Physicist Brian Greene discusses how science got caught up in America’s political crisis
Brian Greene is one of those physicists. You know the type: Blessed with a brain capable of untangling the mysteries of the universe, and a knack for clearly explaining it all to the rest of us schlubs.
His enthusiasm for doing these things keeps him quite busy, what with the three best-selling physics books for grown-ups, a children’s book about time dilation(!), a few TV specials, and, of course, a TED talk. Oh, and he and his wife have since 2008 spearheaded an annual science-themed takeover of New York. The World Science Festival runs from May 30 to June 4, with talks, performances, and interactive events in all five boroughs.
An ambitious schedule to be sure. Opening night includes a performance of Greene’s next book (working title: Until the End of Time) exploring humanity’s place in the unfolding universe. Other events explore how the brain works and how to use the scientific method in the kitchen. A biologist will lead a sailboat cruse of New York Harbor, and Mario Livio will set up some barrel-sized telescopes in a bid to disprove every New Yorker’s fervent believe that you can’t stargaze in the city.
Greene hopes the festival sates and stirs the public’s appetite for science. No easy feat these days, when politics has shifted science from something people do to something they march for, argue over, and believe in. I gave Greene a call to ask how how the joy of science and the thrill of figuring things out might prevail when it seems science is under siege.
Given the debates over science right now, I’d like to start by asking a basic question: What is science?
Science is our most powerful tool for evaluating what’s true in the world. It’s a perspective on reality that allows you to grasp what’s right and what’s not. And, in the best of cases, use that knowledge to manipulate and control the world to the betterment of everyone.
What area of science, besides physics, is most exciting to you right now?
Research on the brain, absolutely. Neuroscience is astoundingly deep and compelling. I like to organize the big mysteries into three categories: You have the origin of universe, the origin of life, and the origin of consciousness. And the last one, what conscious is and means, is deepest of all.
How do you feel about labels like pro-science and anti-science becoming political epithets?
It’s deeply unfortunate, because fundamentally science is not a partisan issue. The facts of how the world and universe are put together transcend party lines. But we’ve come to a very strange place in American democracy where there’s an assault on some of the features of reality that one would have thought, just a couple years ago, were beyond debate discussion or argument. Now, I’m not naive as some of my colleagues, who say we need to have a government run on the principles of science. There’s an art to governing that figures out how to balance conflicting desires with limited resources that science can’t solve. But there shouldn’t be a disagreement on basic facts.
Do you think anything positive will come of this?
Well there was a time, and still some scientists feel strongly this way, when scientists had nothing to do with the political arena. I think in best possible universe we would love if that made sense, but in ours it doesn’t. Scientists need to stand up, and they have. Marches are step in good direction. And scientists are feeling encouraged to run for office. I think it’s a good step forward that the most rational, sensible, and rigorously-thinking individuals are injecting themselves into that arena.
Why do you think it’s possible for the public to accept some scientific facts but vehemently deny others. For instance, physicists said the gravitational ripple detected by LIGO was caused by two black holes colliding 1.3 billion years ago. Nobody witnessed that, it was an extrapolation of data and known physics. Climate change is also an extrapolation of data and known physics (and chemistry), but is vehemently debated.
Well, it’s an interesting question. I can give two answers. The most straightforward is that if two black holes colliding had a radical impact on public policy, then maybe more people would be debating the science. My other answer is that I suspect many of the people who don’t accept the scientific basis of climate change probably haven’t thought a lot about things like gravitational waves, or inflationary cosmology.
How would you go about decoupling politics from science?
I am an optimist, and I do like to think if we could just grab hold of the educational system and showed kids and teens power of science, how it’s a potent and powerful tool to unravel grand mysteries, and reveal the workings of everyday life, then it wouldn’t matter whether they grew up to be Democrats, Republicans, liberals, or conservatives. Where they were on the political spectrum would of course still bear weight on how they understood the implications of science, but it wouldn’t become an attack on understanding itself.
Political debates don’t just occur beyond science. You may be the most famous proponent of string theory, which has had its ups and downs in terms public acceptance. What’s your view of how string theory and supersymmetry has been treated by both physicists and the media in the past decade?
It’s a very interesting question, and it speaks to the fact that even science itself is a discipline pursued by flesh and blood human beings. In this particular case, any self-respecting string theorist always points out that these ideas are hypothetical, and there are a number of questions they cannot answer. And without data we don’t know if they can be right or now. But, in a curious way, a handful of non-string theorists made it appear that somehow we didn’t want people to know these things. I think that wound up coloring public perception that string theorists were hiding something. In terms of the field of string theory itself, it’s not so much as it’s gone through ups and downs, but that there have been more, and then less, exciting times in terms of new discoveries and understandings.
Finally, I’d like to ask where you stand on one of the most important scientific questions of our time. Pluto: Planet or dwarf planet?
You know, in my heart of hearts, Pluto is a planet. But, thinking as a scientist, I do recognize that if you make Pluto a planet, then consistency demands you have to include a bunch of other objects of similar size and characteristics. It’s just that, when you are brought up with Pluto being a planet, or brought up with any certain way of thinking, it can be hard to let that go. That’s kind of the same challenge that America is having with everything right now, isn’t it?