What to ask Brian Greene?
February 17, 2011 11:20 PM   Subscribe

I get to meet a celebrity physicist next week! How do I be an interesting ignoramus?

Brian Greene, to be specific. It's not for very long, it'll be right before he gives a lecture, and I'll be part of a group of about a dozen people. Assume the group has a fairly low average familiarity with formal science and a wide mix of educational levels. My own knowledge is at the undergrad engineer level.

What, oh Hivemind, would be interesting for everyone? Should I just bring some (vegan) book-tour survival snacks as a gift and see how the conversation goes? My goals are to indulge some curiosity in a considerate and low-key manner and to leave with more questions.
posted by VelveteenBabbitt to Science & Nature (11 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
From more technical to less technical (choose your level): What he thinks of Lee Smolin's contention that any background-dependent theory is fundamentally broken? How far are we away from any concrete evidence that string theory is real? Will string theory be the "ultimate theory" that explains everything? Or do dark matter/dark energy suggest that it's only a matter of time before we run into another physical revolution on the scale of quantum mechanics/relativity? If there's no concrete evidence for string theory on the immediate horizon, aren't a lot of scientists taking it on faith? And is that really science? What are some common misperceptions about string theory? About physics? About the lives of physicists and how they work? What are his favorite lay physics authors (aside from himself)? What are his favorite science fiction books and films? Has writing three popular physics books garnered him any hot physics groupies?
posted by zanni at 2:35 AM on February 18, 2011

If you have things you're curious about, ask about them! And then listen! It's pretty much that easy. Don't be afraid to say that you don't understand, and don't hesitate to say why you're interested. It's just the same as talking to anyone else about their interests, honestly. As a scientist myself, it's always fun to talk to someone who's genuinely curious and not afraid to try to understand new things. My biggest pet peeve is when people say "oh, I could never do that" or "that's too hard."

Though clearly a more than competent physicist, I would also have to say that Greene's biggest success is in his ability to convey abstract, baroque concepts into popular science explanations. I wouldn't be surprised if he has some interesting things to say about the challenges and approaches for this particular aspect of his career.

Have fun!
posted by Schismatic at 4:21 AM on February 18, 2011

As an ice breaker, ask him if he plays the bongos.
posted by SNACKeR at 7:10 AM on February 18, 2011

"What do you think is the most common misconception about your field?", "What do you wish people knew about what you do?", "How do you think your work will help society?"
posted by electroboy at 8:38 AM on February 18, 2011

I would likely ask him if there any up and coming methods to test string theory and how far off/far fetched those methods are.
posted by cirrostratus at 8:59 AM on February 18, 2011

I'd ask him what he does for fun.
posted by ambient2 at 9:50 AM on February 18, 2011

I'm with ambient2 and Schismatic.

I'd be careful about several of zanni's questions; as part of the public face of string theory, Greene probably gets asked many of those quite frequently; he's likely answered several of them in a public forum (which you could search for) previously. I don't know Greene, but I do know that several stringy folk might find those questions some combination of irritating and obnoxious. (Separately: I'm pretty sure the answer to zanni's last question is yes, though, but I'm also pretty damn sure I'd never ask it).

Your best bet is to stick to asking questions you already have in your head-- where does your own curiosity lead you? (If you are already familiar with the background for some of zanni's questions, sure, ask them! But don't do it because someone told you to, do it because you've genuinely had this burning question in your mind). What do *you* want to know about? Ask follow up questions, be engaged, be friendly. Normal conversation skills, couple with a bit of normal don't-be-totally-weird-around-the-famous-person skills.
posted by nat at 11:05 AM on February 18, 2011

Physics (particularly string theory) relies heavily on mathematics as a descriptive language, or framework, and as a problem-solving tool. Some string theorists have been accused of doing barely-physical mathematics instead of doing mathematical physics. That is, their ideas may be mathematically sensible or beautiful, but they don't always generate testable predictions about the behavior of the physical world. Ask him where he thinks the boundary is between physics and mathematics. Ask him if he thinks the blurring of the boundaries that has happened in string theory is beneficial or harmful.

Ask him what scientists and mathematicians mean when they call something "mathematically beautiful."

Ask him what he has learned about how experts in esoteric fields can effectively share their ideas with the public. Ask him what very specific skills he found most important to develop along those lines.

