Not My Job: Physics Professor Lisa Randall Gets Quizzed On Phys Ed Randall is a theoretical physicist and professor at Harvard. In 2007 she was named one of the 100 most influential people by Time. She's recently written a book called Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs.

Not My Job: Physics Professor Lisa Randall Gets Quizzed On Phys Ed

Not My Job: Physics Professor Lisa Randall Gets Quizzed On Phys Ed

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Rose Lincoln/Harvard University
Physics professor Lisa Randall is the Frank B. Baird Jr. Professor of Science at Harvard University.
Rose Lincoln/Harvard University

Lisa Randall is a theoretical physicist and professor at Harvard. In 2007 she was named one of the 100 most influential people by Time. She's recently written a book called Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs. Randall studies multiple universes. In one of those alternate realities her publicist booked her on a cool, reputable show ...

... but alas, that's not the reality we live in, so we've invited Randall to play a game called "Everybody line up to get picked for dodgeball!" Three questions about phys ed for a physics professor.

Click here to listen to an extended version of this interview.


And now the game where we ask really smart people about stupid things. This week, we are delighted to welcome Harvard physicist Lisa Randall. She is famous for creating - among other things -- the Randall-Sundrum model of the universe, which suggests that our universe is a five-dimensional anti-de Sitter space into the elementary particles, except, of course, for the gravitron (ph) are localized on a 3 + 1 dimensional brain. We are so excited to have her on so she can explain to me what I just said.


SAGAL: Lisa Randall, welcome to WAIT WAIT.

LISA RANDALL: Thanks for having me here.

SAGAL: It's my pleasure.


SAGAL: By the way, everything I said I copied from Wikipedia. Is that more or less right?

RANDALL: Except I think you said gravitron, which sounds like a game rather than graviton, which is actually the particle that communicates...

SAGAL: Oh, I'm sorry. Gravitron does sound like more fun though, don't you think?

RANDALL: I absolutely do.

SAGAL: I know, OK. So in general, what did I mean? What does five-dimensional anti-de Sitter space mean?

RANDALL: (Laughter) First of all, I'm not creating the universe. I'm creating a model of the universe, which may or may not be true.

SAGAL: Right.

RANDALL: But it is the possibility that in addition to the three dimensions we're familiar with...

SAGAL: Right.

RANDALL: ...Forward-backward, left-right, up-down - maybe there is an additional dimension that we don't experience directly that we call warped.

SAGAL: Right.

RANDALL: And warping has to do with the anti-de Sitter space. And by warping, it means that basically things get rescaled as you go into another dimension...

SAGAL: I decided...


SAGAL: ...To major in English three minutes ago.


SAGAL: How come people like you can come up with these notions of space and dimensions we can't see? I make up some stuff about bugs no one else can see, I end up in the hospital again. It doesn't seem fair.


SAGAL: Now this is interesting - you graduated from Harvard in three years. And then you did your Ph.D., also at Harvard, in just four years. Now, when you were doing this in the '80s - starting in the early '80s, were there a lot of women interested in theoretical physics at that time?

RANDALL: No, there were a ton. It's just amazing.

SAGAL: Really?

RANDALL: No, of course not.


RANDALL: You know, basically, I wasn't properly socialized, so it made sense to do physics.

SAGAL: Yeah.


SAGAL: Dr. Randall, your new book is about dark matter and the extinction of the dinosaurs. Can you explain to us in a way that is easy for me to understand what is dark matter?

RANDALL: So first of all, I did not set out to explain the extinction of the dinosaurs. I'm a particle physicist, and I was actually thinking about dark matter along with some collaborators. And we were trying to explain some weird data that there was. And we thought maybe dark matter is denser than we usually assume, kind of like the Milky Way plane. You know, all the normal matter in the Milky Way disc is denser than the dark matter that surrounds it...

SAGAL: Meaning...

RANDALL: Dark matter is around an enormous circle halo - most of it.

SAGAL: When you say dark matter you mean it can't do math either, I assume?

