The Fabric of the Cosmos on PBS

A four-part NOVA series based upon Brian Greene’s The Fabric of the Cosmos is coming to PBS this fall, starting November 2. In some sense this is a follow-on to his wildly successful The Elegant Universe NOVA series from 2003, which was largely devoted to promoting string theory. From the program description and preview it appears that the new shows don’t emphasize string theory, although the fourth of the series promotes the Multiverse (Clifford Johnson joins the effort here), along the lines of Brian’s latest book The Hidden Reality.

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32 Responses to The Fabric of the Cosmos on PBS

  1. Roger says:

    The episodes are: (1) microscopic forces can generate whole universes, our universe is just a hologram, (2) wormholes, time travel, (3) goofy speculations about the meaning of quantum mechanics, (4) multiverse fantasies. I think that I’d rather watch Michio Kaku on the Discovery Channel.

  2. Mel B. says:

    Dear Prof Woit,

    What portion of Brian Greene’s work is actually based on testable and falsifiable science? Are his books based on religion-like, unprovable fantasy concepts?

    Thank you


  3. Peter Woit says:

    Mel B.,

    Much of theoretical physics research has always been not testable/falsifiable. The point is that when you start investigating a new idea, you typically don’t understand it well enough to know exactly what its implications are. You can’t just say “since this is not testable, it’s not science”, when people are still struggling to see if they can come up with a test. That struggle is a legitimate part of science. The real question is whether they are getting anywhere: are they making any progress towards coming up with a test, or is it looking increasingly unlikely that this is possible?

    I haven’t seen the new programs, but I’d guess that they’re very much a mix of solid, tested science, together with a range of speculative ideas, including some that are extremely unlikely to lead anywhere. As long as one makes clear what is solid and what is speculative, with some clear indication when one has entered the realm of the “wouldn’t this be cool, even if it’s very unlikely”, I don’t see a problem.

    Personally I thought “The Elegant Universe” programs didn’t do enough to make clear how speculative some of the ideas there were, because many theorists were very optimistic about them at the time. In retrospect a decade later I suspect that some things in that program might be much more carefully hedged if redone today. There’s a similar over-enthusiasm these days among some people for the idea of a string-theory based multiverse. I hope the new program does better in making clear that there are good reasons for skepticism about this.

  4. Roger says:

    No part of Greene’s work is testable. His last TV show started with him saying, “One thing that is certain is that string theory is already showing us that the universe may be a lot stranger than any of us ever imagined.” No, string theory has not shown anything about the universe. Greene occasionally says that experimental confirmation would be a good thing, but he makes reckless and untestable statements anyway.

  5. Peter Woit says:


    “string theory is already showing us that the universe MAY be a lot stranger…”

    Note the carefully placed caveat. Unfortunately I think these often don’t get noticed by the viewer since they’re not much emphasized, but they are there.

  6. Bernhard says:


    I see simply no reason to make such documentaries, they´re a disservice to making the general public about science. The caveats you mention, are noticed by nobody and the public impression is not that their talking about established accepted science. A documentary to talk about speculations in HEP could be even made, but the point of it should to inform the public of some of the really many scenarios thought by theorists. String theory could of course be there with the multiverse hand by hand, provided it was explained this is something less and less taken seriously by the scientific community.

  7. Bernhard says:

    sorry, *they´re a disservice to making the general public aware about science.*

  8. Jason says:

    Brian Green – he is a good writer.
    He can deliver those ideas of particle physics to a large audience.
    Much like Martin Gardner, also a good writer, and the author of this blog.
    I believe good writers can bring much enthusiasm to a field of interest, whether
    or not some of the ideas in that field are still questionable.
    To bring the story up front, to generalize the technical details.
    Not even wrong
    Would you agree?

  9. Peter Woit says:

    Bernhard and Jason,

    It’s by now an old argument about whether these kinds of enthusiastic and potentially misleading promotions of highly speculative theoretical ideas are a good thing because they get people interested in physics, or a bad thing because they misinform people about physics. I don’t know of any data quantifying the effect one way or another.

    One can say though that this kind of TV program has been popular for quite a while now, and I don’t see any evidence that they have inspired a huge cohort of brilliant young theorists into getting physics Ph.D.s and revolutionizing the field.

  10. Casey Leedom says:

    Hhmmm, I don’t know. I think that it would be hard to find people who would argue against the value of Carl Sagen’s “Cosmos” series in 1980. It was absolutely a popularization of physics (general, not HEP) and it absolutely had to cut corners (in terms of details) for the general audience. But it did a great job explaining science. And I’ll bet there are a bunch of people who ended up in science because of that series.

    The point is: it is possible to generalize science for popular consumption and not have to tell fairy tales.

