February 9, 1963 • New York, New York
With his hip New York wardrobe, salt-and-pepper hair, and quick grin, Brian Greene looks more like a forty-something Justin Timber-lake than the scientist that he is. In fact, Greene is considered one of the top physicists in the United States and a leading expert in the field of superstring theory, which asserts that all matter is made up of tiny vibrating loops of energy. He is also perhaps one of the most famous scientists in the world, thanks to his 1999 best-selling book, The Elegant Universe, a guide to string theory for average readers. In 2004 Greene released The Fabric of the Cosmos, a book that explores space and time, and which promised to be equally successful. Because of his ability to explain in simple terms what some call "headache-inducing" concepts, Greene has been credited not only with introducing science to the masses, but encouraging them to care about it.
Brian Greene was born on February 9, 1963, in New York City. Early on, it was apparent that Greene was different. He was obviously gifted in math; at one point he was known to tape together squares of construction paper in order to multiply numbers with thirty digits. Greene also credits his father, Alan, a former vaudeville performer, with teaching him how to look at the world in different ways. He explained the game he and his father used to play to Bradley Jay of The Atlantic. While walking the streets of Manhattan, Greene and his dad would take turns describing what they saw from different perspectives. For example, if Brian saw a penny fall out of someone's pocket, he might pretend to be an ant on the coin talking about spiraling down to the ground on a copper disk.
By the time he was in grade school, Greene was so precocious in math that his frustrated sixth-grade teacher suggested he look for a tutor at nearby Columbia University. With a note from his teacher in hand, Greene and his sister went from office to office on the campus, and finally located a graduate student willing to work with the budding mathematician. The student, Neil Bellinson, studied with him every week until Greene graduated from Stuyvesant High School in 1980. After graduation Greene attended Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he majored in physics, the science of the interaction between matter and energy. In addition to his studies, he also pursued other interests that began in high school. For example, Greene ran cross-country and acted in musicals.
"The universe is rich and exciting, and there's stuff that can knock you over every day if you're privy to it."
Greene graduated from Harvard in 1984, and as a Rhodes Scholar he traveled to England to study at Oxford University. Each year Rhodes Scholarships are given to the most outstanding scholars in the world; the scholarships allow them to study at the prestigious Oxford University. In his spare time, Greene acted with an improvisational theater group. This knack for acting would one day serve him well, as he became known for his easy and relaxed public speaking style. Greene's focus at Oxford, however, was physics.
It was at Oxford that Greene first became intrigued by string theory. As he was walking to class one day he spied a poster advertising a lecture about a newfound "theory of everything." "I found it very exciting," Greene told Shira Boss of Columbia College Today. "They were saying there was a brand new way to solve the riddle of gravity and quantum mechanics." After attending the lecture, he and his friends formed a study group and absorbed any and all information on the subject they could find.
In order to explain very complicated concepts Brian Greene often turns to everyday examples. For instance, one of the ideas central to string theory is that there are many more dimensions than the ones we are aware of. The problem is that they are so small they are difficult to detect. Greene suggests that a dimension may be invisible because of our perspective. Imagine, he says, that far off in the distance an ant is walking on a garden hose. From our vantage point, the garden hose looks simply like a one-dimensional line. If we walk closer, the ant and the garden hose, another dimension if you will, come into view.
Another example is Greene's explanation of the uncertainty principle, which was proposed by one of the greatest physicists of the twentieth century, Werner Heisenberg (1901–1976). According to Heisenberg, who spent his life studying the movement and properties of atoms, it is impossible to pinpoint the precise position and momentum of a particle at the same time. In his "Strings and Strings" lecture, as quoted in Columbia College Today, Greene likens the principle to ordering dinner from a Chinese menu: "There's list A and list B. You can have Chow Mein, you can have Mu Shu, but under no circumstances, according to Heisenberg, can you have both."
