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Ask Brian Greene Anything–Really

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Tonight PBS airs the second of its four part series “Fabric of the Cosmos,” (9 pm ET/PT) based on the bestselling book by Columbia physicist and mathematician Brian Greene. He spoke with Budding Scientist about the NOVA series, which aims to demystify such concepts as multiple universes and bring viewers up to date on the frontier discoveries in physics; about the World Science Festival, which he co-founded with his wife Tracy Day in 2008; and about his mission to answer every single science question people send him.

Budding Scientist: For what age range of kids would you recommend “Fabric of the Cosmos”?

Greene: In terms of grasping all that the films have to offer, I think someone in the high school range would be ideal. But I’m always thrilled that younger kids are able to immerse themselves in the ideas and get something out of the programs as well. And that is due at least in part to the power of animation and graphics, which can draw in even a young viewer. Already I’ve gotten an email about the first program from a 6 year old asking a question about black holes.

Is there anything parents can do to help further their children’s understanding of the series?

I think the most effective way is not to exert pressure on the kids to watch these shows, because once they turn into something you have to do, something that our teacher requires us to do, then they lose their magic.

What I do with my own kids is I put the program on, and if they want to sit and watch it, great, and if they don’t they don’t. I wasn’t here with my kids last week [when the series debuted], but we had the babysitter put on the first program, and my 4 year old promptly fell asleep, and my 6 year old lasted 15 minutes. And that’s fine. Nine pm is a little late for them. Maybe at some point in the future they’ll catch them at a better time and enjoy them then.

What advice do you have for lay parents who might want to expose their kids to some of the concepts you discuss in your program?

To me science is a story, a dramatic adventure of discovery, and anything that communicates that helps kids see science in a different light. When you’re passionate about something it’s so much easier for your kids to get excited about it. My own dad didn’t finish high school. He was a singer and entertainer, but he was deeply interested in all ideas, and he introduced me to the notion of an atom, and to galaxies. Even though his knowledge is limited, he was excited about it, and that’s how it began.

What kinds of science-related activities do you do with your own kids?

We have these wonderful electronics sets that are so much better than when I was a kid. My son has been building little radios, motors that can make little circular propellers fly into the air. And electronics is a great place to introduce kids to science because they see it all around them in the world and then to be able to make their own is really eye opening. The one that we have, which I think is great, is called Snap Circuits. And even small hands that might have difficulty bending wires can make circuits in this version, because it’s just a snap connection, which really opens the door to kids being able to build things.

We also have books on science projects you can do at home. A lot of these experiments you can do in 15 minutes. Some are the standard ones, but we’ve had fun building helicopters out of paper and a straw and you really get ideas about airfow and how a helicopter works and you don’t need any background as a parent.

The Obama administration is bent on improving science and math education in this country. Do you have thoughts on how to do that?

One big thing is we often teach — not always — but we often teach the details of solving equations or parts of the cell or balancing reactions, because they’re important and they’re easy to test. The problem is we don’t often always teach the big ideas that make those details matter: how those details allow you to understand how the universe might have begun or where life might have come from, or how we’re struggling to understand the nature of consciousness. Kids can get these big ideas and in that way realize that science is not a bunch of facts and figures that are set inside a textbook, but rather science is a dynamic, living, breathing undertaking that can connect us to the universe in a far deeper way. And when kids see science in that light they’re more excited to see the details, and it can really transform the experience of learning science into something that’s exciting

The idea that science is dry and removed from daily life seems to have permeated not just our textbooks but our popular culture.

That’s what the World Science Festival aims at. We’re seeking a shift, where science moves from the outskirts to center stage, a stage that has been occupied by art and music, theater and dance and film. Science has a rightful place alongside those elements of culture, because it too is vital to a full and rich life.

I really enjoyed “Cool Jobs,” one of the presentations you had last year that featured young, dynamic scientists engaged in really interesting fields.

