Monday, May 10, 2004

On a Desire to Know Basis

I recently read Brian Greene’s The Fabric of the Cosmos, an ambitious but nontechnical explanation of physical theories about space-time. The book has been extremely well received by serious scientists—I notice that Freeman Dyson also thinks highly of it, though, unlike Greene, he is not a devotee of string theory.

Most popularizations of physics take one of two tacks: they either tell us a series of human interest stories about various scientists, an extension of the what-the-novelist-had–for-lunch approach to a literary interview, or they moralize or mythologize quantum mechanics or relativity as if these alien structures of thought had any relation whatsoever with ancient folk beliefs or playing the stock market. Greene is anything but formal—his analogies often feature characters from television shows—but his informalities are all attempts to convey the content of the subject. Pop science is usually centrifugal and embraces every excuse to avoid the subject. Greene is centripetal. That probably limits his appeal, though in my experience a large part of the market for serious popularizations is made up of scientists and they, presumably, actually want to know something.

I was reminded of Greene’s book the other day by—of all things—a notice of the movie Troy in the New York Times. The reviewer noted that Brad Pitt’s Achilles employed Kung Fu moves on his adversaries, one attempt among many on the part of the director to make the ancient story more meaningful to contemporary audiences. That brought me up short. I usually think that the challenge of approaching old works of art is to register a view of the world fundamentally alien to my own, but perhaps it isn’t really so hard to hear what is different as to want to hear it. One could perfectly well make a Troy movie in which Achilles had naturally had stronger feelings for Patroclus than for Briseis. It would just be a marketing error. Similarly, as Greene’s book demonstrates, it isn’t impossible to convey the concepts of brane theory or cosmic inflation without equations—the physicists who cook up such ideas presumably need to think about them conceptually as well as quantitatively themselves. The supply of readers with the patience and energy to follow a clear exposition is the rate-limiting step.

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