After earning his PhD in physics in 1987, Greene returned to Harvard. In 1990 he took a teaching job at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, where he became a full professor in 1995. The next year Columbia University recruited him to teach physics and math. Greene remains a professor there to this day, and is codirector of the school's Institute for Strings, Cosmology, and Astroparticle Physics. He also teaches at Cornell and Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, via teleconferencing. Greene became known as a dynamic lecturer and his classes, though covering difficult subjects, were in high demand. As one student remarked to Boss, "He breaks things down in the most basic language. It makes it engaging and enjoyable, which is why we've been hanging on for so long, even though the concepts are fuzzy."
Fuzzy is probably the right word to describe string theory, which is the focus of Greene's research. According to Greene, in an interview with Jay, "the basic idea of string theory is pretty straightforward. It tries to answer a question that has been asked for two-and-a-half thousand years, which is, What are the smallest ingredients making up everything in the world around us?" The difficult part is that string theorists claim the building blocks of the universe are filaments, or strings, that vibrate at various frequencies. These strings are so small that they cannot be observed; they cannot even be proven through experiments. Instead, Greene and his colleagues rely on mathematics to infer their existence.
Some wonder why it is important to worry about something so small that it cannot be seen. According to Greene and other physicists, string theory holds the key to unlocking everything, including how the universe was created and how it works. The mathematics of string theory also speculates about even more fantastic ideas, including the belief that there are eleven dimensions, seven more than we are currently aware of; and that several parallel universes exist alongside our own. Greene became well known in the scientific community for championing these theories. In 1992 he and two Duke University colleagues also made an amazing discovery. Using advanced mathematics they were able to prove that the fabric of space can tear and then repair itself in a new way. As Greene told Peter Tyson of NOVA, "For a brief moment, you feel like you have seen the universe in a way that nobody previously has."
Greene, along with his discoveries, would probably have remained known to only a handful of academics, except that in the late 1990s he was approached to write a book about string theory. At first he was reluctant, worrying that he might not be able to successfully produce something that could be understood by the general public. The biggest hurdle was that string theory is proven through mathematical symbols, which cannot easily be translated into everyday language. But Greene also saw a need. As he remarked to Shira Boss, "People can be turned off from science, because the technical side can be forbidding, but the ideas are as dramatic as any novel." In 1999 Greene succeeded in his efforts, and The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory was published.
The book took off immediately, breaking sales records, and zooming up nearly every U.S. best-seller list. What followed was a media blitz. Greene was scheduled for a multitude of book signings, and he appeared on countless radio and television programs from National Public Radio's Science Friday to the Late Show with David Letterman. Suddenly Greene was a celebrity physicist. He was even stopped on the street by fans and well-wishers. Why would a book about string theory be so popular? According to Publishers Weekly, "the strength of the book resided in Greene's unparalleled ability to translate higher mathematics and its findings into everyday language and images, through adept use of metaphor and analogy, and crisp, witty prose." It probably also did not hurt that the thirty-six-year-old Greene was just as witty when he appeared in person.
Greene was happy about the brisk book sales, but he was equally happy that he was generating a buzz about string theory, and science in general. Perhaps the greatest testament of his success came in the letters and e-mails that he received from people of all ages. For example, Shira Boss quoted one man who described himself as a "playwright and independent filmmaker who got a D in high school physics." He wrote to Greene: "You have given science back to me, and for that, I owe you an immeasurable gratitude."
Four years later, in 2003, Greene helped NOVA translate The Elegant Universe into a three-hour documentary. Creating a movie was an incredibly ambitious undertaking since Greene discusses concepts that cannot be seen, let alone filmed. The producers used state-of-the-art computer animation, special effects, and trick photography to help viewers delve into Greene's universe. They also relied on Greene's wide-ranging talents as an enthusiastic storyteller and gifted performer. The physicist-turned-filmmaker, however, wanted to make sure that the documentary was both entertaining and accurate. "For me," he explained to NOVA's Peter Tyson, "it was constantly keeping a watch out to make sure that the science ultimately was dictating what we could and couldn't do."
