On Being Brian GreeneWe really liked this On Being episode with Physicist Brian Greene.We think you might like it too. Mystery is good for inspiration. Mystery is good for writing.

On Mathematics Answering Life Questions:

MR. GREENE: Well, I think like many who are in theoretical physics, there was a love of mathematics at an early age. And for me, personally, it was in high school that I finally recognized that this game of mathematics could be parlayed into a description of reality. In fact, there’s one experience when I was taking Advanced Placement Physics where we had this problem that I remember really crystal clear. It had a baseball attached to, like, a piece of chewing gum that was stuck to the ceiling. And the ball was swinging as the chewing gum was stretching. And you’re asked to figure out the trajectory of the ball. I mean, who really cares, right?

But there I was at my desk doing the calculation, getting the answer, and it was one of these “holy cow” moments that you had this formula that would predict what would really happen. I remember running down the hallway to my dad, and saying, “Look at this formula that would tell you what would happen with the baseball and the chewing gum.” And for me, it was one of those moments of this kind of pursuit is a way into the deep mysteries of the world.

On Reality:

MS. TIPPETT: You make the provocative point that, in fact, our intuition doesn’t serve us well at all. That our senses, which is the way we move through the world and the way we perceive reality, mislead us.

MR. GREENE: When we are asking deep questions about reality, I think that is the case. I mean, if you went by your senses, you would think that this table is solid. But we now know that this table is mostly empty space. If you went by your senses, you would think that time is universal. It ticks off the same rate for everyone, regardless of their motion or the gravity that they are experiencing. We know for a fact that that is not true. We all carry our own clock, and it ticks at a rate that is hugely dependent on those features of motion and gravity. So there’s a very long list of things that you would be completely misled by if you relied on your senses to understand how that feature of the world works.

On Parallel Universes:

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, far out potential implications of string theory. And you go through several different iterations of that, different possibilities. I think — well, first let’s just talk about that a little bit, about the whole idea of parallel universes. I mean, there’s this great line that one of the implications of this is there is no such thing as a road untraveled.

MR. GREENE: Right. We sit there, the math jumps out of the page, kind of grabs us by the lapel, slaps us in the face, and says, “Look at me. What this is telling you is there might be parallel universes.” And we say, “Oh, that’s curious. Let’s think about that, investigate it.” So that’s the typical rhythm of the way in which these ideas surface.

This idea that you’re referring to comes out of quantum mechanics, which is this new way of describing the fundamental particles of nature that emerged in the early part of the 20th century. And the new idea is that you can only predict the probability of one outcome or another. Newton wouldn’t have said that. He would say, “Tell me how things are, and I’ll predict how they will be. Period. End of story.” Quantum theory says, “No, no, no. I can tell you there’s a 30 percent chance of this, 50 percent chance of that, 20 percent chance of that outcome over there.” In fact, one of the proposals is that every outcome happens, they just happen in distinct realities in parallel universes.

On Free Will:

Ms. Tippet: I keep thinking of another thing Einstein said, that science is good at describing what is, but it doesn’t describe what should be. And there’s a way in which the way we’ve tended throughout human history to talk about something like free will or fate or destiny or choice or just the human condition is in terms of what we can control, what life we can create.

MR. GREENE: Right. So, we live our lives as if we do have control. And I think it’s the only way that you can live. You tell yourself this interesting, perhaps untrue story that when you reach out for the glass, you’re making a choice to pick it up. And I do it too. I sort of felt like I just picked that glass up because I made a choice. But fundamentally, I don’t think that I did.

But putting that to aside, yes, we feel we have control, we act as though we have control. And then Einstein’s quote comes into play, because once you have control, you can shape the future, and you can shape the future according to distinct values. And, yeah, I think that is the only way that we humans can live, at least in this epoch, until we evolve to some other form. And, sure, there is no way to look to science to tell us how to shape things from some sense of value judgment.

On the Higgs boson:

MR. GREENE: That’s right. So, mass comes from an interaction. Exactly right. It’s not something that is just sort of imbued from the get-go, or from the outside. Now, a parable that gives us some sense of how you can take that very strange story and make it seem less strange is to just think of fish in the ocean, or fish in a fish tank. Right there, swimming around, and they’re really not aware that there is a part of the universe that’s not filled with this watery substance. In fact, this water is so familiar to them that that is emptiness, that is their universe.

So there you have some beings that are living within an environment that is suffused with essentially an invisible something, water, and yet, because they’re in it all the time, they don’t know it. We are in the Higgs field all the time, we experience our interaction with it all the time, and that’s why we don’t even know it. And that’s why it takes these dedicated experiments to clue us into something, which at some level, should be obvious.

Listen to and read the full conversation here.