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Gripping Science Tales Need Not Be Science Fiction


This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. We're broadcasting live from Phoenix today as part of Arizona State University's Origin Stories weekend. And one of the themes this weekend is storytelling. If you want to get people excited about science, how do you do that without hyping or distorting the facts?

Science moves ahead in baby steps, one little discovery at a time, but when you make a movie, or you write a novel with a science theme, there's a tendency to skip those small steps and go for the big, flashy headlines, right? Can you tell a story while being true to the science?

Two of our panelists today are expert scientists and storytellers. We're going to talk about how they communicate some of the abstract ideas of string theory and particle physics without bending the truth or putting you to sleep in some cases.

My third guest is first and foremost a storyteller, the novelist Ian McEwan. He is author of "Atonement" and "Solar," and he weaves a lot of science into his books if you read them, from neuroscience and evolutionary psychology to quantum mechanics and particle accelerators, no doubt exposing some of his readers to these scientific ideas for the first time.

So what does science have to offer fiction writers? Science and storytelling, that's what we're going to be talking about this hour. We won't be taking your phone calls today, but if you're in the audience, we welcome you to come up to our microphone, don't be shy, step up to the mic and ask a question. And you can tweet us, @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I.

Let me formally introduce my guests. Lawrence Krauss is the author of "A Universe from Nothing" and director of the Origins Project here at Arizona State University. Always good to see you, Lawrence.

LAWRENCE KRAUSS: It's always good to be back on the program, Ira.

FLATOW: Brian Greene is professor of physics and mathematics at Columbia University in New York. He is also co-founder of the World Science Festival, author of "Icarus at the Edge of Time." Good to see you, Brian.

BRIAN GREENE: Thank you.

FLATOW: And Ian McEwan is a novelist, author of "Atonement," "Saturday," "Solar," among many others. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

IAN MCEWAN: Thank you.

FLATOW: Lawrence, let me begin with you. You've been putting on these Origins events for years. They sell out. What is the attraction? People, why do they come to these?

KRAUSS: Why do you ask? I mean, I think three million people listen to SCIENCE FRIDAY. People are fascinated by science, and if we could only convince the media of that, people really want - these are the most amazing ideas people have come up with, and people like to hear, to some extent from the horse's mouth, what's happening.

And it is - everyone realizes it, it seems to me, except the media executives, that - who somehow think science is boring. And unfortunately in schools we tend to sometimes reinforce that notion.

FLATOW: Now Brian Greene, you're the founder of the World Science Festival. You have a tremendous turnout for that also. Do you agree that there's a great interest in science?

GREENE: Yeah, hugely so. I mean, we started that event back in 2008, had 122,000 people the first year, and now we're up to about 200,000 a year. And there's this pent-up demand for science, but it's only if the science is told in a way that makes it compelling, entertaining and allows the wonder of the universe to not make you feel stupid.

It has to be brought forward in a way that allows you to feel like you can get it, and you can get it as long as it's translated into a language that makes sense, and that's what we scientists need to do better.

FLATOW: Ian McEwan, when I talk to screenwriters and novelists, they say, you know, the science or whatever you'd like to put into it is useful, but it's really about a story. You've got to tell a story first. And what do you get from hanging out with all these scientists that you can use to make your story better?

MCEWAN: Above all, science is a human institution. And as a machine for thinking, it's greater and more powerful than any of its single participants. You said that science proceeds by tiny steps. It also proceeds by funerals.


MCEWAN: University departments are just waiting for the professor to get out of the way so the younger guys can get in.


FLATOW: I see a book in there.


MCEWAN: So in there is a drama, and often the very best scientists are promoted to become applications grant people and run departments, and they are herded out of the laboratories in their droves. So science is not just a pure matter. It's shot through with competition. The passion to be first, for example, is very interesting to artists.

FLATOW: Right.

MCEWAN: The drama of - you know, to do things that - Crick and Watson, if they hadn't got there first, Pauling would have got there sooner or later. That too is a very human matter, bound to be of interest to novelists.

FLATOW: But you also do your homework very well in a lot of your novels, because - I'm only going to read a little short passage from "Solar," where you write: Quantum mechanics, what a repository, a dump of human aspiration it was, the borderland where mathematical rigor defeated commonsense, and reason and fantasy irrationally merged. Here the mystically inclined could find whatever they required and claim science as their proof.

