According to the latest in theoretical physics, everything that exists is made up of unimaginably tiny strands of energy. The vibrations of these "strings" give rise to the stars in the Big Dipper and the atoms in a drop of water, the push of the wind and the pull of gravity. There is as yet no way to verify through experiment that strings are real: they are too small to be observed. Their existence is inferred only through higher mathematics, the language by which theoretical physicists explore and describe the world. And the math of string theory points to other, equally startling ideas: that in addition to the four dimensions we know (length, height, depth and time) there are seven more dimensions of space that we don't experience; and that a multitude of parallel universes may reside alongside our own.

The public has heard about these theoretical developments primarily through the work of Brian Greene. In 1999, Greene, then a 36-year-old professor of physics and mathematics at Columbia, became the public face of string theory when he published The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory (Norton), a major bestseller and a Pulitzer finalist. With the success of the Vintage paperback edition (2000) and a star turn in last fall's three-part PBS/Nova adaptation of his first book, Professor Greene is arguably the most popular scientist explaining science to the public since Carl Sagan in the early 1980s. On February 9, Greene will publish his second book, The Fabric of the Cosmos (reviewed on p. 74), with Knopf. The Elegant Universe told the story of string theory; the new book chronicles the larger story of our understanding of space and time.

Brian Greene, Columbia University

The wind is steely cold as we walk past the iron gates that secure the Columbia campus from the rest of Manhattan. We're seeking Pupin Hall, home to the university's physics department. "Look for the one with the observatory on top," the Knopf publicist has told us, and there's the tell-tale dome, atop a huge red-brick building. The lobby is worn but warm; there is no one around, unusual in these days of heightened security. We find an elevator and wander silent hallways until we locate Greene's office. The door is open so we walk in.

The professor isn't there but a winter jacket hanging on a hook signals that he's not far off. Greene's office is designed for work, not show. There's an old desk backed by a high leather chair, and a small sofa and an armchair and a Georgia O'Keeffe print on one wall. There's a blackboard chalked up with equations, the sort that contain more symbols than numbers. A few dozen books are stuffed into cases: Vector Calculus and Conformal Field Theory; Instantons in Gauge Theories. A copy of God Speaks by the Indian guru Meher Baba.

Greene bounces in a few minutes later. Trim and wiry, with strong, pleasant features and thick curly hair beginning to salt, he's of medium height. He's wearing a purple sweater, jeans and hiking boots. He seems relieved to see us. We exchange pleasantries, then sit and begin to talk.

"Why the Meher Baba book?" we ask.

"I get sent many books from people who think they will, I guess, broaden my and the general community of physicists' perspective on the questions we try to address. I always find it impressive how people are searching for answers."

Greene begins The Fabric of the Cosmos by talking about his own search for answers—how, as a teen, he read Albert Camus's The Myth of Sisyphus and was struck by the author's assertion that "there is but one truly philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Whether or not the world has three dimensions... comes afterward." Greene came to disagree with Camus.

"It seemed," Greene writes, "that an informed appraisal of life absolutely required a full understanding of life's arena—the universe." Greene's quest for understanding brought him to string theory. But if there are 11 dimensions—what of it? Or as Greene puts it to us, "Why should anybody care?"

He spreads his palms as if to catch what's real and says, "I guess there a couple of answers to that question. Perhaps the most overarching is that it doesn't matter in any day-to-day way. It's not going to put extra food on the table, or produce an extra gadget today. But it does completely change the context within which daily life happens. The universe is a very strange place, and I'm talking about strange at a deep level. I've seen that, as people become aware of space and time, of the strange events of quantum mechanics, they are enriched because they see the world in a different way."

Does he see the world in a different way?

"I walk down the street and I look at things and imagine peering into them, seeing the atoms and seeing the molecules and seeing the strings. I imagine as I'm walking that I'm not moving just through these dimensions but that I'm circumnavigating the other dimensions as well. This stuff is not just 9-to-5 for me." There's no sound but Greene's voice and the whir of the tape recorder. The only clock in the room, up on a wall, has hands that are frozen at 5:30.

Writing Science

Born in Manhattan in 1963 to middle-class parents, Greene was a childhood math prodigy who later studied at Harvard, then at Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship. On the faculty at Cornell, and then Columbia, he threw himself into string theory, working on important contributions, including the discovery that space can tear. Yet the ambition that drove Greene far into physics sought more.

"Everybody has to figure out why they're here," he tells us, "or else tell themselves a story about what they want to do while they're here. For a while, all I did was physics—the hardcore science. I loved it and I love it. But it felt... confined. Even when you make a substantial breakthrough, the people who really appreciate it number only a few hundred, maybe a thousand. And I know there are a lot of people out there who would be as enthused and as fired up as we are about what we're doing, but they can't participate because of the language that we use.

"I was approached by Princeton University Press. They said a book on string theory was needed. So I decided to sit down and write the book, but I didn't want to sign a contract. It wasn't that I didn't want to go with Princeton, it was that I didn't want to have a contract. If I didn't like what I was doing I wanted to be able to throw it away without obligation."

