10/24/2013 Peter Durantine

Acclaimed Physicist Brian Greene Urges F&M Crowd to Think Broadly

Before delving into the latest theories of the universe, physicist and mathematician Brian Greene shared with a Franklin & Marshall College audience a conversation about space travel he had with his eight-year-old son.

The physicist told an audience of about 1,000 people in F&M's Mayser Gymnasium Thursday that his son said to him one night during story time, "'So Dad. The speed of light. What about the speed of dark?'"

The conversation, Greene said, illustrated how children are "unafraid to be wrong," a practice we can learn from as adults. Children teach us how we can think differently about established theories or problems to come to a more enlightened understanding. "As we get older, we get locked into these fixed areas of thought," he said. 

  • Common Hour Brian Greene Acclaimed physicist and mathematician Brian Greene told a Franklin & Marshall College audience at Thursday's Common Hour in Mayser Gymnasium that willingness and courage to think differently has led to deeper theories about the universe. (Photo by Melissa Hess)

Willingness and courage to think differently have led science to deeper theories about the universe, Greene said. He noted that Albert Einstein challenged Isaac Newton's law of gravity, hundreds of years after the discovery, by asking a simple question: How does gravity work? That led to Einstein's theory of general relativity, introduced in 1915, Greene said. The theory, as Greene described it, essentially states that space is like rubber, and the planets and stars are like bowling balls that can make space bend.

Greene, whose bestselling book, "The Elegant Universe" was made into a PBS television series, spoke at F&M's Common Hour. The event is held every Thursday through the academic year to bring together members of the F&M community for culturally and intellectually enriching experiences. Greene spent two days on campus, also engaging in discussions with students in various classes.

Associate Professor of Astronomy Andrea Lommen, who introduced Greene, said after his lecture that it's important for liberal arts students to sharpen their cognition in college, but "it's also important to know there are other ways to think."

"Hopefully, when you leave Franklin & Marshall, you have the opportunity to go outside the dominant paradigm," said Lommen, who is director of F&M's Grundy Observatory and chair of the Physics & Astronomy Department.

Greene also has taken his training beyond the traditional, delving into acting with roles on television series such as "The Big Bang Theory" and in science fiction movies such as "Frequency," where he discusses theories of the how the universe works.

Black Holes and Multiple Universes

Known for his research on string theory, which, among other aspects, explains that all the properties that form the physical universe are linked by single, one-dimensional strings, Greene discussed some alternative views of the universe during his Common Hour talk.

"We can make a very precise analogy between black holes and water falls," he told the F&M audience. Stars and gases that get too close to a black hole -- formed when a massive star collapses on itself and absorbs mass around it -- are pulled into it much like a kayaker who gets too close to a waterfall and is unable to row faster than the flow of water, he said.

Vania Loper, a senior double majoring in German language and culture and Africana studies, said after the talk she appreciated Greene's explanation of the multiple universes theory -- that our universe is one bubble among thousands of bubbles in the cosmos bubble bath.

"I never thought about it that way, that other universes exists," Loper said. "For someone like me who is not into science, he puts things in a way that you can understand."

Greene noted at the end of his talk that "we live in a remarkable time" and if science continues to take unconventional approaches to understanding space and time, "We may some day have a deeper understanding of how we got here and, if we're lucky, why we're here."

A graduate of Harvard and a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University, Greene is a professor in physics and mathematics at Columbia University. His book "The Elegant Universe" sold more than a million copies and was adapted for an Emmy and Peabody award-winning NOVA special that Greene hosted. The book explores how the theories of general relativity and quantum mechanics transformed the understanding of the universe and introduced the world to string theory.

Another book, The New York Times bestseller "The Fabric of the Cosmos," was adapted into a PBS miniseries.  

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