MCEWAN: Well, I was dipping there into the fascinating and mad world of perpetual motion. There are dreaming thousands out there, mostly male - I think entirely male, actually, who in their garages are building perpetual motion machines despite all the limitations of contemporary science that tells them that if they do that, they're going to have to rewrite contemporary physics. Still they press on.

FLATOW: But there are people who believe in, you know, out-of-body transport and mind transport who will look at quantum mechanics and say hey, look, I'm not making this up. It's possible, Brian, that you could do this sort of thing.

GREENE: Well, that's one of the things that we scientists, I think, need to battle against, because quantum mechanics is incredibly strange. It does go against our intuition. But it does not say that anything goes. It is an incredibly rigorous, tight structure that dictates how the universe evolves in ways that we wouldn't have anticipated, but it is so precise and specific about what it allows to happen and what it does not allow to have happen, and it doesn't allow the kind of crazy stuff that Lawrence and I get manuscripts about daily from people who you're describing in their garages who are just thinking up these nutty ideas. So it's wondrous, but it's not anything goes.

KRAUSS: I think in fact it's the most abused part of science. And we - people use quantum mechanics to bilk people out of money all the time. The secret - there's lots of people who are saying somehow if you think about the universe, it'll do what you want. And that is not true. And in fact we scientists have to be clearer about it, that people - there are charlatans who use science at the edge, energy fields and all sorts of nonsense, to get money from people. And I think it's really important that we point out that it's just garbage.

FLATOW: Brian, you've written a number of books about string theory, about the universe. You must struggle with how to make these abstract ideas engaging.

GREENE: Yeah, no, very much so, and I've gone through my own evolution in terms of how to write about these things. I mean, when I first wrote the first draft of a book that I published some years ago called "The Elegant Universe," I was so afraid to put any scientist names in it because I would leave somebody out, and they would feel awful.

I didn't want to put myself into it because then it would feel self-serving. And the book was awful. It was the kind of thing that would put you to sleep in two minutes. So I went back, and I put all the people back in, and I put in the stories of discovery, and I tried to include everybody who had had an impact on this wondrous evolution of the search for a unified theory.

And I put my own work in there, too, and I told personal stories of discovery, and it came to life. And that's really what is vital, I think, to make the science really rise up and grab you. It's got to be, as you're saying, a story.

KRAUSS: Do you find - you know, I often find when I write books that the editors want to remove anything personal. And they somehow think that that's not what people want. But that's what people want.

FLATOW: They can't think a scientist can be - have a personal life.

KRAUSS: And I tell scientists when they're trying to - teachers when they're trying to explain to kids, include the personal because if you don't include what interests you, it's not going to be conveyed to other people. If you can't show your own interest and why you're interested, no one else is going to be interested.

FLATOW: Yeah, the publishers - others think that scientists are just two-dimensional, right, they don't have any personal side, they just...

GREENE: Well, we don't, but we need to just make it up. I mean, that's the kind of thing we've just got to put in there.


FLATOW: Ian, in your book "Solar," you invent a main character, Michael Beard, who is a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, but he's not so skilled in other realms like relating to other people. He's cranky, he's a bit bumbling, seemed very believable. How did you come up with that character, very human?

MCEWAN: I was at a climate change conference just outside Berlin. A Nobel - of course N-O-B-E-L - and I got to - I was invited, I was just like the dessert to the dinner, to give a little after-dinner speech. So I was floating around with very little to do, and I found myself in a room with 50 or 60 Nobel Prize winners in science who were addressing climate change.

These were the alpha males, the big beasts of the savannah, very grand. Science - any real, original science was very far behind them. What they had done to get them their prize they probably did in their post-doc years. And I thought how interesting it would be to have a man living in the shadow of his former self.

So out of that came Michael Beard, and since we're talking about climate change, I made him a compulsive eater and getting fatter and fatter through the novel, not completely hopeless at relationships. He thinks he's very attractive to women, and often thinking so can get you there, or so he thinks.


FLATOW: We haven't got enough time in the show to get into that topic.


MCEWAN: But the point is round about that time, the Copenhagen Conference, just as I was finishing this novel, and that was taking place. I wanted to catch how very stupid very clever people can be. And I think that says something about humankind in general. If we look at climate change itself, we have fabulous resources of rationality to see a problem coming towards us, and we also have at our disposal oceans of stupidity in dealing with it politically or socially. And I wanted to catch all that in one man.

