November 2, 2011 | 10
Fabric of the Cosmos, starring theoretical physicist Brian Greene, premieres tonight on NOVA (with further episodes airing November 9, 16 and 23). The 4-part miniseries based on Greene’s latest book of the same name is a remarkable journey into the jarring world of theoretical physics. I must admit that I was somewhat daunted by the ‘task’ of watching these episodes – could I really spend 4 hours of my life being ‘entertained’ by physics?! Actually yes I could. The program is astonishingly entertaining, had a great pace, and was jam-packed with excellent graphics and an extremely well-written script. In addition to the screen-saavy Brian Greene, there are cameo appearances by many expert physicists (including several of my twitter pals) that keep the program moving and highly cohesive.
I was rather tickled to be able to interview the man himself, I had several questions about the process of having one’s book turned into a major television production. It turns out that serendipity played a role in the journey to the screen. Several years ago, a producer from NOVA attended a lecture Greene was giving on a previous book, ‘The Elegant Universe’. Unbeknownst to him, the producer pitched the idea of a NOVA special on ‘The Elegant Universe’ to Paula Apsell (Senior Executive producer of the program), and Apsell approved. This first special aired on NOVA in 2003 to great accolades (including a Peabody award), and once ‘Fabric of the Cosmos’ was written Greene approached Apsell about the possibility of creating another production.
Greene represents a rather unique character in academia. In addition to having a professorship at Columbia University, his work is evident in books, television and even a musical production (his children’s book ‘Icarus at the Edge of Time’ was adapted for stage). He’s a likeable and compelling character on-screen, which in this production involves a lot of complex physics lingo but also a good deal of humor. The metaphors and graphics used in the program to describe everything from the gravitational pull on the surface of a black hole to the fullness of ‘empty’ space and the concept of the space/time continuum are extremely well conceived. Over 1000 animations were produced by a team led by Jonathan Sahula at Pixel Dust studios, and writing was done by a team at NOVA although Greene had a hand in all aspects of production. He admits to being very particular about the details, tinkering with the graphics until the production team was teetering on its eleventh hour deadlines. “I may never do this kind of thing again” he says, “I wanted to make sure it was the best it could be”.
As a father of two young children ages 4 and 6, Greene admits that spreading his time between his many professional endevours and his family is not always easy. For the moment he’s happy to work the balance of academia and family life, and to allow further books, productions and other projects to exist in the future (which according to Fabric of the Cosmos could actually be in the past – but I digress).
My final question for Greene was about many aspects of theoretical physics that are covered in the series. As a biologist, I’m happy to celebrate the creatures, places and processes that are tangible to my everyday life. However, I find it difficult to conceptualize my world as a hologram or to entertain the notion of a parallel universe where I may exist but as an altered version of myself. At times while watching the show I felt a little panicked, wanting to hide in my happy place or switch the channel to some kind of reality program that wouldn’t make me feel so miniscule and insignificant. I wanted to know Greene’s perspective on this – as one of the minds constantly engaged in these ideas. Rather than feeling insignificant, Greene feels empowered by the fact that humans (lowly as we may be) have the power to understand so much. That we have the ability to be connected with the universe on an abstract level, to find larger truths and to make wondrous discoveries, all while being constrained on our tiny planet in one corner of the Milky Way, is what Greene finds most magical of all.