From Big Bang to Big Chill, physicist Brian Greene contemplates the beginning (and end) of everything

Brian Greene
Columbia University theoretical physicist Brian Greene discusses the human search for meaning amid the grand sweep of the universe during a Seattle appearance presented by University Book Store. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

You might think it’s depressing to contemplate the view that the universe is likely to end in everlasting darkness — but that’s not how physicist Brian Greene rolls.

“I am quite upbeat about the end of everything,” he insists.

Greene lays out what scientists have learned about the grand sweep of cosmic evolution, and its implications for phenomena ranging from the origin of life to consciousness and free will, in a new book titled “Until the End of Time.” This latest work follows up on books dealing with topics ranging from string theory to parallel universes — and in its way, it’s just as mind-bending.

The Columbia University theoretical physicist’s efforts to spread the scientific gospel, good news as well as bad, brought him to Seattle last week, for a fireside chat with KUOW radio host Ross Reynolds and a Q&A session with fans at University Temple United Methodist Church.

"Beyond the End of Time" book cover
Alfred A. Knopf / Penguin Random House

In his new book, and during the Seattle talk, Greene argued the case for a reductionist view of the world’s workings at its most fundamental level: When all is said and done, we’re “bags of particles” interacting with each other according to the laws of physics. Talking about free will in those interactions makes no more sense than talking about the free will of hydrogen and oxygen when they combine to form H2O.

But Greene acknowledged that life isn’t quite that simple. “How do I differ from a bottle of water? We’re made of the same kinds of ingredients, particles, governed by the same mathematical laws of physics,” he said. “So where do we differ? Well, it’s kind of obvious where we differ, right? In the bottle of water, particles are not arranged in a particularly complex or interesting manner. The ways in which it responds to stimuli are limited.”

In contrast, the complexities of the processes that contribute to consciousness give us an incredibly broad and rich range of potential responses to what the universe throws at us, Greene said.

“I simply substitute the sensation of free will for the term ‘free will.’ … That modest shift is, for the most part, in a day-to-day sense, how I go about the world,” he said. “But more deeply, when I do seriously reflect on who I am, and what I do and what I’m capable of, I see things differently. I do see myself as a vehicle. My particles are carrying out their quantum-mechanical marching orders. They’re simply going to do that, and I go along for the ride with it.”

“But you don’t tell your wife, ‘Oh, my particles didn’t allow me to take out the garbage, so that’s why I didn’t take out the garbage,’ ” Reynolds quipped.

“I certainly do,” Greene replied, amid the audience’s laughter. “She, however, is quite wise to that after all these decades, so it doesn’t get very far. She says, ‘Well, have the sensation of taking the garbage out.’ ”

In a follow-up interview, I delved further into Greene’s views on life, the universe and everything. Here are some of the highlights, edited for brevity and clarity:

GeekWire: “Until the End of Time” touches on subjects that go well beyond physics to talk about subjects like consciousness, art and religion. I’m guessing that some people might wonder whether you should be “staying in your lane.” Tell me about the process that led to writing this book.

Brian Greene: “For decades, I’ve been an advocate of science as a discipline that shouldn’t be viewed as an isolated subject. The work that we do in physics, the work that chemists do, the work that biologists do — all those insights need to be brought to bear on critical questions that really matter to people. As much as I like to focus on why the electron has its mass and its electrical charge, or why it interacts in accordance with the laws of quantum field theory, those kinds of question don’t really cut to the heart of things that really matter to people. And yet, the insights of science do have implications for things like consciousness, or things like why we behave the way we do.

“Telling the full story from the beginning to the end, trying to stitch together the insights of fundamental physics, the insights of philosophy, the insights of neuroscience and psychology into a unified description of life in the universe — at least the part that we have access to —  to me, that’s an exciting journey.”

Q: It seems as if there have been a number of scientists touching upon the topic of consciousness lately. Here in Seattle, Christof Koch at the Allen Institute for Brain Science recently wrote a book talking about the biological factors that may underlie consciousness, and whether it’s possible that consciousness could be measured. Have you had any interactions with biologists on these sorts of issues?

A: “Christof is great. In the chapter that touches on consciousness, I describe some of his work with Giulio Tononi.

“I help run science festivals in New York and Australia that focus on all the sciences, and I enjoy being part of programs that are not in my sweet spot. I love the opportunity to talk to people from a wide variety of the sciences.

Previously: Can computers become conscious? Brain scientist Christof Koch takes on deep questions

“I bring to bear the sensibility of a physicist, and the insights of a physicist, and the knowledge that I’ve built up from deep work in my own subject. I bring all that to bear on questions that are focused upon by other scientists. And I think that distinct angle is what provides a fresh look at some of these issues.”

Q: Is there something in particular that leads you to think that it’s now time to look at the full picture? There’s so much we don’t know about that full picture, just in terms of the nature of dark energy and dark matter, and perhaps the nature of the multiverse

A: “It’s good to have a snapshot, here in the 21st century, of what we can say about the distant past and how it unfolded till today, and what we can say when we pivot from today and look toward the future. The issue of dark energy and other issues in cosmology have yet to be fully settled, and future discoveries could impact our conclusions about what will happen. I take that uncertainty into account, but I think it’s exciting and gratifying that we can use today’s knowledge to say things about what the universe may be like in 1010, 10100 years and even beyond into the future.”

Q: For some people, the long-term view can be depressing — you know, the whole idea that for uncountable eons, the universe will be in a “Big Chill.” Even if a couple of particles meet each other, it’s going to be a dark, lonely universe. How do you bring the correct perspective to that part of the story?

A: “I am quite upbeat about the end of everything, and I don’t mean that in a flippant way. I’m not trying to be cute with words. It seems quite likely that the particles that make up complex matter will themselves disperse. Complex matter will disintegrate in the far future, leaving a bath of particles wafting through the darkness. The way that impacts my perspective is that it really focuses attention on the here and now, and it allows us to recognize how rare and unlikely it is that we are here at all.

“It is so gratifying that we collections of particles that haven’t yet dispersed can do such wondrous things, right? We can figure out how the universe evolved from the beginning. We can look at the Mona Lisa and experience great beauty. We can listen to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and we can be brought to a transcendent place. We can use our math to say things about what the future will be like.

“This just gives me a deep sense of gratitude for having particles arranged in a pattern that allows us to do those things, and for the fact that we are here at all. It shifts your focus — to look at your legacy, try to have an impact that will last until the end of time.”

Q: Has working on this book changed your own personal perspective on the wider universe?

A: “Well, broadly speaking, it confirms things that I’ve been thinking about, because I’ve been immersed in these ideas for a very long time. But it certainly has refined my thinking about these ideas. In fact, I should say something about that notion that people might find the end somewhat bleak. There was a time when I had that perspective, too. There was a time when thinking about the far future filled me with a hollow dread.

“That was an unusual feeling for me as a physicist. I was raised on the wonder of the stars and the galaxies, and the wonder that math can calculate physical properties to many decimal places. That hollow dread wias a different kind of experience.

“But as I thought more and more about these ideas, and as I immersed myself in what they were saying about the nature of life and the nature of time, it shifted that sense of bleakness to a sense of calmness, a sense of connection to the wider reality. A sense of gratitude for being here at all.

“So I’d say, as a hard-nosed scientist who makes his case through mathematical equations that calculate properties of the world to great accuracy, it was a refinement of thinking that brought in a softer quality, but a vital quality — because ultimately, we are human beings trying to make sense of the world. And when you have a deeper understanding of how you came to be, and what the future will be like, the perspective that gives is deep and uncanny. It’s something you can’t really get from any other exploration of the world.”

Listen to Ross Reynolds’ fireside chat with Brian Greene on KUOW’s Speakers Forum website, and catch Bill Radke’s interview with Greene on KUOW’s “The Record.”