Melissa Franklin
Professor of Physics, Harvard University

Big Think Interview with Melissa Franklin

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A conversation with the Harvard Professor of Physics.

Melissa Franklin

Melissa Franklin is the first woman ever to achieve tenure in the Harvard physics department. She is an experimental particle physicist who has been working on the Collider Detector at Fermilab, an experiment designed generally to study the collisions of protons and anti-protons at the highest energies currently possible. In January, she will be working at the new Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland. 


Question: At what age did you know you wanted to be a scientist?

Melissa Franklin: Yeah. I never really wanted to be a scientist, but I got very interested in physics when I was about 15. I had quit school when I was 13 and I just somehow got interested in physics and then I just thought I’d study it for a while until I could do something else. And things happened in such a way that that never happened.

Question: What did you want to be?

Melissa Franklin: Well you know, I wanted to be an editor for fiction, or a filmmaker, or a great writer, or a Jazz musician.

Question: And what led you particle physics?

Melissa Franklin: I wasn’t really smart enough to be any of those other things. Unfortunately. The thing about particle physics is that it’s very intellectual alluring and then you get to do a lot of really fun things in it. You get to build huge experiments and you actually do it yourself. So you get to drive forklifts and you get to work with flammable gasses and explosive things and you get to drill things. At the same time, you get to think about quantum mechanics and philosophical things and you get to write computer code. You get to do a lot of things that are very fun and you don’t normally get to do them in life. Usually you just move into an apartment that’s already made and then you just cook dinner. I mean that’s it, right? But in this case you get to build the whole thing and wire it and do everything. That may not make any sense, but you really get to do a lot of fun things and I guess that sort of kept me in it.

Question: What were the unique challenges of being a woman in the field?

Melissa Franklin: Well, when I as young I didn’t really notice that it was asymmetric. I didn’t notice a lot of things when I was young. But so it wasn’t so hard doing – trying to do physics and because I didn’t take it very seriously, because I didn’t really want to be a physicist, I didn’t have to worry about the fact that other people didn’t think I was very good at it. It didn’t really matter to me in fact. What mattered to me was that I was interested in it and not what people thought of me. Amazingly enough. Lately I worry about what people think of me, I don’t know what happened. I think it could be the change. It could be the life change. But the kind of problems I had were ones of, it was hard to focus. I didn’t have a lot of confidence and people were always trying to kiss you and stuff like that. You’d be doing problem sets with somebody and you’d be thinking about the physics and they’d be thinking about your lips, or your whatever. And that’s complicated.

Question: How did the Harvard Physics Department react to you getting tenure?

Melissa Franklin: Actually, I’ve been there a long time. I’ve been at Harvard for 22 years and the thing I really like about the Physics Department there is that everybody is so confident and everybody has such a high opinion of themselves. They don’t really worry about you. They’re not threatened by me at all except when I try to be really threatening. Some of them are smaller than I am. But that’s one thing that I really like about it. The other thing is, I was the first woman there and they had a little problem – I mean the first woman who had tenure. So I, as the first woman who went to, for instance, a senior faculty meeting of the senior faculty. And I remember after a few faculty meetings a professor came up to me and said, “You know, it might be a little easier for everyone if you just talked less because we’re really not used to having a women at all in the room and then one who talks so much is a little bit disconcerting.” So, that was interesting. People have been generally pretty nice, but people in physics can be less evolved socially than other people. So, you have to deal with that.

Question: What does a particle physicist do?

