Physics Envy

When 260 physicists gathered for a recent conference at the University of Michigan, they chatted in their usual vocab: compactification, tachyon condensation, flop transition. All unintelligible to human life forms. But standing out in this galaxy of obscurity was author and Columbia University physicist Brian Greene, 38, who has spent the last year and a half touring the country to explain string theory--an abstruse branch of physics and the subject of his 1999 book, "The Elegant Universe"--to the masses. Articulate, witty and totally nongeeky (black jeans, contacts, former wrestler, vegan), Greene's gravitational pull rivals a black hole's. In the words of one 37-year-old telephone operator who joined a standing-room-only crowd to hear him speak in Michigan: "He is hot."

Add that to the physics lexicon. Greene's theatrical lectures--which include lots of metaphors, cool 3-D visuals and dry humor--routinely draw hundreds. The paperback of his book, a Pulitzer finalist, has been on The New York Times best-seller list since it debuted in February. And film and TV producers, knocked out by Greene's talent for explaining the unexplainable, have come courting: he had a bit-part (playing himself) in this spring's sci-fi flick "Frequency." And now execs at public television's "NOVA" are planning a series based in part on his book. Guess who they auditioned as host?

String theory (totally unproven) proposes that all matter, from our skin to a slab of stone, is made of tiny loops of vibrating strings, "dancing filaments of energy," says Greene, who when he's not interpreting the theory is busy helping to build it. Low-key, thoughtful and adamant about not being seen as the face of strings ("Many others have contributed more to the theory than I have"), Greene believes that fundamental questions about the cosmos--What's it made of? How does it work?--are driving the enthusiasm. "I think people are struck by the ideas," he says. "I don't think they're struck by me." Luckily, the universe is big enough for both.

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