This is point of inquiry from Monday, January 2nd, 2012.
Welcome to Point of Inquiry. I’m Chris Mooney. Point of inquiry is the radio show and the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs. And at the grassroots. It’s the start of a new year here at point of inquiry. And we’ve got what I guess you might call a pretty good guess. To kick it off, he needs no introduction, really. He’s Brian Greene, the celebrity physicist, the bestselling author, the television star, and the all around science communication maestro. Officially, Green is co-founder and director of Columbia University’s Institute for String’s Cosmology and Astroparticle Physics. He’s also author of the bestselling books The Elegant Universe and the Fabric of the Cosmos and co-founder of the World Science Festival. We caught up with Green to discuss the recently aired four part NOVA special based on his book, The Fabric of the Cosmos, and also to talk with him about, you know, science, see things in general.
Bryan Green, welcome to Point of Inquiry. Thank you.
It’s a real honor to have one of the world’s top science communicators on the show and also someone who’s really spread the science bug to many thousands through the World Science Festival and your your other endeavors. And we want to talk about the fabric of the cosmos, your recent for our series on PBS. We’re sorry we couldn’t get you on in time to talk about it before it aired, but we’re going to really flog the DVD and Blu ray version instead. So I guess first question about the series. It’s framed around this idea that we’ve all been deceived. The nature of reality is nothing like what it seems. The more physics advances, it seems like the stranger gets.
Oh, for sure. We in physics have that as one of our primary overarching discoveries of the last hundred years, which is that from the time of Newton, we learned that mathematics could describe things that we can see in the world around us, like the motion of the moon, around the earth, the earth, around the sun and so forth. But as we got really good at describing the things that we can see, we continued with the math and the math began to reveal aspects of reality that we can’t see with the naked eye, but with powerful, dedicated equipment, very clever and industrious experimental physicists, we’ve been able to prove that in the microscopic realm, things are nothing like in the everyday realm and the macroscopic realm. Very, very big things. Very different from anything we experience. And the series is all about exploring these exotic realms and revealing to us the true nature of the world that we live in.
Does this physicists today feel the same way that a Galileo or Newton must have felt when they realized, wow, mathematics really does describe the world? How could this be? It’s so awesome that there’s this order and structure to reality that we can actually understand. I mean, in some sense, you guys still must be in all of the mathematics, and yet it doesn’t lead you to the kind of clarity in order or does it?
Well, I mean, two answers to that. I certainly have never lost the thrill and the utter wonderment. I mean, that quite literally, that these symbols that we scratch out on pieces of paper with a pencil or that we write on a chalkboard, these symbols and the manipulations that we apply to them, the standard manipulations of mathematics somehow mirrors what happens in the real world. You know, I was a little kid when I first realized this, I guess a little perhaps as a touch of an exaggeration. I was in high school. When it finally hit me square in the eyes that these calculations that our physics teacher was setting us be at the motion of balls or planets, these calculations that I was able to do, not that they were particularly challenging any kid who has a good physics teacher can learn this stuff. I was at my desk at home doing his calculations, getting an answer and saying, my God, the mathematical result I have on my page and describing what happens in the world. And that is utterly spectacular. Now, in terms of order versus not, I would say that in the early investigations of physics, when we were focused upon the things that we can see, we were getting math that confirmed our experience and that confirmed the kind of order, the kind of patterns that we see in the world around us today. And, you know, for the last hundred years, when we’ve gone beyond what we can see, we’re still revealing order. The math is still a revealing order in the microscopic world, the macroscopic world. It’s just an unfamiliar order, an order that we don’t experience. We’re not used to particles and waves. We’re not used to a world governed by probability. We’re not used to a world in which particles can tunnel through barriers. We’re not used to a world in which some object in one location can have an instantaneous connection with an object at a distant location. Yet these are the patterns that the math described in the quantum world has revealed. And that experiment confirmed. So I’d say it’s highly, highly ordered, but highly, highly shocking at the same time.
And one of the ways that in the series you help to sort of translate this to the nonscientific audience is through a lot of a lot of stories, stories from the history of science, the news. You had some science historians as well. How do you go about finding the ways to make this really complicated math essentially relatable?
