Science education is failing to inspire students, says physicist Brian Greene

Supermassive black hole
This illustration, released by NASA in 2013, shows a supermassive black hole in the nearby spiral galaxy NGC 1365.

It's not easy to popularize theoretical physics, but Brian Greene, one of the world's best-known scientists, has managed to do just that. Greene, a best-selling author, co-founded the World Science Festival, an annual event to inspire and engage the public in scientific research.

Kerri Miller joined Greene in his laboratory in New York City at the start of the festival.

For Greene, increasing public excitement for science starts with a child's first experiences with the subject in school.

"For many students, science is a burden," he said. "They're made to solve problems; they're made to memorize parts of a cell or a chemical reaction so they can give some response on an exam. And I gotta tell you, that's not something that inspires anybody. Any kid does not get fired up by that process."

Science in schools should help students think about the bigger questions, like how the universe formed, and show how we can answer some of those questions.

"The fact that we can seriously talk about the tiniest fraction of a second after the beginning with mathematical equations and test the results of those mathematics through astronomical observations, that is thrilling," he said. "And that process of going from confusion about a deep problem to clarity and insight, that process is something every kid can get and every kid can get fired up about."

Greene wrote a children's book, "Icarus at the Edge of Time," to explain black holes. The book has been adapted into a 40-minute 62-piece orchestral piece:


"When you look out at night you see what we call the universe: the stars and if you had telescopes you'd see distant galaxies. And the question we ask is, 'Is that reality the totality of all that exists? Or might the largest, broadest canvas of reality include other realms that might rightly be called universes of their own? Might there be many universes?'"

"One way of thinking about it is our universe would be like one bubble in a big cosmic bubble bath that has other bubbles, other universes, all floating in this wider expanse. This comes from a straightforward idea. When we talk about the beginning of our universe, we speak of 'the big bang.' But as we've tried to understand what 'the big bang' actually was, we've come to the suggestion that maybe it wasn't a unique one-time event. Maybe this explosion, if you will, that created our realm happens repeatedly, giving rise to other realms, other universes."


"If you're examining matter on smaller and smaller scales, some suggest, 'Well there's going to be a limit to how small you can go, a fundamental finest ingredient, nothing smaller, and once you get there those equations may be it.' I don't know; nobody does know whether that's how it turns out.

"It could be, some worry, that our theories are so good that they pretty much describe everything that we're going to find and there's not much else we're going to be able to do for our generation or maybe the next until we have even more powerful machines."