RANDALL: (Laughter).

SAGAL: Dark matter...

RANDALL: Exactly.

SAGAL: ...All majors in English, so - seriously...


SAGAL: So - no, this is to me - I've known about this for a while. I didn't know it was a recent discovery. But basically, the idea - if I understand correctly - is that we look around the universe and we see all, you know, just billions of galaxies, and we say wow, what a big universe. But it turns out that's, like, a quarter of what the universe actually is. The rest we just can't see, and that's dark matter. It's still there. We just can't see it.

RANDALL: Actually, it is about five times as much dark matter as ordinary matter. And you're right, we don't see it. We see its gravitational influence, but we don't see it directly. It does not interact with light. It would be better named transparent matter...

SAGAL: Right.

RANDALL: ...Because you do see dark things.

SAGAL: Is it possible that there are dark matter planets with dark matter people who are speculating about the existence of about a fifth of the universe that they can't see but probably has people who are bad at math?


RANDALL: They are probably speculating why these people that are only one-sixth of the matter in the universe think they're so important.


ALONZO BODDEN: Lisa, Alonzo Bodden here, I just have to ask, like, do you totally ruin science fiction movies for your friends?


BODDEN: Do they come back from "Transformers" or "X-Men" and you're like no, no...

SAGAL: No, not going to happen.

BODDEN: ...Didn't happen.

RANDALL: Well, fortunately for them, I couldn't bring myself to go to "Transformers." I'm sorry.

SAGAL: You are smart, yeah.

BODDEN: That's why you've never seen "Gravitron."


SAGAL: You were a studious kid, and obviously, that paid off in your extraordinarily rapid rise to your position now. But you've been writing books; they've been bestsellers. You've been getting a lot of media attention. You have been referred to - not by me - as the physics babe. So have you had to learn to present yourself differently than back during the many, many days when you were just in the lab or in a classroom working out problems?

RANDALL: It's actually true. You know, I had this illusion that if I kind of dressed badly that I wouldn't stand out. You know, so I actually went out of my way to not look different to the extent I could. But, you know, when you start doing public stuff, you realize, you know, you just look weird if you do that. So I actually realized that maybe I should wear some of the clothes in my closet. So...

FAITH SALIE: Hey, Lisa, this week, People announced its sexiest men alive. And I was just wondering, apart from yourself, who do you think this is the sexiest scientist alive?

RANDALL: You know, it's really not a question I ever ask. I actually don't think it's really a great question to be asking.


RANDALL: Who cares?


SALIE: No, I think...

O'ROURKE: Neil Degrasse Tyson cares.

SAGAL: Yes, he wants it to be him.

RANDALL: That's it, exactly. (Laughter).

BODDEN: Would asking who's the sexiest scientist be like asking who's the smartest model?

RANDALL: That's a really interesting question actually because, you know, sometimes models are surprisingly smart. And...


RANDALL: ...You know, maybe it is good to get around that, you know, to actually know that that's also true.

SALIE: Tyra Banks went to Harvard. She got a degree.

RANDALL: I didn't know that, if that's anything.

BODDEN: Yeah, Tyra Banks went to Harvard, but Tyra Banks can go anywhere.

SAGAL: That's true.

BODDEN: If you look like Tyra Banks, they never say no, you can't come here.

SAGAL: Can't come - it's true.

RANDALL: You know, I'm going to say something that's even worse, which is that, you know, probably if you look like Tyra Banks, it probably is hard, even if you are really smart, for people to take - it surprises some. And they don't expect...

SAGAL: That's interesting because...

RANDALL: ...And that's actually a disadvantage in some ways, too.

SAGAL: Cindy Crawford, famous supermodel, on the show a few weeks ago, she actually complained. She says nobody assumes I'm smart, and she is smart. And she wanted to let people know that. So do you have the opposite thing - that nobody assumes you're gorgeous, and so you have to show up and be gorgeous? I have no idea how you would work that in reverse.

