Matter matters

Geek

Physicist, artist Lisa Randall questions the universe at UD

By Lisa Bennett

Photo: Lisa Randall unpacks the concept of dark matter, which she says may have influenced a comet that led to the extinction of the dinosaurs millions of years ago; photo: Eui Sung
 

What if? Those two simple words have likely been the impetus behind every great discovery in human history. One can imagine Nicolaus Copernicus gazing up at the expansive night sky, asking, “What if the earth revolved around the sun?” Imagine Irène Curie-Joliot asking, “What if there’s a way to create artificial radioactivity?” Or an ancestor in the ancient past asking, “What if I stay in one place and plant food instead of traveling to find it?”

Lisa Randall, Ph.D., a Frank B. Baird Jr. professor of science at Harvard University, has been asking that same question most of her adult life. From her research on elementary particle physics and cosmology to her collaboration with Raman Sundrum to create the Randall-Sundrum Model—which essentially describes our universe as a five-dimensional warped geometric space—Randall’s inquisitive nature is paralleled only by her skills in science and math.

Randall presents these skills at her keynote address April 6 at the University of Dayton. When asked to describe what she does in layman’s terms, Randall responds, “We’re trying to figure out, what are the elementary ingredients in matter? What are the forces by which they interact? Really, on a very basic level, what is stuff made of?”

In 2005, Randall published her book, “Warped Passages: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Universe’s Hidden Dimensions,” which tantalized readers with possibilities of hidden extra dimensions right in our own cosmic backyard. Her book also added a literary accelerant to an already raging firestorm of scientific debate regarding the role of theory in science.

George Ellis and Joe Silk, two prominent scientists, argued, “a theory must be falsifiable to be scientific.” But naysayers have always rocked the world of science. Mathematician and cosmological theorist Giordano Bruno, for example, was burned alive at the stake on the charge of heresy on February 17, 1600, for his assertion that stars were really just distant suns like ours with planets circling them. Thankfully, humanity has become a little more open to scientific theories since then. For Randall, scientific debates serve only to inspire her passion for scientific discovery.

In her 2011 book, “Knocking on Heaven’s Door: How Physics and Scientific Thinking Illuminate the Universe and the Modern World,” Randall brilliantly examines cutting-edge physics, including the largest and most expensive machine ever built in human history: the Large Hadron Collider. She also explores how science affects our everyday lives.

“I wanted to get across what it means to do science,” she says. And she made her point loud and clear. In 2015, her book “Dark Matter and Dinosaurs, the Astounding Interconnectedness of the Universe” led the reader on a fascinating journey that not only postulated the existence of dark matter (which, as far as scientists can tell, is like matter but it doesn’t interact with light) right in our own universe, but posed the possibility that a comet, influenced by dark matter, may have caused the extinction of the dinosaurs many millions of years ago. While we can’t go back and corroborate with a T-Rex, the questions and ideas she presented open the door to a much greater understanding of the nature of the universe. More importantly, it shows us the importance of asking questions.

And where do questions come from? The imagination, of course. Albert Einstein once said, “The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.” If his statement is true, then Randall is a genius.

In addition to all her awards and recognition in scientific circles, Randall is also an artist. In 2009, she wrote a libretto for Hypermusic: A Projective Opera in Seven Planes that premiered at the Pompidou Center in Paris. In 2011, she curated the exhibition Measure for Measure in the Carpenter Center at Harvard. The exhibition was an alluring representation of blending of art and science. When asked how art relates to science, Randall says, “It’s a way to experience creativity and learn beyond what we know. Science, of course, is different in the sense that we are really trying to see how the world works.”

Like her approach to science and art, Randall plans to present to her audience at UD both speculative and proven ideas, as well as how we go about understanding the world around us. More importantly, however, she’ll inspire a whole new generation of potentially great scientists (and us non-scientists) to ask questions, including the most intriguing one of all: “What if?”

 

Dr. Lisa Randall presents the Annual Keynote Address of Stander Symposium Thursday, April 6, in Kennedy Union Ballroom at University of Dayton, 300 College Park in Dayton. Her talk starts at 7 p.m. The event is free. Parking is available in the B and C lots. For more information, please visit uDayton.edu/provost/stander/keynote.php.

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Reach DCP freelance writer Lisa Bennett at LisaBennett@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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