NEW YORK — Brian Greene is not the only physicist working on a master equation of the universe, but he is certainly the most popular.
The dashing math and physics professor is bucking the stereotypes of brilliant but disheveled scientists who would be a lot more use if we could only understand what they're talking about.
Professor Greene cracks jokes in his Columbia University classroom, dresses in New York black chic, takes acting classes, and sticks to a vegan diet. He was a cross-country runner at Harvard and a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford. Now with the publication of his physics book for a general audience, he is a sought-after speaker who is luring lay people into learning about cutting-edge physics with his engaging prose and soothing, late-night-radio-host voice.
Greene's message? String theory. It sounds obscure but could be incredibly important to understanding the world: how it started, what it is made of, and why it acts the way it does.
Greene and a growing group of the world's leading physicists think that everything is essentially made up of tiny vibrating strings. String theory is dubbed a "theory of everything" and could be the key that unlocks mysteries of the universe.
The theory is relatively young. Its origins are in the 1960s but it has made its greatest strides in the past four years. Greene lays it out for the masses in his new book, "The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory" (W.W. Norton & Co.), which is being compared to Stephen Hawking's "A Brief History of Time," except that it is more accessible and entertaining.
"People can be turned off from science because the technical side can be forbidding, but the ideas are as dramatic as any novel," Greene says in his riverside apartment. "Why go to fiction all the time? Why not use real science? Extra dimensions, space tearing, that's wild stuff!"
And people are interested. "The Elegant Universe" went into three printings in the first month of publication and has outpaced John Grisham's new novel on amazon.com bestseller lists. Book signings have overflowed, interview requests abound, Greene is peppered with admiring e-mails and is regularly stopped on the streets of Manhattan by armchair physicists.
In May the Guggenheim Museum held an event featuring Greene narrating the basics of string theory alongside performances by a string quartet. The buzz about "Strings and Strings," as it was called, got so big that a crowd was left out on Fifth Avenue scratching at the museum's door for standby tickets.
Those inside were treated to a crash course in basic physics and string theory, illustrated by amusing graphics and anecdotes.
The book follows the same lines, with Greene anticipating questions - "Why strings? Why not little frisbee discks? Or microscopic blob-like nuggets?" - and talking readers through each concept. When he gets to the concept of extra dimensions, for example, he uses a "garden-hose universe" where an ant crawls around a hose to represent another dimension.
At the Guggenheim event, Greene acknowledged natural skepticism by wryly joking, "You may say, 'There may be a civilization of green people down there and we can't see them either.' " He paused for effect. "Yes. That is one of the other theories of string theory." The audience didn't laugh until he calmly tacked on, "Well, no, not quite."
What the theory can accomplish is debatable. "We haven't seen a single thing from string theory actually happen. The theoretical tools are way ahead of experimental ones," Greene says in an interview.
"First, we have to know is string theory right? Because if it isn't, this is all garbage," he admits. A machine is being built in Geneva to test supersymmetry, which could become the first part of string theory to be proven by experiment. The rest of it is in the form of mathematical models for now, and part of what Greene and others are working on is coming up with ways to test them.
"You can find yourself momentarily gripped with fear that you're spending a working lifetime on something and in the end still couldn't know if it's right or wrong," he says. "But there's never been a theory in physics that has gotten remotely as far as this one has and turned out to be wrong."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society