A talk with Lisa Randall

Particle physics, the aria

By Samuel P. Jacobs
December 14, 2008
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HARVARD'S JEFFERSON LABORATORY, home to the physics department since 1884, has seen its share of firsts; 10 Nobel Laureates have made their discoveries there. Today, leading theoretical physicist Lisa Randall is working on another improbable first for the department: She's writing an opera.

Randall has emerged as a public face for the complex fields of cosmology and particle physics; her 2005 book, "Warped Passages," introduced nonscientific readers to the possibility of additional dimensions beyond the three we see, and how their existence could account for many of the physical world's most perplexing phenomena.

Writing a book for a general audience connected Randall with a new set of people in fields outside of physics. One of them, the Spanish composer Hector Parra, intrigued Randall by asking if she would try writing a libretto for an opera about her work. The resulting piece, a collaboration with the artist Matthew Ritchie, is scheduled to debut in Paris at the Georges Pompidou Centre this summer, then travel throughout Europe in the fall.

The opera is an intimate work - an hourlong show written for two performers - that carries uncomfortable ideas about our world and how we experience it. The piece has the puzzling title of "Hypermusic Prologue: A projective opera in seven planes," the seven planes referring to space and to the opera's seven acts. The work's broader goal is to suggest new approaches to both science and art. The old-fashioned form of opera, Randall and her colleagues hope, can become a vehicle for modern science, using sound and voice to re-create the many dimensions that physicists now explore.

"It's kind of mathematical, it is geometrical, and it is looking towards the future," Randall, 46, says of the title.

Ideas spoke to Randall in her office at Harvard.

IDEAS: What makes this a good time to combine art and science?

RANDALL: There are a lot of interesting and abstract concepts that science is trying to wrap its head around these days. How do you communicate those? I tried very hard to do it in the book. . . . In part, what was challenging is that you have to give a linear presentation. . . . In an opera, or a piece of art, you are not teaching something, but at least you can get across some of these important concepts in a more interesting fashion. You can have a complexity in having different thought strands, different ideas come in simultaneously.

IDEAS: How does it work, incorporating physics into a piece of music?

RANDALL: You want the art and the music and the words to converge. There is also physics in it. Hector was insistent on putting some of that in, but we don't expect people to be entirely aware of it. . . . Hector uses specific interesting musical devices, contrasting tempos and color as well as going in and out of an electronic treatment. We are working with Matthew to develop a new space representing the extra dimension.

IDEAS: This collaboration between art and science can seem like a one-way street. Are there ways that art can improve science? Does opera improve your physics?

RANDALL: I don't think we have reached a point where art really translates into science. Perhaps for some people having good visuals can help translate into science. I don't think I think that way necessarily. . . . For me, I think they are more or less independent. The creative project, I thought, more fit into my side of trying to share science.

IDEAS: What sorts of things get lost when you're trying to share science in art?

RANDALL: The first priority is that it is a good piece of art or music. That, of course, is constraining, but it also makes it more exciting. . . . I'm happy to say that some of the physics I have done sort of naturally lends itself to this: the idea of extra dimensions, walking out into another world. It has a visual appeal that sets up the idea of warping, the idea that things change when you go into extra dimensions.

IDEAS: What was hard for you about writing this?

RANDALL: I should say that I didn't know whether I would be able to do it. I still am not 100 percent, but I have given it to a number of people, especially people involved in opera . . . who have been excited about it and really liked what I wrote, so I feel much more confident and optimistic at this point. There is also risk. I've done good physics. I've done a book. You don't want to go out there and be silly.

IDEAS: Has there been a scientist who has written a good piece of music?

RANDALL: There are a couple that people have told me about, but I think ours is different for several reasons. It is not just about one science thing, but how a scientist looks at the world. The scientist is also a composer. . . .You could think of science as discovering one particular thing - a supernova or whatever. You could also think of it as discovering this whole new way of seeing the world.

IDEAS: Why take time away from physics to do this?

RANDALL: I love physics, but I really truly believe in art and I think it is very important. . . . I think this is an exciting opportunity to do something that really hasn't been done before. . . .There are so many ways for it to be done badly as well, of course, but the concept is extremely promising.

IDEAS: You've stepped forward as a spokesperson for physics. What sort of responsibilities do you feel? What are the difficulties?

RANDALL: Scientific experiments are expensive, and people are entitled to know about them if they want to. I think it is very difficult to convey ideas. We scientists are in a unique position to have found them and then try to convey them. In fairness, I don't think that everyone understands what I say, but I think they understand part of it and part of what the issues are. . . . Just the same way that people like a good painting, I think people really like understanding, knowing about the world. There is something very beautiful and wonderful about it.

Samuel P. Jacobs is a senior at Harvard College and associate managing editor of The Harvard Crimson.

Lisa Randall (Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe) "The scientist is also a composer," says Harvard physicist Lisa Randall.
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