FLATOW: You did a very good job, and I'm sure - we're going to take a break. When we come back, though, I want to talk to Lawrence and Brian about whether they see any of themselves....

KRAUSS: I was very uncomfortable to read that book, actually.


FLATOW: Were you? You saw a lot of yourself?

KRAUSS: Well it's - yeah, we'll get into that.

FLATOW: As an older scientist, looking back at your years of young...

KRAUSS: I don't know if you have time now, but, you know, when you look at it, it is - there's a temptation - Brian I'm sure doesn't experience this - to pontificate. And you wonder sometimes whether you're a fraud when, you know, you're representing science, and people always think - they always have to say that everyone is the next Einstein, or everyone is - and it's not true.

And I think it's easy to believe press clippings, that's a part of it, but it's also really important, I think, to try not to misrepresent the science, and that maybe we'll get to because that's really important.

FLATOW: We will get to that after the break. We're going to come back and talk lots more with Lawrence Krauss, Brian Greene, Ian McEwan. You can come up to the microphone and ask these three gentlemen a question if you'd like. So stay with us. We'll be right back after this break.


FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. We're coming to you from Phoenix, Arizona, and talking about science and storytelling with Lawrence Krauss, author of "A Universe from Nothing," director of the Origins Project here at ASU; Brian Greene, professor of physics and mathematics at Columbia University, also co-founder of the World Science Festival; Ian McEwan, novelist and author of "Atonement," "Saturday" and "Solar," among many others. You can tweet us @scifri and come up to the microphone to ask a question.

I rudely interrupted Lawrence Krauss when he was telling us about - telling us about what?

KRAUSS: I don't even remember. No, I was talking about the fact that, you know, there is a tendency to answer any question you're asked, first of all whether you know anything about it or not. And the real problem is that people will believe anything we say. We could say, forget whether string theory has anything to do with reality, but we could say inside quarks, we could say there are little pink elephants, and people would believe it.

So you have to be very, very careful, I think, if you're representing science, to not knowingly misrepresent. We all do, because when you write about science, you have to approximate it at some sense, and I'm often surprised when people write to me and tell me what they got out of my books. You probably have the same thing: It's not what you wrote.

But you shouldn't knowingly mislead. But there's a tendency to want to please everyone and answer every question. And sometimes, you know, people want to know about - they want time travel to be true, and it's sort of very tempting to want to please them by going along instead of saying you know what, this - or quantum mechanics, you know, this won't happen. It's very difficult.

GREENE: I don't know, I give just a slightly different flavor, which I think you agree with, as well. Although people may come at you with a certain predisposed wish that some aspect of the world is one way or another, if you explain how it really is, it's often more exciting than the thing that they wanted to be true in the first place.

I mean, so there may not be these crazy things of, you know, of being able to affect things with your mind in the way that I've seen some nonsense talk about, but quantum teleportation, being able to take a particle here and in some sense make it appear over here almost instantaneously, well, that's pretty spectacular stuff.

KRAUSS: In fact not only that - I agree with you, having, you know, I wrote a book that had something to do with science fiction once. And the point is that science fiction pales in comparison. The real universe is so much more fascinating than the universe of science fiction. And that's why we have to keep - by the way, we sit in rooms and think of things, but it's not good enough because whatever we come up with is going to pale in comparison to the real universe. We have to keep looking. We have to keep doing experiments because theorists alone just won't capture the real depth of the universe.

FLATOW: Ian McEwan, do you think - we have two great - here on the stage, we have two great science communicators, Lawrence Krauss and Brian Greene. And they are great at communicating. But do you think there are some fields that get no attention because there are not good communicators, they're sort of neglected in the press or in fiction because there's no one to speak for them?

MCEWAN: Well we - I think we have lived through a golden age of science writing in the Anglophone world, at least. I mean, you go to France, there's none, it seems. I think the subject that has a tough time underrepresented is chemistry, and it's waiting for its Milton, its Shakespeare.

Somehow chemistry we think of as a sort of smelly, gaseous, 19th-century science, and yet it's been going through its own intellectual revolutions. And we really need to hear more from them, I think.

FLATOW: Let's go to the - let's go to the microphones, gentleman here, yes.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Why did you choose to become a scientist?