Well, that is the huge challenge. Whether one is doing this in book form or doing it in television form or doing in the form of a live event, which is what we do, the World Science Festival. The challenge is always to find the hook, the narrative within the science that allows someone to feel like. I want to go along on the ride and in the television program, certainly one of the techniques is what you are referring to if you simply focus upon the results of the science.
However, wonder if the ideas may be it becomes either overwhelming or just too much to take in or just too boring. You know, it just feels like you’re being bombarded with one result after another. So instead of doing that, because obviously we want people to watch these shows and enjoy them and learn something from them, we often do make use of the stories of the scientists who are responsible for one or another discovery, because I guess one way of saying it is when you begin to realize that the journey of discovery is a journey of human exploration, which has all of the drama of any exploration, the near misses, the spectacular errors, the wonderous achievements. When all of that is mixed together with the ideas of the science, the science becomes human. And I think part of what we do wrong in schools is we don’t make science human. We make science about the details, about doing calculations or knowing this or that fact. This part of the cellar, that chemical reaction and those details are important, but you need to weave them into the human drama of exploration. And that’s what we try to do in the television program.
And I want to remind our listeners of Brian Greene’s new NOVA series, The Fabric of the Cosmos is now available on DVD and Blu ray. We have links from our Web site, Puttnam Inquiry dot org, where you can purchase it and also available through our Web site as the book on which this is based. Brian Greene’s book, The Fabric of the Cosmos.
It was the most fun part of making this. I noticed you kind of got to play jeda. You got to wield a light saber and spice up your time. I mean, most scientists only get to do that with a laser pointer when they’re doing PowerPoint. So.
Yeah, well, exactly. You know, a lot of the program actually takes place in a green screen environment because much of what we’re trying to show either in the quantum world or with black holes or with cosmology and other universes, these kinds of things, you can’t literally take a camera and point at anything, right? You can’t take a camera and point at the wave function of an electron, can’t take a camera and point to the other universes. So instead, all of this is, you know, computer graphics created wonderful animation by a company called Pixel Dust. So the weird thing is, in much of the film, I’m looking at nothing. I’m reacting to nothing because there’s nothing actually in the environment until the computer guys created. So it’s a weird experience, especially for someone like me that’s not an actor to try to in my mind, I envision what ultimately will be seen on the screen and interact with it. And that did ultimately become fun. There’s a way in which you begin to get very good at seeing the things that at the moment are only storyboarded, you know, sketches on a piece of paper that haven’t been animated yet. And then to see it come to life is really, I would say, with a with the most gratifying aspect of the whole project. You spend months and months filming this stuff. You don’t really know what it’s going to look like. Then the animation is out and wow, you didn’t see it come to life. And that that to me was the most gratifying part.
It really it really drew me in as as it progressed. So I think it it worked. Well, one thing that one thing that came out on the news shortly after was that suddenly newspapers had blazoned on the front page the phrase God particle, because the next step was taken at the Large Hadron Collider.
I don’t know if they don’t have the Higgs boson was, quote, found one one newspaper headline said it was cornered. How does that how does that move the ball forward? Is it something we expected to happen?
Yes. In fact, the first program in the fabric of the Cosmos mini series, a program called Space, has a section on the Higgs goes on, because the idea that Higgs and others came up with back in the 60s was an idea for how particles like electrons and corks would gain the mass. That experiments have revealed them to have. And the idea is that mass is the resistance that an object exerts. When you try to change its speed, if you tried to push a truck, you feel that resistance, that truck doesn’t want to change its speed and that is reflected in the amount of mass of truck has to wear the mantle an electron comes from. But the idea is when you try to push an electron is immersed as everything else is, in a bath, a uniform bath. It’s all around us. A bath contains something called the Higgs field, is what Vogel says. And the heat shield is sort of like a molasses. It’s all around us and we try to push. The electron, the molasses exerts a resistance to the electron wanting to move through it. And that, according to ideas, is where the mass of the electron comes from. So we describe this in the program because it’s an idea that says empty space is never completely empty. According to these ideas, that they’re right. Empty space is always suffused with this molasses like bath. It’s Heymsfield. How do you prove this idea? Well, as we describe in the program at the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, one attempt is being made to prove this idea by slamming protons together. And in these powerful collisions, trying to, in essence, chip off a little piece of this molasses like that. And that little chunk of the Higgs field would be a Higgs particle. And people are trying to find that particle on your right. A couple weeks ago, the first evidence, tentative, actually tentative that the Higgs particle might had been found was put forward by the researchers in Geneva. We will not know for sure until the summer when more data comes in. And this could be wrong. It could be that they’ve not actually found this particle. But many of us are cautiously optimistic that this idea, which has been around for 40 years and is a cornerstone of our understanding of particle physics. This idea may finally be confirmed.