  11. John Baez says:

    If people wanted to popularize physics that actually matters, they could talk about climate physics, starting with the laws of thermodynamics, the laws of radiation, atmospheric physics, the theory of ice ages and other climate cycles, and other basics. There are lots of people who know nothing of this, and are easily fooled by any second-rate “climate skeptic” who comes along. Meanwhile physicists are trying to teach them about wormholes, time travel and the multiverse. You can’t say we don’t deserve what’s coming.

  12. Peter Woit says:

    John Baez makes a good point about the nature of science programs on TV, but as I feared, his comment immediately led to a host of comments from people who want to engage in ideological debate about global warming here. Don’t even think of it, not on this blog. The internet is full of plenty of other places for that (including John’s blog if you want to argue with him…).

  13. chris says:

    The physics behind electric energy generation would be another thing that a lot of people would hugely profit from i guess. The whole nuclear vs. renewable vs. fossil energy debate could use some good physics input.

  14. Trulo says:

    I think a good program about the LHC, and its first year of physics results would be terribly interesting to me. And it would certainly be popularizing real-world physics.

    But I guess it’d be way too much to ask for. These days, even particle physics blogs barely mention it.

  15. Giotis says:

    I don’t agree with some of the comments here regarding Brian Greene. Brian Greene desperately wants to connect String theory to the “real world”. His research shows that; from Calabi Yau compactifications during the early Heterotic era to topological transitions, String cosmology and now transitions between flux vacua.

    Initially he hoped that our world could be derived from String theory in a unique way and my understanding is that he is not very happy with the multiverse but since the theory points to that direction he feels (due to his strong belief that the theory deep down is correct) obliged to examine this possibility seriously.

  16. M says:

    actually, there is some TV here at CERN.

  17. Bernhard says:


    Greene and others tried to connect string theory to the “real world”, but he and everybody who tried failed miserably. Furthermore, it is clear that they are still not going anywhere and the multiverse, landscape and other things are not really much a direction, but simply they giving up. Connection with the “real world” would be to make a prediction for the LHC. No, I take it back, it would be to make any falsifiable prediction at all.

  18. Jason says:

    All I’m suggesting is it takes a lot of editing power to successfully encompass a large subject, such as the study and history of physics, into a smooth few hundred pages while keeping it original in perspective. I’m not talking about marketing a theory, I’m talking about telling a story from begining to end. Asimov was the master.

  19. Anon says:

    Carl Sagan was indeed a great popularizer who wasn’t afraid of addressing controversial topics such as the nuclear arms race in his series. We need more people like him.

    As for Green, I bought his new book and if that is what this program is going to be talking about, I don’t have high hopes. His book is poorly written, and full of rather ridiculous claims such as the statement that, if the universe is infinite in extent, there must be exact copies of us far away. This is as absurd as saying, for example, that any infinite sequence of integers /must/ contain the number 42 more than once.

  20. Mitchell Porter says:

    Anon said

    “His book is poorly written, and full of rather ridiculous claims such as the statement that, if the universe is infinite in extent, there must be exact copies of us far away. This is as absurd as saying, for example, that any infinite sequence of integers /must/ contain the number 42 more than once.”

    No it’s not, because Greene would be assuming standard ideas about how physics works. It would require some unusual hypotheses about initial conditions and/or dynamics for such copies to not exist in an infinite universe.

  21. MP says:

    I think these programs are great. As a layman myself who doesn’t grasp the complex mathematics required to truly understand these theories I love to read books, blogs, etc and watch shows that bring the complexity down a notch. I have my own opinions on what theories I think are a waste of time; what is insulting to me is that there are (educated) people who believe that the people who pay for this would not be interested in the results or capable of separating speculative from hard science.

    Bernhard, saying that the unwashed masses should remain unwashed has historically never worked. I am astonished to read comments like you made.

  22. Peter Woit says:


    I don’t think Bernhard is calling for keeping the public unenlightened about science, but rather for providing them with information about science that will be enlightening rather than just dazzling. You may be able to separate speculative from hard science, but there’s a real danger that these programs give people completely misleading ideas about science, while doing little to explain what the real thing is.

  23. Pingback: The multiverse circus is coming back to a PBS affiliate near you. | Uncommon Descent

  24. D R Lunsford says:

    John Baez made the essential point above, that there is a great deal of hard science involved in the climate change scenario and that would be a lot more interesting to people than endless, pointless speculations about ephemera.

    There is hard data that this sort of “fuzzics” is turning people off. Many media portals, newspaper sites etc. don’t even bother to have a dedicated science section -it gets lumped under some amorphous “tech” section. Why? There is just no interest in the same old crowing about how many dimensions are curled up into cosmic dust bunnies.


