Lisa Randall: What we talk about when we talk about science…

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Lisa Randall (39 min, 18 meg)

 I do theoretical physics. I like being able to decide every day what to think about…

Lisa Randall with Chris Lydon in her Harvard Lab, March 1, 2012.

Lisa Randall — our village explainer of 21st Century science — is talking about subatomic particles. What I’m hearing are resonances of what used to be called a religious curiosity and hunger.

What big science wants to measure, she’s saying, in the speed-of-light smash-ups of protons inside CERN’s Large Hadron Collider on the border of Switzerland and France, is “the strong force that holds things together.” And I’m wondering out loud: aren’t we all searching for the strong force that holds things together?

It’s not just that the elusive “Higgs boson” in the LHC’s simulation of the Big Bang’s aftermath is often called “the God particle.” (Leon Lederman, who wrote the book, actually wanted to call it “the god-damned particle,” according to Lisa Randall, but his publisher wouldn’t let him). It’s more that so much of our conversation corresponds with the language of religion — starting with experimental leaps of faith, invisible planes of reality, unprovable understandings and the driven pursuit of the unknowable.

I like the line attributed to Chris Hill of the Fermi Lab — using the churchy word “rubric” which used to mean the headings in the Roman Missal printed in red. “The Higgs boson is really a rubric,” said Mr. Hill in Discover magazine. “We don’t know what we’re talking about.”

What I like about Lisa Randall’s books — Warped Passages, about extra dimensions, and now Knocking on Heaven’s Door, about inner and outer limits of the cosmos — is the air of assurance and also mystery. In her office at Harvard, she is touching on the approachable and the sublime, relaxed about the overlapping metaphors and human interests, the “common questions” arising from religion and science. And of course there is a faith inside science. As she says, “You have to believe it’s worth pursuing.”

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    Chris: And I’m wondering out loud: aren’t we all searching for the strong force that holds things together?

    Scientific inquiry wants to isolate, investigate (play with?) and name- see, circle around, smell, taste, listen to. What we are supposedly searching for that holds things together is already holding things together. We want to know what it is, though, and that is marvelous, that we (scientists, searchers) do. In that sense it is like (or the same as) seeking spiritually. I agree.

    Lisa Randall’s mind works so fast that she almost eats her words as they come out (a side comment). A slow thinker like myself can’t listen to this on the way to sleep, nor once.

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