Saturday, August 25, 2012

Open Source: Lisa Randall -- What we talk about when we talk about science…

What we talk about when we talk about science…
by Lisa Randall
Open Source with Christopher Lydon

Lisa Randall our village explainer of 21st Century science — is talking about subatomic particles. What I’m hearing are resonances of what used to be called a religious curiosity and hunger.

What big science wants to measure, she’s saying, in the speed-of-light smash-ups of protons inside CERN’s Large Hadron Collider on the border of Switzerland and France, is “the strong force that holds things together.” And I’m wondering out loud: aren’t we all searching for the strong force that holds things together?

It’s not just that the elusive “Higgs boson” in the LHC’s simulation of the Big Bang’s aftermath is often called “the God particle.” (Leon Lederman, who wrote the book, actually wanted to call it “the god-damned particle,” according to Lisa Randall, but his publisher wouldn’t let him). It’s more that so much of our conversation corresponds with the language of religion — starting with experimental leaps of faith, invisible planes of reality, unprovable understandings and the driven pursuit of the unknowable.

I like the line attributed to Chris Hill of the Fermi Lab — using the churchy word “rubric” which used to mean the headings in the Roman Missal printed in red. “The Higgs boson is really a rubric,” said Mr. Hill in Discover magazine. “We don’t know what we’re talking about.”

What I like about Lisa Randall’s books — Warped Passages, about extra dimensions, and now Knocking on Heaven’s Door, about inner and outer limits of the cosmos — is the air of assurance and also mystery. In her office at Harvard, she is touching on the approachable and the sublime, relaxed about the overlapping metaphors and human interests, the “common questions” arising from religion and science. And of course there is a faith inside science. As she says, “You have to believe it’s worth pursuing.”

To Listen to the Conversation

PDF File of Randall's Book Warped Passages: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Universe's Hidden Dimensions (2005)

Excerpt from Knocking on Heaven's Door: How Physics and Scientific Thinking Illuminate the Universe and the Modern World (2011)

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