Science for the People

As a physicist and mathematics professor at Columbia University, Brian Greene is quite capable of speaking about concepts and theories that many of us could never comprehend, in languages we’d never understand. But he’s not interested in that. To Greene, a New York Times bestseller and frequent guest on TV shows, making difficult science accessible is one of his primary missions.

You may have read his books or seen his NOVA miniseries on The Elegant Universe or The Fabric of the Cosmos. You may have seen him on The Big Bang Theory or in films like The Last Mimzy and Frequency, or any of his appearances on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.

On one of those Colbert appearances, Greene lamented the Trump administration’s disregard for the sciences: “It’s utterly awful. For more than 50 years, science has driven innovation, prosperity, and look, if you want to make America great again, you make America smart, you make America think, and you keep America at the frontier of science.”

The audience erupted in applause. People tend to do that with Greene, who has always been about making the sciences great again, by making it accessible to the masses.

Greene and a few hundred of his friends are doing that again this week in New York City, where they’re hosting the 11th Annual World Science Festival, which he and TV journalist Tracy Day founded in 2008. The five-day fest brings science to the people in a very accessible way, with 50 public seminars and interactive events held throughout the city.

This year’s festival features some of the most brilliant thought-leaders in their fields, including Nobel Laureate May-Britt Moser, Steven Pinker, Andrea Ghez, Cumrun Vafa, Max Tegmark, Neil Turok, Jaron Lanier, Martin Blaser, Yann LeCun, Jo Handelsman and Mike Massimino.

ORBITER caught up with Greene recently to discuss the Festival, science, the intersection of science and religion, and the practice humility in the face of wonder and discovery.


ORBITER: What are you particularly excited about with this year’s festival? Is there a running theme?

Brian Greene: We never have a theme, because we find that you wind up turning yourself into knots trying to fit programming into the theme. Our perspective is, “Find the best science stories and get them out there.”

But sometimes, themes happen to emerge. This year, there’s a sub-theme of women in science. The opening night gala celebrates five women scientists who had a profound impact on how we understand the world (Marie Curie, Alice Ball, Rosalind Franklin, Vera Rubin, and Maryam Mirzakhani). And we have activities around New York City that are women-run labs for girls who can go and see role models who are pushing the frontiers of understanding.

In terms of other programs that I’m excited about, there’s a really interesting program called Rewriting Life, exploring recent breakthroughs with CRISPR technology—the ability to very precisely rewrite human DNA. This is something which can redefine the very meaning of life and have a profound impact on who we become in the future.

It’s almost like the stuff of science fiction, the type of technology that could be used for good or, in the wrong hands, for some really nasty things.

That’s true.

What are your thoughts on the ethics of those breakthroughs? And how we keep those things in check?

That’s a question that can be asked about many developments in science, not just in genetics, but obviously nuclear technology, which can be used for nuclear power or for weapons. There’s a whole lineage of examples where a breakthrough in the wrong hands can go in a direction that we’re very unhappy with, but in the right hands, can radically change the world.

I think we have to be a diligent society that allows scientists the freedom to explore the frontiers of understanding, but ultimately, we need to have an ongoing conversation. These things can’t be in the shadows. We need an ongoing conversation about how we are going to allow various breakthroughs to be used. I’m totally against anything that would curtail the freedom of scientists to explore those things that seem most exciting, but at the same time, we need to be very diligent. That’s why we’re having this conversation at the festival. You need the public to be engaged, so that these breakthroughs are front and center in people’s thought about how we want them to be used in the future.

Should government be the watchdog for these things? Or society at large? Or the science community in particular? Or all three?

I don’t think there’s one answer for all possible cases. Certainly, government regulation can be a vital way of implementing certain kind of strictures. At the same time, scientists who have a moral base are not going off and applying these things in ways that are reprehensible—that’s part of the equation too. So you keep things as open, as transparent, and as front and center in the public dialogue as possible. That, to me, is the way that you iterate towards the most productive solutions.

You’re moderating one event this week called “The Believing Brain: Evolution, Neuroscience, and the Spiritual Instinct.” What excites you about that particular topic?

Brian Greene

The power of religious conviction is enormous. It’s been with us in one form or another for tens of thousands of years. Today on planet earth, something like 75 percent, if not more, of the populace identifies with one or another established religious belief. So naturally, when something is so pervasive and so influential, you ask yourself, “Is there an evolutionary basis for this? Is there something in our genetic makeup, which has been shaped by evolutionary forces over the course of hundreds of thousands of years, that has given us a predilection, for looking at the world through this type of perspective?” That’s what the conversation will be about.