In 2004 Greene again put ambition to the test when he released his second book, The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality. While The Elegant Universe focused on superstring theory, Fabric, as Greene told Tyson, is a "discussion of our ever-changing grasp of what these seemingly simple notions of space and time actually are." In what Library Journal called "simple but elegant language," Greene attempts to explain even more complex concepts for the general reader. He uses his usual clever analogies, including frogs in bowls, pennies on balloons, and ping-pong balls in molasses, to help us understand how time travel might be possible or how time does not flow the way we think it does. Greene also peppers the text with pop-culture allusions, including references to such popular TV shows as The Simpsons.
Not all reviews were positive, however. The Economist maintained that Greene fell short of his intentions and that his second book comprised a "meandering path through the maze of modern physics ... which is highly confusing to the novice." Regardless, the public welcomed the latest offering from the Columbia physicist.
In between dates on his multi-city publicity tour, Greene continued to teach his classes, which had become packed with students and nonstudents clamoring to attend. He was also busy giving public lectures in an attempt to reach an even wider audience. Working with the Emerson String Quartet, he developed a type of performance art that blended physics and music. Called "Strings and Strings," the charismatic Greene lectured to audience members, essentially giving them a crash course in physics, all set against a symphonic backdrop. The event drew sell-out crowds to the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, and there were plans to develop a full-length program to be presented at New York's Lincoln Center in 2005.
Greene also planned to begin work on a series of books aimed at young children that would help prepare them to digest more difficult physics books as they get older. In addition, he envisioned a companion film that would be entertaining and story-based. According to Jeff Zaleski of Publishers Weekly, Greene will no doubt, make "science a blast to watch." But for Greene there is a more important mission. He truly believes that understanding physics, and understanding the way the universe works, is essential for each and every person. As he told Zaleski, "I've seen that, as people become aware of space and time, of the strange events of quantum mechanics, they are enriched because they see the world in a different way." He likens it to baseball or football; if you know the rules you enjoy watching the game so much more.
Greene maintains a balance between his work and his personal life, although he admits that his job is not just nine-to-five. He continues to take acting lessons, which as he explained to Shira Boss, provides a release, "a way to enter a new world. The things you think about [when acting] are totally different from what you think of in a normal research day." Greene also maintains a healthy respect for the world around him. He lives in Andes, New York, on an old farm that he hopes one day to transform into an animal shelter. He also follows a vegan diet, which means he eats no animals or animal byproducts, such as milk or cheese.
When it comes to his research, as important as he considers it to be, Greene is sometimes frustrated by it. He has spent almost twenty years of his life working on a theory that may or may not be right. "It's a very precarious way to live and to work," he admitted to Tyson. On the other hand, Greene believes that his research has paved the way for other important developments. In the same interview, he told Tyson, "To me if the theory turns out to be right, that will be tremendously thick and tasty icing on the cake."
Greene, Brian. The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory. New York: W. W. Norton, 1999.
Greene, Brian. The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004.
"All Strung Out: Popular Physics." Review of The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality. The Economist (April 17, 2004): p. 83.
Buczynski, James A. Review of The Fabric of the Cosmos. Library Journal (March 15, 2004): p. 103.
Kirschling, Gregory. "Master of the Universe." Entertainment Weekly (February 27, 2004): p. 101.
Review of The Fabric of the Cosmos. Publishers Weekly (February 9, 2004): p. 74.
Zaleski, Jeff. "Writing Science: Inside the Elegant Universe of Brian Greene." Publishers Weekly (February 9, 2004): pp. 50–54.
Boss, Shira. "World on a String." Columbia College Today (September 1999) http://www.college.columbia.edu/cct/sep99/12a.html (accessed August 1, 2004).
The Elegant Universe Web site. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/elegant (accessed August 1, 2004).
Jay, Bradley. "The Universe Made Simple." Atlantic Unbound (May 20, 2004). http://www.theatlantic.com/unbound/interviews/int2004-05-20.htm (accessed August 1, 2004).
Tyson, Peter and Brian Greene. "Elegant Universe: Conversation with Brian Greene." Nova Online (July 2003). http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/elegant/greene.html (accessed August 1, 2004).