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On physics, arts + a new book: Lisa Randall speaks at Harvard bookstore

Arts & Culture | November 20, 2011

When Harvard professor Lisa Randall spoke in Harvard Square this past Tuesday, it felt like the cramped Brattle Theater kept fluctuating between unbelievably huge and miniscule size. “As a particle physicist, I look at the unimaginably large and the unimaginably small,” said Randall. “I’ll do my best not to make your head spin.” What was most amazing about Randall’s lecture was that, even for someone who knows absolutely nothing about physics, everything she said seemed as clear as day to me.
Randall was at the Harvard Bookstore to promote her new book, Knocking on Heaven’s Door: How Physics and Scientific Thinking Illuminate the Universe and Modern World. While a book with such a long title and addressing such a complex subject might sound like it is for theoretical physicists only, it is, in actuality, for the general public. Still, the audience looked like that of a stereotypical physics conference—mostly men over 50 with beards and sweaters muttering incoherently to themselves. But Randall didn’t have the physicist look. She was in a pantsuit and looked young, attractive, and approachable.
Though she didn’t have the classic homeless look that some serious scientists appear to favor, she is actually one of the most decorated and respected physicists in America. She has been a professor at MIT, Harvard, and Princeton. She was featured in Newsweek’s “Who’s Next” issue and TIME’s list of the 100 most influential people in the world. Her previous book, Warped Passages: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Universe’s Hidden Dimensions, was included in The New York Times’ 100 notable books of 2005. She worked on the Large Hadron Collider, and she has managed to put her name on every model of string theory produced in the last decade.

What makes Randall a truly amazing scientist, though, is that she can explain her work to the layman.
“My field is a very difficult one to explain to other people. The parts I can explain are usually only the most basic aspects.” With superhuman simplicity, Randall explained to the audience why it is likely that other dimensions exist. She spoke about why gravity is a weak force, what a braneworld is, and why that might explain it. She even talked about the limits of physics itself—the limits we may never be able to surpass, no matter how advanced technology becomes. For example, to be able to look at something 10-35 meters in length would require such a high-frequency light wave and so much energy that it would create a black hole. In contrast, light has only reached 95 billion light-years of the universe and, thus, we will never be able to observe anything beyond that.
“That was sort of the theme of my opera,” said Randall, in reference to the opera she co-wrote with Hector Parra, Hyperspace: A Projective Opera in Seven Planes. “It was about two people who were together but inhabiting different dimensions.”
Hyperspace isn’t Randall’s only foray into art—she was also the curator of an art exhibit called “Measure for Measure” that featured art pieces representing the cosmological scope or the microscopic scope.
“I find that science can really influence art,” said Randall. “But when art tries to influence art, it just doesn’t work. Science can often be imperfect and ugly, something that isn’t reflected in art.”
Lisa Randall’s multifaceted genius was a pleasure to bask in. She has the rare ability to make anyone that is listening feel like they, too, are a particle physicist. Heaven’s Door: How Physics and Scientific Thinking Illuminate the Universe and Modern World will surely be a great read. In fact, you can pick it up in the Tufts bookstore right now.