The Ath Chronicles of Sofia and Henna: Lisa Randall, Nov. 6
Before we begin, we should probably mention that we are not natural science majors. That is, since day one of our academic careers, we’ve been geared toward the humanities and social sciences. But this didn’t stop us from signing up for Professor Lisa Randall’s Ath talk, “How Do We Know There are Extra Dimensions?” Engrossed in conversation, we entered the Ath truly shocked at the size of the audience. Unlike the previous Ath talks we’ve been to this semester, where some tables were filled and occasional wanderers filed into the back couches, this event was completely packed. We sat ourselves on the end of one of the four rows of extra chairs, pulled out our laptops, and waited for the talk to commence.
Professor Randall began her talk with the approachable subject of scale. Little did we know, “scale” is a far more conceptual and complex topic than we had anticipated. She went on to describe how the “big scientific questions” often dismiss the subtle processes of the universe that often occur on a smaller level. Much of being a scientist, according to Randall, is learning how to maintain a balancing act of sorts. In other words, thinking about both large and small conceptual processes is fundamental for scientific understanding.
What made Randall's presentation interesting were her numerous “social analogies.” When discussing dark matter and its pivotal role in the creation of our galaxy, Randall compared dark matter to a behind-the-scenes actor — someone who is responsible for the entire existence of something but never receives full credit for his or her action or role. Later, she implied that theorists who assert that dark matter must exist as a single, non-interacting particle were quite trite. She connected this vein of thought to another social analogy: everyone thinks his or her world is really rich and nuanced, while everyone else’s is simple and straightforward.
Alas, the question posed in the title of this Ath talk was finally answered. How do we know there are extra dimensions? Dark matter. These transparent particles travel with momentum in extra dimensions and consist of extra heavy mass. This fact, Randall explained, indicates the existence of these enigmatic dimensions and allows scientists to search for them.
As Randall concluded her talk, we realized the value of attending talks outside of our respective interests. It was clear to both of us that we weren’t going to depart the Ath keen on becoming particle physicists or switch our majors to astronomy, but we were content with the simple fact that we had learned something entirely new.
Later that night, we continued to think about science in the Ath. We recalled how Professor Randall often stumbled over more complex topics, explaining her rapid gloss with the justification that she just “didn’t have enough time” to expatiate. Was the Ath, with its stringent time constraint, the most effective forum for deeply intellectual science presentations? Do any other platforms exist that might better foster a more in-depth analysis of scientific subjects that aren’t necessarily fit for a classroom setting?
Just some thoughts from a couple of non-science majors, thinking about science. Catch us next week for another edition of the Ath Chronicles!