In her new book, Lisa Randall explores the scientific mysteries of dark matter, dinosaur extinction and more
Lisa Randall builds models—not of ships or airplanes, but of the world. As a theoretical physicist, she assembles theories that attempt to explain the nature of matter and space, and some of them are doozies. Take this one: Dark matter, the invisible scaffolding that keeps galaxies and solar systems from flying apart, might have kicked a comet from the Oort Cloud toward our inner solar system 66 million years ago, where it slammed into earth, causing the extinction of the dinosaurs as well as two-thirds of the other species roaming the planet. This theory serves as the foundation of her new book, Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs.
She’s in the perfect position to explain such complexities. Randall has co-authored pivotal papers on string theory, written bestselling books liked Warped Passages and Knocking on Heaven’s Door, and is an honored professor at Harvard, where she lays out the jaw-dropping wonders of the universe while kindling the kinds of questions that grad students dream about tackling.
When I ask her why dark matter interests her, she says, “I’m trying to get to the most basic elements of the universe, so we can figure out what the fundamental laws are. One of the really fun things about working on dark matter for this book was that it created an inroad into learning more about astronomy, geology, paleontology, the solar system, and cosmology. It opened up a lot of doors.”
Randall normalizes the idea of extra dimensions and counter-intuitive ideas about time and space by pointing out that ours is not the only way of knowing. Even so, I can’t help but replay countless magical-realist conversations about quantum physics I’ve overheard in coffee shops around town. I wonder aloud how she bridges the discussion of science and mystery.
“I encounter less talk of mystery than you’d think,” she says. “People know what I’m talking about is science and they respect that. The stuff that’s true is pretty fascinating.”
As a scientist at the top of her field, Randall has often found herself to be the only woman in the room, and I ask if the situation for women in the sciences is improving. “There are more women than there used to be, but it’s still not a big number,” she says. “One of the reasons it’s good to be writing books is because people see that women are doing it. I’d like to think my presence helps a little. I’ve had women talk to me about it, but things have changed as rapidly as they could.”
One of Randall’s gifts is her ability to illuminate and mine connections—between science and art, distant space and the ground beneath our feet—but she doesn’t force them.
“My job as a scientist is to wait and see what the connections really are,” she says.
I ask whether she was connecting history to climate change while she wrote the book. She tells me she was. “I was thinking about the history of the planet, what it is that we’re changing and and how quickly we’re changing it,” she says. “It’s helpful to have a context and understand where we came from, all the complicated interrelationships that have formed over millions of years. It’s not clear that we can affect one and have everything else fall into place.”
As we finish our conversation, it hits me that I’ll probably never again have the chance to ask someone with her knowledge the ultimate question: Is there life on other planets?
“I think it’s very likely there is,” she says. “What I’m less confident about is whether we’ll be able to identify or discover it. A lot can happen in the universe. Unambiguously convincing ourselves that there’s life in other places might be challenging, but I don’t see any reason why there shouldn’t be.”
Lisa Randall will discuss her latest book at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 18, at Bookshop Santa Cruz. Free.
HEART OF THE MATTER Lisa Randall, whose new book is ‘Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs,’ will speak at Bookshop Santa Cruz on Wednesday, Nov. 18. PHOTO: Christopher Kim.