One thing I notice about the show is that you, unlike the newspapers, do not use the phrase God particle. Are you uncomfortable with it? How do you feel about that?
I don’t like that phrase at all. And, you know, it is a somewhat checkered story behind where the name God particle comes from. But the most straightforward version is if you think about every particle being subject to this overarching force as a particle tries to move through the bath of the glasses. And in some sense, there is this ubiquitous, omnipresent quality to the Higgs field. And I guess that sort of brings to mind the word that some people use the God particle. But this has nothing to do with God in any way, shape or form, in any conventional sense. So I think it’s really quite misleading when people who don’t know about these scientific ideas hear about this name that suggests some connection to religion when there isn’t even the slightest connection whatsoever. So I don’t use that phrase. And I think many physicists are not particularly comfortable with it either.
Well, fair enough. Watching this, I’m not someone as who is as steeped in physics as some. I’m pretty steeped in evolutionary biology. But I therefore viewed it through that perspective because I’m thinking, okay, why is the physics that you’re discovering so counterintuitive?
And the answer is that we didn’t evolve, moving at the speed of light. You you for this particular slice of reality that we’re so familiar with. So in some sense, evolution kind of explains why physics is so counterintuitive now. Would you agree with that?
Oh, hugely so, yeah. This is a vital, vital point and one that I actually make as well. I don’t know if you make it in the TV series, but Termine in my books I do, because you’re absolutely right. We were under evolutionary pressure to survive and survival meant finding the next meal, which in physics terms meant figuring out where that antelope going to be in five seconds. When I throw my spear, when I try to tackle that other animal for my next meal. And those kind of survival techniques do not require that you understand the microscopic makeup of matter. They do not require you understand electrons or cork’s or how they behave. Nor does survival require that you understand black holes or neutron stars or other universes. These ideas are only ideas that we can begin to think about and make headway on when we go beyond where evolution has taken us, which means that our senses simply did not evolve to be tuned to the microworld or tuned to the macro world. And that’s why when we then learn about the micro world or the macro world, it’s completely unfamiliar because our senses are oblivious to those features because we don’t need them to survive. So evolution is critical, actually critical to why the world seems so very strange.
When we probe it beyond the reach of our senses, the difficult thing, of course, is that it’s also underscores what you’re butting up against when you try to make people understand this stuff because it’s not cognitively simple, so to speak.
I mean, it is. It is. We still talk about the sun rising and setting. And this is one of our previous shows. We discussed this. Why of why why religion is more natural for the mind to embrace than science as it is because the mind in Nevada grasp the subtleties.
Yeah, but I flip it around the other way. I think you’re absolutely right. But on the other hand, people love to be shocked and they love. Be transported to an unfamiliar place. Why do we go to movies that have such a fantastical quality associated with them? Because we love to be taken out of the everyday. And the remarkable thing about our discoveries in physics is we’ve learned that it’s not just Hollywood, it’s not just sci fi. People who come up with weird ideas that might take us outside the everyday for a moment. As we go into somebody else’s imagination. What we’ve learned is that the universe itself, the way the world actually operates, takes us out of the everyday. If we probe it on scales that are beyond the reach of our everyday human senses. So making a television show about the microworld is actually spectacularly fun and interesting because the audience is being transported to a bizarre place. But it’s not one of imagination. It’s one of science fact. And similarly, when we talk about general relativity and gravity and black holes and things of that sort. Again, highly unfamiliar but thoroughly exciting. It’s so novel. It’s so new and so otherworldly.
