Brian Greene: Challenging what we 'know' leads to scientific discovery
Posted: April 20, 2011
LEWISBURG, Pa. — In the early 20th century, a young physicist came on the scene and called into question a long-accepted scientific theory. Albert Einstein discovered that his 17th -century predecessor, Isaac Newton, while developing the theory of gravity, had failed to explain how it works.
"Einstein saw this as a great challenge that needed to be addressed," Brian Greene, one of the world's leading theoretical physicists, told an audience at Bucknell University Tuesday night. "He gave the world a new theory of gravity — the general theory of relativity."
Einstein's discovery led to a whole new realm of exploration that still has physicists, mathematicians and scientists puzzling over the way the universe works — and now questioning whether there is only one universe, noted Greene, who is at the forefront of such research.
During his talk, "Breakthrough Thinking: Challenging What We Know," Greene, who is known for his ability to explain cutting-edge scientific concepts in an understandable and engaging way, encouraged a packed house at Trout Auditorium to embrace the kind of thinking that can change our very understanding of the world. His presentation was part of the Bucknell Forum series, "Creativity: Beyond the Box," which features individuals from a wide range of fields who can provide thoughtful and insightful commentary or interactive experiences on new ways of being creative.
During his presentation, the author of the national best-seller, The Elegant Universe, used analogies and dynamic video illustrations to summarize the conflicts between Newton's theory of gravity, Einstein's theory of relativity, and string theory, which seeks to resolve the divide between quantum mechanics and relativity. He used Einstein as a case study in challenging what is "known" to reach new levels of understanding.
Einstein's theory of relativity conflicts with quantum mechanics, because it does not entirely account for motion, Greene explained. This conflict has led scientists to look deeper and to explore a realm smaller than anything imagined before. String theory examines the smallest known particles, from the atom to the electron to the quark, and suggests an even smaller construct — vibrating strings that take any number of shapes to become the larger forms.
String theory presents questions of its own, Greene said. If the world has only three dimensions, as we perceive, then the theory falls apart. But scientists are examining the idea that there are many more dimensions in the universe — and even multiple universes.
"Maybe the universe has all sorts of curled up dimensions that are too small for the eye to see," Greene said. "These other dimensions, however small, may hold the answer to the deepest question in all of theoretical science. Maybe we are one of a multitude of universes. We need to be open to new ideas."
Greene encouraged the crowd to "venture into new territory" and to recapture their "childhood willingness to explore the unknown."
"There still is a wide perception that science is a cold, dry, aloof subject that isn't filled with creativity," Greene said. "Science is actually a dramatic story of adventure filled with creative flights of fancy that sometimes turn out to be fact. ... To make a breakthrough, you have to have the capacity to change reality. You have to take small problems seriously."
A graduate of Harvard and a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, Greene is a professor in both physics and mathematics at Columbia University. He has written several books, including The Elegant Universe, which explores how the theories of general relativity and quantum mechanics transformed the understanding of the universe and introduced the world to string theory. Selling more than a million copies, the book became an Emmy and Peabody award-winning NOVA special that Greene hosted.
His second book, The Fabric of the Cosmos, spent six months on The New York Times best-seller list and is being adapted into a four-part NOVA miniseries to air this fall on PBS. Greene's most recent book, Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos, was published earlier this year.
Greene also has written essays for NPR, Wired Magazine and The New York Times and has appeared on a variety of programs, including "Charlie Rose," "Nightline" and "The Late Show with David Letterman."
The Bucknell Forum
Since 2007, the Bucknell Forum speakers series has featured nationally renowned leaders, scholars and commentators who have examined various issues from multi-disciplinary perspectives and a diversity of viewpoints. || Previous series events
The "Creativity: Beyond the Box" series task force comprises faculty members Carmen Gillespie, Beth Capaldi Evans, Paula Davis, Joe Tranquillo, Margot Vigeant and Zhiqun Zhu; students Michael Davis, Class of '13, and Lindsay Machen, Class of '11; and administrators Kari Conrad, Rob Springall and Pete Mackey, chair.
Contact: Division of Communications
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