Brian Greene is a world-renowned physicist in the field of superstring theory, a bestselling author, and an internationally acclaimed science communicator. The Washington Post called him “the single best explainer of abstruse concepts in the world today.” He is the director of Columbia’s Center for Theoretical Physics, and a co-founder of the World Science Festival, produced by the non-profit World Science Foundation. The festival draws millions of visitors every year.
Julia Brodsky: What do you see as a major problem in early science education?
Brian Greene: The future of our species relies upon the depth and nuance of our engagement with the world. Covid has shown that in the most dramatic way. And it is a real tragedy that so many students leave school not wanting to have anything to do with science. We don’t spend enough time taking the students out to the farthest reaches of the cosmos or into the inner workings of the molecules within our bodies. Instead, we quickly focus their attention on technical details, so we can assess them more easily. We would be better serving our children if we first focused on sparking their excitement, wonder, and desire to know these details.
Brodsky: Should we talk to children more about the impermanent nature of this ever-changing universe?
Greene: Yes, we should be stressing impermanence as a fundamental quality of how the universe behaves. My latest book, Until the End of Time, lays out the fact that nothing lasts forever. One of the deep guiding principles of physics, the second law of thermodynamics, tells us that everything will ultimately change and wither away. Absorbing such universal guiding principles at an early age gives students a better sense of how they fit into the greater cosmos. And for understanding their own lives, that lesson is utterly profound.
Brodsky: As one 13-year-old student told me, “a human is a creature that is capable and willing to change itself.” How will the way we define a human affect our society and education?
Greene: Defining what it means to be human is a deep and subtle question. It is quite valuable for students to ponder over how a collection of ingredients can come together to yield living systems, including the ones that have consciousness, that can think about the past and figure out the future. Dwelling on the wonder of particles coalescing to yield structures called human beings fosters an appreciation for life and the universe that one wouldn’t get by studying, say, the specifics of the electron transport chain, as my son was forced to do in school.
Brodsky: We don’t often talk to the kids about our limitations, about the fact that we humans see a very limited slice of the universe – and this is where science can help us to expand our horizons and possibilities.
Greene: I like to emphasize how misleading our five feeble senses actually are. They evolved so that we could survive, and survival is very different from truly understanding what’s out there. So I really try to give people the sense that our eyes and ears are limited, and the same is true about the thought process that we use to analyze reality. It is exciting to try going beyond those limitations to understand the universe more fully.
Brodsky: Late physicist Freeman Dyson once said, “The public has a distorted view of science, because children are taught in school that science is a collection of firmly established truths. In fact, science is not a collection of terms. It is a continuing exploration of mysteries.” Do you agree?
Greene: Our culture is obsessed with assessment and ranking. The easiest way to rank students is to have exams, and the easiest way to have exams is to have detailed material that has right and wrong answers. However, the most interesting questions about the world are often not the ones that have right and wrong answers. But the nuance and perspective required to present different viewpoints are not easily tested.
To complicate things further, many science teachers didn’t really study all that much science themselves. It would be great if kids could learn from practicing scientists or those who have studied the subject really deeply. We need to provide opportunities for kids to immerse themselves in the journey of scientific discovery, as opposed to what often happens in the classroom, where we just teach them a body of so-called facts. At the moment, I think, stepping outside the standard schooling is the most effective way to do that.
Brodsky: What are some interactive ways we can bring kids and scientists together on a regular basis?
Greene: There are many programs that provide children with an opportunity to interact with leading scientists. They include the World Science Festival that I co-founded, which brings science experiences to kids; Nova programs; and many wonderful science-themed kids books. In our World Science Academy, we bring kids into the laboratories of scientists around New York City. Our free World Science Scholars program brings together some of the brightest 14-to-16-year-old mathematicians from all over the globe, for a weekly online gathering with leading professors.
Brodsky: I once spoke with a 10-year-old girl, and she told me, “Every time I turn on the faucet and watch the water flow, I wonder what it looks like on another planet.“ How do we preserve this curiosity?
Greene: You need to create an environment that really is receptive to that kind of questioning. A teacher’s response to curiosity is utterly essential for young children. We need to reward curiosity. One motivation behind the World Science Festival was to help shift the cultural attitude toward science, inquiry, innovation, and ingenuity.
Brodsky: What are some mind-bending ideas that you plan to share with pre-teens in your free “Adventures in Astrophysics” class?
Greene: I plan to talk about black holes, a mind-boggling arena of astrophysics, taking the students from the inception of the idea of black holes to our current cutting-edge understanding. Our discussions will guide the students towards an understanding of where they came from, going all the way back to the Big Bang. We will review the major processes along the cosmological timeline that allow for collections of particles to come together into a star like the Sun and a living system like themselves. That will give them a perspective on our life as a blink of an eye on the cosmic scale. I hope students may find it deeply inspiring that they’ve been given this precious moment to experience the universe and to wonder about all that there is.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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- New York state ends stem cell research funding – Science Magazine