[WSF18] Interview with World Science Festival founder, string theorist, author, Brian Greene



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Hundreds of years ago, to be considered worldly, a person would need to have knowledge of all facets of late-breaking news and life, including science. In the modern day, science is often seen as something more niche — a treat for the geeks, but too heady or too boring for everyone else.

String theorist and popular author Brian Greene is working to change that. With his wife, journalist Tracy Day, Greene founded the World Science Festival in 2008, and every year since has brought high quality, relatable science to New York City for a special weekend that features hands-on activities and the world’s leading scientists talking about what makes their research so exciting.

AiPT! spoke to Greene this past Friday, as the Festival was getting into full swing, to find out what drove him to make it all happen, and where he sees his own research heading in the future.

Photo by Steve Jurvetson, Wikimedia Commons

AiPT!: Why the World Science Festival? Tell us about the importance of public outreach.

Greene: Well, I mean, you look at the future, and you recognize that the single most powerful force that’s going to shape it is science, so if we can find a way to get people engaged with these ideas, not intimidated by them, but excited by them, that suggests that we are taking control and have the possibility of molding things in a way that will be better.

AiPT!: That’s not something a lot of scientists have always seen as, maybe, [being] as important as their regular work. Do you see that attitude kind of shifting?

Greene: For sure. In the last decade, 15 years, there’s been a widespread recognition among scientists that having the public informed is absolutely vital. And I have to tell you, in the last couple years, the urgency of that has become evermore clear to most working scientists, to the point where some have decided to take a break from their science careers and run for political office.

AiPT!: Speaking as a former Big Bang Theory guest star, do you think there’s more opportunity for outreach in pop culture, specifically?

Greene: There is, [but] it has to be done with some care, and the Big Bang folks, I think, do a very nice job of it, giving people people a taste of some of the real scientists and not overdoing it, and also not turning it into a ridiculous caricature, which is the other end of the spectrum.

But yeah, I think the more these ideas find a home in things that people encounter every day — when they’re watching TV, when they’re reading the newspaper, or when they’re doing whatever — I think that’s another way in which these ideas become organically stitched into out experience.

Greene’s Big Bang Theory appearance, imdb.com

AiPT!: That’s kind of what we try to do at AiPT! Science, and we’re also big on skepticism. What do you say to string theory skeptics who think it’s more philosophy than science, that it doesn’t make testable predictions?

Greene: Well, it depends exactly how they frame the criticism. If they frame the criticism that the theory is fundamentally untestable, then that’s just wrong. The theory is testable, it’s just that we don’t have the equipment, the technology capable of testing those predictions. So that’s the first thing.

The second thing, though, is — I fully agree with the skeptics that we should be skeptical about a theory that has not yet been tested. So I am absolutely on the side of skepticism. I am highly skeptical of string theory myself, and you should be skeptical of anything until there’s observational evidence, or experimental evidence.

AiPT!: Do you think any kind of practical, experimental test will be coming anytime soon?

Greene: Well, you know, we could’ve gotten lucky, and the Large Hadron Collider could have already given us some circumstantial evidence, and it turned out that it didn’t, and that’s the nature of the beast. If we knew for certain what was going to happen in experiments, we’d never undertake them.

So yes, it’s possible. Is it likely? That’s hard to calculate.

AiPT!: The World Science Festival is all about learning. Have you learned anything yourself this weekend, so far?

Greene: Well, I have. In preparing for programs I’m involved with which are not smack in the middle of what I do, I always learn. I always learn every time I even teach a course, again, for the 10th time. The antimatter program, there are details about antimatter in the program I’m moderating this evening that I had not fully appreciated until being forced to think it through.

And certainly the program we’re doing tomorrow on science and religion involves a whole host of areas that, while I’m aware of them and read about them, I don’t work on them on a daily basis, so there’s a lot.

Stay tuned to AiPT! Science for coverage of the “Believing Brain” panel and much more, all week! Click the “WSF18” tag below!