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Fabric of the Cosmos – Some Seriously Mind-Bending Physics

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


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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.

 

Carin Bondar About the Author: Carin Bondar is a biologist, writer and film-maker with a PhD in population ecology from the University of British Columbia. Find Dr. Bondar online at www.carinbondar.com, on twitter @drbondar or on her facebook page: Dr. Carin Bondar – Biologist With a Twist. Follow on Twitter @drbondar.

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





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  1. 1. rloldershaw 12:34 pm 11/2/2011

    Two brief coments regarding the Nova series in question.

    (1) In a “come-on” for the series they show a spilled and broken glass of wine regroup itself, lift off the floor and end up in a hand. Obviously the film of the dropped glass of wine has been reversed. However, Brian Greene says something to the effect that the laws of physics permit this because of their reversibility. Since such reversibility is never reliably observed in nature, the obvious conclusion is that there is something fundamentally wrong with the laws of physics.

    (2) The sine qua non of science is predictions/testing. If theories cannot make definitive predictions that can be readily tested, how do we separate the science from the pseudo-science?

    Let the viewer beware. Much of what is discussed in this series may be fashionably chic, but it may have nothing to do with how nature actually works. That is because many of the ideas, especialy those associated with string/brane theory, quantum gravity, and the multiverse toy scenario are completely untestable in any practical manner.

    Robert L. Oldershaw
    Discrete Fractal Cosmology

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  2. 2. bigbopper 1:00 pm 11/2/2011

    @rloldershaw: the laws of physics are reversible on the microscopic scale. On the macroscopic scale the laws of probability dictate that the likelihood of the “reverse glass breaking” event taking place is astronomically small. A.k.a entropy or “the arrow of time”.

    Agree that scientific theories have to make testable predictions. But the mathematical underpinnings of some physical theories were developed long before the physical theories were developed (a good example is non-Euclidean geometry and general relativity). So one can view string theory as a mathematical theory which may or may not eventually be shown to correspond to a testable physical theory. A perfectly valid enterprise.

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  3. 3. jtdwyer 2:32 pm 11/2/2011

    Presenting extrapolated misrepresentations of untested theoretical research to the public hardly advances the interests of scientific research. This program is merely a typically glamorized commercial enterprise intended to capitalize on the unbounded imaginations of a naive audience.

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  4. 4. Mathaniel 3:48 pm 11/2/2011

    @rloldershaw: I suggest reading the book; it’s all explained there (though he uses an egg). The image of him taking a book and flinging the pages into the air is linked to the same idea. Bigbopper is right in that it deals with the second law of thermodynamics. Also probability plays a role.

    I wouldn’t judge too much about the physics from the trailer of a four-hour series about cosmology. You can guarantee that not everything is explained. What I remember from the book the show looks better than The Elegant Universe.

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  5. 5. Carin 4:42 pm 11/2/2011

    I agree to a certain extent – I was somewhat troubled by the wine glass analogy as well, especially seeing as there were external forces involved (ie the table) that would interfere with the ability to reverse the process. However, one has to be mindful of the fact that NOVA has produced a 4 hour series about theoretical physics that his hugely entertaining and apt to draw a large audience into thinking about and discussing these topics. This is a huge accomplishment for a field that rarely gets serious screen time. For the most part the analogies in the program are very well constructed, they allow viewers to visualize what such abstract concepts might look like.

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  6. 6. hybrid 3:35 pm 11/3/2011

    As a machine designer I keep wondering what and where is the prime mover in all these theories? To say gravity just avoids the question. Gravity may control the universe, but how did the primeval dust clouds which became universe come about?

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  7. 7. photodady 2:58 pm 11/4/2011

    I picked up and scanned a copy of Brian Greene’s book The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality and just as I thought it has little or nothing in common with much of the content in the most recent PBS program. So why did they choose to use a book that was published in 2004 and attempt to implicitly tie it to the content of a television series produced in 2011? Simply put Brian Greene wishes to take credit for the content of what my own published original paper asserts.

    In fact in his 2004 book he emphatically denies the existence of the luminiferous aether, on page 44; “The experiments were failing to find the aether because there is no aether.” and he continues on the next page; “Light, unlike any other kind of wave ever encountered, does not need a medium to cary it along. Light is a lone traveler. Light can travel through empty space.”

    So why does NOVA and Brian Greene try to imply that his 2004 book is somehow tied with the new series in which Greene asserts that empty space ain’t so empty? Again he is trying to circumvent my own paper’s publish date with the information plagiarized from the content of my own paper in order to claim the new perspectives as his own.

    The chicanery used by NOVA and Brian Greene is nothing short of YELLOW JOURNALISM!

    my paper can be found on photodady.com web page

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  8. 8. Wayne Williamson 5:10 pm 11/5/2011

    watched the video above and based on it do not plan to watch the shows….

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  9. 9. Quinn the Eskimo 1:03 am 11/14/2011

    Watched the series. Unimpressed.

    If you have to dip in the Mojo of String Theory, you’ve already lost. Religion is not science.

    There is no there there in strings.

    Prove me wrong — I’ll pay you $2 million. Proof must be tangible and presented in person.

    Next.

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  10. 10. Jenianne 8:14 pm 12/20/2011

    I think most of you miss the point of shows like this. They are meant to get laymen excited about science. They are not meant to express absolute truths any more than the rest of television entertainment. Of course the more sensational aspects of cosmology and physics are represented. They draw the most interest. What’s more, it was mentioned time and time again that these ideas were controversial and unproven, and without the ability to test such ideas, they would remain only ideas.

    In every corner of academia are those who would wish their field remain elite and completely intangible for outsiders. I certainly understand the desire to prevent such outsiders from directing the course of a field of study, but I just can’t comprehend not letting them have a superficial nibble in an entertaining way. That’s what this program is. Its not research to be published in a journal. Its not a thesis. Its a bit of entertainment for people, who, bless their hearts, desire something deeper and a touch more intelectual than Jersey Shore.

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