How a Physicist Sees the Universe: Messy and Sublime
Theoretical physicist Lisa Randall thinks about many things. Not just particle physics and cosmology, which are her forte, but also about the process of science, the nature of risk and uncertainty and even the approach that art and religion take to understanding the world.
Lisa Randall is the author of Knocking on Heaven’s Door: How Physics and Scientific Thinking Illuminate the Universe and the Modern World. She is a professor of physics at Harvard University and, in 2007, was named one of Time Magazine’s “100 Most Influential People.” Read an excerpt from the book.
In her latest book, Knocking on Heaven’s Door: How Physics and Scientific Thinking Illuminate the Universe and the Modern World, Randall writes about some of the most important scientific quests of today: the search for the Higgs boson, unraveling the mystery of dark matter and dark energy, and the possibility of discovering new physics at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider. Expanding beyond this scope, though, she also presents a scientists’ take on topics ranging from the recent financial crisis to the role of asymmetry in art.
Wired recently sat down with Randall to talk about her view of the universe.
Wired: Your book seems to be mainly about two things: the current state of particle physics and the process of science. Why did you choose to write on these two topics together?
Lisa Randall: Firstly, I didn’t want to just do what I had done in my previous book, Warped Passages: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Universe’s Hidden Dimensions; I wanted to do something interesting that was different.
So really the seed for the book was to go into this idea of the nature of science. I think it’s an interesting story just how science is done, and I think that process tends to get oversimplified and overstated a lot of the time.
Having decided to do that, I thought I should round it with actual science. So I also write about the current state of particle physics and the Large Hadron Collider. People can get so caught up in thinking, you know, this is all so abstract but I think it’s important to understand that there are concrete testable results.
Wired: You write that the process of science can be complicated and messy. Why do you think it’s important for readers to know that?
Randall: There can sometimes be this fear among laypeople: I don’t understand everything in science perfectly so I just can’t say anything about it. I think it’s good to know that we scientists are also confused some of the time. This way we can invite others in. They can participate in understanding, and apply scientific methods to other contexts in their lives.
The process of science is difficult and challenging. It involves always being aware that your ideas might be right or they might be wrong. I think it’s that kind of balance that makes science so interesting. I mean, if we had all the answers already, that would be a lot less exciting as a research field.
Read Full Interview