Accredited physicist addresses campus

Doris Kim

Lisa Randall, considered one of the most promising theoretical physicists of our time, delivered a convocation speech in the Lawrence Memorial Chapel on Jan. 26. Randall was most recently in the news for her new book, “Warped Passages: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Universe’s Hidden Dimensions,” named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year for 2005. “The secrets of the universe are about to unravel,” said Randall to the Lawrence audience.
It is a very exciting time in physics. In 2007, the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, Switzerland will generate extremely high energy in very short distances. The data results from this collider can answer fundamental questions, such as where mass comes from, how particles acquire mass, and why gravity is so weak. Most importantly,
this collider has the potential to confirm Randall’s notorious research on the universe’s extra dimensions. Randall often wonders if the answers will arise in her lifetime. It is even uncertain if the collider will ever reach high enough energy for the experiment and the results she is looking for.
“Gravity is concentrated somewhere, and we’re only catching the tail end of it. I think the explanation of gravity might have something to do about the fifth dimension,” said Randall. “It will be a very difficult experiment and tricky to disentangle.”
Such paradigm-shattering findings may seem irrelevant and “too scientific” for a normal person, but Randall is intent on bringing this information to the public. She finds this important even though her findings do not have immediate practicality.
“It’s really about understanding the world better,” Randall said. “If there are extra dimensions, it’s a pretty exciting discovery. It won’t make a difference when you get your coffee in the morning. But once we do find these things out, it always leads us to directions we didn’t foresee. If you just look at the history of science, no one knows what implications of what they are doing will be. But there always are some.”
Important byproducts of scientific study are often unintentional. For example, the World Wide Web and the Global Positioning System are very powerful inventions that came about from other projects. For a field that can bring obvious benefits to people, science is not often fully appreciated but those who do not understand it. Randall hopes her book can be used as a tool for people without extensive scientific study to understand her findings. She finds it especially important for more attention to be brought toward improvement in scientific education.
“One thing [that can be improved] is that the people teaching science have to understand math better,” continued Randall. “Science and math are kept separate and I think that just makes it confusing.
Updating some of the science curriculum,
having examples of more immediate interest, would be very helpful . Teachers also need to be held in higher esteem – paid better, treated better. There are a lot of people studying science and they can go off to do other things, not necessarily be a professor; it’d be good if they were teaching science.”
Despite Randall’s incredible research in theoretical physics, she has also contributed
to history because of her sex. Randall is the only woman to earn tenure at MIT and the first woman tenured in theoretical physics at both Princeton and Harvard. When asked about what opposition she experiences being a woman in a mostly male field, she answered, “It is rarely something as concrete as opposition,
although there are places where you find that. There is certainly unfamiliarity
for women in the field, so sometimes expectations can be different. But usually once they are familiar with you and your research, they can get beyond that.”
In her continuing research on possible extra dimensions in the universe, Randall hopes to create a continuous discussion of science and bring science advances to the forefront of journalism and education.