Melissa Franklin: First of all, there’s really two kinds of particle physicists. There’s the kind you see on the back of book covers and those are usually theorists. They just sit in their office and write down theories of things. And try to tell experimentalists what to do. And there are experimentalists who actually do the experiments and they try not to listen to the theorists. So there’s two. And I’m the latter, I’m an experimentalist. So, what do we do? We decide we’d like to know something about the universe, and in particular we’d like to know something about the universe at a very small scale. So, we’d like to know not only exactly what the smallest particles that make everything up are, like quarks and leptons, but we would like to know, what’s their relation to each other? How do they interact? How did they interact a long time ago, for instance, in the beginning of the universe? How are they going to interact in the future? And so we do these experiments which are really fun. It’s really like controlling thing incredibly. We’re very big into controlling things. We take proton beams and proton beams and we smash them together and we build an enormous $500 million detector to measure every microsecond what happens. So that’s what we do, we study the symmetries of the universe and how they get broken.

Question: Why should an everyday person be interested in particle physics?

Melissa Franklin: Well, everyday people, it’s amazing what they’re interested in actually. Everyday people are quite interested in a lot of things that you might not think. Every day people are interested in the beginning of the universe and you can’t understand the beginning of the universe like the Big Bang, unless you understand particle physics. It’s all particle physics really. And actually you can’t understand much. Here’s the thing. Particle physics right now is at a scale which is much smaller than the – a distance scale much smaller than the scale of an atom. Much smaller. So you would think well atoms are the smallest things they need to worry about and humans should worry about atoms, by the way. Atoms really do affect your everyday life, they affect biology, they affect – chemistry and everything. Right? So, what happened is as particle physics we went to the atom, we understood everything about it, and we just kept going. And it may not be relevant to Biology, but it may be relevant to something in the future. I’m not exactly sure what, but it certainly – for instance, if it’s relevant to the beginning of the universe, I have to say, the beginning of the universe is also relevant to Biology. Depending on what happened at the beginning of the universe what the initial conditions were of the universe, it tells us about the future. Strangely.

Question: What is the Higgs-Boson Particle and why is it important?

Melissa Franklin: Well, first you can’t describe what it is, it’s just an idea. We have this model; it’s called the standard model. The reason there’s so much depression in particle physics in the past 20 years is because the standard model seems perfect. That is, we have a model and for many reasons, the standard model, we keep testing it, we keep building accelerators, we keep doing experiments. The standard model predicts something; we keep finding it to be true. So, that’s depressing. In this standard model there’s one missing piece. There’s a symmetry that we think – we see this as being a broken symmetry, so you can imagine someone that is symmetric, but then one eye is like half an inch lower than the other eye. And we go, why? Why is that? And we say, well we think we know. We think we know why it is. One possibility is there’s this Higgs-Boson. It’s something it’s a particle which interacts with all the other particles in such a way as to make them move more slowly, let’s say. Have mass, be harder to push around. So, there’s one theory that this Higgs-Boson should be able to be seen soon at high energies and we’re going to find it. So there’s a whole bunch of people who are really looking for the Higgs-Boson. And we haven’t found it yet and I have to say that all the indirect evidence says we should have found it already but we didn’t. And then there’s a whole bunch of other people who are feverously and wonderfully saying, “Look, if we don’t find the Higgs-Boson, it's even more interesting.” The only worry is that if we do find it, the standard model is right. If we don’t find it, we may never make us – build us another accelerator. So, it’s kind of complicated.

Question: What makes the Large Hadron Collider an important advance?

Melissa Franklin: Well, on the one hand, it’s just higher energy. Fermilab has a center of mass energy, total center matching 2TEV and Large Hadron Collider is 14TEV when it’s finally, after a while it will be 14 TEV. So, you’re just going to a higher energy which means you can really probe smaller distances, which you can make higher mass particles because you’ve got more energy. And so just from an experimentalist point of view, it’s just way cooler and we probably will see something interesting. From a theorist point of view, it reaches the energy where they say this symmetry breaking cause must show itself. It has to show itself, actually there’s an argument that probability is violated. The probability will be greater than one, unless we see something happening. So those are the two different views. So, in fact, the Large Hadron Collider is going to start at a lower energy than 14 TEVs, its going to start at 7 because there are some technical problems. And a lot of the experimentalists are still incredibly happy because for us it’s something new. You’re looking somewhere you’ve never looked before and it’s fascinating to see. The theorists are a little bit more grumpy. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but in the New York Times and stuff, they’re very grumpy and they’re saying, “This is unacceptable.” Like I can’t believe it’s not going to turn on you and I’m getting old. That kind of a thing. So, those are the two different views. But everybody’s excited that it will turn on. It’s extremely difficult. These machines are extremely complicated. It’s extremely difficult to get them up and running. It usually takes a couple of years.

