Physicist Pulls Some Strings on the Hill

GreeneIn May, Columbia University string theorist and author of the bestselling book, The Elegant Universe, Brian Greene appeared at a special reception on Capitol Hill to talk to Congressional representatives and their staffers about the future of physics research. Audience members included former NSF director Neal Lane, Michael Turner, the former Assistant Director of the NSF for Mathematical and Physical Sciences, DOE’s Ray Orbach, Greene s fellow string theorist Edward Witten, and the only two physicists currently serving in Congress, Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ) and Rep. Vern Ehlers (R-MI). Actor Alan Alda, a strong proponent of science, was also in attendance.

The timing of Greene’s talk couldn’t have been more fortuitous, coming as it did on the heels of the recently released report of the National Academies’ Committee on Elementary Particle Physics in the 21st Century, which makes the case for funding the next generation of particle accelerators.

Alan Alda (left) talks with Brian Greene and Rep. Judy Biggert (Ill-13th) after the lecture.
Alan Alda (left) talks with Brian Greene and Rep. Judy Biggert (Ill-13th) after the lecture.
Greene provided an excellent answer to the inevitable question: why spend billions of taxpayer dollars to construct a gigantic facility to detect exotic things we can't even observe directly. He did so via a story, namely, Einstein's persistence in developing general relativity over the course of 10 long years.

First published in the mid-17th Century, Isaac Newton’s Principia is among the most significant physics treatises ever written. He mapped out the law of universal gravity so precisely, that we can still use his fundamental equations today to predict where a ball tossed in the air will land. But when it came to explaining how gravity actually works, Newton declared that he would leave this question to the consideration of the reader.

Albert Einstein took up the challenge. According to Greene, Einstein kept asking why, pushing the envelope further, and in the process, he revolutionized physics. Newton believed gravity was a force, one object exerting a pull on another by virtue of their respective masses. Einstein figured out how it worked: an object’s mass warps the fabric of spacetime, and this makes us feel the effects of gravity. (“Some of us feel it more than others,” Greene quipped.)

Most importantly, Einstein laid out a testable prediction that light would follow the curvature of spacetime, and this was borne out in 1919 by observations made during an eclipse. Like Einstein 100 years ago, Greene hopes the scientific community won’t be content to sit back on its laurels, but will keep asking those fundamental questions to push the envelope of scientific knowledge to the next “final frontier.” Funding the next-generation collider is one way of ensuring continued progress.

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