By writing The Elegant Universe, Greene joined a tradition that goes back at least 2,500 years, to the ancient Greeks. For most of that time, the bulk of science writing was professional and technical, as scientists reported on their findings: Newton's Principia, Darwin's Origin of Species and Einstein's papers on general and special relativity. The scientific revolutions of the 19th and 20th centuries, however, created a hunger for knowledge in an increasingly educated populace, and so rose the popular science book, in which journalists (Diane Ackerman, Rachel Carson, James Gleick, Richard Preston) have explained what scientists were doing; occasionally, and often to great success, scientists themselves have written in a popular way about their work (Einstein, Richard Feynman, Richard Dawkins, Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking).

Arguably, the most difficult science writing involves explaining theoretical physics in everyday language, for two reasons: because some of its basic concepts—the speed of light as an absolute; the uncertainty principle of quantum mechanics—violate our common-day experience; and because theoretical physics is pursued not through words but through mathematical symbols. The challenge in writing popular physics is to translate higher math into sense-based language. Greene is fluid in both, and his prose teems with clever metaphors and analogies that depict mathematical truths through everyday example.

"What is the relationship between mathematics and this world?" we ask.

"There's a famous quote about the 'unreasonable effectiveness' of mathematics in describing the natural universe. Why should math that you do on a piece of paper bear any relationship to what you see in the real world? I don't think anybody has the answer to that. It just works."

We note that Greene speaks of math "describing" the universe, and point out that a description is not the object described. "So the math...."

"So you would naturally be led to assume," Greene steps in, "that the math is not the same as the reality. And I guess in my gut, that feels right. But when the math and the reality start to converge, you start to let your guard down and you start to think of the math as the reality. Maybe the guard was wrong in the first place. Maybe the math and the reality are one."

"What's the relationship between the way you do math and the way you write? Are they similar processes?"

"They feel very different. The math seems more to guide you where you need to go, because there are well-known sets of operations, well-known tricks and steps that you'd undertake to try and solve a problem, whereas when you are confronted with a blank page, there's this sense of creating the text as opposed to discovering the text."

Greene keeps a close eye on his texts. When we ask him if he knows how many countries The Elegant Universe is published in, he says, "Sure. On the order of 25 or 30. I have a folder for each one. It includes small languages, too—Galician. That translation is still in the works."

Katinka Matson, Brockman Inc.

The John Brockman literary agency represents Greene, as it does a lion's share of important science writers. Clients include Daniel Goleman, Steven Pinker, Daniel Dennett, Paul Davies and Sir Martin Rees. The firm's offices, a penthouse suite near Central Park, fit the distinguished client roster, with plenty of polished wood and high-end electronics. We've come here a week after meeting with Greene to speak with his agent, Katinka Matson, president of Brockman Inc.

Matson coordinates the sale of all rights connected to Greene's work, domestic and foreign. She remembers first meeting the scientist in the late '90s. "He'd been giving academic talks and people said he was amazing. And he wanted to do a book on string theory. We got involved with him then. He was very bright, very personable, very connected to what he was doing."

After Greene signed with Brockman, The Elegant Universe was won in bidding by Norton. How did Greene end up with Vintage and Knopf?

"Norton decided to sell the paperback rights [to The Elegant Universe]. And they had an aggressive offer from Vintage. I remember Marty and I going to a lecture."

Marty Asher, Vintage/Anchor

"I saw him at a Barnes & Noble and was just completely blown away," concurs Asher the next day. "So immediately I called folks at Norton and worked out a deal with them. Because this was a book that I desperately wanted to publish."

We're talking to the respected editor-in-chief of Vintage and Anchor Books in his corner office of the Random House building in midtown Manhattan. "The Elegant Universe is the best science book I've ever read," he says. "I had heard about it, and I remember taking it home and reading it, and then realizing, after I'd read four or five chapters, that I was reading this book almost like a novel. Brian has a novelist's gifts for analogy, for image, for defusing difficult concepts, and he does it with enormous wit." Asher beams at us through rimless eyeglasses.

How did The Fabric of the Cosmos come about?

"The Elegant Universe was about string theory and the larger principles of physics played a background role. I think Brian wanted to open up the larger story, because there was so much more going on and so much more that could be made accessible. His agent was aware of our enthusiasm, and when they did not come to terms with Norton [on the second book], they called us."

Gabrielle Brooks, Knopf

The director of promotion at Knopf can't say enough about Brian Greene. "Brian is wonderful to work with. It's fun to have an author who you can book on a serious science program like NPR Science Friday, and also on David Letterman; whose book is going to get prime treatment in Discover magazine but also in Entertainment Weekly. We're doing a 14-city tour," says Brooks. "And if Brian is game, we're up to doing more."

Brooks tells us a story that everyone else we see at Knopf will mention. "We had Brian come to speak to our reps at our summer sales conference. He was our only author there. He spoke at a lunch, and he had the whole room mesmerized. This was off the cuff, just introducing this book and how he's thinking about it. Afterward this group of reps gathered around him. I had to go over and tell them they had to leave because they had a conference session starting."

