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One On 1 Profile: Scientist Brian Greene Discusses His Elegant Universe

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While he is one of the best-known scientists in the country, Brian Greene's resume might also include translator – making science understandable for the masses. Greene sat down with NY1's Budd Mishkin in 2008 for this One on 1 report.

Perhaps we should have known long ago that Brian Greene would be a great mathematician. When he was five, a summer camp director could not stump him.

"He was asking me, 'if you're going at like 60 miles per hour, how long will it take you to drive to California?' It kept going and I remember he just finally stopped and gave up," recalled Greene. "I remember he also asked me, 'where do you live?' And on that, I really didn't know what to say."

Greene lives now in a world of science, as a professor at Columbia University, a best-selling author, and television host.

It is a world that Greene can never really escape, not that he wants to.

"I kind of love to walk down the street with my kids, my wife, and think about how my watch is ticking at a rate different from the people who are sitting still," Greene said. "I love to try to extract the insights of science and try to live them."

Greene is a theoretical physicist best known for his work in string theory.

"Inside electrons and quarks there is something finer. And the finer thing is a little tiny filament; it looks like a little string that can vibrate," explained Greene. "And just like the string in a violin can vibrate, producing different musical notes, when these little tiny strings vibrate, they don't produce different music, they produce different particles."

Currently, the science that studies massive objects like planets and stars conflicts with the study of smaller units like atoms and particles. String theory aims to resolve the two.

But, if string theory proves correct, Greene says calculations indicate that we live in a universe with 10 space dimensions, instead of just three.

"Well, where are they? And that's something I've worked on for decades and one of the possibilities is that the dimensions are all around us," said Greene. "They're just so small, we don't see them."

Greene says he is not a proponent of string theory – at least, not yet.

"Until it makes predictions that are confirmed by experiment, no, I don't believe it," he said. "Nobody should believe it."

Imagine going to work, immersing yourself in the most intricate calculations, making an exciting discovery, and then realizing 99.9 percent of the population, including your friends and family, have no idea what you are talking about.

"When something spectacular happens, the level of animation that I can't help but infuse the description with is enough usually for the people around me to know that something really interesting has happened," said Greene.

Greene has tried to break down that barrier through his books, one of which became a PBS documentary.

His latest project is a children's book, "Icarus at the Edge of Time."

He is also the co-founder of the World Science Festival, four days of events held around the city.

In the past, he has appeared on "The Colbert Report" to talk about science.

And yet Greene often confronts an ignorance of science that is generally accepted.

"In educated circles, if you said I've never heard of that guy Beethoven, it's just not okay," said Greene. "But you say, I don't know how to take a square root or what a quark is, it's like, yeah, that's fine."

He argues that our ignorance of science will have repercussions.

"Climate change, stem cells, alternate energies, nano technology, space travel. I mean, there's so much that we need to deal with as a society and if people won't engage with the underlying science, there's no way to have a public that makes informed decisions," he said.

Brian Greene does most of his work in solitude, and so he never knows what effect it may have far away.

"An Iraqi War veteran ripped off his stripes from his uniform and gave them to me at a book signing," said Greene. "And he said, 'I want you to have these because you've really helped me, and it really helped me when I was out there.'"

Long before his work was read around the world, Greene played a game devised by his father which foreshadowed his love of the unknown.

"He described, 'I'm seeing these white dripping tendrils coming down upon me as I'm walking slowly along a brown log.' The challenge was for me to figure out what perspective he was taking. And that one was a little ant walking along a hot dog as the hot dog man was putting sauerkraut as a garnish."

His father was a composer, but Greene says most of what he wrote sat on the shelf. He was also a singer and performer out on the road, with a need for an emotional, meaningful connection to the audience that is now shared by his son.

"When I went into science, not music, I think that side was still calling out to be activated in a sense," Greene said. "And by doing the television the shows that I've done, or by writing the books or articles, I feel like I'm kind of in a way fulfilling his legacy."

Greene says he never felt different from other kids growing up, even though most kids don't do 30-digit number multiplication problems.

He became a vegetarian at nine after making the connection that the meat he was eating was once alive.

He ran cross country, running stairs for practice in a friend's high rise.

After he'd gone through all of his math classes at I.S. 44, his teacher sent him up to Columbia to find a tutor. His older sister went along, for protection.

"We were both really small and we went knocking on doors and handing this letter to people asking for a tutor, and most would just read it and sort of look at me oddly and hand it back to me and say, 'okay, see ya,'" recalled Greene.

A graduate student agreed to tutor him.

Later at Stuyvesant High School, Greene first displayed what would become his calling card, translating science for the masses.

"That was the first time where I tried to go from science to general language in a way that would be kind of interesting and maybe even slightly entertaining," he said.

He went to Harvard University, was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, taught at Cornell, and starting in 1996, at Columbia.

His first book, "The elegant Universe" was published in 1999. It was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize, which was news to Greene.

"I just got a call from the publisher and they said, 'you know we have some interesting news. We're not sure if it's going to be interpreted by you as good news or bad news; you were runner up for the Pulitzer Prize,'" Greene said. "At first you're like, 'wow that's great,' and then you're like, 'ohhh.'"

Greene then hosted a PBS documentary based on "The Elegant Universe, which won a Peabody Award.

He's worked as a scientific advisor in movies, and even appeared in a few.

His latest book is meant to bring science to kids.

"We all begin life as these little scientists and we want to understand why, how, when, and that's what this is all about," he said of his motivation.

Greene is married with two young children.

He occasionally leaves the science work behind for acting classes, and he's been a longtime fan of judo.

But Greene is almost always surrounded by a life of science. As he puts it, it's "a life of confusion and uncertainty." That's because many of the theories he is researching may not be solved in his lifetime.

"The questions that we are asking, touch on the eternal. And when you're working on something where there's a chance that the result will give insight that will last forever, it is really is strong motivation to keep going," he said. "Most of us working recognize we're not going to be a Galileo, a Newton or an Einstein, but if we're able to contribute one little cog, to the great workings of physics, that allows the next Einstein, 50 or a 100 years from now, to make his or her breakthrough, wow, that to me is such an exciting thing to be part of that journey."

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