But it’s actually things that we know to be true.
And let me again on then remind our listeners of Brian Greene’s new NOVA series, The Fabric of the Cosmos is available on DVD and Blu ray, and you can link to buy it through our website point of inquiry dot org.
So I went on Facebook, I went on Google Plus. I said, hey, I’m interviewing Brian Greene. And there’s a lot of people follow the show and they just barrage me with questions for you. So I’m going to have to give a couple. The philosopher of science has actually been a guest on this show, Massimo Pihl Yuchi. He asked a question about string theory, which is one of your key focuses or folk. And here it goes. This was his question. I think that this is an important one. What is he, Brian Greene, think of the charge leveled by some fellow physicists for, for instance, Lee Smolin. That string theory hasn’t been going anywhere empirically for a long time, and it’s time to try some alternatives.
Well, I think there’s a lot of truth in the statement that there’s no clerical support for string theory. But I would say it a little bit more broadly, especially as Lee Smolin was referencing the question, who some of your listeners may know works on an alternative approach, closed loop quantum gravity. And what I would say is any approach that tries to realize the dream of a unified theory where we’d have one over arching law that might describe the quantum world and the macro world, the world where gravity operates. Any attempt that is to build a quantum theory of gravity is going to be challenged to find experimental support, because the places where quantum mechanics and general relativity both flex their muscles in a significant way, we can measure them. Those rooms are very, very extreme. There are realms of either incredibly small distances, incredibly high energies, which we can’t produce in the laboratory. So the huge challenge to test any proposal, not just string theory, it’s a huge challenge to test any proposal that puts grabbling quantum mechanics together. And that, of course, does apply to string theory in terms of should other approaches be tried? Absolutely. The health of a science, to my mind, is partly reflected in the independent lines of investigation that are trying to solve the same problem. If everybody’s marching in lockstep, that’s deadly. You want to have a range of approaches that may be complementary, may be contradictory. One may help. The other one may knock off another. You know, this is great for science.
I think that string theory is our best approach for putting grabbling quantum attempts together. But others think that other approaches may be better. And I am thrilled that they’re pursuing those approaches. So from that perspective, I agree with the questioner.
Fair enough. Well, something else I want to ask you about. You know, we’ve got a lot of listeners who are who are skeptics, who are, you know, big proponents of critical thinking. How do you feel in this context about what I might call physics cranks?
In other words, you know, you’ve got these people whose there’s this Web site, Conservapedia had got all this attention for saying that relativity is a liberal plot less politically there. A lot of people who have tried to say that relativity is wrong, less politically. The idea that the Large Hadron Collider is going to create black holes and destroy the universe, as Stephen Colbert put it when he interviewed you, he said, suck us to Hawaii. I mean, how do you deal with that kind of nonsense?
Well, you know, I think the first thing to bear in mind is there was an issue with the Large Hadron Collider that was worthy of being raised. We’ve never probe the energy scale with the Hadron Collider. We’re going to probe.
So you might ask yourself, might it be something dangerous? And indeed, a handful of physicists at the UN and did the calculations to figure it out. And they established with absolute certainty that there’s nothing to worry about. And therefore, the question was raised and it was addressed. And then it was put to bed. You didn’t have to worry about it anymore. And the machine is running and there is nothing dangerous. So everything’s working out well for others who want to challenge Einstein. I get letters, as my colleagues do almost every day in the mail, because Einstein is this towering figure. And I think many people believe, perhaps rightly so, that were they able to knock Einstein theories off the pedestal, they would replace Einstein as being the towering figure. So if you’re going to do physics from the outskirts, why not try to shoot for the top? Now, the fact of the matter is Einstein theories have been tested to fantastic precision over the course of nearly a hundred years. So there’s basically no way that Einstein going to be, quote unquote, wrong. There’s no mistake that everybody’s been overlooking for a century. But is it the case that Einstein ideas no doubt are limited in their applicability and that sooner or later we will come upon realms that perhaps we can test where we’ll find that Einstein’s ideas do need modification? String theory, for instance, gives a modification an Einstein to ideas. I’m sure that that will happen. But the frame of mind that somehow one will erase a whole body of understanding that has withstood the thousands and thousands of tests. That’s just a misunderstanding of science. That’s not a misunderstanding of Einstein. That’s not how science progresses. You have a bunch of ideas. They’re tested. They’re shown to work. And they’re shown to work within a certain domain. And then as knowledge progresses, you go beyond that domain. And that sometimes requires new ideas. Newton’s picture of gravity. It works really well when you’re talking about the motion of the Earth in the moment. Einstein went beyond Newton in the general theory. Relativity gave us an understanding of black holes in cosmology and so forth that didn’t race Newton. Rather, it extended Newton into a wider domain and that wider domain required new ideas. And that’s really what everybody should be shooting for. Don’t try to erase the things that have already been established. Try go beyond them into realms that we haven’t yet understood.
