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MATHEMATICS, PHYSICS AND CHEMISTRY : Physics

Lisa Randall, Professor of Theoretical Physics at Harvard University

“We live in the smartest and the dumbest era”

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This New York scientist and writer, in addition to being an expert in particle physics and cosmology, is also a celebrity. She is, moreover, a pioneer. She was the first woman to hold the chair of Theoretical Physics at Harvard and Princeton Universities and the first full professor of the subject at MIT. Now, she lives with emotion great discoveries such as the detection of gravitational waves. "We're right at the beginning, it's exciting," she says.

More info about:
cosmology
theoretical physics
particles physics
women

Núria Jar | | May 18 2019 08:00

<p>The theoretical physicist Lisa Randall / Guillermo Castellví</p>

The theoretical physicist Lisa Randall / Guillermo Castellví

Lisa Randall (New York, 1962) was awarded an honorary doctorate by the Autonomous University of Barcelona on March 25. “It was very nice, a very pleasant morning,” she says to Sinc. The day before, the researcher gave a talk at the Kosmopolis Literature Festival of the Centre for Contemporary Culture in Barcelona. “Were you there? That’s great, thank you very much!” she exclaims in surprise. Although it was Sunday, early in the afternoon, the room was full to capacity.

We meet at the entrance to the hotel where she is staying, two hundred metres from La Pedrera, very close to Barcelona's Paseo de Gracia. She comes down from her room in an elevator, chewing gum. We sat down on the hotel´s inner and talked about physics, the relationship between science and art, the future on Earth and the role of women. Despite being elusive about gender issues, Randall is a pioneer in her field. She was the first woman to hold the chair of Theoretical Physics at Harvard and Princeton Universities and the first full female professor of Physics at MIT.

“It will take many years before a high energy particle collider is built, if it ever comes into existence” 

Physics is experiencing a good time. In recent years there have been great discoveries, such as the Higgs boson and gravitational waves. Do you feel fortunate to live in this era?

It's funny, because despite all these discoveries we're always interested in what’s to come next. The Higgs boson was predicted 50 years ago. We're interested in what’s beyond the standard particle model. This does not mean that the current experiments are not good enough, but it seems that we will need much higher energies to know even more. We don’t know what we will learn from future experiments. It will be many years before a high energy particle collider is built, if it ever comes into existence. On the other hand, gravitational waves are going through an exciting time. We’re right at the beginning, it’s exciting.

What would be the impact of a high energy collider like the one China wants to build?

We’ll be very lucky if it’s ever built. There are proposals from China and CERN, which has proposed the construction of a future circular collider (FCC). This does not mean that the current LHC will expire, as it will be many years before CERN carries out this project. The next step will not be high energies, but the high luminosity stage of the LHC. This will allow for very good physics, but I don’t think there’s anything that can replace high energies.

In spite of the current knowledge of the universe, there are still people who believe that the Earth is flat.

Yeah, it’s funny. In addition, we are dealing with the current political situation in the United States... Somehow, we live in the smartest and, at the same time, the dumbest era. I don’t know why this is happening, maybe they’re scared or don’t trust science. One of the questions I ask myself when writing popular books is why people are so reticent about certain ideas. Of course, most people who read my books do not believe that the Earth is flat, but my intention is to make my ideas well understood. If you don’t do science, you don’t have to have certain knowledge. There must be something else to explain why people distrust science, I don’t know what it is. It’s something we need to address.

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Lisa Randall / Guillermo Castellví

Another issue that mankind should address is climate change. Are you concerned about the future of the Earth?

I’m not worried about Earth, I'm worried about life on Earth [laughs]. Our planet will survive. I think we’re bringing about very rapid changes, more than we can control. It’s very difficult to maintain the current lifestyle, even if we find other sources of energy. There are a lot of people who don’t see nature in their daily lives. I grew up in Queens and I didn’t go out to the countryside, it’s something I didn't do and which now makes me very happy. I think we are disconnected from nature. We don’t think about the massive consequences of all this. There are species that may no longer have anywhere to go. If we destroy their habitats they won’t survive.

“I’m concerned about life on Earth. I think we’re bringing about very rapid change, more than we can control”

You’re a theoretical physicist, not an experimental one. Your work tools are blackboard and chalk. What is your routine?

I wish I had a routine. We work on ideas. I spend a lot of my time with people and talking to my postdoctoral students. I read scientific articles, I think about whether what they say makes sense, whether it is interesting, whether there’s something I failed to grasp... When we have an idea, we have to work on it. Here my students are very useful. I mean that they are useful at all stages of the process, but they play a major role in solving details or doing numbers. Sometimes I work more on cosmology and sometimes more on particle physics. It really is a combination of reading, having ideas, solving problems and going into detail.

