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He's Got The World On A String

String theory is the hottest development in physics since Stephen Hawking first peered into a black hole -- and Columbia physicist Brian Greene is one of the few people who can explain it. He also acts in Pinter plays and packs lecture halls, and his new book, "The Elegant Universe," is getting rapturous advance reviews. Has "the Theory of Everything" finally found the spokesman it deserves?

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For some people, charting the topography of the universe is easier than locating the wormholes in their own apartments. Brian Greene, a boyish, mediagenic Columbia physics professor, is wandering helplessly around his living room in Morningside Heights, trying to find an autographed picture of John Lithgow. He scans the bookcase, whose shelves are studded with hiking guides, Camus novels, and videotapes of physics symposia from all over the world. He pulls down a stack of folders, lecture notes, and yellowing newspapers, and begins to sift.

Greene received the photograph a year ago, after helping a Hollywood friend punch up some dialogue for NBC's 3rd Rock From the Sun. On the show, Lithgow plays a crackbrained physics professor from outer space, and as a point of professional pride, he likes his science patter to make sense. Greene was delighted to pitch in. He's always had a peripheral interest in show business. In his spare time, he studies acting; and in 1995, while teaching at Cornell, he performed in a community-theater production of a Harold Pinter play. Right now he's trying to drum up funding for a three-part public-television series on physics starring, potentially, himself. But Brian Greene isn't just a physicist who'd like to play one on TV. At 36, he holds tenured positions in both the math and the physics departments at Columbia University, and adjunct professorships at Cornell and Duke. His specialty is string theory, the spellbinding, diabolically complicated school of physics that attempts to describe everything in the known universe from quarks to supernovas. Ed Witten, the Princeton colossus who has dominated string theory for more than a decade, believes that Greene is one of the top three or four string theorists of his generation -- and string theorists are some of the brightest people on the planet. They may be the ones to finally pick up where Einstein, at the lonely and frustrated end of his career, left off: with a unified field theory of the cosmos.

Greene finally finds the Lithgow picture in a manila envelope, buried in a loose pile of family photographs. "Brian," the inscription says. "Thank you for your equations on quantum chromodynamics. John." Greene smiles. "It was so cool," he says, "to hear John Lithgow talking about quark jets."

String theory, also known as superstring theory, has been around since the late sixties, but only in 1984 did a surge of persuasive new data start forcing scientists to reckon with its claims. Suddenly, conferences were being held, MacArthur "genius" awards were being given, and a moniker was born: "the Theory of Everything." The term still gives some physicists, including Greene, a rash.

Now the field of string theory is white-hot, luring the physics world's bright young stars deep into the hearts of the universe's collapsing ones. Harvard's last two physics hires were string theorists, and breakthroughs in the discipline are eagerly reported by the mainstream press. (Last July, when a group of physicists opened a banquet with a song about string theory set to the tune of "The Macarena," even that made the science section of the New York Times.) The attention has excited resentment and envy in some scientists, particularly those who see string theory as a fad whose charms are overblown. "Don't tell anyone in my department this," a Princeton graduate student confessed to me recently as he was making his way over to the math building, "but I'm a closet string theorist."

For all that it promises, string theory has never been proved experimentally. But if what it says is correct, the basic inconsistencies of twentieth-century physics will wondrously evaporate. The theory rests on a very simple premise: that the smallest building blocks of the universe -- muons, photons, gluons, and all those other particles that sound like Santa's reindeer -- are generated by the vibrations of tiny, quivering loops of string. The whole universe is made up of them, tied up with them, if you prefer, as if the cosmos were a shimmering aeolian harp.

Actually, that last image is stolen from Greene's first book, The Elegant Universe, which will start appearing in stores next week. Publishers Weekly has already given Greene a rapturous write-up ("He possesses a remarkable gift for using the everyday to illustrate what may be going on in dimensions beyond our feeble human perception"), and Kirkus Reviews declared the book "possibly the clearest popular treatment to date of this complex subject." W.W. Norton & Company, Greene's publisher, hopes he can do for string theory what Stephen Jay Gould did for evolution, Stephen Hawking for black holes, and Richard Feynman for quantum electrodynamics: give science a friendly face, and make a chart-busting best-seller out of a rarefied subject.


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