Brian Greene's restaurant at the end of the parallel universe

Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 4, 2011; 9:44 PM

Brian Greene is one of the most famous theoretical physicists in the world. He specializes in the super-brainy field of string theory, he has degrees from Harvard and Oxford, he has written four books, he is one of the few people in the world who has an Erdos-Bacon number, meaning that he can be traced back to both Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdos and to Kevin Bacon. So naturally, we are talking about cheese.

"Have you tried the Whole Foods vegan pizza with the vegan cheese?" the string theorist asks pleasantly. He is trim, brown-haired, nice-looking for a regular guy; babelike for a scientist. "It doesn't completely melt like real cheese, but it's close enough that it brings back the memory."

We are two vegans, or rather one vegan (Greene) and one vegan-ish, and when two vegans collide - this time, at the vegetarian Java Green cafe near Farragut Square - the conversation will eventually turn to cheese: whether it's gross, whether it's gross but still tasty, how much one misses it or doesn't or does but pretends not to. This is a scientific law.

This is also a way for me to sidestep talking about what we are supposed to be talking about, "The Hidden Reality," Greene's new book, which discusses the possibilities of alternate dimensions and parallel universes. Because even though Greene, a professor at Columbia University, has written about the topic in the user-friendliest way possible, it is still a book that uses terms like "inflationary cosmology."

Let us fortify ourselves before talking about inflationary cosmology. Let us order: a tofu mushroom wrap, a mango-kale salad, an Izze sparkling juice and a fermented tea drink that tastes like feet, which we choose only because the flavor is called Cosmic Cranberry.

It is a sign.

And now, let us begin with an English major-y quibble: The very definition of "universe" refers to the entire cosmos, the whole of all matter. But Greene's book is centered on the concept of multiple universes, or "multiverses." This seems logically incorrect.

"Most people are aware of the big bang," Greene says. But there's a theory that "the big bang was not a one-time event. . . . There might have been a lot of other bangs throughout the cosmos, which would mean that our universe was just one of many."

He points to the fermented foot juice and the carbonated bubbles gathering near the top.

"Do you see how your bubbles are banging into each other? Each of these other universes would be like frothy, foamy bubbles that originated back in that universe's big bang."

So these other universes are bumping into us all the time, and -

"Not exactly," he says, rethinking this food metaphor. "It's more like Swiss cheese."

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