Exploring Parallels Between String Theory and Cosmetic Science

Editor’s note: This interview aligns with the Dec. 11, 2014, Frontiers of Science Award Lecture, sponsored by Cosmetics & Toiletries and presented at the Society of Cosmetic Chemists’ Annual Meeting in New York. This year’s speaker is String Theorist Brian Greene.

What do you get when you cross a String Theorist with cosmetic science? The “makeup” of the universe (rimshot). But seriously, Professor Brian Greene, world-renown physicist and string theorist at Columbia University, admits there’s no concrete connection between the two, and that we shouldn’t try to make one. Why? Because string theory is just that—theory. It’s not directly applicable in the lab, but it does underpin everything in the universe. So why interview him in a journal for cosmetic scientists? To exercise our minds on a quantum level, in hopes of revealing parallels between the two universes.

How do you think string theory could be applied to the cosmetics, or any industry?

It’s a good question. It inspires me to take a step back. String theory is one of my “things.” It’s what I give many talks on, and it’s a good subject for those who want to stretch their brains—to gather an understanding of the things around them. If string theory is correct, ultimately, everything around us is dependent on it. It gives us a basic understanding of the workings of all the underlying “ingredients.” People focused on “stuff,” matter, the things we manipulate, etc., in one way or another will have an interest on the underpinnings of it all.

However, it’s virtually impossible to draw a concrete and convincing link [from string theory to industry], and it becomes artificial to do so. When I give presentations, especially to those who are far from my field—I don’t try to make it relevant because it leaves a sense of striving to reach too far. It’s not something they can take back and apply in the lab. What I’ve found is that, at the end of the conversation, they are thrilled that I didn’t try to hook up directly to what they try to focus on; they appreciate taking the journey with me. That’s where the satisfaction comes from and that’s the direction I try to take. I find that whatever their focus is, audiences tend to have a good deal of interest in cosmology.

How do you approach a multitude of unknowns to create order? What is the thought process?

The thought process is a key one. All scientists, in fact all humans, on a deeper level, seek patterns as we look out at a confusing landscape; even a three-year-old, finding his way to the kitchen. We try to see patterns that repeat and repeat and repeat—and that repetition of pattern inspires a language: mathematics. Mathematics is a powerful tool that provides you with answers to then go out and test them in the world.

How can you develop tests to confirm what’s difficult to observe?

This is a huge challenge, and the time-honored technique is to deeply embrace the mathematics to coax from it the answers to questions that technology has not caught up with yet. The problem at the moment is that theoretical ideas outpace existing technology. We currently use math to make predictions but these are not proven because the technology isn’t powerful enough yet. The next best thing, and a “proxy” for it, is to use mathematics to test the math to see if it always and yields logical and consistent results—even without having data to consult. It’s an interesting era, mixing the traditional theoretical with observations and predications, and math has become the diagnostic.

Where have unexpected answers in your research emerged, and how did you apply them to advance your work?

[Unexpected answers] have occurred many times in my research, in cosmology and in the development of string theory. Typically, we “modest” physicists call these “revolutions.” For example, Einstein’s theory of gravity pulled the rug out from beneath Newton’s, which had been established for 200 years. It’s amazing that it only took three years of observing actual data from distant starlight to confirm Einstein’s theory.

That’s the primary goal of our endeavors—we strive to replicate that pattern where you aim for results, find they come out differently, then someone new comes along with a revolutionary idea to explain them.

The cosmetics industry is challenged by consumers who believe mistruths about given ingredients/products. How do you overcome the challenge of communicating science to a skeptical public?

It’s very hard; and in my case, it’s explaining the esoteric area of quantum theories. People glom on to one aspect they don’t understand and usurp it for their own purposes. It’s a challenge to make the science compelling and accessible so that the truth isn’t turned into a cartoon and twisted in such a way that makes scientists wince. To my mind, the best way to meet that challenge is use the most powerful technique we have: storytelling. If you present the science in a clinical way, it’s in a vacuum; but if you communicate it in the context of a narrative or story, people take it in and go along with the story. I see this when I talk to an audience, where if I slip into clinical jargon, I lose them. When I shift back to the narrative, they shift. It’s a strategy or tool that could be applied anywhere.

More in Tech Transfer