RANDALL: (Laughter) I actually went surfing with someone who surfed with Cindy Crawford...

SAGAL: Yeah.

RANDALL: ...And said something like, you know, they were really afraid that, you know, like, her face - you know, something would happen. And they were like, you just have to worry about your brain.


SAGAL: Oh, yes, Lisa, you don't have to worry about your appearance at all. Aren't you lucky? Well, Lisa Randall, we've invited you to play a game we're calling...

BILL KURTIS: Everybody Line Up to Get Picked for Dodgeball.


SAGAL: You teach physics, so we thought we would ask you about physical education, also known as gym class. Get two questions right, you'll win a prize for one of our listeners - Carl Kasell's voice on their home answering machine, if they have one, telling them to give him 20 push-ups now. Bill, who is physicist Lisa Randall playing for?

KURTIS: Thomas Daniels of Tampa, Fla.

SAGAL: All right, first question - recent academic studies have shown that gym class can have lasting effects of a young person's life, such as which of these? A - heightened reflexes whenever anything round is thrown at their head, B - a crippling shame felt whenever required to wear shorts or C - a lifelong aversion to exercise.

RANDALL: Aversion to exercise.

SAGAL: You're exactly right...


SAGAL: ...Yes, a lifelong aversion to exercise. A 2010 study at a Canadian University shows that a bad phys. ed. teacher can ruin a person's enthusiasm for exercise for the rest of their life -good job, guys.


SAGAL: Now, the phys. ed. teachers of America, bless their hearts, are not unaware of their past sins. The website pecentral, for PE teachers, even as a hall of shame for terrible gym classes of the past, including will old classics like Red Rover and Dodgeball and which of these? A - messy backyard, in which teams compete by trying to throw objects - many of them hard - into the other team's area as fast as they can, B - Find the Traitor, in which teams throw balls at the kid who is it until he confesses...


SAGAL: ...Or C - Hunt Your Dinner, in which one kid is the deer and has to hide from the rest of the class, who try to track him down.


RANDALL: Those all sound like fun.


RANDALL: Hunt Your Deer.

SAGAL: Hunt Your Dinner? That would be awesome. I seem to have memories of playing that, but I'm making them up because it was really Messy Backyard.

RANDALL: Yeah, that one actually - that was my second choice.

SAGAL: Oh, well - yeah, no, PE Central says, quote, of Messy Backyard, factor in students' inabilities to count so many objects, the ignored stop signal, blind luck and the inevitable piercing screams of young children, and you have one of our worst games of all time.


SAGAL: Now, phys. ed., Lisa - phys. ed. does not stop you humiliating you just because you graduate high school. Center College in Kentucky offers which of these unusual phys. ed. classes.

RANDALL: Oh, no...

SAGAL: Is it A - Drunken Yoga, exercises you can do safely while inebriated, B - The Art of Walking - how to walk, where to walk, how not to be bored while walking - or C - Modern Ninjitsu - how to navigate malls, airports and DMV offices with maximum efficiency?

RANDALL: Art of Walking?

SAGAL: The Art of Walking is correct, yes.


SAGAL: It's a very popular class at the university. They go for walks, and they they think about stuff. Bill, how did professor Lisa Randall do on our quiz?

KURTIS: Well, she got 2 out of 3. So Lisa, you're still smart.

SAGAL: Yeah, you were worried. This might've ended it all.

RANDALL: Yeah, this was nerve-racking.

SAGAL: Lisa Randall is a theoretical physicist and professor at Harvard. Her new book is "Dark Matter And The Dinosaurs." Lisa Randall, thank you so much for joining us.

RANDALL: Thank you. This was a lot of fun.

SAGAL: Take care.


SAGAL: In just a minute, Bill steps on a lego, but does not scream. It's the Listener Limerick Challenge. Call 1-888-WAIT-WAIT to join us on the air. We'll be back in a minute with more of WAIT WAIT... DON'T TELL ME from NPR.

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