Physicist-Author Brian Greene on ‘Icarus at the Edge of Time’ and What to Do If You See a Black Hole

"Woman, get a grip on yourself! I don't know what will happen on Lost — we're on a completely different show!" Photo: Andrea Cross

Brian Greene, the charming Columbia University physicist and author of everybody's favorite book about string theory, The Elegant Universe, has but one mission in life — to transform science from stolid textbook subject into something that evokes wanderlust and awe in the reading public. This past May, he co-founded the World Science Festival, which broke ground by mixing panels on pop culture with dance performances, celeb talks with Alan Alda and Oliver Sacks, and discussions about parallel universes and the like. Now, he's hoping to reach kids with his oversize, cardboard space-fable book Icarus at the Edge of Time, a reimagining of the Greek myth in which Icarus ventures into a time-warping black hole against his father’s wishes. Greene — who reads from the book this Monday at Barnes & Noble Union Square at 7 p.m. — spoke to Vulture about the new book, working with superstar designer Chip Kidd, and why a sci-fi comic book explaining Einstein’s weirdest theory just wasn’t going to cut it.

You and the book designer, rock-star graphic artist Chip Kidd, could have just gone the easy route with a sci-fi comic. Why’d you go with this very elegant, almost coffee-table-book design?
Well, a lot of those decisions were really Chip Kidd's, in terms of the look of the book. My main directive is I didn't want to make something that was a caricature of science or a cartoon of physics.

Makes sense, but this book seems like it might intimidate some children.
Before we published it, I, of course, tried it out extensively on a variety of ages, and I found young kids who were 4, 5, 6 could take the book in as a wonderful adventure story about a kid going out into a black hole. Older readers and adults can take it in as a dramatic illustration of one of Einstein's most profound discoveries.

You’re talking about general relativity, I think. In the book Icarus forgets that the gravitational pull of a black hole slows down time. He comes back and it’s thousands of years later. I have also forgotten how this works. Can you explain it to me?
Let me explain in two parts. The book, by design, doesn't explain that piece of science because the book isn't meant to be pedagogical; it's meant to be experiential, to take in the quality of science by virtue of following the story. But in terms of your question and how this goes about, it's sort of subtle. What Einstein found is that a body that exerts a gravitational pull also pulls on the vibration of the light if you will, and when it pulls on the vibrating electromagnetic waves of light, it slows it down. And that slowing of the vibration of light that can be translated into a slowing of time itself.

Did that help at all? [Laughs.]

Sure, but wouldn't the gravitational pull also stretch a person out? Wouldn’t Icarus look like Gumby when he came back from the black hole?
You know, if you fall into a black hole, the closer you get to the center, the more you'd be stretched like Gumby, but if you're near a black hole and you're careful not to fall in, then you won't have that stretching at all. Icarus stayed safely outside of the horizon.

In the book, the black hole is represented by a big, black circle. That’s not really all that Icarus would have seen, is it?
You know, the book is metaphorical in the imagery — it’s this big, black circle, black hole approaching. The way space and time get twisted on themselves inside a real black hole would create some wonderful effects. You’d have a lensing effect where you can see stars and galaxies behind the black hole get twisted around. So, it's hard to paint a picture of what'd you'd actually see, but it'd be a pretty astounding experience.

Maybe save that for the sequel?
Yeah [laughs]. And frankly we thought about showing more realistically what it would look like to approach a black hole, but to me the symbolic representation was better because ultimately this is a fictional narrative driven by core science. We didn’t want to go overboard.