The wood-paneled Radcliffe Gymnasium glowed with candlelight as forty guests—generous supporters of the Radcliffe Institute, joined by Radcliffe fellows and Harvard faculty members—met for dinner in late September.
Guests talked informally with Harvard physicist and former Radcliffe fellow Lisa Randall ’83, PhD ’87, RI ’03, who was being honored for her outstanding work in physics and for her acclaimed book Warped Passages: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Universe’s Hidden Dimensions (Ecco, 2005). When someone asked Randall how novelist Cormac McCarthy had happened to learn about her book and read it before it was published, she told the story. A friend of hers was visiting the Santa Fe Institute, where McCarthy was working when Randall was finishing the book. The friend conveyed McCarthy’s interest to Randall, and she sent him the manuscript. “He gave it a good copyedit,” she said. “He really smoothed the prose.”
Dean Drew Gilpin Faust introduced Randall following dinner. “We at the Radcliffe Institute spend a lot of time bringing science together with other disciplines,” Faust said. “We do this because we believe that we need to be a science-literate society and that science needs the insights of social and ethical understanding that come from other fields. Lisa’s work is a marvelous embodiment of this commitment and this conjunction.”
Randall recognized other prominent physicists in attendance, including Howard Georgi ’68, Mallinckrodt Professor of Physics at Harvard; Melissa Franklin RI ’05, also a Mallinckrodt Professor of Physics at Harvard; and Maria Zuber RI ’03, who heads the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at MIT. Before giving an overview of her work, Randall praised Radcliffe Dean of Science Barbara J. Grosz for bringing so many outstanding scientists to the Institute.
When she discussed her own work, Randall conveyed excitement about the Large Hadron Collider, a particle accelerator that is being built in a tunnel straddling the border between Switzerland and France on the outskirts of Geneva. She said that one outcome of the collider, which is scheduled to begin operating later this year, might be the discovery of new particles that travel in extra dimensions. This idea of extra dimensions comes from string theory, which holds that fundamental particles are tiny strands of oscillating energy.
If the new collider proves string theory to be correct, then what? Then we will know a bit more about the universe. “Science doesn’t have the shape of a beginning, middle, and end, the way a story does,” Randall said. “Science builds little by little.”