KRAUSS: Well, that's a good question. I bet - it'll be interesting to see if Brian and I have the same answer. But one was because I read books by scientists, actually, and about scientists. When I was a kid, I read a book about Galileo, when I was about your age, actually, and it really - I thought wow, you know, this is brave stuff.

And then I read books by Einstein and Feynman, people who are my idols, and they excited me about the universe. And frankly, that's one of the reasons why I write books is to return the favor so when someone like you becomes a scientist and maybe says hey, you know, being on this show inspired me, then I can feel a little bit better about it.

GREENE: Yeah, for me it was to get the girls.


GREENE: That's what it was. But seriously, when I was I guess 12 or 13, I had the kinds of concerns I think every kid at that age has, why am I here, what's it all about and all that sort of stuff. And it just struck me that look, there can't be an answer because otherwise everybody would already know it, and someone would have told me about it.

So it must be the case that the best you can do is understand the question, not why but how. How did the universe come here? How did the Earth form? How did life begin? And it struck me that if I could get close to the questions, that would be the best substitute for finding the answers, and that's really what science is all about, getting close to the questions.

KRAUSS: Brian, do you agree that we should teach more of the questions. I often think we tend to teach too many facts, but we should - but it's the questions that kids are interested in. And so we should be teaching, and we try in fact in the Origins Project...

FLATOW: So are you all just big kids?

KRAUSS: Yeah, science - we do science because it's fun not because - I mean not frankly because we want to save the world, most of us. I think it's because we enjoy it. And if we can just convey that science is fun, then we're a long part of the way, I think.

GREENE: And that it's alive. That's the thing. So many times in the classroom it's this material in a textbook, and it's kind of dead. It's already done. It's solidified in the pages. And it's not. It's the open questions that really drive us.

KRAUSS: Yeah, we teach it as if it's done by dead white men, and it's not. In fact for me there was - when reading a book by Feynman when I thought hey, these - not everything's been answered. You know, that's really important, and I think for parents, too, when kids ask how something works to sometimes say I don't know. Hey, maybe we should think about it. Maybe nobody knows. You could figure it out.

FLATOW: Well, I think, you know, people talk about science as if there's a book called "Science," and it has all the facts in it, right? Just open that book, and Science tells us this, right?

KRAUSS: Yeah, and it's really a process. And we really - and one of the reasons I think that we have a problem with education in that regard is that frankly it's hard to talk about the process and not the facts unless you're comfortable with science, and we don't - many of our science teachers aren't trained in science. And it's easier to teach to the curriculum and the facts instead of being open-ended and doing the process if you're not comfortable with it.

FLATOW: Brian, you're taking a stab at a children's book, correct?

GREENE: I did, yes. I wrote a kids' book called "Icarus at the Edge of Time," which is a rewriting of the myth of Icarus, where the boy doesn't have wax wings and go near the sun, but he, against his father's warning, takes a small spaceship that he built and goes to a black hole.

FLATOW: He goes to a black hole in a spaceship.

GREENE: Yes, and there's it's Einstein's general relativity, the real science that dictates what happens. And to make a short story even shorter, time slows down near the edge of a black hole, so when the boy comes back, he only spent an hour there, but when he comes back and says Dad, what do you think, his dad's been dead for 10,000 years.

And this is what would happen if you spent time near the edge of a black hole. And I dedicated the book to my son, who was five at the time, and I didn't want to read it to him because I didn't want it to be like oh, there's Dad's book again, you know, that sort of thing.

So I left it around and let him find it on his own, and my wife read it to him, and he was crying at the end. And somebody asked me, well, didn't that make you feel bad. And my answer is yes but no. I mean, if general relativity can make a five-year-old cry, that's a good thing for science, right, because science is - like Lawrence is saying, it's something that is something that should grab us fully emotionally, and that's like one step in that direction.

FLATOW: But Ian, isn't that the whole point, make you feel something?

MCEWAN: Well, Kierkegaard said something useful about this. He said intellectual delight - and this is a paraphrase - intellectual delight is recapturing the solemnity of a child - the seriousness of a child at play. So I think what's true of science is probably true of all intellectual pursuit that's worthwhile, and it has a playful element. But children at play at their best are deeply serious. So it has that element, too.

FLATOW: How do scientists treat something differently than other novelists and writers you hang out with?

