Yesterday evening I went to Brian Greene's PI public lecture "Black Holes and a Myth of Icarus". The lecture was sold out, the place was crammed and suffered from a severe lack of oxygen. I just love going to the public lectures. It's such a nice experience to see how much interest there is in our work. Not to mention going straight to the first row and sitting down on a seat with a sign 'Reserved'.
Brian started with a quite bizarre story of how he just accidentally mistook the shower gel for mouth wash. Seemed to me like the kind of warm-up joke you learn in a seminar. Anyway, the lecture considerably improved after that. Brian spoke about his latest book "Icarus at the Edge of Time" that was just published this week. It is a fiction story about a teenager on a spaceship who is intrigued by a black hole in the vicinity of the spaceship's path. In the story of that boy there is embedded quite a bit of black hole physics.
Brian then explained some aspects of classical black hole physics with a lot of well-done animations, from Newton to Einstein and space-time curvature, what a horizon is, how time slows down close by the black hole, what observations have told us about black holes and so on. He didn't mention quantum effects, nor did he say anything about string theory - except in the question session: Somebody asked what space is made of, upon which he simply said "I don't know" and that people are still discussing the matter. Some think it's all strings, other's like e.g. Lee Smolin and colleagues at PI, he added, have other theories. The question is open and no conclusion so far. All together, it was a very engaging and well done lecture. I was most impressed that he was indeed able to understand what the questions meant and to answer them. I always have large problems figuring out what people are actually asking for. In other public lectures I've noticed that the speakers often solve the problem by replying to questions that were not asked, but Greene actually understood the questions (after which I understood what had been asked.)
He also said that the reason for him writing a fiction book is that science sadly too often is communicated in a rather boring way, and not as the exciting story of discovery that it really is. He later also added that the educational system brings kids up to the scientific status of 1688, but leaves out most of modern science. I'm not entirely sure what he was referring to there, I roughly agree on the sense but at least we learned Special Relativity and some basics of quantum mechanics in high school.
As far as I am concerned, embedding science into stories has always annoyed me. I'd have appreciated less clutter and a more precise formulation in class as well as in textbooks (see also the discussion of my post Text + Equations = Clarity?). I found it quite interesting to read about recent research results that show real world examples are not particularly helpful to illustrate mathematical concepts. Indeed, the task to translate "word problems" into equations is most often the hardest part - still in my research today.
Anyway, I am sure the audience liked Brian Greene's performance. And no, I won't buy the book.