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'Nova' uses metaphors, not math, to explain the universe

October 24, 2003|Frazier Moore | Associated Press

NEW YORK — What could account for how the universe ticks?

Could it be love? Money? Or, maybe, infinitesimal quivering strands whose vibration patterns define all the universe's forces and matter?

That last one is the hot, new Theory of Everything, otherwise known as string theory.

And now Brian Greene, long absorbed in the quest to tie up all its loose ends, has tackled a challenge almost as impressive: He helps viewers understand what string theory is.

One of the world's leading physicists, Greene, 40, untangles strings in a mind-expanding "Nova" called "The Elegant Universe," based on his 1999 bestseller of the same title.

It airs from 8 to 10 p.m. Tuesday on KCET in Los Angeles and other PBS stations, with a final hour airing at 8 p.m. Nov. 4.

"The Elegant Universe" is full of clear talk, lively visuals and whimsical demonstrations.

And it's mercifully free of math.

"We worked hard to get at the core ideas," says Greene, "and to strip away the details that are important to the science but not important to the understanding of the science."

For years a vegan, Greene is lunching on salad at a restaurant near Columbia University, where he works, as he speaks of mysteries beyond mortal grasp -- or are they?

"For thousands of years," he says, "people have wondered what the universe is made of, how it came to be and what its future looks like. But recent breakthroughs are giving us some very sharp insights into those questions."

String theory, the Harvard- and Oxford-educated Greene says in the film, proposes that "everything in the universe, from the tiniest particle to the most distant star, is made from one kind of ingredient: unimaginably small, vibrating strands of energy called strings."

Turns out the subatomic billiard balls we learned about in school might be composed of even smaller animated pasta.

"As they vibrate in a multitude of different ways, they are making not notes but all the constituents of nature," he says.

A sort of "cosmic symphony," string theory can signal a major shift in thinking.

"Sometimes," Greene says with a grin, now casting an eye at his meal, "I ask myself, 'Why am I vegan?' My salad is just little strings vibrating in one particular way. If they were vibrating a different way, my lunch would be something else."

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