We are actually working out the details now to give “Cool Jobs” a nationwide presence. There are scientists who have cool jobs throughout the country and kids in their locality. We’re also working on giving Cool Jobs and the World Science Festival a more robust online presence.

How did science wind up on the outskirts of our culture?

As science has progressed, the language has become ever more esoteric and the details have become ever further removed from everyday life. What you need is a bridge to go from the abstract language to more the familiar everyday experience so you can understand why those abstract details really matter.

What other projects related to science education do you have planned?

We have one coming out where I’m going to be basically answering any question that anybody asks me. We started it just now, [Ask Brian Green Anything] and we’re going to have a more robust version. It helps if you have a human presence that really gives you a sense of all these great ideas in science. If anybody has any questions, they should just send them in because we want to get a whole reservoir of questions, so they can send those in through my Facebook page or through the WSF Web site.

How are you going to have time for that? Is that where the multiple universes come in?

I’m trying to do a small number a day, and if you multiply that by many days, you can do a hundred, and you can do a thousand over a year. Many of the questions people ask are timeless.

About the Author: Anna Kuchment is a Contributing Editor at Scientific American and a staff science writer at The Dallas Morning News. She was previously a reporter, writer and editor with Newsweek magazine. She is also author of “The Forgotten Cure,” about bacteriophage viruses and their potential as weapons against antibiotic resistance. Follow on Twitter @akuchment.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. rloldershaw 12:36 am 11/10/2011

    Proseletizing in the name of string theory is ok as long as there is some counterbalancing.

    In science, we separate valid ideas from fantasies by the time-honored predictions/testing strategy of the scientific method.

    Theories that cannot immediately make definitive predictions are mere speculation.

    Theories that still cannot make a single definitive prediction after 44 years of hype, smoke + mirrors, and media sycophancy are pure pseudo-science.

    Link to this
  2. 2. kvinayagamoorthy 10:15 am 11/11/2011

    >>>Theories that still cannot make a single definitive prediction after 44 years of hype, smoke + mirrors, and media sycophancy are pure pseudo-science.
    Is 44 years a magic number? Is there a theory saying beyond 44 years if something cannot make any predictions it can be called a pseudo-science? BTW, do not assume that I am blindly support string theory by asking these questions.

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  3. 3. caragana 7:43 pm 11/11/2011

    Contrary to what some scientists suggest should be called the Multiverse; I have my own theory on how a perpetual cause and effect engine could simultaneously populate an infinite environment, not with just a few, but a never ending supply of infinite numbers of universes, inside a medium, I am proposing should be called the Infinidium, as here for instants, I am referring to the ocean, the medium inside which these infinite numbers of universes do go about their business. In other words, not the peas, but the pod. Thus my model overturns present theories of how the big bang is believed to have come about, by simply looking at what might have occurred before. I do believe that, rather than our universe having erupted spontaneously out of nothing, it was reborn out of material provided by universes adjacent to each other. Black holes rushing outward, which eventually will collide inside overlapping zones. Here, these rogues, the vaults of these universes, rather than decaying into nothingness, as has been suggested, contain all the essences for new beginnings by creating one enormous concentration of energy which will form one massive black hole/sphere. It now has the gravitational forces to sweep clean the entire area under its influence, maybe even the vary fabric from which it originated. At this point it will collapse into something not yet understood and will set the stage for another cycle of expansion, as all that pent up energy, enough to give birth to a whole new universe, is liberated in one instant in nature’s most spectacular and powerful explosion, a big bang event, being only one of infinite numbers of others occurring randomly throughout this, what I do believe is a much more appropriate name, the Infinidium.
    Just imagine the implications this would have on all the sciences, including religions, struggling to come to grips the idea that nothing ever needed to be created, as everything has been there all along, courtesy of the natural laws of nature, being the force behind an engine, so to speak, being perpetually driven on by cause and effect. For the sciences this would open up heretofore unimagined new horizons for discovery.
    Thus with our big bang, the count began at zero and has been going forward for 13.7 billion years, a mere fraction of next to nothing within the infinites. Being, that infinity and eternity are what their names imply, it only marked the beginnings of our universe and therefore, just as is the case on our calendars, which have designations for AD and BC, the letters BZ, meaning before zero and the letter AZ, indicating after zero, should be employed when referring to one or the other. Thus in order to make to make Einstein’s theories work, these before and after values might be applied. Stephan Hawking suggested that the laws of gravity were responsible for the event of the big bang having occurred, he therefor also must have considered that the impossible state of nothing never could have existed and his singularity must have had a former life, let’s say, during the B period, where compression took place and the anomaly then erupted, causing the big bang, which then started the beginning of the A period.
    Time and space as imagined by man do not exist, as what we experience is the present only, in which we can remember the past and ponder the future within the realities of Eternity and Infinity. The space-time continuum cannot bend; curve over, under or around anything, as envisioned by Einstein. His theory of frame dragging therefor must be false, as both space and time really are Eternity and infinity respectively. It’s the universe’s own fabric inside which matter and energy reside, just as the ocean constitutes the medium for whatever exist inside it, so does the universe’s fabric provide the medium for interaction to take place between matter and energy. In other words, there is no fabric of space-time. It’s the universes fabric through which matter passes, somewhat like an object passing through water; it displaces it, rather than causing a depression. An object’s spin also can affect its trajectory; consider the flight of a baseball.
    I would like to point out that the mechanics of the universe may be a whole lot simpler than they are made out to be by overly enthusiastic scholars, who are trying in vain and for lack of anything better, do come up with outlandishly complicated ideas, just to stay on Einstein’s course of misinformation.
    Food for thought.