The work of a theoretical physicist is to think a lot. But do you also procrastinate?

Oh, yes, of course. I do procrastinate. The other day I was joking about it on Twitter: “I particularly procrastinate when I'm preparing talks. When I prepare lectures, I procrastinate a lot. It’s easy, especially when you get stuck. I look at my incoming e-mails... It’s good to escape, but then you have to go back to work and focus again.

Is there anything that helps you think and contributes to your creativity?

I like to get away and do climbing, for example. Sometimes it helps me to clear my mind. If I’m worried about something or distracted, climbing helps me not to think about it. In fact, last Saturday I went climbing in Montserrat, it was fantastic. I was very lucky, because it didn’t fit into my plans. But someone contacted me, seeing that I was around, and suggested it to me. It was wonderful. Not that we did anything exceptional, but it was a really nice day. Montserrat has different levels, you can choose which one to climb. But the greatest advantage is that it’s close [to Barcelona].

“I like to get away and do climbing. Sometimes, it helps me clear my mind” 

At the Kosmopolis Literature Festival you talked about the cooperation between art and science. Is this blend a good idea?

Not always. Many things have been done badly. Sometimes scientists think that all the beautiful pictures they take are art and they are usually not. For their part, artists think they’re doing something scientific, although they actually aren’t. Many mistakes are made. What art does is translate things that we can think about and it addresses questions and concerns about how human beings situate themselves in these advances. At other times, it simply makes you aware of it all; art is a different way of becoming aware. Science is the protagonist of many of the changes in today’s world, and artistic efforts to tell about them work quite well.

You seem to be highly sensitive to art. In Barcelona you were already involved in the creation of an opera with the Catalan composer Hèctor Parra.

It's funny, because I didn’t realize how much I appreciate art. I go back to the museums I had visited as a child, like the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and I remember many of its paintings. I think this is something that affects you. I remember once I saw a Guernica in Madrid and I said to myself, wait, I've seen this before [laughs], as if I had registered it. I was really young when I first saw it. You don’t notice the influence art has on you, but it does.

One of your books is named after a song by Guns'N'Roses (Knocking on Heaven's door), yesterday you mentioned another one by Suzanne Vega... Do you also like music?

Music is very catchy. Sometimes I get hooked on a song, whether I like it or not. I usually like it. I would say that there are people who are much greater music fans than I am. But I really like song lyrics, I think it's a form of poetry, it's fun. I love to play with words and music is a good way to play with them. Especially in a context that is familiar to people, rather than a quote from an ancient Greek philosopher.

You once did a cameo appearance in the Big Bang Theory series. You were told to go unnoticed, sitting at a table behind Sheldon. Very few people really saw you.

The funny thing was that, even though I was sitting in the background and you could see me quite well, very few people noticed. Many of those who watched the series and knew me didn’t actually see me. That’s because they didn’t expect me to be there. We think we’re very observant and have a lot of tools, but there’s so much information everywhere that it really helps to know what you’re looking for, as in particle physics.

“If Hillary Clinton had said half the things Trump has said, people would have laughed at her out loud. A woman would never be allowed”

Are you comfortable with the image given of physicists in the series?

I have mixed feelings. Do we want physicists to be normal or not? The reason the series is popular isn’t just because its physicists are weird, I think it deals with some issues that are universal and affect us all, but it makes fun of physicists. How do you act in a world where you always feel like someone different? I think it was great that they also included a female physicist, who was as strange as the guy. Is this the only image we want people to have of us? Not necessarily, but it’s crazy that a series about physicists has been the most popular on television. It’s great!

I know you’re reluctant to talk about gender issues, but I have to bring it up.

I am reluctant when, in a five-minute interview, half the conversation is just about this issue.

For instance, there are only three women who have won a Nobel Prize in Physics.

Yes, there is a problem.

What’s your opinion? You’re a benchmark for many people.

Thank you very much, I like to think so. I must say it’s hard for me too. People don’t believe it because I’m successful, but sometimes it’s hard. You just have to really worry about what you're doing and focus on it. I don't think there’s a single answer to the problem and I don’t think it’s limited only to the presence of women in science. This is a much broader issue. Look at the political situation or remember the last American elections. If Hillary [Clinton] had said half the things, or any of the things, that Trump said, people would have laughed at her out loud. A woman would never be allowed to do that. That’s how we’ve been educated. Then they wonder why we’re so prudent. We’re not allowed to be careless [she laughs]. It’s very frustrating, really.

Geographical area: International
Source: SINC

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