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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“I do think one mistake we often make is we think of it as a binary thing, like we’re either conscious or not conscious. I think there’s a spectrum of consciousness and I think it’s interesting to study that—the difference between a plant and a dog, the difference between a dog and a baby, between a baby and a slightly older human... I think it’s sort of a continuum.” Looking at it that way, she says, “would be a good start.”

“I’d love to see you take that on,” I say.

“Yeah maybe I’ll take that on next,” she replies, laughing—next after solving the question of the 96 percent of the universe we don’t know about.

Her notion of a continuum of consciousness reminds me of an observation by the great Shakespearean director Peter Brook. “To say someone is alive is not enough,” Brook said. “You can be one percent alive, you can be twenty percent alive. With Shakespeare one has something very extraordinary—a man who’s not merely a hundred percent alive, but perhaps a thousand, even ten thousand, a million percent alive.”

This is what we find so fascinating, so awe-inspiring about cosmologists, astrophysicists, mathematical geniuses. How much more alive to the nature of existence—to the vast realms of extra dimensions—they seem to be. What must that be like? Thrilling, frightening, perhaps isolating since there are so few humans on earth who can comprehend it, much less share it.

I ask Randall about the question of how inspiration figures into her work. She has quoted the great Russian poet Pushkin: “Inspiration is needed in geometry just as much as in poetry.” The inspiration for her career-making notion of “extra dimensions,” she then tells me, came on a walk she took across the old stone-arched bridge over the Charles River.

“You got the idea for extra dimensions on that bridge?” I ask her.

She declines to burnish the anecdote—there’s already a lot of famous eureka-moment stories in the annals of physics—and just says, “Well, it was an insight,” pronouncing the latter word in a self-deprecating way. An insight doesn’t necessarily mean a new truth. Sometimes it’s just a new way of looking at things. “A lot of the time when we’re doing our work, we’re [indoors], putting formulas together, and sometimes you don’t think about it as the world you’re living in.” Taking that walk, she says, “it was just kind of fun to think maybe there are these extra dimensions.”

Extra dimensions meaning mathematical realms beyond the three (or four if you count time—and you should) we are familiar with. String theory now counts up to at least 11 dimensions. Along the way, as it got more complex, it’s become more controversial. In fact, in one of her rare displays of emotion during our lunch, Randall told me she was “fed up with people asking about what Lee Smolin says” about string theory. Smolin is a respected if contrarian theoretical physicist who argues string theories have gone too far in building castles in the air. Randall is protective of her extra dimensions.

Despite her affection for the Pushkin quote, she tells me she doesn’t like to think of her work as being purely fired by “inspiration.” She calls that “top-down” thinking—coming up with a high concept first and then trying to find structures to support it. She prefers bottom-up thinking. Indeed she describes her method, with some humility, as mere “puzzle solving” and finds the best metaphor for it in her favorite sport, rock climbing.


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