In February, I had the privilege of hosting in conversation my friend and colleague, renowned string theorist and best-selling author, Brian Greene. Brian has invested his intellectual energy communing with nature writ large in mathematics. He has shared with the world the attendant rewards of that effort: a fascinating portrait of a communal reality. Still, Brian looked around at that splendor and asked, What’s this all about? His new book, Until the End of Time, represents a rationalist’s search for meaning and joy and beauty in an austere, if stunning, universe. He writes, “The ledger of birth and death, with entries more numerous than stars in the galaxy, will balance with dispassionate precision.” He argues that the cognizance and fear of our mortality motivates us to strike out in defiance against death and impermanence, to tell stories, to share in science, and to create art.

When asked to reflect on his visit to Pioneer Works in light of this unprecedented crisis, Brian Greene wrote:

If I were to summarize my book, and the wonderful conversation I had on it with my friend and colleague Janna Levin at Pioneer Works, I’d say this: We tell many stories about the world--from the reductionist account invoking particles and forces to the humanist account reflecting on subjective experience to the cosmological account reaching back to the big bang and on to the distant future--and it is only by blending these stories that we gain the deepest understanding of reality. Especially during challenging, devastating times, the perspective emerging from such understanding can provide great solace. Seeing our struggles and triumphs emerging from the insensate laws of physics, seeing them as part of the grand cosmological unfolding, does not lessen the tragedy of the moment but it can fill us with gratitude for being here at all.

Watch the full talk below or—for those who prefer audio only—head to the Pioneer Works Soundcloud page to listen.

Artist Andrea Lauer designed limited edition bandanas inspired by the conversation. (Prescient, given the sudden spike in bandanas as face-covering fashion.) The bandana shows a representation of a six-dimensional Calabi-Yau manifold, which models the extra spatial dimensions required by String Theory. The bandana also features Brian Greene’s signature. Your purchase supports our free programming and our collaborations with artists.

This event was supported by Science Sandbox, a Simons Foundation initiative dedicated to engaging everyone with the process of science.