But I think that’s a that’s a great answer that I’ll maybe try to quote next time this comes up. But let me let me just ask you a couple questions structurally about the act of science, communication and the popularization of science. This is something that fascinates me. I’ve written a book on it and I train scientists to do it. And so I’ll begin with a question actually, also from the Web, from a historian of physics, Patrick McCray.
He wanted to ask you how you think the popularization of science has changed since the days of Cosmos. What’s new? What’s harder or easier? I mean, Sagan was on PBS just like you. What’s the difference? What’s what’s the same?
Well, I think from my perspective and I think everybody who works in the field probably gave a somewhat different answer. But from my perspective, the things that I’m interested in communicating to a general audience are the kinds of things that we have been talking about, the things that are completely unfamiliar. And what I want to do is can pay those ideas in a way that does resonate with Sagan’s approach, which is to communicate science with a sense of wonder and a sense of drama and a sense of, you know, if you I think describe it, you know, did they catch in your throat when you think about certain ideas because they’re so moving. So I think the idea and the goal of communicating science in that way hasn’t changed. But I think the techniques have changed. I think audiences are more sophisticated in some ways because they have been privy to a lot of these ideas over the course of many decades. And certainly the science watching public is ready to be challenged in a way that they could have been back and taken away because he was the trailblazing guy at the time. So we try to communicate string theory and quantum mechanics and General Tiven and we really try to do it in a way that at times is somewhat challenging. But I think the goal is the same. The techniques certainly have evolved since. Now we have this wonderful computer graphics at our disposal that is quite sophisticated relative to where it was 30 years ago. And that makes all the difference when you’re talking about domain that you can’t actually point a camera at. So I think the goals are the same. Techniques have evolved. And I think audiences have become more sophisticated.
What do you think the average scientists who wants to get better at this can do to hone the skill of communication? This is another question that came from the Web, a guy named Eric Chellsie. I said, what? What is your advice to scientists? Who wants I mean, they’re not going to be on PBS. Who? He’s not right away. But what what would you what would you advise them?
Well, to me, I think the most vital thing is evolving.
Whenever you’re talking to a member of the general public being alive event or on television or even in a book, I think audience members quickly know whether you’re being genuine, whether you’re talking from a place of passionate interest. It comes from some internal fire that’s driving you or whether you’re putting it on. And to my mind, I mean, whenever I give a talk, I don’t write out my talks. I don’t want to give a talk as if I am following a script because I’m not an actor and I can’t be genuine that way. So the most important thing is to speak from a place of your own expertize and your own passion and just allow that to inform what it is that you’re talking about. And I think as long as the words and the ideas are coming from an internal place of that sort where you’re fired up about it, you can get others fired up about it, too. Otherwise, I just don’t think it can work.
I want to share a story with you. I just can’t resist. So I’ve watched your appearance on The Colbert Report. I think you’ve gone several times. But this was the time when you were talking about the World Science Festival things in 2008. And the reason I’ve seen it like dozens of times, because I actually show it every time I teach scientists communications. I’ve shown it to a probably a thousand of them this year because I do this with the National Science Foundation and we use this clip where you’re on Kolber and you do a wonderful job, by the way. And we use it to teach the scientists a couple of things.