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  4. 4. Quinn the Eskimo 2:05 am 11/14/2011

    Brian; Could you please make yourself 10 years younger.

    Then, I might believe your B.S.

    Signed Stringy.


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  5. 5. jeffmsimoneaux 11:57 pm 11/16/2011

    I would like to ask Brian Greene if he has heard anything about the new book out called THE TRUTH The Illumination of Conscience which seems to beable to explain “String Theory” in a glorious way that makes it the Software “code” if you will, of a master programmer
    “God, Himself. I definately recommend this book to anyone interested in this field it is amazing, it changed the way I think about the world we live in. THE TRUTH The Illumination of Conscience

    Link to this
  6. 6. Roberoo 12:37 am 11/23/2011

    Thank you for the opportunity to ask a question that has been on my mind for some time now. I apologies for changing the specific topic but I have so few opportunities to query a scientist with the credentials Mr. Greene posses. I would like to know what thought processes have been afforded for the phenomena of a black hole’s seeming ability to switch from the ultimate vacuum to the ultimate object of expulsion.
    Can the observation of attraction and then expulsion from the same black hole be a property of gravity ? Is there a theory concerning a trigger event which would change the pull of gravity to a thrust of expulsion ?
    I’m aware of the term “singularity” but someone out there must have an educated guess.
    Yes ? Also if there is literature on the subject could you please site it as I would enjoy reading the thoughts of some of the gravity researchers on the matter.
    Thank you very much.

    Link to this
  7. 7. interior design 6:22 pm 12/27/2011

    amazing blog interior design.

    Link to this
  8. 8. Johnjmccarthy 9:06 am 05/29/2012

    With respect to Tritium and Deuterium, two elements of Hydrogen: Science tells us that the only way these two elements can be found COMBINED/TOGETHER is as a result of a pure Hydrogen explosion, which leaves no radiation. Because Tritium and Deuterium were found COMBINED/TOGETHER in the basements of World Trade Center One and Two on 9-11 2001, what is the logical scientific conclusion for scientists to draw upon for the destruction of the WTC?

    Link to this
  9. 9. uniontera 11:02 am 05/30/2012

    This video is my solution to hilbert’s 6th problem.

    about 8 minutes video at youtube.

    Youtube link { }

    Precious advice, please.

    Link to this

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