Time travel, string theory and holograms - Brian Greene brings A Time Traveller's Tale to Auckland

  • 25/03/2017
Brian Greene (Getty)
Brian Greene (Getty)

World-renowned physicist and occasional sitcom star Brian Greene wants to blow your mind.

He's in Auckland this weekend for "an evening of inter-dimensional exploration and travel through space-time", starting at the down-to-Earth Bruce Mason Theatre on Sunday evening.

His show, A Time Traveller's Tale, aims to "take the audience on a quick jaunt from the beginning to the end of time".

"I don't see physics - and science more generally - as a subject. I see science as a deeply insightful and thoroughly emotional way of engaging with the world," Dr Greene told Newshub.

"I use theatre and the arts as a way of giving people a visceral experience of science, very different from what we typically encounter in the classroom."

Dr Greene's resume is impressive. He's spent the past 20 years as a professor at Columbia University, and authored several books on cosmology, parallel universes and string theory.

He's also made slightly lower-brow appearances on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and top-rating sitcom The Big Bang Theory.

Although the show he's bringing to Auckland includes a lecture, you don't need to be Stephen Hawking to understand it. 

"The whole point of the show is to talk about some heady ideas but in a way that's accessible and exciting to everyone, especially someone with no training in the subject," he says.

"I use carefully crafted metaphors as a bridge from things familiar in everyday life to the weird and unfamiliar ideas revealed by scientific inquiry. Frankly, of all the crazy ideas emerging from modern physics, I find string theory to be among the easiest of ideas to explain."

Time travel on the other hand - well, that's confusing enough in fiction, let alone reality. But believe it or not, we're all travelling through time right now.

"Time travel - to the future - is part of how the world works. Einstein taught us this over a century ago. This isn't controversial," says Dr Greene.

"If you take a roundtrip journey in a spaceship traveling near the speed of light or hang out near the edge of a black hole, on your return to Earth you will find that you've leapfrogged into the future.

"Getting back, traveling back in time, that's the big question mark."

Time travel, string theory and holograms - Brian Greene brings A Time Traveller's Tale to Auckland

If it is possible, Dr Greene subscribes to the Lost theory of time travel - what happened, happened - rather than the mutable timelines seen in Star Trek and Back to the Future.

"My guess is that the past can't be changed. You can't change what already happened. There aren't multiple versions of a given moment in time. If we can travel back, nature protects what was."

A Time Traveller's Tale takes place at the Bruce Mason Centre on Sunday. Doors open at 6:30pm and tickets are available through Ticketmaster

What is string theory?

String theory has changed a lot since it was first proposed in the 1960s, but languished in obscurity until the 1990s.

Dr Greene's 1999 book The Elegant Universe popularised the topic, and was later adapted into an Emmy Award-winning miniseries.

But what is it?

"String theory says that the fundamental particles making up everything are not the little dots most of us learned about in school," says Dr Greene.

"Instead, if you could examine particles like electrons or quarks with fantastic resolution, you'd see that each is actually a tiny vibrating filament that looks like a piece of string - that's why we call it 'string theory'.

"And just as a string on a violin can vibrate in different patterns, producing different musical notes, the strings in string theory can also vibrate in different patterns, producing different particles. An electron would be a string vibrating in one pattern, a quark would a string vibrating in a different pattern. The universe would be a cosmic symphony of vibrating strings.

"That's the basic idea of the most straightforward version of the theory."

Got it? Right. So what implications does string theory have for the world?

"We and everything we experience - in a sense that string theory makes mathematically precise - might actually be holograms. We'll talk about this a lot in the stage program."