Mainstream breakthrough

By Sean Carroll | October 31, 2005 11:26 pm

Let’s get this right out of the way: yes, Cosmic Variance did make its first appearance in the New York Times. We get a passing mention in Dennis Overbye’s article about Lisa Randall, for Clifford’s justified annoyance at Ira Flatow’s remarks on Science Friday about Lisa’s appearance rather than her science.

The NYT profile is a good one, managing to mix the personal with the scientific in a more interesting (and less objectionable) way. And they always do a nice job with the graphics; here is their version of the Randall-Sundrum brane-world construction. (Click to enlarge.)
Randall-Sundrum universe
Randall-Sundrum (versions one and two) is a great idea, one that I hope to discuss at length at some point. The basic notion is to have two three-branes (a three-brane has three dimensions of space and one of time) separated by a five-dimensional bulk that is highly curved. The nice feature is that the curvature acts not only on stuff passing through the bulk itself, but also works to rescale energies on one brane in relation to the other. So, what appears naturally to be very high-energy on one brane can be naturally low-energy on the other. This idea may help to explain the huge discrepancy (fifteen or so orders of magnitude) between the typical energy scales of particle physics (about one trillion electron volts, or one TeV) and that of gravity (the Planck scale, 1015 TeV).

But all the publicity, of course, is currently associated with Lisa’s new book more than with any recent breakthroughs. As predicted, I’ve written a review of Warped Passages, along with Michio Kaku’s book Parallel Worlds, which has now appeared in American Scientist. You’ll see that these are very different books, and it shouldn’t be too hard to figure out which I liked better. The holidays are coming — if there’s nobody in your family you like enough to get them my book or Clifford’s, you wouldn’t go wrong buying them Lisa’s.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science, Science and the Media
  • Plato

    You know Sean, Clifford’s squiggles on the blackboard are really more then just squiggles. :)

    He was using his toposense :)

    Yes, no flood light moments, but it can certainly sneak up on you in the smallest of gains.

    Why do all great stories end up in being such and such II or IV? Maybe, because there is always more to the story that they left for you to mull over in the first?

    Thanks for your advice on the books.

  • JoAnne

    The article was less objectionable?? I must point out that Dennis Overbye apparently felt compelled to mention that Lisa Randall is single. May I ask just how that fact is relevant to her work as a physicist?

    And, while I’m at it, don’t even get me started on how books and articles can get written and discuss the signatures of this model at the LHC, but completely ignore the people who did that work and the hard work it took to do it. If this model gets discovered at the LHC, it’s due to the people who deduced the signatures.

  • Dissident

    JoAnne, the fact that Dr. Randall is single may be of no relevance whatsoever to her work (though a sufficiently motivated feminist would have no problem coming up with things like “see, women who want to make it to the top in physics are still required to make the inhuman choice between career and raising a family!”) – but it does qualify as a public service announcement for other like-minded singles who still haven’t given up on finding that special soulmate (see recent comments to Clifford’s Halloween excursion for an idea of the difficulties involved…).

    As for your second remark, I the following quote recently caught my eye while browsing Zee’s refreshingly irreverent QFT text:

    “In the theoretical physics community there are many more people who can answer well-posed questions than there are people who can pose the truly important questions. The latter type of physicist can ivariably also do much of what the former type can do, but the reverse is certainly not true.”

    He’s right, of course. Computing an experimental signature is the domain of type #1 physicists, but even somebody as unenthused by branes as I must admit that coming up with the idea in the first place required type #2 thinking.

  • beatwaydown

    A little link for the expanding universe theorists to sharpen their wits with, and the evolutionary cynicists to stub their toes on. It is saucy and sassy, but not sexy, so don’t let the intro to the main fool you. A good physicist should not fall victim to such crass epiphenomenalism, after all. Such a realistic perspective has yet to be determined. One should suspend judgment and just think sometimes, too. On will never see an oak by analysing an acorn to death.

  • Plato

    The fact that Lisa Randall is single has no bearing what so ever. Placing her on par with the books in question was more of a compliment to me. I put aside the article, in place of Sean’s statements, and his comparisons.

    All roads leading too the LHC are culminative, and thus acomplishments given to all who have had their hand on it. It couldn’t be otherwise. Reductionism was a solid way in which to proceed and very convincing one to have money allotted to this research, or why would such a road be taken? :)

  • graviton383

    Let me just say that I whole-heartedly agree with both of JoAnne’s comments above. In particular, the importance of the phenomenologists and model builders who turned and extended this model into something real that can be tested in a laboratory are often overlooked. Fancy talk buys you nothing in science long term unless you can do (at least one) experiment to verify it.

  • Sean

    I think it is less objectionable, because of the context — it’s a personal profile, one of their occasional “scientist at work” articles, not just a story about the research. I think that there are similar personal details in the corresponding profiles of male scientists.

