Research News

After the lecture: Extra dimensions, interacting dark matter, and the power of uncertainty

A conversation with theoretical physicist Lisa Randall

In her most recent book, physicist Lisa Randall--Harvard University professor, libretto composer, Lego figurine, star in the world of theoretical physics--writes that the universe repeatedly reveals itself to be cleverer than we are. This is not a submission to the mysteries of the universe; rather, it's a recognition that the more we discover about the fundamental nuts and bolts of this world, the more questions we have.

Randall works to uncover those fundamental nuts and bolts. She studies theoretical particle physics and cosmology, and her research has advanced the understanding of supersymmetry, models of extra dimensions, dark matter and more. She's made a career out of sharing these discoveries--what they are, how we know them and why they matter--with the public.

Randall is the author of three books and has appeared in dozens of media outlets--from Charlie Rose and The New York Times to "The Colbert Report" and Vogue. We sat down with Randall after her lecture "New ideas about dark matter" as part of the National Science Foundation's Distinguished Lecture Series in Math and Physical Sciences.

I liked doing math. And I liked understanding how things work. I took a physics class in high school, and I didn't really know for sure that I would be doing it [long term], but I kept going. I enjoyed it. I like that you got answers. I kind of liked that it was challenging.

I think it's important to explain these theories are evolving and what it means for the world. Uncertainty in science isn't actually a bad thing. It actually drives you forward. You can have a lot of certainty even with uncertainty at the edges.

Sometimes it's a question not just of saying 'I'm going to figure this out,' but just with being smart enough to recognize something interesting when it happens. When we found this warped geometry we hadn't been looking for it, it just was a solution. Then we realized what kind of implications it could have. Both in terms of solving the hierarchy problem and explaining particle masses, but also in terms of having an infinite extra dimension.

There's usually a moment when you realize it. Then there are a lot of moments when you think you're wrong and you go back.

I think there's just a lot of ideas about creativity that people don't fully appreciate for scientists. I think there's a lot of ideas about right and wrong that people don't fully appreciate, and how science advances.

I'd just written a book where you try so hard to do everything in a liner order. I'd just written "Warped Passages" and it was kind of nice the idea of just introducing ideas without having to explain them. And just have different voices. You sort of realize the richness of operas and just expressing ideas and just getting people familiar with something. You have music, you have art, you have words. It's very exciting.

I don't think anyone should just set themselves up to be a role model. I think every person is different, and certainly there's few enough women that we're all different. But it is true that one of the small advantages you have as a woman is that you are doing something important beyond your work, which is just establishing that women can be out there doing these things. And it is definitely true that when I wrote my book I thought it's good to have someone out there in the public eye, so that people know there are women physicists. And in terms of the response, I can say that--both negative and positive--people do not realize there are women out there sometimes. So it was really important. But it also means you have to put up with a lot of distracting comments and questions sometimes that you wouldn't otherwise.