MCEWAN: Well, I have to tell you that in the humanities generally, pessimism of all sorts is a kind of delicious meal. So if I'm with my humanities friends, we talk about civilization going to hell in a handcart, and that's the subject. Now among scientists, they would also concede that it might be going to hell in a handcart, but they are also saying, what can we do about it?

There is an innate optimism in science, which you don't find in the humanities. There's very little celebration of pure being in the departments. Often they're very constructivist, they're very hostile to science in some ways. They think it's - they think the Enlightenment was a great mistake.


MCEWAN: This is some quarters. And so it's refreshing for me to step out of the gloom of the humanities and come and spend time with people who are trying to not only solve things but understand things as if for the first time.

FLATOW: And also recognize a good microbrew when they see it, most of the time when I'm around them. Yes?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: The questioner before me, I believe we'll see him in Science Bowl in just a few years.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: I mention that because I've been involved in it about 15 years, at least, and you're looking for seeing excitement and enthusiasm in science. I mean, it's there. It's - just watch it, and you'll have a story. I mean, 15 years ago I could answer about half of the questions. Earlier this month, I think I answered three out of the two contests.

KRAUSS: Well, you know, it's more than that. Brian - you know, we both supervise students, and I think one of the most exciting parts of being - of continuing to work with students is watch them, you know, when they start, especially Ph.D. students, there's a lot of input. And afterwards, you know, they're teaching you, and it's really a satisfying experience. So we both had it, I'm sure.

FLATOW: Thank you. Brian, would you consider your book science fiction, that novel?

GREENE: I wouldn't call it science fiction. I call it science in fiction because it really is the core science just put into a fictional setting. So it's just what we were saying before, but the story is now something which is made up, but the science is still solid.

FLATOW: But it sounds a little bit like Margaret Atwood, who writes - she says I'm not a science fiction writer. I'm a speculative fiction writer. Everything that happens in her novels is possible, may already have happened. So they can't be science fiction and she says, which is fiction is - which things happen that are not possible today.

GREENE: Right. Well, she's great, and I'm a great fan of hers.


GREENE: But I think that isn't a good description of what I'm describing here. The science of what happens near a black hole is widely agreed upon in the community. It's virtually unassailable from the standpoint of how we understand gravity and Einstein's general theory of relativity, no speculation whatsoever beyond the fact that the story itself is something which is made up.

KRAUSS: And, you know - but there is - and, yeah, I was going to - I agree completely with Brian. If you - but those ideas are very fascinating if you can include them in a milieu like he did with the book and the musical that's associated with it to seduce people to - you know, because they may not read about a black hole otherwise.

But the - but there's not that much difference, in my mind, between, you know, science and drama or music. And that's the point we need to convey, and that's part of the purpose of this weekend, is that science is a cultural activity, and it's to be enjoyed by everyone as much as a great novel or a great symphony.

And the difference often is - often I'll get asked, as a theoretical physicist whose work has no practical application whatsoever, which I'm rather proud of, why? And I say, well, you know, science isn't just technology. It's ideas, and people don't ask why a Mozart symphony - you know, what it's going to - whether it's going to make a better car or a better toaster.

FLATOW: Ian, why do you put science in your books? What - why do we have to know about quantum mechanics? Are you purposely doing that to teach us something or just to...

MCEWAN: No, absolutely not. No.


MCEWAN: It just came along with the character. It's a reflection of my own pleasure in it, but it seems just a human enterprise. I mean, this is - I mean, the standard measure of how alive you are is the measure of your curiosity, and I think of science as organized curiosity.

We once relied on priests to tell us the shape and nature and purpose of the cosmos and life itself. It's been a long, slow story of that undoing. We now have a far more interesting story, and it's also penetrated our lives. I mean, there's climate change, and we all have these intricate, beautiful machines in our hands, and it's impacting on our decisions about bioethics and many other things.

So if we think of the novel as an investigation of the human condition, technology and science is now so woven into that condition. You cannot escape it. So it's inevitable, I think, that...

FLATOW: It belongs there because it's all around us.

MCEWAN: Well, it's because it's human and it's what we're doing.


MCEWAN: And if you're interested in investigating where we are in human - the human state as things stand, in the conditions of modernity that we find ourselves in, you cannot do this without taking some regard or a lot of regard for science.

FLATOW: Let me go - final question here from the audience. Quickly, yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: What is the likelihood that we'll be able to transcend our predisposition towards superstition?

