"The Theory Was Almost Smarter Than We Were"

Physics is a process of rigorous, exhausting intellectual inquiry, but it does offer occasional moments that are "kind of fun." For Harvard's Lisa Randall, one such moment came when she and a colleague worked out the possibility of an infinite extra dimension. "People had actually thought there were theorems that [said] you couldn't have" such a thing, she remembers, but there was no mistaking the implications of her equations: the impossible was possible.

In her second conversation with Big Think, Randall addresses various new developments that have taken place in particle physics since her previous interview in 2008, most notably the activation of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Switzerland. Touching on some of the largest unresolved mysteries in her field, she ticks off a list of questions to which the LHC may provide long-awaited answers, including: where do the masses of elementary particles come from? Why aren't those masses much bigger? And in a related problem, why is gravity so weak?

If you're wondering how Randall's work affects you, you might want to obtain your answer from a new opera for which Randall wrote the librettoand which aims, she says, "to communicate why we [scientists] care about exploration and discovery." Performed recently at the Barcelona Opera House (and coming soon to the Guggenheim Museum in New York), the performance also attempts to suggest the expanding reality of a fifth dimension and was, says Randall, a "very exciting" thing to be a part of.

Randall's first Big Think interview can be found on her expert page (click "Other Ideas" for past features).

NASA astronomer Michelle Thaller on ​the multiple dimensions of space and human sexuality

Science and the squishiness of the human mind. The joys of wearing whatever the hell you want, and so much more.

Think Again Podcasts
  • Why can't we have a human-sized cat tree?
  • What would happen if you got a spoonful of a neutron star?
  • Why do we insist on dividing our wonderfully complex selves into boring little boxes
Keep reading Show less

How to split the USA into two countries: Red and Blue

Progressive America would be half as big, but twice as populated as its conservative twin.

Image: Dicken Schrader
Strange Maps
  • America's two political tribes have consolidated into 'red' and 'blue' nations, with seemingly irreconcilable differences.
  • Perhaps the best way to stop the infighting is to go for a divorce and give the two nations a country each
  • Based on the UN's partition plan for Israel/Palestine, this proposal provides territorial contiguity and sea access to both 'red' and 'blue' America
Keep reading Show less

Ideology drives us apart. Neuroscience can bring us back together.

A guide to making difficult conversations possible—and peaceful—in an increasingly polarized nation.

  • How can we reach out to people on the other side of the divide? Get to know the other person as a human being before you get to know them as a set of tribal political beliefs, says Sarah Ruger. Don't launch straight into the difficult topics—connect on a more basic level first.
  • To bond, use icebreakers backed by neuroscience and psychology: Share a meal, watch some comedy, see awe-inspiring art, go on a tough hike together—sharing tribulation helps break down some of the mental barriers we have between us. Then, get down to talking, putting your humanity before your ideology.
  • The Charles Koch Foundation is committed to understanding what drives intolerance and the best ways to cure it. The foundation supports interdisciplinary research to overcome intolerance, new models for peaceful interactions, and experiments that can heal fractured communities. For more information, visit charleskochfoundation.org/courageous-collaborations.