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Tech Q&A

Brian Greene

Describe your latest project.
My latest book is Icarus at the Edge of Time — it's a futuristic reimagining of the classic Icarus tale. In this version, rather than wax wings and a journey too near the sun, a boy takes a small spaceship and challenges the tremendous power of a black hole. In the original tale, Icarus's journey results in his coming to an untimely end. In this incarnation, Einstein's relativity kicks in and results in a rather different ending to the story. Icarus survives but finds that the reality with which he was familiar is gone. You don't need any science background to follow the story — instead, through the story itself, you become familiar with one of the most profound insights revealed by Einstein. While the story is fictional, the core science underlying the narrative is real. I like to call this a work of science in fiction as opposed to science fiction.

  1. Icarus at the Edge of Time
    $6.50 Used Board Book add to wishlist
    Brian Greene has given us a fable about fathers and sons, curiosity and wisdom, and the complexity of the universe as only a physicist of his range and lucidity could. Designed by Chip Kidd — with full-color images from the Hubble Space Telescope — it is destined to be a classic for all ages.
  2. The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory
    $5.95 Used Trade Paper add to wishlist
    "[Greene] develops one fresh new insight after another....In the great tradition of physicists writing for the masses, The Elegant Universe sets a standard that will be hard to beat." George Johnson, The New York Times Book Review

    "Compulsively readable. Greene threatens to do for string theory what Steven Hawking did for black holes." New York Magazine

What inspires you to sit down and write?
The recognition that there are so many people who see science as something they struggled to get through in school, but, once done, is a subject that can safely be left to scientists. I feel I'm on a mission to show that science is so much more than that — that science is a way of life, a perspective. Science provides great power and has the capacity for untold inspiration. I write to bring science across in accessible and unusual ways — an approach that I feel can slowly shift science from the cultural sidelines to the cultural mainstream.

Have you ever taken the Geek Test? How did you rate?
OK — you inspired me to just take it, which by itself should certainly increase my score. I came in at 5% and was told I'm a "geek poser." Maybe I would have scored higher if I knew what half the acronyms in the questions actually stood for.

What do you do for relaxation?
I spend time on my (non-working) farm in the Catskill Mountains. I've always thought it bizarre to spend prolonged periods of time in environments (like NYC) that make it nearly impossible to see stars. The night sky in the Catskills is dramatic.

What was your favorite book as a kid?
I hardly read, really. Well, that's an exaggeration, but when I opened up books and found more words than equations, I was really disappointed. I just didn't like words that much. I've grown much fonder of them in the years since.

If you could be reincarnated for one day to live the life of any scientist or writer, who would you choose and why?
If I got to pick the day, I'd choose Einstein just as he finished the calculation of Mercury's perihelion precession using his new equations of general relativity. What a spectacular feeling it must have been to look at math he'd been immersed in for years and realize that it had finally come together and revealed a fundamental, basic truth of the universe. When Mercury's orbit emerged correctly from his calculations, Einstein knew that he — and he alone — understood how the most basic force — gravity — actually worked.

What was your best subject in high school? Your worst?
I did OK in math and physics, but a subject that I found unexpectedly captivating was architectural drafting. Unfortunately, I wasn't any good at it. I never could master a French curve. But were I to have gone another direction, architecture would have been a likely route. My physics research has, for a long time, focused on the nature of space and time. A good friend of mine is an architect and likes to describe what he does as sculpting space and time. I like that link.

Describe the best museum of science and/or industry you've ever visited and what made it great.
The Exploratorium in San Francisco. Real science in a totally hands-on environment. Every kid should go there.

By the end of your life, where do you think humankind will be in terms of new science and technological advancement?
If we could download ourselves to a hard drive, it would certainly make the end easier. Not likely though. But from what I've seen lately, brain-machine interface has made incredible strides — I can easily imagine that, in a few decades, the integration of mind and machine will be fairly advanced.

÷ ÷ ÷

Brian Greene is the author of The Elegant Universe and The Fabric of the Cosmos. He was educated at Harvard University and at Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes Scholar. In 1996, he joined Columbia University as a professor of physics and mathematics. He has lectured at both a general and a technical level around the world and is internationally acknowledged for a number of groundbreaking discoveries in superstring theory. In May 2008 he chaired the first annual World Science Festival, a gathering of the world's leading scientists in New York City. Brian Greene lives in Andes, New York, and New York City.

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