KRAUSS: Well, it's something - well, it's something that I spend a lot of time worrying about. And I think ultimately I think we'll be able to transcend it not only when we just have a better story - which we do, because science is a better story than myth and superstition and all those things - but it's also when we can use that to address the things that myth and superstition provide, like consolation, community.

And I think we have to think more carefully about how we can use rationality and an empirical worldview and, in fact, recognize that science is a very spiritual endeavor, in spite of the fact that people - some people think it killed spirituality. We have to do a better job of usurping those things that have been already usurped by people who wear dresses in the Vatican...

FLATOW: All right. Let me remind everybody, this is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow here with Lawrence Krauss, Brian Greene and Ian McEwan. We're talking about science and how to portray it in fiction or the best way to do it.

Lawrence, did you want to - you want to further - I interrupted you, so I wasn't sure you were done...

KRAUSS: I thought you were cutting me off because I was getting into territory...

FLATOW: I had to pay the bills is what I had to do.

KRAUSS: No. I mean, we're - well, we're - tonight we're going to screen a movie about - that's called "The Unbelievers," but it's really about the fact that we need, I think, and Ian pointed out - we've got these urgent problems pressing us in the 21st century, and science - and empiricism should be the basis of that. And if we - and we need to let - force our beliefs to conform to the evidence of reality, but it doesn't diminish us.

You know, again, Feynman talked about seeing - understanding how a rainbow works doesn't make it less beautiful; it makes it more beautiful. And as I said recently in another media event, science, the spirituality of science - when I look up at a Hubble Space Telescope picture, I get awe and wonder and spiritual fulfillment, but it's better than the spiritual fulfillment of the Bible because it's real. That's it.


MCEWAN: I take the...


MCEWAN: I take the opposite view. I think it's for science to explain the incredible fitness of religion and how it - and the ways in which it has sustained itself. Christianity alone, 2,000 years is quite - is pretty good going for a thought system, however flawed. So clearly it's answering to some need. And the problem for us atheists is to come to terms with the fact that billions of people on the planet take comfort from it. Communality, world views, cosmoses and so on.

KRAUSS: But Ian, but I agree with you. But that was my point. We have to understand why it's so prevalent if we want to find out ways to provide those things to people, and if we can't provide those things in an alternative way, then it won't ever change. But I happen to think we can provide - science can provide a communal understanding of ourselves, and we can - I could imagine ways that we could provide those things in a secular way.

FLATOW: All right.

GREENE: I guess my view - forgive me for half a second - is it's a very disturbing thing to be thrust on to this planet and trying to understand why we're here. And if religion helps you get to terms with that, that's great. If science does it, great. And I just feel like let people believe whatever makes them feel good. And over time I think science ultimately will win, but I don't think we have to root it out. So I have a slightly different view.

FLATOW: OK. We're going to take a break. When we come back, we'll talk more with Lawrence Kraus, Brian Greene, Ian McEwan, on this Good Friday. Stay with us. We'll be right back after this break.


FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking, this hour, about science and storytelling with Lawrence Krauss, author of "Universe from Nothing;" Brian Greene, professor of physics and math at Columbia University in New York, co-founder of the World Science Festival; Ian McEwan, novelist, author, "Atonement," "Saturday," "Solar," among many others.

We have just a few more minutes left. I want to ask Ian McEwan how he got interested in science and writing about science? Were you like - did you have role models like our scientists here?

MCEWAN: I was much like Lawrence. I read a lot of science as a child. The British education system is quite ruthless in forcing on you, at the age of 16, a decision to go down the path of the humanities or science, and I was in agony over that decision. And in my early 20s, I kept thinking I'd made the wrong choice and wondered whether I should go back and do a biology degree. And what stopped me, actually, in the end was - we were beginning a silver or golden age of science writing. And around about that time in the early to mid-'70s, Richard Dawkins' "Selfish Gene" came along. I then read "The Double Helix," which I think was - and still in my mind - one of the best accounts of the contingent nature of science and the competitive nature of it and the messy nature of it. It's a thrilling account of the first description of the DNA molecule. And by the '80s, I felt, well, I don't need to go to university. I can just appreciate this torrent of books coming from all sides, written now not only by journalists but by scientists themselves. So that's - it's been a good outcome for those of us who wanted to live in both camps.

FLATOW: Have you found that your audience has changed, at all, over the years?