Question: What cool things could the LHC reveal?

Melissa Franklin: Okay, so I’m just interested to see what happens. There’s these string theorists, you probably know about them because they’re often in the news. And apparently they’re very smart. And they say there’s a new symmetry, which is very exciting. A new space-time symmetry called Super Symmetry so for all the particles we have they’re a Super Particle partners. Okay? Now, the symmetry would say that the Super Particle partners would have exactly the same mass as the particles, but that’s not true. We already know that. So, there’s a symmetry breaking there. But the String Theorists believe the Super Symmetry must exist even if incredibly badly broke. So they are absolutely hoping that we will find Super Symmetry and we are absolutely looking for them. And so, there’s a lot of experimentalists who do what the theorists say, unfortunately. And they are looking for Super Symmetry. And there’s other people who are looking – more renegade and I don’t know what they will find – or I will find.

Question: Is it a legitimate fear that the LHC could create an Earth-consuming black hole?

Melissa Franklin: Well, it’s a great idea, and people have written papers you know ten years ago. Could you create a really tiny black hole at a collider? And then the problem we were always thinking of, well how – this is funny because we were always thinking, well how would you know that you had created a black hole? Because it would decay immediately into – not only would decay, it would decay into hundreds of particles all very low energy and how could you tell? So, we were always thinking of not of the problem of creating a black hole, but how would we possibly see it before it’s completely gone? And we convinced ourselves that Fermilab for instance that we couldn’t. We wouldn’t even know if we made black holes. So, it was a big surprise to me that all of a sudden people were really worried that we were doing to make one so big that not only would we see it, but that it would devour the whole earth. So, I mean [you can] put out a report that says that the likelihood is incredibly small, but still you can’t say it’s zero. But I think it would be fast. It might be an interesting way to go. You wouldn’t have a lot of time to worry like in all those apocalyptic films where it takes a long time. So, I just tell the people that it’s incredible – the probability is incredibly small, and on the other hand, it wouldn’t be so bad.

Question: When the LHC opens, what will happen to Fermilab?

Melissa Franklin: A children’s toy – Well Fermilab is still running. And in fact, Fermiab is going to continue running until we actually see that the LHC is working. It’ll probably run for another year. It’s possible you could see the Higgs Boson if you are very lucky. It’s possible – and it’s there. It’s possible that you could see it at Fermilab, but it’s very unlikely. I don’t know. There’s so few people working on the collider at Fermilab now it might be hard to find anything. I guess it is sad. I worked on that for 25 years.

Question: Will it be hard to say goodbye?

Melissa Franklin: I have a problem separating. Yeah, I guess so. Actually, more than 25 years. It’s sad.

Question: Why should citizens be footing the bill for these expensive machines?

