Jeff Greenfield's Portrait of Brian Greene for CNN & Time

Coming up, classical music...

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GREENE: Alpha-dot minus I-theta-alpha...

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ANNOUNCER: ... and modern physics...

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GREENE: ... causes the fabric to warp.

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ANNOUNCER: ... why together they may help us finally understand the universe and everything in it: as CNN & TIME continues.

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ANNOUNCER: Next, on CNN & TIME, did you ever wonder how the universe got started? Or what it's made of? This man thinks he may know.

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GREENE: Yes, sir. Ring it up.

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ANNOUNCER: His surprising answers to some of the ultimate questions, when CNN & TIME continues.

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GREENFIELD: No matter what kind of work you do, there are questions you have to ask: You want fries with that? Where does it hurt? Where do you want the couch? How long does this interview segment run?

Recently, I visited someone who spends his workdays asking the really big questions, in fact, the biggest questions in the universe.

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GREENE: Hey, how are you doing? So you got in, fantastic.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thanks for the e-mail, appreciate it.

GREENE: Yes, absolutely. Hang on for one second.

GREENFIELD: Why are all these people waiting to meet Brian Greene?

GREENE: How you doing?

GREENFIELD: Maybe he's a celebrity with well-connected friends.

He could be an actor, plugging his latest film on "Conan O'Brien."

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CHARLIE ROSE, HOST: What is it you're after?

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GREENFIELD: Or maybe an author, chatting about his new book with Charlie Rose.

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GREENE: It's very much a work in progress.

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GREENFIELD: Well, Brian Greene is a performer, an author, even a sometime actor.

GREENE: Yes, sir. Ring it up.

GREENFIELD: But those are strictly sidelines.

GREENE: Invariance under supersymmetry is basically going to boil down to invariance under translations.

GREENFIELD: Brian Greene is a theoretical physicist and mathematician, a professor at Columbia and Cornell Universities. And what he is doing is nothing less than asking the biggest questions in the universe. What's more, he and his colleagues think they may be on to the answers about how the universe began and about its most fundamental make-up.

GREENE: During the past 30 years, the possibility of the unified theory has started to become a reality and has been pursued by physicists worldwide, all fueled by the desire to unlock the deepest and, until now, most intractable secrets locked within the make-up of the cosmos.

GREENFIELD: Brian Greene has been asking and trying to answer these questions ever since his childhood days in Manhattan, the son of a composer and one-time vaudeville performer.

GREENE: When I was probably like five or six, something of that sort, when I'd learn the basics of, you know, arithmetic, something that really you can learn at a very young age. And then I just started to do things with it like solve various problems and undertake kind of irrelevant but huge calculations that would often take me, you know, half a day or longer to do.

GREENFIELD (on camera): So, like, you could figure out all of a sudden how long a light year really was.

GREENE: Well, actually, that was one of the calculations that I first did, I recall. You know, it's an involved calculation for a four- or five-year-old, and that's the kind of thing I was playing around with.

GREENFIELD: Not everybody remembers what got them on the path to what they decided to do with their life. Was this a gradual thing for you? Was it a particular event?

GREENE: There really was one moment. I recall walking to junior high school on the Upper West Side and just having that momentary, you know, teenage angst about what it was all about and what one was here for and things of that sort. And it just kind of struck me, perhaps by really understanding the questions deeply, there would be a satisfaction of understanding how the universe, even if one couldn't understand why it was there in the first place.

GREENFIELD (voice-over): Greene set out to do just that, from adolescent math whiz to Harvard to Oxford as a Rhodes scholar to the faculties of Columbia and Cornell, where he gained the reputation as one of the best young theoreticians of his generation.

GREENE: Supersymmetry generated is in terms of differential operators.

GREENFIELD: A little more than a decade ago, Greene turned to what was becoming known as "string theory,"...

GREENE: Supersymmetry...

GREENFIELD: ... an attempt to reconcile the two most important ideas of 20th century physics, ideas that appear to be in hopeless conflict.

GREENE: That dilemma surrounds the fact that Einstein a long time ago gave us laws that worked for the biggest things in the universe, stars and galaxies and so forth. That's his theory of general relativity. It's a theory of gravity, which is most relevant when things are big.

On the other end of the spectrum, other physicists in the 1920s and '30s, developed quantum mechanics. That's the theory of the smallest stuff in the universe, molecules, atoms and sub-atomic particles.

The strange thing is that each of these theories works incredibly well in its own domain, but neither allows for the other in the way it describes how the universe works.

GREENFIELD: Why? Because the theory of general relativity explains the stately, orderly movement of the heavens, but it can't account for the frenzied, frantic movements of sub-atomic particles.

Quantum mechanics can explain the tiny world but not what happens to the planets and galaxies.

GREENE: String theory finally comes along and shows us that if you can look deeply inside of anything, any piece of matter in our universe, it will ultimately be made up of little tiny loops of vibrating energy.

GREENFIELD: It's the kind of theory we usually imagine in the hands of a thinker like Albert Einstein, the classic other-worldly, even absent-minded professor, awash in a sea of incomprehensible symbols and notions.

But there's another model for the contemporary thinker: the popularizer, like the late astronomer Carl Sagan, who is determined to connect with a wide audience.

