Brian Greene says what I said about string theory – but with more yearning

April 20, 2009

It’s Sunday afternoon, I’m flipping all casual through my May Wired  – it’s the “mystery” issue – when what do I find on page 017? Why, it’s that old Brian Greene, and he’s damn sure gonna give us some wood about the mystery that is Science!

Quick backgrounder: You may remember Greene from when I profiled him for the Columbia University alumni magazine, the source of the snazzy David Copperfield pic there. He also wrote some books and things.



Wired‘s relevant pages have not appeared online yet are right hereso let me give you Allow me to unpack the juicy bits. Brian has us imagine alien invaders who ruin scientists’ lives by – get this – giving them the “definitive explanation of everything in the cosmos.” What jerks! For you see:

Science is about immersing ourselves in piercing uncertainty while struggling with the deepest of mysteries. It is the ultimate adventure.

Piercing the deepest of mysteries?? Earmuffs, kids! Toning it down a little, he then bends over backwards to call string theory “one of the most promising approaches” to quantum gravity, adding there’s been “stupendous progress” but a final assessment “remains elusive.”

Is string theory true? Brian won’t say. Too mysterious. But “the journey has been exhilarating” and he feels “an emotional connection to the cosmos” he wouldn’t have had otherwise. Hmm, the cosmos has heard that from him before: it’s boilerplate Greene. See this 2004 Slate piece.

Now if the universe ever gets wise to that sweet talk and kicks string theorists to the curb, Brian’s cool with that, because it’s like what he said before:

It’s what happens along the way that enriches us. The wresting with mystery, not the ascension to resolution, defines who we are.

Or in other words, pretty much what I said the other day, if what I said the other day had piled on the veiled sexual metaphors. And frankly, why didn’t it?

As a pundit, Greene’s yearning shtick is obliged to fascinate me. I mean, no wonder he’s such a great ambassador to simple folk, who also yearn for things. Riffing on those hypothetical aliens who harshed science’s mellow, it’s like we the NPR-listening public see string wranglers as literally hyper-dimensional super-beings, and Greene is the 3 + 1 dimensional Keanu face they present to us.

Amanda Shaffer probably said it right back in that Slate piece:

String theory… serves as a perfect canvas on which idealism, optimism, and romanticism can be easily projected. … The very qualities that make fellow scientists skeptical—the obsession with elegance, the quasi-spiritual shtick—are precisely what dazzle a public hungry for meaning.

And let’s not forget wrestling with mystery. Because, damn! Mystery be lookin’ all good and shit. C’mere, mystery, and let me ponder all up in your intangibles.


One Response to “Brian Greene says what I said about string theory – but with more yearning”

  1. JR Minkel Says:

    “Too mysterious” keeps cracking me up.

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