Cosmic Boston: With Superstar Scientist Lisa Randall

Cosmologist Lisa Randall explains Boston, the universe and everything.

In recent years, Boston has had no trouble living up to its nickname, “The Hub of the Universe,” especially if you believe that the most powerful force in the entire fabric of time and space is sports. Tom Brady and Big Papi clearly hail from an advanced civilization in a distant galaxy, and they chose to ply their trade right here: overwhelming evidence of a Boston-centric cosmos. However, for anyone who needs further proof, academia may hold the key—specifically, the cosmic pursuits of a softly-spoken Harvard professor and author of globally popular science books.

Lisa Randall is no ordinary expert in particle physics and cosmology. Through her nonfiction—including “Knocking on Heaven’s Door,” “Warped Passages” and, most recently, “Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs”—she has explained really complicated stuff to the world at large in language we can all understand.

Charles Hayden Planetarium

Deep Mysteries

For example, by asking us to imagine the movement of mopeds through a traffic jam, or the scrum of Hollywood paparazzi around George Clooney, or the stark difference between black ink and film noir, she effortlessly nudges us towards deep mysteries that are challenging the cleverest people on the planet.

“I don’t like flowery writing, but I still like to write well,” she said, over a lunch of lobster rolls and oysters in Harvard Square. “There’s an art to that.”

In short, Randall does all the hard work involving math, data, equations and impossibly interwoven lines of logic, and we get to see the universe in a whole new light. When she’s not busy investigating seemingly invisible things at the smallest and the largest scales of existence, Randall takes regular excursions to the intersection of science and the arts, and from there she can open up the mysteries of the cosmos to everyone.

Art-Science Connections

“Art and music are ways to share culture with the world,” she said. “And science is a part of culture these days. It’s a really good time for art-science connections.”

Randall has deviated from the fixed orbit of common-or-garden variety physicists by collaborating on an opera in Paris and art installations in Los Angeles, all in the name of shedding light on dense, tricky and often obscure ideas.

Moving outside of her specialized subject is ultimately, she thinks, good for her work.

“It helps to believe in the richness of all these other things. People don’t understand the nature of science sometimes—it’s not just categorizing and observing. It becomes science when you put it all together and think about how you can learn more.”

"Glass Flowers" at the Harvard Museum of Natural History (©Nate Dean)

Big Picture

The great thing about living, working and contemplating the universe in Boston is that it’s packed with all sorts of “other things,” from museums and galleries to concert halls and world-class bookstores.

“The best research often comes out of having a big picture both within your field and outside it,” she said. “And you do have the opportunity here in Boston to get different perspectives on things.”

For Randall, that might mean borrowing a professor from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to consult about black holes, or checking out space debris at the Harvard Museum of Natural History—the latter coming in very handy when she was researching comets, meteors and asteroids for her latest book.

“There were all these things I didn’t think about before working on “Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs,” so to realize that right next door there are some pretty nice examples of meteorites was exciting.”

A Fascinating Universe

For fans of Randall’s work, and for anyone interested in cracking open the nutshell of the cosmos, Boston has all sorts of options, including the planetarium at the Museum of Science and—for stargazing—the Boston University Coit Observatory and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. After a little exploration, it’s clear there’s no doubt that Boston’s hub status is well-earned.

As Randall puts it at the end of “Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs:” “A fascinating Universe is out there for us to cultivate, cherish, and understand.”

Where better to begin a voyage of cosmic discovery than Boston?

Charles River Swimmers (©Tim Radville)

Lisa Randall’s Boston

Rock Gyms: "When I was first here there was only the Boston Rock Gym. Since then MetroRock opened and Brooklyn Boulders, which is really nice—I can walk or bike over."

Harvard Museums: "We have a great Natural History Museum. 'The glass flowers'—it’s one of those things you hear about, it sounds so kitsch, but it’s truly amazing."

Best Surprise: "The way the Charles River has changed. They’re actually opening up a swimming thing now. I think it’s a real conservation success."

Day-Trip Museum: "The New Bedford Whaling Museum is amazing. A friend and I had read “Moby Dick” and thought we should go—you really get a sense of what it was like, how they started over-fishing, also the risks people took."

Cultural Secret: "The New England Conservatory and the Longy School of Music both give free concerts that a lot of people don't even know about."