Melissa Franklin: So one of the great things about civilization is that there’s a whole bunch of different people. All the different people are curious about different things and somehow if they all follow their own curiosity in some way, great stuff happens. That’s sort of what’s happened so far. I mean, if you’re in a civilization where you are able to support people doing that, and then you feel happier to be in it. I mean, when I read about something, whether it’s art, or Biology, or Sociology, if I read about something interesting and I realize that some humans actually spent their whole life doing that and that we supported them doing it, I feel like that’s the pinnacle of civilization, that’s the best. One of the reasons we fund these experiments is because we want to live in a world where people find stuff out. Imagine if you funded nothing in science and you never found anything out. How depressing that would be. I don’t know actually, how depressing would that be? That would be pretty depressing. Our imagine a world which nobody could write books, or yeah, I think the reason to fund things, and of course you can’t argue that any stupid thing you should fund, but I think there are a whole lot of people that are interested in doing something and it makes sense and they worked on it for years. It’s reasonable to fund it I think if you can. I mean there’s some people who believe that you should only fund things that make people’s lives longer. But that seems ridiculous. How about making people’s lives better? How about making people happier to be alive because they can read cool stuff in the New York Times, or whatever, wherever, in Science. So people somehow are moralistic about the length of people’s lives rather than the quality of life, rather than the standard of living. So, I think by me doing particle physics, it raises everybody’s standard of living. That’s boy – maybe I should be quoted that way. I mean I think I do though.

Question: What do you think about popularizers of science like Brian Green?

Melissa Franklin: I think it’s great. People made so much fun of Carl Sagen, but he did so many great things. You know what I think is great? These people who popularize science and then they – everybody hates them, of course, like you say, well you like Brian Green, Brian Green was a post-doc in our department. He’s a young guy, right? And I’ll make fun of him because he’s – that’s what we do. Scientists make fun of science popularizers, on the other hand, it’s a wonderful thing. What could be better about taking science to the people? That’s exactly where it belongs. So, I really admire those people and every once in a while I’ll do something like that myself. And if they get very full of themselves, fine. Why not. I mean, I think they’re doing a great job. Nevertheless, I am the first one to make fun of people.

Question: What keeps you up at night?

Melissa Franklin: It’s embarrassing. Whether or not my son does well on the baseball team. Whether or not he is able to hit. Worries me at night about the world? I don’t know. I don’t sleep much, so I spend a long of time online reading news in the middle of the night. Lately actually not so much seems very worrying to me, strangely. It seemed like a few years ago it was much worse. Maybe that was – you now, now, to be honest, if you look at, Nothing every happens as far as I can tell. But there are more insidious things happen which are scary, I guess. I don’t stay up at night worrying about global warming even though I think it’s a huge problem. This is embarrassing, I stay up at night worrying about local stuff. Yeah, I’m sorry. I should have something really deep to say about that.

Question: If you could have dinner with anyone, who would it be?

Melissa Franklin: So, here’s a problem, I just have to tell you right now. Whenever I meet somebody who I really like, I mean who I really admire, I’m a complete idiot at dinner. So, I mean, a complete idiot. So, in a way I would not ever like to go to dinner with anyone. But I have to say that when Samuel Beckett died, I felt like, are you kidding. I was supposed to become your friend, how could you die without that happening. I mean it was just an unspoken idea I had had my whole life that I would meet Samuel Beckett and he would like me and we would become friends. So, but of course, if I did meet him, I’d act like a complete idiot. And I was supposed to meet Feynman, but luckily I didn’t because then I – I don’t have that – you know how people say that pain you can’t remember but embarrassment you can? So, I’m really glad I didn’t meet Feynman because imagine meeting Feynman and then having nothing but love at all energy scales for him and then be an idiot and then remembering that your whole life. So, yeah, I don’t really want to meet these guys at all. But I think I would be less embarrassed by Beckett than Feynman.

Question: What advice would you give to a girl who wants to be a physicist?

Melissa Franklin: I think it’s important to realize that the most interesting thing about you is what you are interested in. So, what you have to play up is perhaps your interests and follow your interests because that’s actually what’s interesting. That’s the only thing that is ever going to be interesting about you. And that can go a long way in physics, or in science. Just being able to follow your own ideas is really important. That’s not to be totally tied up with the idea of my idea, my idea, my idea, but just to follow in the direction of our own ideas. And honestly, there’s no point in being successful at physics if you can’t. I don’t know if that – I think that is a way to succeed actually, to have a vision.

Recorded on: October 21, 2009