Ask him if he thinks all scientists should spend part of their time explaining/justifying their work to the public, or if it's better to delegate the job to those with clear skills for it.

Ask him whether he thinks all scientific work needs to be justifiable to the lay public.

Ask him how he thinks physics would be different today if physicists still relied on private patrons.

Ask him what he thinks the appropriate balance is between competition and collaboration in science.

Ask him whether he thinks progress in physics relies more upon the work of the "lone genius" or upon collaborative efforts. What does he predict for the future? Ask whether he feels physics over the last hundred years has progressed through stasis punctuated by explosive developments, or through the slow accumulation of thousands of little developments.

Ask him what he thinks the biggest weaknesses (or strengths) are that physicists in his field deal with in terms of effectively sharing ideas or data with one another.

Ask him whether he's seen a difference in subject interest or output between physicists who think science/math ability is a gift of chance vs. those who think it's acquirable through hard work.

Ask him what he thinks the most controversial ideas in string theory, astroparticle physics, or cosmology have been over the last five years.

Ask him whether he thinks the most controversial ideas overlap with the ideas he feels are most important.

Ask him what his favorite unsolved physics/math problem is.

Ask him what his favorite unsolved non-physics/non-math problem is.

Ask him what the smallest current unsolved problems are that most people, including physicists, don't realize could have the biggest impact.

Ask him if he thinks the exit door from science as a career is inherently one-way (i.e. once you leave, you can't return).

Ask him if there are any areas of physics he feels are essentially "done," with only clean-up work left to do.

Ask him what current physics experiment or experiment in development might produce results that he most looks forward to.

Ask him what type of science, or alternately what type of other career, he would choose to enter if he were eighteen years old today.

Ask him what changes he would make to society's present methods of educating and fielding future scientists if he were in charge.

Ask him what he thinks the differences are in the scientific cultures are between North America and Europe, or the Western world and the Eastern world/rest of the world (gross generality).

Ask him if he thinks science is a career or a vocation.

Ask him what the differences are between physics done within academia, done in government labs, and done in industry or otherwise outside of academia/government, and how those differences affect the public.

Ask him what he thinks the biggest physics funding mistakes of the last 50 years were and whether he thinks there are any happening right now.

Ask him what job-related skills (apart from communication skills) he thinks future scientists need to be taught that aren't always part of their education, or that most people don't think of as a necessary part of the skill set for almost all scientists.

Ask him what he thinks the coolest interdisciplinary current projects between physics and other specialties are.

Ask him what he thinks high school students should be taught about physics.

Ask him how he thinks North American physicists can effectively combat an academic culture that often portrays teaching as a second-rate job for those who weren't intelligent or gung-ho enough to build research-based careers.

Ask him if he thinks science popularizers or science educators have a hard time calling themselves scientists, or ever lose the ability to be taken seriously by other scientists.

Ask him what was the most eye-opening experience he's had in interacting with the public as a spokesperson for physics.

Ask him what he thinks the biggest or most egregious incorrect assumption is that most of us make about the physical universe without realizing it.

Ask him about the best PowerPoint presentation he's seen as a scientist and what made it so cool or effective.

Ask him about the worst.

Ask him whether, in his experience, physicists care more about the quantity, the quality, or the cost of available coffee.

Ask him whether he thinks the average physicist drinks more or less booze than the average layperson.

Ask him to rank the various subfields of science and mathematics by the average practitioner's level of interest in getting high as a fucking kite.

Ask him whether he prefers chalkboards or dry-erase boards.
posted by hat at 11:10 AM on February 18, 2011 [2 favorites]

If you had unlimited funding to pursue one line of inquiry, what would it be?
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:24 AM on February 18, 2011

Ask him about being in the exclusive club of people who have both a Bacon number and an Erdös number.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 1:15 PM on February 18, 2011

Read the Wikipedia article on the Bogdanov Affair. Then ask if he thinks cosomlogy and string theory have problems with too much jargon and a tolerance for vagueness. Ask if he thinks progress in the fields generally fulfills Popper's notion of falsifiability, and if it ought to.

I don't intend these to be sniping questions - as an experimental physicist of a different branch, I would be curious to hear his take on it.

hat suggested several really good ones above!
posted by springload at 7:15 PM on February 20, 2011

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