An artist’s interpretation of a supermassive black hole. (Credit: Alfred Kamajian/Goddard Space Flight Center)
— by Joseph Caputo
With waxen wings, young Icarus took off from the island of Crete and into the sky. Charged by the feeling of flight, he ignored his father’s warnings and soared higher and higher towards the stars. Flapping hard, Icarus soon flew so near to the sun that his wings melted. As he crashed into the water below, he became another tragic figure in Greek mythology.
This story always troubled scientist Brian Greene. “Here is a young boy who goes against what his father says and pays the ultimate penalty,” he told a crowd gathered at the Brattle Theatre in Harvard Square Tuesday night. For Greene, this moral is completely antithetical to scientific investigation, which is about challenging the established order.
There is a bit of Icarus in Greene as well. The Columbia University professor and well-known string theorist is a maverick in the particle physics community for his desire to bring the mathematics of time and space to mass audiences. He has authored two popular science books, “The Fabric of the Cosmos” and “The Elegant Universe,” which later became a PBS documentary starring Greene. At his Tuesday-night talk, sponsored by Harvard Book Store, Greene promoted his latest and riskiest work, “Icarus at the Edge of Time,” a graphic-heavy, fictional science story aimed at both adults and children.
Greene’s version of the Icarus tale is a futurist vision that rewards curiosity, one that he calls “much closer to the experience of science.” The reader is introduced to Icarus, a young astronaut born on a spaceship, on route to an alien planet he will never see. The entirety of his life is to be spent traveling and he passes the days learning about space and life on Earth. Along the journey, his ship passes a nearby black hole, and Icarus is overcome by the desire to go to its edge. Although his father warns him against it, Icarus eventually feeds his curiosity. The outcome is both tragic and satisfying, an excellent metaphor for scientific investigation.
The book contains a considerable amount of scientific fact about black holes, but the storytelling element drives the reader along. “For so many people, science is the material that sits between the two covers of a textbook,” Greene says. He calls this a shame, “because science is one of the most wonderful adventure stories.” This is a true and fascinating statement, especially since it is is made by a string theorist. The power of Greek mythology to teach a lesson is much greater than a detail-laden science lesson. In this respect, “Icarus at the Edge of Time,” is an unconventional textbook, one that should be read by physics students from elementary age to graduate school.