Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Brian Greene INTERVIEW

 (This interview with Brian about The Hidden Reality--regarding audiobooks--appears in the April/May 2011 issue of Audiofile magazine.)

Finding time to answer questions is always a problem if you're one of the most popular scientists in the world, with a new book out.  But since Brian Greene is passionate enough to share his insights by actually narrating what he's written, it makes sense to ask him what he thinks about the audio universe.  This busy physicist and professor--when asked where his motivation comes from--replied that, "it is absolutely vital that we inspire the next generation of scientists.  So writing and teaching are both important to me. . . although I couldn't write on these subjects were I not in the thick of undertaking scientific research on them." 

    Multitasking is one of the benefits of audiobooks, so it was nice to learn that one of the smartest among us not only listens to audiobooks in his car when he's not giving lectures or researching advanced quantum theory, but also makes time to communicate with his audience by entering a studio to record his books.  And how did that go?  "It was gratifying but grueling," Brian confided.  "I enjoyed delivering the words in a manner close to what I heard in my head while writing them.  Print and audio, are, of course, quite different," he explained.  "Audio has the advantage of allowing for greater shaping of how sentences are presented and heard.  One can more fully inject specificity, emphasis, and nuance.  My intent is always to write text that can benefit from visuals but still stand on its own—in essence, to write text that works in audio format.  But six hours a day of reading aloud, for many days straight, is a marathon.  There comes a point when you can’t stand the sound of your own voice.  Hope listeners don’t have a similar experience!"

    Greene acknowledges that it can also be challenging to put complex ideas into layman's language.  "The challenge, especially in non-fiction, is finding a narrative thread that yields a compelling through-line. In science, there is the added difficulty that many of the ideas are unusually abstract and unfamiliar.  If you’ve spent your life researching a topic, it's all too easy to forget the hurdles faced by the uninitiated in grasping these ideas.  The challenge, really, is to put yourself in your readers’ shoes.  I start by doing very much what I do in my scientific research.  I build mental imagery of a given concept or theory, then strip away the mathematical details.  The additional step for a book is to take those visuals and enliven them using anecdotes, stories, or fictional vignettes to add color and entertainment.  By having an intimate knowledge of the technical details of a subject, I then feel confident enough to determine which features need to be included for a clear and accurate non-technical explanation, along with which features can be safely side-stepped.  You just absorb new ideas much easier if there’s a narrative pushing you along."

    Greene's past experience in both scientific research and public speaking has certainly provided him with and prepared him for some interesting narratives, such as in TED talks, PBS specials, voiceover on science programs, and then actual book narration.  When asked about who is listening to him most avidly, he responded, "I’ve found that the audience for these kinds of science books is broad—I get emails on an amazingly wide variety of questions from young kids, working professionals, stay at home moms, retirees, even incarcerated prisoners.  The interest in understanding the ideas cropping up in this quest to grasp the nature of reality is really strong."

    What's next for Greene?  "Mainly research in string theory and cosmology.  But I am also completing a four hour NOVA miniseries on my second book FABRIC OF THE COSMOS to air in the fall.  And there is always the annual World Science Festival in New York, at the besinning of June this year."

    A busy man, indeed.  But not one who can live without audiobooks, or without taking the time to make them even while he talks about time itself.   --Jonathan Lowe

(The following did not appear in the magazine:)
Jonathan Lowe)  In your books, and on PBS and elsewhere, you've been involved in communicating complex ideas about physics and astronomy for a long time now (although on a cosmic scale, perhaps, only the flap of a hummingbird's wing).  You're also a professor.  What's most important to you?

Brian Greene)  They’re both important to me.  Although on a cosmic scale, the duration of a hummingbird’s wing flap would be an enormous overestimate!

Q)  Among all the theories regarding multiple universes, which is most interesting or most bizarre to you?  And does anyone believe there might be a parallel universe in which, for example, it's possible that Sarah Palin or Arnold Schwarzenegger might already be President?

A)  The simplest—yet most startling—multiverse proposal comes from the possibility that space extends infinitely far.  The rough idea, which I make precise in the book, is that in any finite region of space, the matter there can only arrange itself finitely in many different configurations, much as a deck of cards can be arranged in only finitely many different orders.  Now, if you shuffle a deck infinitely many times, the card orderings must necessarily repeat.  Similarly, in an infinite spatial expanse, particle arrangements must repeat too—there just aren’t enough different particle configurations to go around.  And if the particles in a given region of space the size of ours are arranged identically to how they are arranged here, then reality in that region will be identical to reality here.  There’d be a copy of the sun, the earth, and of each one of us.  There’d also be regions where the particles are arranged similarly to what we see here but not absolutely identically—in fact, we expect all possible arrangements compatible with the laws of physics would happen somewhere.  So, the answer regarding Sarah Palin and Arnold Schwarzenegger comes down to whether either of them being president is compatible with the laws of physics.  That’s something I can’t answer!

Q)  What is your favorite Einstein quote?

A)  The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.

Q)  People listen to audiobooks everywhere these days, not just in their cars.  Maybe one day Space Shuttle passengers will listen to them.  Being so busy, do you ever multitask with audiobooks, and where do you imagine the technology might go?

A)  I’m a late adapter. So far, I only listen to audio books when in my car. 


  1. The Einstein quote about it being comprehensible is ironic because it sure doesn't sound comprehensible! I just can't get my puny mind around the concept of the big bang, let alone multiverses. How could all the matter we see and don't see come from a single point? Is it a white hole from another universe collapse? How can anyone understand that except as an equation?

  2. i love this book