Annaka Harris Interviews Lisa Randall On Science and PhysicsPosted by Jim Newman on June 14th, 2012 – Comments Off – Posted in Science
Post by Jim Newman
Lisa Randall has written a book on particle physics and the colliders used to find them, Knocking on Heaven’s Door: How Physics and Scientific Thinking Illuminate the Universe and the Modern World. Annaka Harris interviews her; Fundamental Science and the Big Machine.
This topic is dear to my heart. Ever since I came upon a Life book on Physics, detailing particle research and notables like John Von Neumann, I had wished to be part of this research. I was quite clear about it. I had already read Flatland, Einstein, Cybernetics, Helmholtz, and put together electronic kits–all gifts from my Aunt who had become a Phd Physicist and worked at Los Alamos as a Neutron specialist. It was claimed that I fell upon set theory and though only 9 was intent on finding what was the core of life–sure that knowing the building blocks of matter would expand to solving issues of food shortages and world peace–or just what was life.
My mother’s circle were artists so fond of skepticism to science. The occasional physicist I met scoffed at the idea and concluded that children dream and that dreams change. I did find one ally in a Phd Chemist, a woman who’s son was at Caltech doing laser research. But we moved to a rural part of the upper midwest and life went on. I found that I was too affective in my studies–that I could either have the highest grade or a crap grade in a class based more on my disposition than my talents. I liked story problems but memorizing the math eluded me. Clearly other people were more talented than I in spite of neighbors calling me Little Einstein when I made motors from parts lying around.
I also felt like the end was near in particle research. My school teachers claimed the atomic model wasn’t finished but close. Researchers spoke of labs, grant money, and publishing issues. Not good at playing the game I realized I was not suited to industrial research. But I have always loved particle physics. This interview brings out the best of why I found it fascinating, beyond Einstein wondering what it would be like to ride a beam of light.
Creativity, for example, is essential to particle physics, cosmology, mathematics, and to other fields of science, just as it is to its more widely acknowledged beneficiaries – the arts and humanities. Scientists, writers, artists and musicians might seem very different on the surface, but the nature of skills, talents, and temperaments is not always as distinctive as you might expect. It is important to understand the interplay between experiments, concepts, and creative thinking when we consider scientific advances.
It took me years to accept that I was a creative. I had been so biased by artists that scientists were reasonable and artists intuitive that I repressed the obvious creativity involved in science. I fought being called creative by my math and science friends because it was usually used pejoratively. Yet, I wandered pretty effortlessly between humanities and sciences, failing and succeeding at both with equality. It is clear to me now, way to late, that the desire to diss another field is a blindness of bias. A humanist can do good math and a scientist can play music with sensitivity. In this sense I was crunched by the business model and the idiotic separation of knowledge into boundaries that don’t really exist.
I admire the courage you display throughout your book, breaking taboos and putting to rest some pervasive misconceptions about science. One misconception I encounter often is the claim that science is “unreliable” – discoveries are made one year, only to be overturned the next. You resolve this misunderstanding using the concepts of scale and effective theory. Can you explain why these concepts are so important?
It’s funny. In some respects the concept of an “effective theory” is one of the most intuitive ones you can imagine. If something is too small to matter, you can operate quite well. You can turn on a radio without knowing all its inner workings. The “effective theory” concentrates on the particles and forces that have “effects” at the distances in question. Rather than delineating particles and interactions that describe more fundamental behavior, we formulate our theories, equations, and observations in terms of the things that are actually relevant to the scales we might detect.
I too railed on science as a fashion industry. My bro-in-law finally took me to task and I had to admit my issues were with the industrialization and commodification of science and not the scientific method. This is when I truly outed myself as an atheist and began to participate in the secular world actively as an atheist and as a promoter of science.
The rest of the interview talks about the technical aspects. How a collider is like a giant microscope; the world’s largest machine. How you have to slam out new particles with huge amounts of energy. She covers her view of dark energy and how spatial universes may cross boundaries of themselves.
The interview concludes with glimpses of the future.
In addition to the experiments at the LHC that I describe in my book, many more cosmological investigations are in store. Gravity wave detectors will look for gravitational radiation from merging black holes and other exciting phenomena involving large amounts of mass and energy. Cosmic microwave experiments will tell us more about inflation. Cosmic ray searches will tell us new details about the content of the universe. And infrared radiation detectors could find new exotic objects in the sky. Regardless of the results, the interplay between theory and data will lead us to loftier interpretations of the universe around us and expand out knowledge into currently inaccessible domains.
At the LHC, we don’t know how long it will be before we start getting answers since we don’t know what is there or what the masses and interactions might be. Some discoveries may happen within a year or two. Others could take more than a decade. Some might even require higher energies than the LHC will ever achieve. The wait is a little anxiety provoking, but the results will be mind-blowing. That should make the nail-biting worth it. They could change our view of the underlying nature of reality, or at least the matter of which we are composed. When the results are in, whole new worlds could emerge. Within our lifetimes, we just might see the universe very differently.
Last year I was in Switzerland, where I was born, and took the train past CERN. I wondered how my life might have been different if I had succeeded and been there to help. The flip side is life is good and I can appreciate the future from this perspective as well. It will be ironic if this research does finally answer my most basic question of why is there life, and what do we do it about it now.
Here is Randall on Jon Stewart.
Here she is on Colbert.
Jim Newman, bright and well