Sunday, June 23, 2013

Lisa Randall on Higgs, physics, real world

If you have 49 minutes, you may listen to this interview of the Lip TV's Walter Kim with Lisa Randall.

She just celebrated the 15th birthday this week, with whatever permutation of the digits you find appropriate, and her twin sister Sabina Křováková just won the Czech and Slovak Superstar (local American Idol).

At the beginning, she explains the importance of approximations and layers of science. Clearly, these are similar ideas that Ken Wilson is celebrated for. This is important to understand the relationship of science to claims about religion, too. The host identifies controllable approximations with sloppiness, something she has to clarify.

High-energy physics is looking for the most fundamental laws – which isn't all of science – and she quickly starts to explain where extra dimensions fall into this scheme. The host dismissively says (here) that aren't extra dimensions just a way to escape from problems because what we tried doesn't work. Of course that they are but the dismissive tone is completely unwarranted. Science always does progress in this way and it's exciting! I get somewhat more angry when such idiotic anti-science laymen's "questions" are being asked but Lisa Randall got slightly upset, too. ;-)

It's still important whether a broader paradigm is capable of solving some problems and whether it is actually the right solution. This is what science is all about. This is why science is exciting.

Then they continue with the tests of the new theories at the "supercollider", i.e. the LHC. Lisa explains that she isn't working "just" on extra dimensions, of course. Randall reveals that she would prefer a higher-energy collider such as the SSC. Natural and man-made accidents at the LHC are distinguished; Lisa thinks that sometimes laymen manage to understand why the LHC isn't dangerous for the world.

Lisa communicates with the host in an interactive way, not hesitating to correct various misconceptions and distortions that are either said explicitly or in between the lines. For example, the host starts to talk about the "feeling of consistency". So Lisa rightfully insists that it's not about feelings; it's about objective tests that establish or not establish the consistency.

People are unexcited about new technologies until someone creates it and everyone has to have it. ;-) But Lisa also emphasizes that we are curious even when we subtract technological applications. Science works. For her. But Lisa is also asked about some philosophy and history of whether or not people trust science or religion. It depends where people apparently get their power from. People thinking that the power is inaccessible etc. tend to mistrust science, Randall concludes.

We hear about a fun Earth science class that predicted that a particular place would be flooded etc. She hasn't learned much from the humanity classes. The host talks about the hero status of scientists etc. when he was younger; Lisa tends to emphasize the satisfaction of a person who is getting the answers. She points out that not only brute physical limitations but also the financial limitations are slowing us down. How much do we want to invest?

Why computers can't do research? Why can't they write novels? Some comments about the combination of rigorous, almost mechanical work and fuzzy creativity are offered.

She would like some topics to be approached more scientifically. Climate change is quoted as an example. Well, at this level, I surely agree. We can't quite be 100% certain. I am just 99.999% certain that there's no serious conceivable problem with the climate in the next century or two but that's enough of a certainty to scientifically dismiss the doomsayers.

How is the U.S. rewarding scientists etc.? Some time is spent with the evaporating leadership of America in science. Lisa doesn't care about the nationality of science too much but she finds the trends scary, anyway. Some supportive comments about the pure basic research are heard. Lisa remembers a discussion with researchers in a less prestigious science, biology, who were told by her that physics is all the stuff that actually works at the doctor's office. But we don't even do it because of that! ;-) Investments in science itself has never hurt us, Lisa thinks.

Is still science penetrating the mass culture? Does she enjoy science-fiction etc. She thinks that it makes people think more broadly about things. Quotes from Casablanca, the film, were about physics and they could afford it because the viewers were familiar with it. Lisa tries to jump to the U.S. contributions to the LHC – a non-member that has more physicists there than anyone else – but he returns to popular culture quickly. ;-)

Is science thinking in the root of culture? There are many other aspects, like eating, in which nations are unified. ;-) Is your field getting so detached from the public? Lisa writes books because people care. Some people care, others don't. There are different levels of understanding, too. Just like in books about classical music etc.

Some platitudes and claims that science is or isn't immoral wrap up this exchange.

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