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Columbia's Brian Greene Unravels Mystery of String Theory on PBS Series

By Colin Morris

Brian Greene, hosting NOVA's "The Elegant Universe"
Photo by Andrea Cross for WGBH

Columbia Professor of Mathematics and Physics Brian Greene, whose 400-page book on string theory has been adapted by PBS' NOVA into a three-hour television documentary, is well on his way to changing the way that everyone -- from quantum theorists to late night TV junkies -- looks at the universe.

As Greene explained to David Letterman in a recent television appearance, we can now begin envisioning a different composition of the universe. Fundamental building blocks like electrons and quarks, which were previously thought of as individual point particles, may actually be one-dimensional loops, or a series of vibrating strings. Greene also suggested, to the glee of his host, that our reality may not be limited to three dimensions, but may instead encompass as many as eleven!

String theory, Greene is the first to admit, is so revolutionary that it has yet to be validated by experimental observations. "It's definitely true that string theory so far has absolutely no experimental support," he says. Yet Greene points out that the two heavily tested theories -- quantum physics and Einstein's theory of general relativity -- are made compatible for the first time through string theory. "If you believe that the universe makes sense and you agree that its pieces should fit together, string theory is the first theory to do that," says Greene.

In the last couple of years, scientists have made major technological strides in testing the features of string theory. Here at Columbia, Greene, along with Arlin Crotts, co-directs the Institute for Strings, Cosmology, and Astroparticle Physics (ISCAP), an institute dedicated to finding new insights into string theory. "The point of ISCAP is to study string theory through astronomical observation," Greene explains. "It's a little weird because string theory is focused on the smallest building blocks of the universe, but the idea is that, as the universe expanded, it may have stretched out the physics of string theory from the very small to the very big." Greene illustrates his point by scribbling on a balloon and inflating it. "We think that the physics of string theory may have etched itself into the structure of the very young universe."

A Calabi-Yau shape: a two-dimensional visualization of the six additional spatial dimensions required by string theory.
Photo Courtesy of Nova

ISCAP, founded in 1999, has attracted a renowned group of scientists from across the globe and from a broad array of disciplines. The Institute is currently engaged in major fundraising efforts to provide its team with the support needed to continue its breakthrough research.

"The Elegant Universe" will be airing on WNET in two segments. The first part was scheduled to air on Oct. 28, the second on Nov. 4. Greene will give a University Lecture on Thursday, Nov. 20, at 8:00 p.m. in the Low Library Rotunda.

Published: Nov 03, 2003
Last modified: Oct 31, 2003

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