BRIAN GREENE'S ELEGANT UNIVERSE (2005)

Brian Greene looks tired. On the last leg of a North American book tour last week, the Columbia University professor has the demeanor of an author who’s been there and said that. When asked if he’s been to Vancouver before, he shakes his head and says he can’t remember, but plumbing his big brain for a memory, he then recalls a previous visit. The best-selling author has two more radio interviews to go before giving an evening lecture and returning to New York on a redeye flight. International intellectual fame is a tough gig.

A Harvard graduate and Rhodes scholar from Oxford, the forty-something author is following in the footsteps of Stephen Jay Gould and Carl Sagan as a respected scientist with a literary flair. He’s become something of a hot media property, explaining black holes on David Letterman and taking bit roles in Hollywood films. His first book,
The Elegant Universe, inspired a critically and publicly well-received PBS series of the same name, in which he starred as narrator.

With his latest book,
The Fabric of the Cosmos, Greene takes the reader on a tour of the looking world of quantum physics, relativity theory, and the big bang. It’s a broadbrush portrait of current physics, but Greene’s particular specialization is "superstring theory," which posits a universe existing in seven more dimensions than the four of space and time we are familiar with.

Asked for a capsule description of superstring theory, Greene summons up (probably for the nth time), his broadcast voice in what sounds a bit like canned enthusiasm. "Superstring theory start with quantum theory, which is in a small realm, merging with and general relativity in the big realm. But we don't know if string theory has gotten us to the rock-bottom structure of space and time of what space and time actually are. I think we are still struggling to find out the entities that are the analogues of the brush strokes (of a bigger picture). The revolution "will be when we truly identify the fundamental ingredients that make up space and time."

With a gift for clever analogies and metaphors, Greene communicates difficult scientific ideas with a theatrical touch. At a lecture later that evening at Robson Square Media centre, the author works the crowd like a carnival barker for the cosmos. Knowledge of contemporary science changes the way you experience the world, he insists. He gives a mundane example -- if you can call it that - from his own experience. "When I walk down the street, not always, but every so often I take a certain delight in the fact that as I move I'm shattering the old Newtonian conception of universal time. Because as I move my watch ticks at a different rate than it would have if I was sitting still. I get kind of a kick out of that."

Modern physics has dissolved the world into a probabilistic cloud of unknowing, with the role of observer central in experiential reality. "The stream of knowledge is heading toward a non-mechanical reality," wrote Sir James Jeans in 1930. "The universe begins to look more like a great thought than a great machine." Yet when I ask Greene if he thinks the ultimate constituents of the universe have some deep connection to mind (or Mind), he shows little enthusiasm for the question. He sees no way, at this point, to connect consciousness to the mathematical entities he and his colleagues pursue. So obviously, Greene has little interest venturing into speculative territory covered by other science popularizers, seeking a rapprochement between physics and eastern mysticism. At the Robson Square media event, he told of how when he enthusiastically discusses the latest ideas in physics at family dinners, his brother, a follower of Hinduism, responds nonchalantly with "of course, WE’VE always known that."

Ultimately, Greene is a numbers man – as you might expect of a guy who could multiply up to thirty digit numbers in his head by the age of five. "We can predict the properties of an electron to 10 decimal places," he says of quantum physics. "If you do the experiment it agrees with the calculations. That level of agreement between our theories and our experiments convinces us that there's got to be some truth in the approach that we are following."

Greene believes any final explanation of the universe will be "elegant and economical" in description. It is a faith of sorts, one he shares with Albert Einstein, who spent his final years unsuccessfully chasing a unified field theory across blackboards at Princeton University. Perhaps Greene and his colleagues will succeed where Einstein failed, describing everything from the big bang and beyond with a small set of equations "that will fit on a T-shirt," as one physicist put it. Maybe he’ll even surprise his brother one day.

Geoff Olson