Lisa Randall’s Guide to the Galaxy

The famed cosmologist unveils her latest theories on the invisible universe, extra dimensions and human consciousness

Lisa Randall is the first female theoretical physicist tenured at Harvard. (Andreas Pein / LAIF / Redux)
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—This changes everything!

She concludes with these wry lines:

—I know what everyone wants to know is when will we see dark matter.
—Answer could be sooner—or later—than we think!

It seems fairly certain that when it happens, if it happens anytime soon, Lisa Randall will be among the first to know.
(Recent reports emerging since our talk hint at other possible dark matter observations, but Randall believes her partial interaction scenario is still salient.)


Although Randall’s work takes her thoughts into outer space, it is a question about another dimension, inner space, that she gives the most elaborate answer to during our lunch. The subject comes up near the end, as she is spearing forkfuls of my blueberry cobbler. I ask her about human consciousness—the dark matter within us—namely whether she has thought about the mind/brain question: Is the mind the product of the brain, all our thoughts neurochemically determined (as the “materialists” say), or is the mind not a slave of the physical brain, somehow capable of free will (as the “dualists” believe)? Or can we never answer that question? The philosopher Colin McGinn calls himself a “Mysterian” as an homage to the ’60s one-hit wonder band (“96 Tears”) Question Mark & The Mysterians because he thinks our consciousness may never be capable of comprehending the mystery of its own nature.

Randall seems to take McGinn’s argument as a challenge: “First, I think it’s always a mistake to say ‘never,’ because we probably can understand a lot more about it even if we don’t ultimately understand it. Second, we haven’t been trying to answer this question for a very long time. We understand a lot of things now that we didn’t understand before. And it’s terrifically hard, because we don’t even know what we mean by consciousness.”

What Randall talks about when she talks about consciousness is a continuum.


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