“You’re outside. It’s beautiful,” she says, “It’s focused on an interesting problem...and you’re getting up somewhere.” Figuring out which pathway up a rock cliff will be fruitful and which will lead to a dead, or perilous end—and then doing it. With all the risks and dangers that entails. (She had a “bad fall” climbing in Greece not long ago, she says.) She takes that same step-by-step approach in her work. As a result, she is less than infatuated with romantic science-world terms like “beauty” and “elegance.” “I don’t think in terms of ‘truth is beauty’ or ‘beauty is truth,’” she says. “I prefer what works, not elegant so much as economical”—if not the shortest distance between two points, the simplest way to get there.
Even to an outsider, it’s apparent that Randall is not only doing important science but she’s also doing something very brave in the culture of science. In her talk, she’s taking on the biggest mystery of the universe and telling the mostly male scientific community, who had favored the WIMP model, that they may be off course. One has to avoid the tendency to think of it as Nancy Drew versus the Hardy Boys.
You knew we’d have to talk about gender at some point, didn’t you?
Harvard was ground zero for the gender-and-science wars several years ago when Larry Summers, then president of the university, made the incendiary suggestion that the reason there are so few women at the top of math and science professions might be that women are just not as suited for science and mathematics. With the implication that it was not cultural conditioning but genetic brain wiring.
“You’ve probably answered this question a million times,” I say to Randall, “but let me ask you in a different way: not whether women are better or worse, but whether there’s a difference in the way women perceive scientific questions.”
“The thing I will say is that probably culturally, women are treated differently,” she says, “which means I think you’re criticized more, you have to listen a little bit more, you have to justify yourself. So I think there are ways that you probably have to work harder. I can be a good listener. I can ask the right questions a lot of the time. Often not being quite at home, you see things a little bit differently.
“It could be a good thing and a bad thing, right? You see things kind of like when foreigners come to a new country, see things a little bit differently.”
Hear signalsothers don’t...
“And, you know, I grew up pretty much in the same world, pretty much went to the same classes [as male peers], but you have a slightly different experience...”
The focus on science is misplaced, she says, in the gender discussion. “It’s part of a bigger issue about women in society and I think [the focus on science] is like trying to solve the problem of a dying tree by looking at a little tiny root somewhere.”