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March 25, 2004

And At No Point Was an Equation Invoked

by Ron Hogan

The Union Square Barnes & Noble is where the really famous authors get sent to do their readings, with a huge chunk of the fourth floor given over to seating. Wednesday night the crowds were there for Brian Greene, the dreamy-looking scientist who made superstring theory officially cool with the PBS miniseries version of his first book, The Elegant Universe. In his latest, The Fabric of the Cosmos, he delves into "space, time, and the texture of reality," and he gave the audience a brief runthrough of what it's all about.

He started with Isaac Newton's attempts to codify his observations of motion in the material world with equations that worked just fine once space and time were defined as universal absolutes, and then introduced Einstein's two stages of relativistic thinking: first, a universe in which time and space are both relative, but "spacetime" is absolute, then the world of general relativity where the fabric of spacetime could be warped by forces such as gravity. And then came the quantum mechanics...

At the level of atoms and subatomic particles, the quantum physicists proposed, we could no longer describe future states of being, only predict them. That didn't sit well with Einstein, so he and two colleagues attempted to poke holes in the theory by pointing out that, if we accepted the initial conditions of quantum reality, you could take two electrons that were both in a state of flux and put distance between them, then measure the spin of one electron--at which point the other electron would instantly snap into an opposite spin. The Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen (EPR) paradox was supposed to stop quantum physics in its tracks because it was too crazy to be real, but then the quantum crowd said, well, hey, maybe that's how it is. And when they finally had sufficiently advanced technology to perform the experiments in the 1980s, that's what they found.

Today, Greene continued, he and other scientists found themselves interested in questions of "cosmological reality," specifically with questions of time and our experience of it as "flowing" sequentially in a "direction." But when you look at the math, he said, "every moment in relativity is on a par with every other;" they're all "now" to some observer. So do they all exist simultaneously--and if so, why do we observe time as proceeding "forward"? It may have something to do with the conditions at the universe's origins...and to find out, physicists may end up teaming up with astronomers to study the background radiation from the Big Bang (which did, in fact, bring him neatly to the last page of his book).

During the Q&A afterwards, Greene talked a bit more about the nature of the spacetime continuum, and why string theorists are starting to believe that space might be able to come apart and reassemble itself. He also fielded a couple questions out of left field, like one about the perception of time after death, and was peppered with philosophical inquiries from a fellow who finally asked him to comment on the theories of Rupert Sheldrake. Trying to get out of it by saying Sheldrake seemed like a nice guy, he finally admitted, "He has interesting ideas, but it's hard for me to see how somebody rational could believe them." And, he admitted to another querent, science is great at talking about how reality is, but not so much on the why. And yet the opening pages of Fabric are quite eloquent on how his fascination with the subatomic world was instigated in part by reading Camus as a young adolescent... It was all fairly entertaining; Greene in person is a lot like Greene on television, only without the special effects. And reading Fabric before and after the event, it's quite easy to hear his voice in the text (which must make the audiobook, read by Erik Davies, an interesting experience).


I'm envious. I haven't been following upcoming events, and I didn't know he was speaking. Sounds like it was a great talk.

Posted by: Dietsch at March 25, 2004 11:25 AM
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