Brian Greene is very much in that tradition. In his recently published book, "The Elegant Universe," he explains string theory not with equations but with simple comprehensible language.

GREENE: The general relativity breaks down...

GREENFIELD: And at a recent lecture at New York's Guggenheim museum's works in process series, Greene used not only flashy graphics but a string quartet to illustrate his points. For instance, he used the music of Alban Berg to illustrate the way string theory resolves the conflict between general relativity and quantum mechanics.

GREENE: Everything physical in this universe of ours, everything we know or are likely ever to know, is part of this cosmic symphony, is made from the same fundamental music, since everything is made from string.

The strings in this configuration are relatively heavy, since they're wrapping all the way around the extra dimensions.

GREENFIELD: Greene's techniques can help a lay audience grasp even the most mind-boggling premises of string theory, for instance the idea that there are not simply three spatial dimensions, but many more, as many as ten.

GREENE: The dimensions can actually come in two varieties, two flavors. They can be big, large and obvious. They can also be tiny and curled up and much more difficult to detect. What we want to do is probe deeply within the spatial fabric and see how there might be extra dimensions.

Well, at first it's hard to see where they would sit, but if you go sufficiently finely into the microscopic structure of the fabric itself, you can see extra curled up dimensions. Here we see two in the shape of a sphere. Now, imagine that you have a little microscopic ant walking around down there in the microscopic depths. It can walk in the familiar extended dimensions, the obvious ones, but it can also walk in these curled-up dimensions. Whoo-hoo, that was fun, let's do it again.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The presentation was beautiful.

GREENE: Thank you.

GREENFIELD: Greene's enthusiasm is clearly infectious. It can reach admirers like one-time Rhodes scholar colleague George Stephanopoulos.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, AIDE TO PRESIDENT CLINTON: He's trying to figure out something that politics rarely achieves: truth.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Your speech was really wonderful.

GREENE: Well, thank you very much.

GREENFIELD: And he can reach the next generation, like 14-year- old Matthew Glazer (ph).

MATTHEW GLAZER: He really inspires you to learn about this, because he makes it simple. It's confusing and complicated material, but he makes you want to learn more about it.

GREENE: One really can tell a story of science.

GREENFIELD: But not everyone is sold on "string theory," and you can find one of the reasons in that label: string theory. It is a theory because no one's ever seen one of these tiny vibrating loops of energy -- for a very good reason.

GREENFIELD (on camera): Ever seen one of these things?

GREENE: Nobody has ever seen one of these little strings, and it's not too hard to understand why. They are very, very tiny.

GREENFIELD: Tell us how tiny you figure they might be.

GREENE: Well, just to give a sense of how small they are, if you were to take a single atom and magnify it so that it was as large as the entire known universe, one of these little, tiny loops of string world grow to about the size of a tree. So an analogy is a tree is to the universe as a string is to an atom.

GREENFIELD (voice-over): Since there is no physical evidence, string theory today rests on mathematical equations, and that bothers a lot of traditional physicists, like Chris Quigg of Fermilab.

CHRIS QUIGG, FERMILAB: What distinguishes a physicist from a mathematician is both try to imagine worlds and idealize worlds and so on, but for the physicist, it's extraordinarily important that there is a real, external reality. There is a physical world out there that we want to decode and understand.

It's extraordinarily challenging and difficult to be smart enough to do physics without having physical insight.

GREENFIELD: And that, says Quigg, is what has to change.

QUIGG: If string theory is going to have an impact on physics as well as on mathematics, it will be necessary, as the tools are developed, as it becomes clear what string theory is, for it to make predictions that can actually be tested in the laboratory.

GREENFIELD: For his part, Greene not only agrees; he can barely wait to start trying.

GREENE: We believe that we are heading toward a day when we will make predictions that can be experimentally tested, but we haven't done it yet.

There are indirect experiments that will be carried out in about 10 to 15 years which won't actually be able to prove string theory right or wrong, but they could give very strong circumstantial evidence in favor of the theory.

GREENFIELD: Which leads to the biggest question of all: So what? If we learned that string theory were true, wouldn't that still leave the ultimate mystery? GREENE: One can always say, "What happened before the big bang?" or "Why was there a big bang?" There's always another why question. But it may well be -- and this is part of current cutting-edge research -- it may be that we find answers to the questions, such as how and why did time begin?

GREENFIELD: And how, Brian Greene wonders, could anyone not be touched by such questions?

GREENE: When you take a step back and ask yourself: What is the whole purpose of being here on this planet, why is there a planet, why is there a sun that we're revolving around, why are there galaxies?

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These questions I think are so rooted in human nature -- I mean, they have been asked and struggled with for thousands of years, and not just by scientists: Philosophers, poets, musicians, artists, mathematicians, through the ages, have all found these questions to be so very much a part of our human nature that they have driven tremendous works of art and great literature.

And these questions, therefore, are not simply a mere intellectual exercise. I think they really touch us at the deepest level.

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GREENFIELD: Brian Greene may spend the rest of his life trying to wrestle with these issues. But he can give absolutely definitive answers to two questions of genuinely cosmic significance: a curve ball does in fact curve, but a rising fast ball does not, in fact, rise.


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