Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS

On Being a Physicist

  • By Brian Greene
  • Posted 10.05.11
  • NOVA

When I turned the last page of Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus many years ago, I was surprised by the text’s having achieved an overarching feeling of optimism. After all, a man condemned to pushing a rock up a hill with full knowledge that it will roll back down, requiring him to start pushing anew, is not the sort of story that you’d expect to have a happy ending.

Richard Feynman

When he read Richard Feynman’s description of a rose, Brian Greene says he was “hooked for good” on physics as his life’s pursuit. Feynman appears here in the 1980s. Enlarge Photo credit: © Shelley Gazin/CORBIS

Yet Camus found much hope in the ability of Sisyphus to exert free will, to press on against insurmountable obstacles, and to assert his choice to survive even when condemned to an absurd task within an indifferent universe. By relinquishing everything beyond immediate experience, and ceasing to search for any kind of deeper understanding or deeper meaning, Sisyphus, Camus argued, triumphs.

The lure of physics

I was struck by Camus’ ability to discern hope where most others would see only despair. But as a teenager, and only more so in the decades since, I found that I couldn’t embrace Camus’ assertion that a deeper understanding of the universe would fail to make life more rich or worthwhile.

Whereas Sisyphus was Camus’ hero, the greatest of scientists—Newton, Einstein, Niels Bohr, and Richard Feynman—became mine. And when I read Feynman’s description of a rose—in which he explained how he could experience the fragrance and beauty of the flower as fully as anyone, but how his knowledge of physics enriched the experience enormously because he could also take in the wonder and magnificence of the underlying molecular, atomic, and subatomic processes—I was hooked for good. I wanted what Feynman described: to assess life and to experience the universe on all possible levels, not just those that happened to be accessible to our frail human senses. The search for the deepest understanding of the cosmos became my lifeblood.

Albert Camus

Greene was impressed by the optimism that Camus (seen here in 1959) found in the face of despair, as witnessed in The Myth of Sisyphus. But he disagreed that a search for deeper meaning was futile. Enlarge Photo credit: © Bettmann/CORBIS

A deep engagement

As a professional physicist, I have long since realized that there was much naïveté in my high school infatuation with physics. Physicists generally do not spend their working days contemplating flowers in a state of cosmic awe. Instead, we devote much of our time to grappling with complex mathematical equations scrawled across well-scored chalkboards. Progress can be slow. Promising ideas, more often than not, lead nowhere. That’s the nature of scientific research.

It took the brashness of a Newton to plant the flag of modern scientific inquiry and never turn back.

Yet, even during periods of minimal progress, I’ve found that the effort spent puzzling and calculating has only made me feel a closer connection to the cosmos. I’ve found that you can come to know the universe not only by resolving its mysteries, but also by immersing yourself within them. Answers are great. Answers confirmed by experiment are greater still. But even answers that are ultimately proven wrong represent the result of a deep engagement with the cosmos—an engagement that sheds intense illumination on the questions, and hence on the universe itself. Even when the rock associated with a particular scientific exploration happens to roll back to square one, we nevertheless learn something and our experience of the cosmos is enriched.

On the shoulders of giants

Of course, the history of science reveals that the rock of our collective scientific inquiry—with contributions from innumerable scientists across the continents and through the centuries—does not roll down the mountain. Unlike Sisyphus, we don’t begin from scratch. Each generation takes over from the previous, pays homage to its predecessors’ hard work, insight, and creativity, and pushes up a little further.

New theories and more refined measurements are the mark of scientific progress, and such progress builds on what came before, almost never wiping the slate clean. Because this is the case, our task is far from absurd or pointless. In pushing the rock up the mountain, we undertake the most exquisite and noble of tasks: to unveil this place we call home, to revel in the wonders we discover, and to hand off our knowledge to those who follow.

Isaac Newton

“It took the brashness of a Newton to plant the flag of modern scientific inquiry and never turn back,” Greene writes. Here, Sir Isaac as depicted in an engraving from the 1800s. Enlarge Photo credit: © Georgios Kollidas/iStockphoto

An intimacy with truth

For a species that, by cosmic time scales, has only just learned to walk upright, the challenges are staggering. Yet, over the last 300 years, as we’ve progressed from classical to relativistic and then to quantum reality, and have now moved on to explorations of unified reality, our minds and instruments have swept across the grand expanse of space and time, bringing us closer than ever to a world that has proved a deft master of disguise. And as we’ve continued to slowly unmask the cosmos, we’ve gained the intimacy that comes only from closing in on the clarity of truth. The explorations have far to go, but to many it feels as though our species is finally reaching childhood’s end.

To be sure, our coming of age here on the outskirts of the Milky Way has been a long time in the making. In one way or another, we’ve been exploring our world and contemplating the cosmos for thousands of years. But for most of that time we made only brief forays into the unknown, each time returning home somewhat wiser but largely unchanged. It took the brashness of a Newton to plant the flag of modern scientific inquiry and never turn back. We’ve been heading higher ever since.

Brian GreeneBrian Greene is a professor of physics and mathematics at Columbia University. He is the author of The Fabric of the Cosmos, from which this essay was excerpted and on which the four-part NOVA series premiering in fall 2011 is based. Greene is also the author of The Elegant Universe, the subject of a three-part NOVA series that aired in 2003, and The Hidden Reality.

Related Links

  • The Fabric of the Cosmos

    Acclaimed physicist Brian Greene reveals a mind-boggling reality beneath the surface of our everyday world.

  • Spooky Action at a Distance

    That’s what Einstein called it, dismissively, but ultra-strange quantum entanglement does exist, Brian Greene writes.

  • Secret Life of Stephon Alexander

    Stephon Alexander is a theoretical physicist who fills the black hole of space with his epic saxophone improvisations.

  • Relativity and the Cosmos

    Physicist Alan Lightman muses on what many consider Einstein's greatest achievement—general relativity.