser