Pioneering physicist Brian Greene explains why it’s okay to not have all the answers

Physics is the study of, well, everything. Time, space, matter, energy—whether it’s the gravity that keeps your coffee in your cup or the thermodynamics that heats up your lunch, physics isn’t the stuff of a faraway land filled with mathematicians and dusty blackboard erasers. It’s intertwined with every aspect of our lives.

Those lives currently feel like they’re at an inflection point. Volatile global politics, fracturing communities, horrific terrorism, humanoid robots—it can seem like the world as we know it is unravelling. But we haven’t actually known this world for very long. Relative to the billions of years of ebb and flow in the cosmos, Earth’s currently peaceful, mostly lava-less existence is actually fairly idyllic.

At a time when the world seems more perplexing than ever, understanding the laws and origins of the universe can give us some much-needed perspective. That’s where Brian Greene can help.

Greene is one of the most well-respected physicists of contemporary times. (But what is time, anyway?) He’s currently a professor of physics and mathematics at Columbia University, where he continues to ponder the existence of the universe, but the ripples of his contributions over the past 30 years resonate more like gravitational waves. From helping popularize string theory, which aims to interconnect all the particles and fundamental forces of the natural world, to explaining complicated quantum concepts using whiskey glasses and cigars in books such as The Elegant Universe, The Hidden Reality, and The Fabric of the Cosmos, Greene effortlessly blends the galaxies’ most perplexing phenomena with our daily lives.

Quartz spoke with Greene ahead of his panels at the World Science Festival in New York, where he is shedding new light on black holes, exploring the enigma of antimatter, and discussing the neuroscience behind belief. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Quartz: How can the sciences better help us understand our place in the world?

Brian Greene: If you have a clearer sense of how the universe came to be, and a clearer sense of how the universe has evolved from way back when to what we currently witness, it gives you the architecture for understanding.

There’s a general tendency for us to see ourselves as separate from the cosmos, separate from the universe—as an observer watching this larger set of processes unfold. But the real lesson is we’re part of the universe. Literally the stuff of which we’re made came from the deep interior of stars that exploded, and we evolved by the very same laws and rules that the rest of the universe evolves by. When you see that, you recognize that we’re profoundly interconnected to the universe, and then you think about things differently.

Are there any specific laws or theories of physics that you feel are mirrored in the way that humanity acts?

It’s profoundly interesting to realize that our human intuition is a profoundly misleading guide to the way the universe really works. The deeper we look, we find the laws of physics appear relative to what we would’ve guessed based on everyday experience. That to me is extremely interesting, because it shows us that the way we intuitively reason about life and the universe is based on experience here in the everyday world. But the fundamental laws operating in the quantum realm paint a completely different picture of reality. That is a very rich realization, because when you see that, you recognize that there’s so much more to the world than you would’ve thought.

I think many people feel like they’re on that journey to see what’s beyond what we experience in everyday life. Physics says you don’t have to look far to find that. It’s right around the corner.

Quantum entanglement is one good example of that: If we’re all connected to one another through the very core of our matter, of course changing the state of one thing—whether that’s an election result or a terrorist attack—can impact something else very, very far away. How can we teach people to look at life through a science lens?

Metaphorically speaking, there are a lot of resonances between the fundamental interconnectedness of particles that comes out of quantum physics and quantum entanglement. There is a fundamental interconnectedness of things that happen in the world around us, from political events to physical events in the cosmos that we can witness with the power of telescopes. If you can shift your mindset to be guided by what physics has taught us, you have a strong framework for better examining and better interpreting what’s happening in the world. That’s a deeply satisfying way of engaging with reality.

But there’s the issue of science versus scientism. We’ve come to idolize the sciences so much that people just take whatever new study or discovery that comes out as the gospel, and they close their eyes to other possibilities. That’s not what the true intent of science is.

 You even need to get excited by the fact that we don’t know…If you can get excited about that, it makes a huge difference in how you approach life. I agree with you completely. Science is not the be-all-and-end-all of explanations for life, the universe, and experience: It’s just one pathway toward gaining insight into aspects of the world. There are so many other things that need to be added, other levels of understanding from emotional understanding to intuitive understanding to the search for meaning. Those other levels are vital, and it’s only when you put it all together do you get a balanced picture of the world.

So many people are just looking for answers, right? They just want to be told that one plus one equals two (or E = mc2) and then they never think about it again.

That’s right. We are in the business of an ongoing and rather twisted and tortuous and profoundly interesting journey to understand the world ever more deeply. There aren’t simple answers, and there aren’t answers that will stand for all time. What we do is work out provisional understandings that are able to describe what we’ve observed, and we do that through the hard work of observation and experiments and analysis. We take that provisional idea and we test it and we smash it with sledge hammers and see if it breaks. Inevitably when it does, we come up with even more powerful ideas to take us the next step forward.

There are no easy answers. There is no one-size-fits-all explanation for everything. To me that’s what makes the whole journey exciting. That’s what makes it a rich life of exploration: that we don’t have one simple answer and then we’re done with it.

What are some of the great unknowns of the universe that most excite you currently? Dark matter? Perfecting your string theory?