One, how important it is, look like you’re having good time, which you certainly do, to how important it is to have a message and a plan, which I think it’s great you had. And then three most of all, a demonstration of a communication device we call bridging. And what that basically is is sort of staying on message and talking about what you want to talk about, even when you have an impossible host who’s pulling you all over the place like cold air. And so you did the best bridge ever. And this is what we teach them. And I want to describe it and ask you to comment on it. Kolber says the U. Does this ever happen? You have two competing scientific theories and you get them in a room and you make them fight to see who’s right. And your response is, I don’t know if you remember, but you said, well, metaphorically speaking.
And then, of course, they work perfectly. And he let you say what you wanted to say. And you got to get back to talking about science. We teach this as a high level skill of science communication. Is this something that came naturally to you or something you had to learn? Or how did how did it work?
Well, I may have never had any training in this in this regard. You know, I think I think about my own comfort level in certain environments. I think it largely comes from, you know, my dad my dad was a singer. He was a vaudevillian performer. And I think by virtue of growing up around him, who, you know, he was always doing one sort of shtick or another.
There was a kind of experience with dealing with an intimate audience, namely, my dad was dealing with us, his family and in particular way. And I think as long as you’re comfortable, then the ways in which you can deal with a difficult situation just come to you more and more freely, more naturally.
You know, if you’re in a situation like that and you’re thinking, oh, God, what do I say now? You’re sunk. Right. Because on a show I could bear the points, turn on a fraction of a second, or he’ll take you like a kite in a in a violent storm one way or another.
And yes, that maybe you just have to respond very, very quickly. And I think ultimately it just comes from feeling comfortable, which is the easy thing to do. You know, for instance, I started to film my first television show with NOVA, the Elegant Universe. You know, the first couple of weeks on that I was very uncomfortable. I’ve never been in front of the camera in that way before. And ultimately, I got comfortable. We had to go back and we film those first few weeks. That’s just what we had to do. And so I think that’s part of it is just a familiarity and a certain kind of comfort level that comes from doing things, you know, more than once. And certainly these interview situations press those capacity to the limit.
Well, it’s a it’s a it’s a great clip. People should watch a movie we’ll try to link it to. So let me just ask you one last question that I want to keep you on. It’s been great to have you. I mean, it’s obvious that in you already mentioned that you do come to this with a lot of passion. So in conclusion, I will just ask you to not the chairman already, but to just further infect us. What motive drives you to be a science communicator? And why should we just keep cloning that motive in more and more minds?
Well, you know, when I look at the big. Picture, as I think all of us do at one point or another. I see us little pea creatures walking around the surface of the Earth and the earth we know is just a fairly ordinary planet revolving around a fairly ordinary star, which is one of hundreds of billions of stars in our galaxy, which is one of hundreds of billions of galaxies that we know of. And in that context, the capacity of these little puny beings to reach out through to calculation and experiment and wonder and learn so much about the universe. That, to me, is what makes life worth living. And anybody that doesn’t have that experience. Anybody who we don’t have the opportunity to have that experience, that that that kind of connection to the cosmos, that comes from really understanding what’s out there and what we’re made of and what the fundamental forces are. I think it’s tragic that people don’t have that experience. So the reason for pressing on with science and science communication is so that everybody can have that that wondrous sense of being part of this wider reality.
Well, on that note, Bryan Green, thank you, forgiving so many people that opportunity, it’s been a real pleasure to have you on point of inquiry.
It’s my pleasure. Thank you.
I want to thank you for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry to get involved in a discussion about this show and Brian Greene’s work, please visit our online forums by going to center for inquiry, dot net slash forums and then clicking on point of inquiry. The views expressed on point of inquiry aren’t necessarily the views of the Center for Inquiry, nor of its affiliated organizations. Questions and comments on this show can be sent to feedback at point of inquiry. Dot org.
One of inquiry is produced by Atomizing and Amherst, New York. And our music is composed by Emmy Award winning Michael Waylan. This show also featured contributions from Debbie Goddard. I’m your host, Chris Mooney.