Magazine article The New Yorker

Mathphilic

Magazine article The New Yorker

Mathphilic

Article excerpt

MATHPHILIC

It's a hundred years this month since Albert Einstein completed his general theory of relativity, and don't imagine that the people at the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton, where Einstein spent the last twenty-two years of his life, aren't marking the occasion. "It's a theory that needed a hundred years to come to full bloom--which is great for science, but less if you are the individual," Robbert Dijkgraaf, the institute's director, said the other evening, in the lobby of the Richardson Auditorium.

It was the opening night of a two-day conference celebrating Einstein's discoveries. "There are some people in the audience who are good candidates to be the next Einstein," Dijkgraaf said. First on the program was the premiere of "Light Falls," a multimedia work written by Brian Greene, a string theorist and a professor at Columbia University. The piece was designed by 59 Productions, the team that won a Tony for "An American in Paris," and directed by Scott Faris, who was behind "Walking with Dinosaurs."

In "Light Falls," Einstein is played by the actor Michael Winther, and the workings of his mind are conveyed by means of digital effects projected onto a scrim. Greene, dressed in skinny black jeans, a black shirt, and a black blazer, narrates, telling the story of Einstein's discovery in language accessible even to audience members without a Ph.D. He debunks the myth of Einstein's early lack of math aptitude--"Einstein was the kind of kid who today would be nicknamed Einstein," he notes--and speaks soaringly of Einstein's discoveries, while pacing TED Talk-like, occasionally stopping in a wide stance and rocking back slightly, body language for "This is completely awesome."

Backstage, before the performance, Greene explained his motivation for stepping out of the academy and onto the stage. "So many people don't really understand what science is about," he said. "I am talking about the process, which is this dramatic story of discovery, of really peeling away the layers that obscure how the universe works." Greene, who is fifty-two, first found out that he liked being onstage when he was a student at Stuyvesant High School. During a class, he delivered a talk to other students on the subject of dreams. "It just kind of brought the class alive, and it felt like, Wow, you can take real ideas from science and put them out there in a way that kids can get really excited about, and not be, like, groaning. …

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