Celebrity Scientist Brings Time Travel, Cosmic Theory Down to Earth

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
March 26, 2004

If anyone is to realize Albert Einstein's dream of one day producing one unified theory to explain the nature of the universe, Brian Greene seems like a pretty strong candidate. And if he succeeds, there is even a chance we may actually understand what he's talking about.

Greene, who teaches physics and mathematics at Columbia University in New York City, is popularizing cutting edge physics. His 1999 bestseller The Elegant Universe, took lay readers on a lucid stroll through the theoretical physics brain-twister known as string theory. In his new book, The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality, Greene dives into even deeper questions of space, time, and where the universe is going.

In a recent telephone interview, Greene spoke with National Geographic News about everything from time travel to the possibility that our world is merely a hologram.

Your previous book described string theory. What does that entail?

At its core [string theory] is a new proposal for the fundamental constituents of matter and energy … a little vibrating filament. It's hard to say what it's made of, but the word "energy" kind of captures it. It's a vibrating filament of energy that lies within every particle.

An electron is literally a vibrating loop of string. Just as the strings in a violin can vibrate in different patterns, producing different musical notes, these strings can also vibrate different ways. If you take all the elementary constituents of the universe and magnify them sufficiently, the only difference between them would be how the string is vibrating.

We think [string theory] realizes the dream that Einstein articulated, the dream of finding an essential idea that might be able to describe everything in the physical universe. He searched in vain for this unified theory and never found it, and we think that this approach, this string theory, may well be what he was looking for.

What is your new book about?

The book traces our ever changing conception of reality over the last 300 years. It shows there have been a number of major upheavals in our thinking, which are closely intertwined with upheavals in our understanding of what space is and what time is.

Our senses evolved in order for us to survive in the wilderness. But there's no reason to expect that senses that evolved for that purpose would be at all good at revealing the true nature of the universe, the true underlying reality. In fact, experience and our senses provide a very poor guide to the true nature of the world.

Science has revealed a strange layer of reality just beneath the surface of the everyday world. That's what the book is about—this layer of reality beneath everything.

Give us an example of how our experience may be a poor guide for understanding what's going on.

Continued on Next Page >>


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