  25. Anon says:

    Mitchell Porter, I don’t think any of us know what the hell we are talking about when we discuss the initial conditions of the universe. In fact, “standard ideas about physics” are at still pretty much at a loss in this regard, given our current ignorance regarding quantum gravity. Even in the absence of gravity, the existence of copies is not a solid mathematical prediction of any quantum field theory in infinite space as far as I know, unless you posit some /very/ special initial conditions. If you have references to the contrary , I’d be all ears. So to claim the existence of infinite numbers of copies, as he does, is science fiction dressed up as fact.

    I am so tired of my doctor, my brother in law, my freshman students, and others, wanting to talk to me about some nonsense from his books because I am a physicist, and having to be the bad guy who shatters their illusions. I am just tired of it.

  26. Mitchell Porter says:


    “the existence of copies is not a solid mathematical prediction of any quantum field theory in infinite space as far as I know, unless you posit some /very/ special initial conditions. ”

    Let’s consider, for the purposes of argument, that we are talking about our solar system within the orbit of Pluto. Now consider the whole past light-cone of that region, back to the initial conditions, however you choose to think of them. The important point is that the cosmological initial conditions will be defined across an infinite spatial volume, for a universe that is spatially infinite later on. But the portion of the initial conditions relevant for our existence are only going to take up a finite part of these infinitely extended cosmological initial conditions.

    So we know that our own existence is an outcome of finite probability, given the existence of a finite initial region in a particular initial state. But the full cosmological initial conditions are spatially infinite, therefore contain infinitely many finite regions. If the local initial conditions that led to us are repeated infinitely many times across the overall initial conditions, then copies of us should be realized infinitely many times, because our existence is a finite-probability outcome for any one of those duplicates of the local initial conditions. So to avoid this outcome, you have to postulate that the local initial conditions which gave rise to us occur only finitely many times throughout the whole infinity of the cosmological initial conditions.

    As I said, it requires an unusual hypothesis about initial conditions or about dynamics to avoid Greene’s conclusion.

  27. Luke says:

    I have to agree with a point John Baez made and a point I’ve heard Feynman make in a video of his. I’d much rather, being a mathematical physicist, watch a scientific documentary on thermodynamics (say global warming) or perhaps some interesting optical phenomena. Heck, even a documentary on some fascinating results from fluid mechanics would be interesting because you have all sorts of cool demonstrations and whatnot to show. Heck, I’d say that those branches of physics are more popular then quantum gravity in terms of thought and effort put into them. But people don’t want to see or hear that. They want to learn about quantum gravity and hear about cool things like time travel or wormholes. It’s very unfortunate.

  28. DB says:

    Peter, you might be interested in the following as an illustration of the seige mentality which often accompanies the cult-like behaviour of those caught up in the multiverse idea:

    After announcing that “The proof against local realism is humankind’s the (sic) most relevant finding in the realm of science and philosophy” the author assures us “I will ensure the comment thread here is going to be helpful for readers, so pseudo-scientists and religious anti-multiversers please stay away or get deleted.”

    So no criticism allowed while he tries to explain his non peer-reviewed paper for the benefit of gullible undergraduates.

    I wouldn’t mind but this guy holds down a postdoc in a large university.

  29. Peter Woit says:


    I think that author is overly optimistic about the level of anyone’s interest in that kind of philosophical discussion of of “realism” and the many-worlds interpretation of QM. To get “religious anti-multiversers” to overwhelm his blog comment section I think he’s going to have to expand his interests from QM to cosmology and TOEs.

  30. Anon says:

    If the local initial conditions that led to us are repeated infinitely many times across the overall initial conditions, then copies of us should be realized infinitely many times, …

    As I said, it requires an unusual hypothesis about initial conditions or about dynamics to avoid Greene’s conclusion.”

    Aren’t you assuming an unusual hypothesis about initial conditions in your argument (namely, the part I bolded)?

  31. srp says:

    I read The Fabric of the Cosmos, and it is primarily about non-speculative ideas in physics, such as special and general relativity and quantum mechanics, along with mainstream cosmological theory. Greene is pretty careful to say when something is speculative or that others disagree with his opinions (often giving a citation so the reader can check it out). The one thing in there that was new to me was a thermodynamic argument for the Big Bang–that without the whole universe starting out in a lower-entropy state, reversible micro-physical laws force us into paradoxical conclusions about the world-lines of melting ice cubes. I’d be curious to see if that rather subtle argument makes it into the show.

  32. Mitchell Porter says:

    Anon: “Aren’t you assuming an unusual hypothesis about initial conditions in your argument”

    No; other possibilities would be of measure zero in the set of initial conditions.

    That is not a *refutation* of the idea of unusual cosmological initial conditions, but it means that you need some new physical principle or other argument that specifies the unusual starting point you have in mind.

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