Closer to eternity — Brian Greene discusses how we got here, how we’ll leave

Columbia professor and celebrity physicist takes audience on an audiovisual journey through entropy, evolution and eternity to explain life itself

image-from-ios

Brian Greene, professor of mathematics and physics at Columbia University, explained humankind’s search for meaning through examining the history and future of the universe at his recent talk at the Paramount Theater. 

Courtesy Elena Seibert

New Dominion Bookshop and The Paramount Theater hosted Brian Greene — physics and mathematics professor at Columbia University, New York Times bestselling author and co-founder of World Science Festival — for a discussion of entropy, evolution and eternity. Greene released his new book, “Until the End of Time,” Feb. 18, before coming to speak about it and his work at The Paramount Theater Friday at 7 p.m. As a scientist, Greene is known across the world for his contributions to the field of theoretical physics. He has made numerous important findings within superstring theory, which defines particles in terms of vibrations, most notably the discovery of mirror symmetry and spatial topology change. 

However, what perhaps distinguishes Greene most is his ability to make these complex ideas accessible to the general public by using everyday examples to explain complicated subjects within theoretical physics.

In his opening question, he oriented the audience to the magnitude of the evening’s topic — the beginning and end of life.

“How do we fit into the expanse of time?” Greene said. 

Using a visual montage of the universe’s timeline, Greene narrated the life of our universe as if it were only a year old. At the very end of the montage, he revealed that if the universe's lifespan was indeed scaled down to a single year, recorded human history would comprise only the last couple of seconds. 

But in these last seconds when humans first appear on the timeline, the second law of thermodynamics — the law of entropy — seems to be violated, Greene said. The law states that entropy — a measure of disorder in the universe — increases with time.

The phenomenon is like a desk, Greene said. At the beginning of the work week, a desk is orderly with few things on it. As the week progresses, more things get piled on it, resulting in an increase of item configurations on the desk. The desk becoming more disorderly throughout the week in the metaphor is similar to how the second law of thermodynamics works.

But humans and life itself seem to violate this law, as we have evolved and become specialized with precise biological functions and have built ordered communities. 

For Greene, however, this interpretation ignores one key source of disorder in our lives — our emission of heat. Every day, when we move, talk, work and even think, we emit heat, effectively contributing to the entropy in the universe. By living, we create entropy. 

Jackie Spong, an applied physicist at Stanford University who attended the event, stated that Greene failed to justify this theory given the extent of humans’ apparent violation of the second law.

“During the lifetime of a person, we continually violate the Second Law of Thermodynamics,” Spong said. “We continually make order, and that’s a huge question. Why does life act this way? No one knows.” 

After sharing his views on entropy, Greene moved to evolution — a physicist's evolution.

According to Greene, this version of evolution establishes the attractive nature of particles — their ability to build on one another, mutate, build faster and repeat until complex structures like human cells are created. 

“This is natural selection at the point of particles with no intelligence — just the laws of physics playing out in nature,” Greene said. “Our brain is simply a bag of particles governed by physical laws.” 

Thus free will does not exist, according to Greene. Human thoughts, actions and beliefs are simply products of particular patterns of particles created by the laws of physics. 

Spong had further concerns about the holes present in this statement.

“I’m a physicist as well, and I wasn’t satisfied with his answers and he glossed over many important things,” Spong said. “I also can’t accept his mechanistic view of free will. I don’t understand … he said free will arises out of complexity … but how?” 

Regardless, Greene believes that, at some point in the future, life itself will no longer exist.

According to Greene, the Second Law of Thermodynamics will eventually envelop the world in so much chaos that the heat emitted by a single human thought will be enough to burst the world into flames. This phenomenon has been scientifically defined as the heat death, but its validity is still being studied. However for Greene, life as we know it will end due to the Second Law of Thermodynamics. 

Regardless of divergent scientific philosophies or personal convictions, many audience members were impressed by Greene’s personality and presentation. 

“He’s a very good, personable speaker, and he takes very complex subjects and makes them understandable,” said Peter White, Charlottesville community member and event attendee. 

Spong further agreed, though she was still discontent with some of Greene’s explanations. 

“I don’t think he has an answer to these questions, but I wished he would have just said that,” she said. 

But to Greene, this simple, novel — and often audiovisual — presentation is about more than selling tickets.

“In my own research, I find that I never really understand what I’m doing if I rely purely on the equations,” Greene said. “[My presentation style] is not so separate from what I actually do.” 

His new book that inspired the talk, “Until the End of Time,” covers the entire history of the universe — starting back at the Big Bang yet continuing far into the future as well, even hinting at the possible ways that the universe may end — all while focusing on humanity’s role within it. His book also describes the role of narrative, myth, religion and creative expression within human life and our search to find meaning within existence. 

“My intent is to plumb the depths of this universe and to try to get at the heart of human journey to find understanding,” Greene said.

He further hopes to share his understanding and perspective with the world through his novels. 

“It's tragic in my mind that so many people can be so excited about these deep mysteries of the cosmos and yet shut out from really engaging with the ideas because they don't have an advanced degree in mathematics [or] they haven't gone to graduate school in physics,” Greene said. “My most recent book really aims to be an accessible journey through the most wondrous of ideas.”

Greene hopes his book and speaking engagements — like the one hosted by Paramount and New Dominion — will remind people of the mystery of the universe. 

“When you see our moment on the cosmic timeline and you realize how fleeting it is and you realize how ephemeral our presence in a cosmic unfolding is … it allows you to recognize how exquisite it is that we're here, how incredibly unlikely it is that we're here and how precious it is that we're here,” Greene said.

related stories