MCEWAN: Well, we still, I think, puzzle over, you know, C. P. Snow's famous "Two Cultures" lecture...

FLATOW: Right.

MCEWAN: ... I think the matter still haunts us. I mean, I've just come from friends in an English department in Pittsburgh, and sometimes I felt we were talking over a chasm of - that there are separate, very - it's a bit like science and religion, I think, sometimes.

KRAUSS: But you fed into - I sort of get offended by the question, in a sense, because, you know, it seems like it should be surprising that a novelist would be interested in science. And we should - and I think...

FLATOW: It shouldn't be surprising.

KRAUSS: It shouldn't be surprising.

FLATOW: Right, right. You're basically saying, you would be surprised if you could go through four years of college and not study Shakespeare.


FLATOW: But no-one is surprised if you go through four years of college and never see a chemical symbol, and that's not surprising.

KRAUSS: And somehow, we don't think we're - people are not literate, but it didn't use to be that way 100 years ago, to be literate, to be a cocktail party and, you know, you had to have some cocktail party knowledge of science. And now, it's like - it's a badge of honor to not have any.

MCEWAN: Yeah but, hang on. Plenty of scientists go through 10 years of college without reading Shakespeare. And we do need to, sort of, set the balance right the other way. What can science learn from the humanities, I think, is a very pressing question and...

FLATOW: And your answer would be?

MCEWAN: Well, I think that if - coming back to what I said earlier, if you think of - to take literature alone, this as an investigation to human nature and you look at the cognitive revolution of the last 30 years and the way the life sciences, biological sciences, have spilled out onto the terrain of the novelist. We discuss, now, consciousness in ways that - it was a forbidden subject. We look at motivations and emotions, which are, of course, right in the domain of the novelist. There ought to be a lot more flow.

Many of the things that I hear - for example, I went to hear a lecture recently on negative altruism, how when we do ourselves harm in order to harm others, the reward systems in the brain light up - in other words, revenge is sweet. We - to hear what we already knew, but from the other side. And I think there ought to be more flow, backwards and forwards, between what literature can teach us about our inner selves and what the cognitive revolution is, is actually beginning to envelop itself.

FLATOW: Do you go to lectures specifically for new ideas for novels, or just because they interest you and that feeds into something that might show up in a novel?

MCEWAN: My life is so much messier and lacking in intention than that.


MCEWAN: I got invited and I went...


MCEWAN: ...and found it fascinating. It was just that.

FLATOW: But so you're not reading science journals or things like that.

MCEWAN: I look in Nature. My son is a virologist...

FLATOW: Yeah, you can understand what goes on?

MCEWAN: I can read the abstracts, yeah.


KRAUSS: But, you know...

MCEWAN: My son is a virologist. He's actually on the cover of Immunology - Nature Immunology right now, so watching him rewrite some of the orthodoxy of the virus and to be - I mean I envy him as well as being proud of him, but I think to be sleepless and 28 on the cutting edge of that would be just blissful. So I'd happily swap places with him.

KRAUSS: You know, I think the point is that curious people should be curious about everything, so I agree with you. I think that - I mean, obviously, I can't imagine - I think there probably are scientists who haven't read Shakespeare, but I bet they're not proud of it. And I think the point is that it should be a continuum of human experience and science is just a part of it. But it shouldn't be excluded.

But it's not necessarily - it has certain rewards that others don't, and it allows us to do things that other areas of human inquiry don't. But it - from an intellectual perspective, it's part of a continuum. The world is fascinating, including the messiness of human affairs.

GREENE: Well, the main difference being the language that we use is so specialized...


GREENE: ...that it can easily push away those who just don't want to try to learn that language, right? So if you have translations like you're describing, then it does begin to make more of a symmetry between the two fields.

FLATOW: All right. And with that, we're going to have to wrap it up, a very interesting conversation. Thank you all for joining us today. Ian McEwan, novelist, author of "Atonement," "Saturday" and "Solar," among others; Brian Greene, professor of physics and mathematics at Columbia University, also co-founder of the World Science Festival. When is that going to start?

GREENE: May 29 to June 3.

FLATOW: There you go. And Lawrence Krauss, author of "A Universe from Nothing" and director of the Origins Project here at Arizona State University with things going on all weekend.

KRAUSS: All this is part of a great weekend.

FLATOW: OK. Thank you all for taking time to be with us today. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.