It takes a special talent to make science sound as cool to the layperson as it really is. Perhaps that's because much of what makes up "science" is incomprehensible tables of mathematical formulae and hours of mundane, routine grunt work.
So these "popularizers" are important people: They get the next generation hooked on the conceptual beauty of the sciences. Then again, Richard Dawkins, one of the world's best known scientists, is more famous for disliking God than coming up with the "selfish meme" theory. If there is anyone who can challenge Dawkins' title, it's Columbia University string theorist, Dr. Brian Greene.
Greene—who will speak Thursday night at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall as part of the Linus Pauling Lecture Series—is the rightful heir to Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking. Through his books and his TV specials, he seeks to makes the strangest, most incomprehensible, and yet most breathtakingly sublime wing of science accessible to the average person. His task is nothing less than to understand the true nature of life, the universe and everything, and bring all of us along for the ride.
His books, The Elegant Universe and The Fabric of the Cosmos, were targeted at adults, but his newest, Icarus at the Edge of Time (Knopf, 34 pages, $19.95), is sort of a Little Golden Book of black holes.
In 34 short pages, the big, glossy board book tells the story of the brash young Icarus, passenger on the Proxima, a ship full of humans headed for the Proxima Centauri star system, where an Earth-like planet has been observed to be transmitting radio signals. The problem? It will take five generations to reach the distant star, and Icarus is only generation four. He was born on the Proxima¸ and he fears he will die on the Proxima.
When the ship unexpectedly comes across a black hole, the precocious Icarus, who is also a fantastic pilot, begs his father to let him take a scout ship out to investigate. What follows is a lesson in the strange consequences of relativity theory that even a child could understand.
The book is simply beautiful, with pictures consisting almost entirely of images of deep space taken from our most powerful telescopes. At the center of each pair of pages is a little black dot that gradually grows as Icarus approaches the black hole, and then shrinks as he moves away. It's a nice touch, though at the book's midpoint, when the dot expands to virtually cover some pages, it does obscure what would otherwise be magnificent photos.
At a time when America's students are falling behind their global counterparts in the sciences at an alarming rate, I think we can all thank God there's somebody like Brian Greene to keep the kids interested…even if we're Richard Dawkins.
Dr. Brian Greene appears at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, 1111 SW Broadway, 248-4335. 7 pm Thursday, Nov. 13. $45-$55 ($38.25-$46.75 for students and seniors). Tickets through Ticketmaster, at the PCPA Box Office, or by calling 232-2300.