• Brian Greene on stage with actors performing his play "Light Falls" at World Science Festival New York. (World Science Festival New York)
What if you're scared of science? Why is it relevant? We chat to physicist Brian Greene at World Science Festival Brisbane.
By
Signe Dean

14 Mar 2016 - 3:32 PM  UPDATED 14 Mar 2016 - 3:32 PM

Last weekend visitors of Brisbane's South Bank district experienced a four-day science bonanza in the shape of World Science Festival Brisbane. For the first time this event has moved overseas from New York, where it's been taking place since 2008.

During this festival we caught up with string theorist Brian Greene, co-founder of WSF and a passionate advocate for bringing science to the masses, to the people who don't study physics or chemistry, and are perhaps even intimidated by the very idea of understanding science.

We talked about why science and arts go together so well, about the things Einstein got wrong, and much more.

How did you start this World Science Festival project?

Tracy Day (co-founder and CEO of WSF – ed.) and I were quite taken by the fact that science in the classroom was being taught in a way that's turning a lot of kids off. It was creating a generation that wasn't excited about the discoveries of science.

And we thought it would be wonderful if we can take her expertise in production and broadcast, and bond it with my knowledge and experience in science to create a new kind of event, where the public would immerse themselves in science, feel like they are getting it, and getting the excitement and not feeling like it's something they want to turn their back on.

Did you get your inspiration from similar events?

We did! The publisher of my books in Italy was at that time the head of the Genoa Science Festival (Festival della Scienza – ed.), and he came to New York to convince me to be part of that festival.

At the time I'd never heard of the concept of a science festival. As he started to describe his pitch, Tracy and I looked at each other and realised that we should have this in America – we have all these celebrations for music, art, film, theatre, fashion; New York is a capital for these kinds of celebrations, but why isn't it a capital for a celebration of science? That really got us going.

So you kind-of stole his idea?

We like to think that we were inspired by his idea. We went to Genoa, and we work on projects together, in fact Genoa [Science Festival] has co-commissioned some of our biggest projects.

We like to think we took it to the next level. One of the things we realised is that in New York City, if you want an event to attract press and large audiences, the level of production has to be significant, otherwise it's just going to join the mass of other science events that happen all over the place all the time, in universities and museums and so forth.

You want to create something special. And that's what we're most proud of, that the programs we create reach a new level of intersection between science and the arts that isn't achieved in most other places.

Kids love science, but a lot of adults are intimidated by it, and wouldn't even go to a festival that has 'science' in the name. What would you say to that kind of person?

We have that kind of person in the centre of our target. Our approach is – most of those individuals would go to a film, would go to theatre, would go to music, or something that's arts related, and that's one of the values in powerful unions between art and science.

If you can create an event that is art-based but has science at its core, you can attract someone like that to come in for the art, so to speak, and leave with a lot of science.

Are some art mediums easier to appropriate for science?

I think all of them can be, but there's a real danger that when you bring art and science together, you can drag each of them down.

I've seen many attempts which were well-meaning, but somehow felt pedagogical at their core. Once pedagogy enters a piece of art, it takes it to a different place, a place where you're thrown out of the experience, you're back in the classroom, learning something.

It's really a matter of allowing our natural human spirit and instinct to be nurtured and develop - and that's where the love of science is

So the most effective unions are the ones where it's much more seamless, where you feel as though you're still within the art, it just so happens that the content of the art is scientific.

Tell me about your play "Light Falls."

Light Falls is a piece that I wrote, it's a 90-minute work for the stage, in which I play the role of narrator - I'm not an actor, I play myself - and I take the audience from Einstein's earliest days right through the discovery of general relativity, and then onward toward his later life as well.

The production involves three actors who embody some of the key scientific figures, including Einstein, that are part of that story.  The goal of the work is that the audience feels they're taken on the wild, dramatic ride that Einstein himself followed. It is a wild ride.

He had these iconic, crazy-sounding ideas about how the universe might work. He starts to develop them, and is almost getting to the answer, and then unexpectedly he's in competition with a colleague, with whom he had shared some of his thoughts and had no idea this colleague would take those thoughts and run with them toward the finish line.

They're in this cat-and-mouse game for the month of November, 1915 – they're going back and forth, trying to figure out what each is doing, until finally Einstein gets the answer. It's a wonderfully dramatic story.

