Physicist Brian Greene on the science behind impermanence

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The coronavirus pandemic is a reminder that things can change — fast and unexpectedly. As much as we look for stability, things come and go, and we live and die. Theoretical physicist and mathematician Brian Greene  explains why understanding the science behind the impermanence in our world can lead to a more fulfilling life.

He explains his theories with KCRW’s Jonathan Bastian. This interview has been abbreviated and edited for clarity.

In your most recent book, you write about the concept of impermanence. When did that idea become apparent to you? 

Brian Greene: “I think at various levels of conscious awareness, we know that we are impermanent. And it hits us in different ways at different times, depending upon where we are mentally, spiritually and what's happening in the world around us. 

When I was in college and seriously thinking about what I wanted to do, I had a conversation with a mentor of mine … who told me he does mathematics because once you prove a theorem in mathematics, it's true forever, it will never not be true. 

That just hit me. It was a powerful moment when I recognized that you can't say that about many things in the world. And that's when I started to really think about what’s available in this life that does transcend our own impermanence.” 

How do you then arrive at the concept of impermanence?  

Greene: “There is this sensibility that if you can uncover the deep laws of the universe, you are touching something that was always true. … One of the things I do in the book is explore the degree to which that is actually true. Does a law of physics, does quantum mechanics have any meaning or value or purpose in the absence of human beings, or in the absence of another life form that can contemplate it? What does a deep equation mean if there isn't any conscious awareness to contemplate it? 

In the far future, as I argue in the book, it's quite likely there won't be any life forms. And without lifeforms to contemplate Einstein’s equations, his theory of relativity, it's hard for me to see that they have any standing in terms of the permanence that we as living creatures aspire to.”

How did you come to grips with this? Did you have some kind of existential awakening? 

Greene: “I definitely went through a dark stance from immersing myself in the idea that you are transcending human impermanence, whether it's quantum mechanics or relativity or what have you. That was how I lived my life for many decades. And then to recognize that that perspective is probably not right, that was a shift. 

But then I had this other moment … in, of all places, a Starbucks. A shift that happened inside of me, where I felt like a change in perspective — from grasping for an ephemeral future to just focusing on the here and now. 

...Do what we've heard from mindfulness teachers and sages and philosophers across the ages to focus on the here and now, as that is the only place in which value and meaning can actually have an anchor.”  



  • Brian Greene - Professor of theoretical physics and mathematics at Columbia University, author of “Until the End of Time: Mind, Matter, and Our Search for Meaning in an Evolving Universe”


Andrea Brody