One reason I’m excited about it is that there’s a very tired conversation that happens in the world, which is “science versus religion.” For the most part, those conversations are not productive. Each side preaches to their own, and very few people leave that kind of conversation feeling as though their view of reality or view of the world has shifted. So this kind of conversation is not “science versus religion.” It’s science in the service of understanding whatever science can illuminate regarding religion and belief. And that, to me, is a very productive way of bringing these two powerful forces together.

Some of Elaine Howard Ecklund’s research supports a narrowing in that gap, that maybe science and religion aren’t enemies after all. Perhaps the “versus” part is falling away?

I think that’s partly true. I still see the extreme positions, even on the part of science colleagues of mine, who have been quite vocal that a program that touches on religion has no place in a science festival. We’ve had some pretty heated conversations along those lines. But my view is that the point of the science festival is for people to recognize that science reaches out into their world, into their lives in a profound way. It’s not just some abstract subject that you studied in high school. And for that to be as apparent as possible, whenever there’s an opportunity for science to touch something that is vital and important to people, that’s a great point of contact.

To me, to be afraid or to somehow cordon off religion as a subject that’s not relevant to a science festival, I consider the idea ludicrous. Religion is part of who we are. It’s widespread. It’s practiced around the world, and if science can give some insight into that, it’s giving insight into something that many people find profoundly important. That’s what the science festival is all about.

The panelists and experts at WSF seem to come from all walks—some people of faith and some not. Is that an intentional mix?

Some of the folks on the panel have a pretty public stance on these issues, and others less so. But the goal always is to have a range of perspectives and viewpoints, because the least useful kind of conversation is everybody saying the same thing. We want to allow the audience to recognize how these different views can talk to each other productively.

Would it be fair to ask where you stand on spiritual belief?

I’m happy to address that question. I consider myself a spiritual person, but pretty much in the mold of Einstein or Spinoza. I look out at the world, and I see great beauty and great harmony. And I have a longing to try to experience that and to understand it. For the most part, I experience it and I understand it through the tools of science. But at the end of the day, I don’t feel that science is just about making predictions or doing some calculations and experiments. I think science is about insight. And insight into the deep harmonies of the world is what many people would call a spiritual perspective.

The John Templeton Foundation has always been a major sponsor of the World Science Festival. As a recipient of Templeton grants over the years, you know that he preached intellectual humility in the face of science. I’m guessing you’ve been humbled in your own research?

How can you not be humbled by a universe that is populated with the wondrous structures that 20th and 21st century science has revealed? Black holes deep in space colliding, giving rise to ripples in the fabric of spacetime that race through the cosmos at the speed of light and wash by the shores of planet earth and cause a couple of our detectors to twitch in just the right way that allows us to recreate a story that’s been in the works for over a billion years. How can a little human being who becomes aware of that not be humbled by the majesty of it all?

Or figuring out the why of it all.

The why is a very subtle and deep question. It could well be that many of the whys that we want to ask ultimately are deeply entwined with the hows. We often thing about those as separate, but sometimes a very deep understanding of underlying mechanisms can radically change your perspective on the meaning of things. They’re not independent.

Any thoughts on American education when it comes to the sciences?

There are a lot of excellent teachers out there, I want to make that eminently clear. But at the same time, as I go around the country and I give my own lectures, I find that many students have an unfortunate view of science as a subject that is all about memorizing the facts and learning how to balance the reactions and learning how to solve the problems. While I’m all too happy for a student to gain those facilities, that’s not what it’s about. It’s really about deep understanding and engagement with reality.

I hope we’re heading toward a day where science education is not about facts and figures and assessment of students, but enriching an understanding of reality and our place within it. I don’t think we’ve yet gotten to that place.

You’re known for taking complex ideas and simplifying them and for a general population. Why is that important to you?

I’ve long felt that it’s tragic if the great dramas of scientific discovery are somehow unavailable to people because they’re told in a specialized language that most people don’t speak. To me, these stories define who we are. These are the stories that naturally carry on from the journey of Odysseus, right? These are the stories that naturally carry on from our wandering in the wilderness. These are stories that carry on from, you know, the great explorers crossing the Atlantic and finding the new world. That’s who we are.

So these modern-day explorations need to be available to everybody. And that’s why I try to translate them into a language that makes that possible.

And the World Science Festival is part of that conversation.

That’s exactly right. The Festival is one way that we try to accomplish that, and for me personally, through books and television shows and articles. It’s all swirling around the very same goal, which is to make this material widely available, widely accessible.