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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From the ends of the universe to the end of the universe: talking to Randall I recalled Woody Allen in Stardust Memories bemoaning a report that the universe will end when all matter “decays” after trillions of years. His gloomy implication—one that remains a contemporary subject of debate among physicists and philosophers—was that the cosmos has no ultimate purpose, no “teleology,” and so what’s the point of all of our striving to create lasting meaning when nothing lasts. Cheery, no?

I was glad I had the opportunity to ask one of the world’s leading cosmologists her view of all this: “How do you think the universe will end?” I asked her.

“Given the energies we know, and the matter we know about,” she says, “it’s just going to keep expanding and the stuff that’s around will eventually form black holes and it will eventually radiate away and will eventually expand into dilute nothingness. That’s one guess. It’s interesting,” she says, “That’s where it looks like it’s going right now.”

Not entirely different from Woody’s fears—though without even a hint of Woody Allen angst. Rather a kind of cosmic equanimity. But that’s not to say that Randall is incapable of joy, of expressing what it’s like to feel the thrill of cosmic awareness. When I say I’m dismayed by our ignorance of 96 percent of the universe, after all this time studying it, she has another take on it: “I guess I think of it differently,” she says. “I guess I think it’s amazing that we know as much as we do. We’re just people stuck on this planet in the midst of the solar system. It’s incredible how much we’ve figured out. And why should everything be so much like us that we can figure it out? Even just something simple like knowing what plant life will be like in Africa, it’s hard to do unless you actually get there, so we’re in this one location and it’s amazing how much we’ve figured out” about the places—deep space—we haven’t been and may never go.

It is that sense of perspective—of different dimensions—that is so impressive with someone like Randall. So you can imagine the thrill of (nonscientific) discovery I felt when I found a new dimension to her—in the libretto of an opera she had written. Yes, Lisa Randall has written an opera, called Hypermusic: Prologue, at the invitation of Hèctor Parra, then a professor of electroacoustic composition at the Conservatory of Music of Aragon in Spain. The opera was first performed at the Pompidou Center in Paris and subsequently in Barcelona and, in excerpts, at the Guggenheim in New York City.

It incorporates passages from her books as well as original lyrics and it’s very avant-gardish, but, simultaneously, almost shockingly impassioned in a very old-fashioned way.

Here are a few moments:

The soprano, the Lisa Randall figure, enters, in “PLANE 1,” wondering:

—This landscape...?
This stage for our being?
Where is it?
Where does it end?
Structures support existence
Can I find them?
[or are they]
Puzzles I will never decipher from here.
Which is followed by the naked expression of:


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