I’d say the big questions to me involve the full answer to how the universe came to be. Why is there something rather than nothing in the fullest sense of nothing—not empty space, but truly nothingness? Where does time come from? Is it a human construct that we impose on reality to organize our experience and perception, or is it somehow fundamentally woven into the fabric of reality? What will the universe be like in the far, far, future? Will it continue to expand ever more quickly, or will that change if we wait long enough? Where does matter come from? What are the fundamental forces, and what are the true equations that describe how they work? What’s deeply within the center of a black hole? Is it a gateway to another universe, or is it a place where time stops? That’s just a small handful of the deep questions that keep us up at night.

Many scientists search for these great big answers knowing that they probably won’t find a definitive answer in their lifetime—they’re just adding on top of other people’s research and getting closer to a larger goal. How do you deal with that frustration?

I’d say that that’s especially true for someone like me who works on the theoretical end of physics. The ideas that we have been developing for 30 years—ideas that have been trying to realize Einstein’s vision of a unified theory that can describe all of physics from one equation, one perspective—are so tantalizing, but they’re so difficult to test experimentally. It could be that years and decades will go by and we won’t know if what we’re working on is right or wrong in the sense of whether it’s relevant or not to how the world actually works. It could be that many of us will leave this world without knowing. But on the other hand, we know that we’re part of a journey that’s been going on for thousands of years. We take baby steps forward. We hope that we’re helping this journey make one additional step towards truth.

How can we teach people, not just scientists, to be more comfortable with that ambiguity?

 To be a scientist is to have a willingness to tolerate uncertainty, a willingness to tolerate ambiguity. That’s a deep puzzle, and I don’t know the answer to it. To be a scientist is to have a willingness to tolerate uncertainty, a willingness to tolerate ambiguity. Because if for most of your life you’re working at the cutting edge, then there isn’t a formula, there isn’t a template, there isn’t a fixed direction to walk. You have to figure it out. You have to go into the darkness and hope that you’re going to come upon some light… and sometimes you do, and sometimes you don’t.

My own feeling is that when kids are taught science, they could be taught that science is not about the answer:—that’s only part of what is science is about. Science is about the journey from here towards an answer, and you have to go down many blind alleyways and you have to go in directions that won’t work and back up and then go forward again. If kids had that experience all the time as they’re learning science, perhaps they’d be more open to that way of engaging with the subject.

Not just learning science, though. What if they could engage with the whole world with that mindset?

That’s right. I mean, science is actually an ideal arena to be introduced to that kind of ambiguity, but what we’re talking about is the answer to the ambiguity of life, across the board. You need to tolerate that, you need to be okay by that. You even need to get excited by the fact that we don’t know. There are so many surprises in store for us across the board. If you can get excited about that, it makes a huge difference in how you approach life.

Instead, what kids are being taught are the answers to the questions that will be given on their next test.

I’m so disappointed. I’m so profoundly unnerved by the degree to which schooling is so focused on assessment and tests and quizzes and people wanting kids to just spit back the answers and get it right. Science is about creativity. It’s about allowing yourself to take in some understanding of the world and process it through your own particular way of looking at things and come back with something that could be surprising and unexpected.

I’m not trying to downplay the importance of kids learning the ideas and being able to solve problems, but that’s really just a small part of a larger educational experience across the board where they would be willing to go forward in unexpected ways. That’s where innovation comes from. That’s where ingenuity comes from. That’s where creativity comes from. That should be the ultimate goal of education: to free up young minds to allow them to fly into unexpected places.

How could science education could change to reflect that?

That’s a complicated question. We live in a world that is so assessment oriented. But if we could get away from that perspective and allow exploration and allow kids to follow their own trajectories, it’d be a more potent experience. If you ask me what would that really mean, I think in some number of years we’ll have a far more personalized approach to education. Kids are different. They come at things completely differently, different DNA, different experiences. If we could allow them to drive the right way to learn for their particular biochemical and neurophysiological make-up, how much more powerful would that be than a one-size-fits-all approach, which is what we do now?

Like taking the concept of personalized medicine and applying it to personalized education?

Yeah, I have no doubt it will be the case. It’s obviously hard to do now because we don’t have the resources, but as we go ever further into the digital realm, we will be able to have those resources by virtue of clever digital engagement. Personalization will be how education in the far future will be experienced.

If we could raise a generation of kids in this way, how do you think society would change?

The biggest change would be a profoundly new kind of tolerance. Once you recognize there is no one single way—that there’s not one single approach that’s right and everything else is wrong—you are able to embrace a diversity of perspectives, a diversity of approaches, and a diversity of experiences. That alone I think could radically change the world.

Then beyond that, of course once you’ve got a generation whose creative instincts are driving how we go the next step, there are all sorts of amazing, unexpected things that will come from that. The big breakthroughs in the world, from Newton to Maxwell to Einstein, came from minds that did not try to fit the status quo. Einstein was a revolutionary thinker; when he was in school, he wouldn’t do what his teachers said. He wouldn’t follow the approach that they required. It got him into trouble early on. His teachers really thought that he was quite a disruptive student and a disruptive force. He was, but in the best of ways: He disrupted the status quo and gave us a fantastically new understanding of space and time and matter and energy.

Imagine minds that approach the world that way, not trying to do what they’re supposed to do, not trying to get the answer, but rather trying to see further. If you had a generation that approaches the world that way, who knows where it can lead.

A generation of young Einsteins.

If you will, yes. How exciting would that be?

This article is part of Quartz Ideas, our home for bold arguments and big thinkers.

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