‘Our Elegant Universe’ connects quantum mechanics and relativity

Joanna Hamer | Staff writer

Next summer at Chautauqua, it’s not rocket science — just particle physics, a few mathematical models that try to connect quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity, and perhaps a splash of microbiology.

“Our Elegant Universe,” the theme for Week One of the 2013 Season, takes its name from the book and television series by Brian Greene, who will keynote the week with a lecture on Monday, June 24. The theoretical physicist and Columbia professor is at the forefront of his field in research, but also a popular speaker, host of his own PBS special and the author of many books, including the young adult science fiction novel Icarus at the Edge of Time. He even made a featured cameo on the CBS comedy “The Big Bang Theory.”

Greene’s skills at communicating complicated topics to audiences of all scientific backgrounds have won him the admiration of many, including Chautauqua Institution President Tom Becker.

“We have someone framing this topic who is not only a significant scientist in our time, but someone who has for years now been writing on these topics, and is a skilled orator who manages to traverse from very technical terms into a more public audience,” Becker said.

“Our Elegant Universe,” with morning lectures June 24–28, explores questions of scientific advances in knowledge and technology, along with accompanying questions and uncertainties. How did our universe come about? Are there other universes with other kinds of life? Will we collide with one, and if so, what will we learn from that?

The week’s 2 p.m. Interfaith Lecture Series, titled “In The Beginning,” will approach a similar topic from a religious standpoint.

“During the past five centuries we’ve used the power of observation and mathematical calculation to shatter misconceptions,” wrote Greene in the May 28 cover story of Newsweek. Yet we are constantly and radically revising our thoughts about the universe, and are aware that we still may hold many misconceptions.

Becker sees this topic as central to the mission of Chautauqua, and hopes that the importance of the topic and power of Greene’s discourse will bring old and new Chautauquans to the start of next season.

“We selected this theme because it’s in the tradition of exploration and science that goes to the founding of this place,” Becker said.

“What we’re trying to do is to take on this subject from a point of view of exploration, and theoretical physics, and also a certain amount of microbiology — to understand the universe both in terms of how it’s writ in the sky, but also how the smallest forms of life connect and how all that fits together somehow.”

Becker also hopes to have speakers who will take on the task of exploring how complicated science can translate into works of fiction.

“There’s a mixture of people on these grounds that range from the curious and well-read to genuine scientists with serious backgrounds, all of whom can mix into that audience and participate together in a powerful way.”

Additional speakers for Week One of the 2013 Season will be announced in the coming months on Chautauqua’s website, www.ciweb.org, and in off-season publications.