Patricia Johnson, Knopf

Patricia Johnson, the associate publisher of Knopf, remembers that sales conference. "I was a little concerned about it. This, after four hours of presentations on day four of a sales conference, and you have a scientist talking about space and time. But he was so down to earth.

"Brian writes so beautifully, but he also can promote so beautifully, and that makes all the difference in the world. We know this will be a major bestseller. All of our accounts see this as one of their big books of early 2004. We're still finalizing the major advertising, but there will be a big announcement ad in the Times. Something that Vintage does, which I think we'll repeat at Knopf, is to advertise in some of the college papers, where the major physics departments are."

Sonny Mehta, Knopf

A statue of the famed white Knopf Borzoi hound stands outside Sonny Mehta's office, a proper guard for the renowned publisher and editor-in-chief of a legendary house. The office is huge and lined with books. Mehta stands up from a big desk strewn with papers to shake our hand. He's wearing a blue sweater and slacks and, although obviously busy, is game to chat.

"Listen," he says, "I think he's just an amazing writer. Norton did a great job with The Elegant Universe. Marty Asher asked me to read it, and I was delighted to, though I was somewhat worried that it was going to be above my head, not having had any kind of scientific background. It explained something to me that I hadn't even known existed.

"He is as important to us as any novelist. We're treating him in the much the same way as we would any major writer. They've set up an absolutely great tour for him. Everyone has had a chance to read the book, and that's really where the excitement started. And then he came and addressed our sales conference."

Mehta peers at us. "Who else have you seen in connection with this?" We tell him. "You've seen everybody," he says. "And I've had less to do with it than most."

The Elegant Universe was a heavyweight among science books, we say. The author is keen on growing his readership; so is his agent. For a trade publisher, even one with the Knopf pedigree, having Greene on the list seems as much a challenge as an opportunity.

"And don't we know it," Mehta agrees. "It is a challenge. I think we've got everything set up. The one thing none of us can really foretell is exactly what the retail environment will be. We had an absolutely tremendous list last year that should have performed about 20% better than it did. I have no idea the extent to which the retail trade has recovered from whatever infection it was suffering from over the last 18 months, and I certainly hope it has, for our sake, for Brian's sake, and for the sake of the industry generally. But we believe we've got the perfect book."

Brian Greene, Columbia University

Greene keeps vegan—he eats no animals or animal by-products, including dairy—so to continue our conversation over lunch, we offer to go to a vegan restaurant. He suggests Indian or Italian and we choose Italian. As we leave the campus for the bustle of Broadway, we mention reading about his past serious interest in judo. We ask Greene what he learned from the martial arts. "Respect for all life," he says. We ask why he eats vegan. It's for moral reasons, he tells us, adding when pressed that he won't buy clothes made of new leather. And why does he live in the small rural town of Andes, N.Y., when he's not at Columbia? Greene says that he's bought an old farm there and is busy transforming it into an animal shelter, mainly for horses.

At the restaurant, we're about to order freshly made pasta but Greene points out that it will contain eggs, unlike mass-produced pasta. He selects a spaghetti pomodori made from the latter, and we do the same. After it arrives, we lavish it with pepper (no grated cheese allowed) and take a bite. "How's the vegan spaghetti?" Greene asks."Good, right?" The professor leans back and smiles, point made.

"Where do you want to go with all this?" we ask.

Greene ponders. "I don't know. One thing is, in the early stages of writing a book, I find that I can restrict the writing to just the evenings. So I can do physics during the day and the writing at night. In the last stages, in the last five months or so, that gets very hard. Every waking minute is on the book, and that takes away from the physics. So in the last few months it certainly has been nice to get back to fulltime physics, and the more I do that the harder it is to imagine breaking away.

"But I do think there's a need for children's books. I want to have a series of books, like ages 6—8, 8—10, 10—12. 12—14. And then they'll be prepared for the popular physics books that are out there, mine and others. To me, nothing is more powerful than story. So I think they need to be in the context of a well-thought-out, fun story. And then, a video companion film."

Greene's first companion film, of The Elegant Universe, showcases his charisma. On screen he's charming, intelligent and exuberant. His sense of fun and ease of manner give rise to perhaps his greatest professional asset, his ability to engender trust. There's no way for most of us to verify what he says; we don't understand the math. Yet we believe him, for his open gaze and air of excitement. The film also showcases state-of-the art science entertainment. Through abundant animation and special effects, fast cuts and dissolves, Greene makes science a blast to watch—without compromising the science. He's on the cutting edge of science entertainment, an endeavor once played out mostly in museums, particularly planetariums, until television burst it open, from Mr. Wizard to Bill Nye the Science Guy and, particularly, Carl Sagan.

"Obviously science can stimulate the mind," Greene says. "The Science Times stimulates the mind. Scientific American stimulates the mind. I feel like I try in these [books and shows] to do more than that. I try to stimulate the mind but also to show that science is a full-bodied experience. It's something that really informs our lives."