Lisa Randall
Professor or Physics, Harvard University

An Infinite Extra Dimension

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The Harvard physicist describes one of her most surprising moments of discovery.

Lisa Randall

Lisa Randall studies theoretical particle physics and cosmology at Harvard University. Her research connects theoretical insights to puzzles in our current understanding of the properties and interactions of matter. She has developed and studied a wide variety of models to address these questions, the most prominent involving extra dimensions of space. Her work has involved improving our under-standing of the Standard Model of particle physics, supersymmetry, baryogenesis, cosmological inflation, and dark matter. Randall’s research also explores ways to experimentally test and verify ideas and her current research focuses in large part on the Large Hadron Collider and dark matter searches and models.

Randall has also had a public presence through her writing, lectures, and radio and TV appearances. Randall’s books, Warped Passages: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Universe’s Hidden Dimensions and Knocking on Heaven’s Door: How Physics and Scientific Thinking Illuminate the Universe and the Modern World were both on the New York Times’ list of 100 Notable Books of the Year. Higgs Discovery: The Power of Empty Space was released as a Kindle Single in the summer of 2012 as an update with recent particle physics developments.

Randall’s studies have made her among the most cited and influential theoretical physicists and she has received numerous awards and honors for her scientific endeavors. She is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, was a fellow of the American Physical Society, and is a past winner of an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Research Fellowship, a National Science Foundation Young Investigator Award, a DOE Outstanding Junior Investigator Award, and the Westinghouse Science Talent Search. Randall is an Honorary Member of the Royal Irish Academy and an Honorary Fellow of the British Institute of Physics. In 2003, she received the Premio Caterina Tomassoni e Felice Pietro Chisesi Award, from the University of Rome, La Sapienza. In 2006, she received the Klopsteg Award from the American Society of Physics Teachers (AAPT) for her lectures and in 2007 she received the Julius Lilienfeld Prize from the American Physical Society for her work on elementary particle physics and cosmology and for communicating this work to the public.

Randall has also pursued art-science connections, writing a libretto for Hypermusic: A Projective Opera in Seven Planes that premiered in the Pompidou Center in Paris and co-curating an art exhibit for the Los Angeles Arts Association, Measure for Measure, which was presented in Gallery 825 in Los Angeles, at the Guggenheim Gallery at Chapman University, and at Harvard’s Carpenter Center. In 2012, she was the recipient of the Andrew Gemant Award from the American Institute of Physics, which is given annually for significant contributions to the cultural, artistic, or humanistic dimension of physics.

Professor Randall was on the list of Time Magazine's "100 Most Influential People" of 2007 and was one of 40 people featured in The Rolling Stone 40th Anniversary issue that year. Prof. Randall was featured in Newsweek's "Who's Next in 2006" as "one of the most promising theoretical physicists of her generation" and in Seed Magazine's "2005 Year in Science Icons". In 2008, Prof. Randall was among Esquire Magazine's “75 Most Influential People.”

Professor Randall earned her PhD from Harvard University and held professorships at MIT and Princeton University before returning to Harvard in 2001. She is also the recipient of honorary degrees from Brown University, Duke University, Bard College, and the University of Antwerp.


Question: What was the greatest “Eureka!” moment in your career?

Lisa Randall: I mean, for any problem you work on there’s some moment where there’s sort of maybe it’s a moment where no one else cares about, where it all fits together and I found some simple way of doing something.  There are also the models that people have heard about such as the models about extra dimensions, something else that we did having to do with a different way of communicating supersymmetry breaking.  There were a lot of eureka moments in that and making it work out and the fact that we could all tie it together.  So, it’s hard for me to pull those out because a lot of the time when you’re working on something there’s that one thing that you get excited about.

Question: Have you ever been completely surprised by the result of an experiment?

Lisa Randall: I think one thing that surprised us, Braman and I, when we were working together was this existence, or the possibility of the existence, of an infinite extra dimension.  People had actually thought there were theorems that you couldn’t have an infinite extra dimension, that gravity would just look wrong, that there was no consistent way to do it.  And it was really interesting because we came across this by really following the consequence of our equations to the end and there was just no mistaking that it was allowing the possibility of an infinite extra dimension.  And it was interesting to go back and see what assumptions have been made that made us think, or made other people think that it was impossible, and just to see how the theory was almost smarter than we were and worked it out.  That was kind of fun.

Recorded on February 17, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen