In his newest, “Until the End of Time,” best-selling author and physicist Brian Greene explores the human drive through the centuries to understand the cosmos. Greene is the host of the “Nova” miniseries “The Elegant Universe,” and a professor of physics and mathematics at Columbia University. He appears at 7 p.m. on Wednesday at the Harvard Science Center (tickets $32, including a book).
BOOKS: What are you reading currently?
GREENE: “The Razor’s Edge” by W. Somerset Maugham. The last couple of weeks I’ve been laid up because I herniated a disk in my back so I’ve been reading some books I’ve never gotten around to. The novel’s lead character, who was in World War I and returns a changed man, goes on spiritual journeys. I am drawn to books with characters who are searching for meaning as long as doesn’t turn into woo-woo quackery.
BOOKS: What is one of your favorites of those kinds of books?
GREENE: “Seize the Day” by Saul Bellow, an utterly masterful treatment of a character who’s good at heart but desperately trying to find his way in the world. He gets thrust into the funeral of somebody he doesn’t know but being confronted with death pushes him towards a deeper truth.
BOOKS: Do you read philosophy books too?
GREENE: Absolutely. I’m in the middle Bertrand Russell’s “A History of Western Philosophy.” It’s a gorgeous exploration of the human quest to understand everything from freedom of the will to personal identity to why is it we do what we do. Another of my favorites is “Philosophical Explanations,” by Robert Nozick, who I studied with at Harvard. Both men are such good writers you don’t get caught in a labyrinth of words. Their arguments are crystal clear.
BOOKS: Have you always been this kind of reader?
GREENE: When I was a kid I despised reading. All I wanted to do was mathematical equations. This persisted into college. If I opened a textbook and the pages were covered in words, my heart would sink. But if I opened a textbook and it was just wall-to-wall equations, I would be deeply relieved.
BOOKS: How did you become the reader you are?
GREENE: When I graduated from college I was deeply distressed because I could have explored a wide range of ideas but I didn’t. I was so intent on learning mathematics and physics. Luckily I got a second chance. When I got a Rhodes scholarship, ostensibly to study physics, I studied literature. I remember rereading Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” and being deeply moved, especially by the scene of Scout walking Boo Radley home.
BOOKS: Are there novels that do a good job of integrating astronomy and physics?
GREENE: Kurt Vonnegut did a wonderful job of using bits and pieces of our understanding of the universe in slightly insane narratives, like “The Sirens of Titan.” Carl Sagan’s novel “Contact,” which was made into a movie, did a nice job of using wormholes and time-warpy stuff in a captivating story. One of my favorite writers of all time is Ray Bradbury. His story “All Summers in a Day” has always stuck with me. It’s about a civilization on Venus where it rains constantly, and the sun only comes out once every seven years for one day.
BOOKS: What was your last best read?
GREENE: A book that I had read parts of before, “Varieties of Religious Experience” by William James, which is a heartfelt, incisive book about religious practices the world over. James describes how science needs to do its job but that we must also allow for inner spiritual journeys. Those are what make us human.
BOOKS: Do you ever read self-help books on these issues?
GREENE: I thumb through them some time to see how people translate big philosophical ideas into more concrete, everyday terms. The one that was semi-interesting to me was Eckhart Tolle’s “The Power of Now.” But I’m less interested in the digested version. I think you benefit more from narrative, as in a novel, or philosophical investigations, by deep thinkers who aren’t just telling you how to live.
Amy Sutherland is the author, most recently, of “Rescuing Penny Jane’’ and she can be reached at email@example.com.