Would you say that most of science can be told like this, through storytelling?

I don't think it's always possible. There are certain highly technical aspects of science that don't necessarily lend themselves to storytelling. But those are the details that most in the public don't really need to know about.

I think any major breakthrough that has transformed our thinking has enough in it that you can extract away from the details, still capturing enough of the science that you're portraying the real ideas.

There's almost always a narrative there. It can be the narrative of the discovery, it can be the narrative of the ideas themselves, sometimes that's enough to carry a story. That, I think, is the most powerful way of communicating these ideas to someone who isn't looking to do research in the subject, just wanting to get a feel for what it's all about.

Obviously we have this recent example of gravitational waves where everyone was talking about it - what would be your elevator pitch for why people should be excited about this discovery?

The elevator pitch is that... For hundreds of years we have explored the universe using light – our eyes, telescopes – and we've learned a lot about the splendours of the cosmos.

Now, because of this discovery, we are entering a new era; we're going to explore the universe not with light, but with gravity. And waves of gravity, like waves of light, can give us pictures of what's happening in the universe, but remarkably, whereas light can be blocked pretty easily, you can't block gravity. Gravity can penetrate into regions that light can't.

So we may gain pictures of things that we've never seen before, maybe even in some sense a view of the Big Bang itself. That’s it, now we’re already on the 8th floor and out of the elevator.

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The narrative on gravitational waves - and the headline-grabbing thing - was that Einstein was right again about something. Can you name some things Einstein has been wrong about?

Well, Einstein was a little wrong about gravitational waves. He went back and forth on whether gravitational waves actually were a prediction of general relativity. The equations of general relativity are so subtle that Albert Einstein, who was the first person to tussle with them, got some things not quite right. Certainly he wrote papers that would suggest gravitational waves in his mind were not real. Where he finally came out in the end is a little bit murky, so that's one thing.

Curiosity is what drives one to try to figure things out

He had this idea in 1917 about something called the cosmological constant, another famous example. He was trying to avoid the universe expanding; he thought the universe was eternal, unchanging, so he introduced this 'fudge factor' into the equations to make a static universe possible.

Observations 12 years later showed the universe  is expanding; Einstein slaps himself on the head and says "wish I would have just trusted my own equations as opposed to changing them based on my prejudice that the universe should not be expanding".

And that story has a wonderful coda, because then in 1998 Brian Schmidt and others find that not only is the universe expanding, it's speeding up in its expansion. What's the best explanation? A version of Einstein's cosmological constant, yielding the outward push that may be responsible for this speed-up.

There are bunch of examples where Einstein got things right, or sort-of right, or wrong, or sort-of wrong. And that's what science is about.

For someone who isn't a scientist or doesn't get physics, or why it's relevant - why should they be excited about it?

I don't know that everybody does have to be excited. For instance, take my mother. She has no idea why I find this exciting, she absolutely would prefer that I be a doctor, or a business person – and that's totally fine. Her life is full, and rich, and it's not as though somehow she has a life that's two-dimensional because science is not her thing. And there are many people like that.

I think the real way of looking at that question is this: the vast majority of people, if you get them young enough – you don't have to convince them that science is exciting or interesting, they know it.

Little kids smash things together, ask the 'why' question ten thousand times, driving us nuts. Why? Because they're trying to understand how they fit into the world and how the world works, it's a natural inclination.

We as a culture are very good at beating that out of them by teaching science in a way where all of a sudden it doesn't have the excitement and the wonder, but it's rote memorisation, or the solving of problems for which you don't see any reason to focus your attention on.

So it's really a matter of allowing our natural human spirit and instinct to be nurtured and develop - and that's where the love of science is. It's not a matter of creating it, it's within us.

Would you say there's a link between science and curiosity?

I wouldn't call it a link, I'd say curiosity and science are the same. Curiosity is what drives one to try to figure things out.

That's all that science is, so there's a sense in which science is literally everywhere, it's not just taking physics, taking chemistry, taking biology. Any time you're trying to engage the world and figure out its workings, that is science. And that's really what curiosity is.


This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

Queensland Museum has acquired rights to hold the World Science Festival here in Australia for the next six years - so it's likely we can look forward to a lot more New York-style arts and science for a wide, curious audience right here at home.

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