  • Sean

    Although, to be clear, I do wish the bit about being single hadn’t been included in the article — I just don’t think it was anything like the level of egregious inappropriateness of the Science Friday piece.

  • chimpanzee

    SCHNEIDER: But there was a subject. Why are women underrepresented in science? Summers proposed three theories. One, less willingness to commit to a high-powered job.

    GOLDIN: Individuals — men versus women — might make different choices.

    SCHNEIDER: To Harvard Physics professor Lisa Randall, that raises a red flag.

    LISA RANDALL, HARVARD PHYSICS PROFESSORS: To say it’s just the woman’s choice not to be serious about their work, that’s a bit of an overstatement and, also, that obviously has a lot of cultural issues behind it.

    SCHNEIDER: Two, less aptitude for math and science. Randall argues that can’t be proved.

    RANDALL: There’s no way to establish the kind of intrinsic differences at this point, so, having a debate about it is just a debate about prejudices.

    SCHNEIDER: Three — discrimination. Young girls are discouraged and women face barriers. Summers concluded about the three theories: “Their importance probably ranks in exactly the order that I just described.” Summers said his aim was to be provocative.

    DOBBS: Good to have you all here. Thank you, professor.

    Let me begin in the interest of proximity, with you, professor. Is this much ado about nothing? The fact that a faculty could actually react so emotionally, so passionately over what were extemporaneous remarks that we’re told were designed to be provocative?

    SHOSHKES REISS: They certainly were designed to be provocative. I don’t think they were extemporaneous. I believe he had written comments. This is an ongoing, long-standing problem at Harvard. I was on the faculty there from ’78 to ’91, and women were discriminated against, and our ability to be promoted through the system was made intrinsically difficult.

    DOBBS: I think we should go to a current professor Harvard. That professor, Lisa Randall. Do you agree with Professor Shoshkes Reiss?

    RANDALL: There definitely is a problem. One of the problems was clear was there just weren’t a lot of professors being hired — women professors being hired in the last few years. So there clearly is a problem somewhere.

    I think to say that it was just provocative and emotional is sort of underplaying just the fact that the remarks were not really correct. And in a society where, you know where women are already having kind of a hard time just because there aren’t that many of them, to emphasize and attribute it to intrinsic aptitude is just not a constructive approach. DOBBS: The approach is mine. And I want to be provocative. And I want to find out why the faculty of Harvard, and I should make a full disclosure, I attended Harvard University, graduating at the peak of emotion, freedom of expression if you will, in 1969, when the issues were civil rights and the Vietnam War and professors and teachers were standing on chairs and tables in dining rooms screaming at one another debating issues. What in the world is going on that people should be so sensitive at Harvard that they can’t listen to a Harvard professor lay out provocatively, through intent, a number of elements in his discourse that, frankly, it seems to me, at least, to be scientifically based because there is no adequate science on it?

    RANDALL: Wait a second. Scientifically based because there’s no adequate science? I think we have a little bit of a problem there.

    But let’s go back to the other issue. Let’s ask, why are we picking this particular question to ask? Why not ask a question that might actually be constructive. Such as, we know that there are sociological and cultural factors. So, why don’t we first address those and then see if there’s still a difference.

    I mean, why ask this question that we actually know can’t be answered. Why not ask questions like, hmm, there seem to be a lot more women in science now than there were 10 years ago. There also seem to be a lot more women doctors and lawyers now than there were 10 years ago. So why is that? So those are questions we might actually be able to answer scientifically and there is some science for it.

    SHOSHKES REISS: Can I say that there are also people who do these studies, like professors at Harvard, who have spoken to, who say that actually what’s amazing is how similar the development of men and women’s brains or boys and girls brains are.

    I don’t think it’s so simple. And also there are studies that show, actually, development is affect by genetic factors. So to just say they are intrinsically different is still — it’s just not that scientific yet. DOBBS: Well, again to be fair, President Summers said, intrinsic differences. He didn’t stress the degree, nor did he enumerate or describe them. And he included two others that are also important.

    I think what really fascinates me is that Harvard, and each of the distinguished universities represented by you panel members, reacting as I said passionately, emotionally, and I understand that.

    But this is really, basically — it has taken on the vigor, the energy of, for crying out loud, a witch hunt, because the men chose not to couch his remarks and stylistically, politically correct terms.

    RANDALL: That’s not true. In fact, there was a meeting of the faculty yesterday, and the faculty was extremely generous. The faculty has not been treating it as a witch hunt. People are upset because this is the kind of thing that condones, for example, one of the professors in my department who agrees with Summers used to be in charge of graduate admissions. And if you wonder why there would be more women, well, that could account for it. But I think, in terms of actually attacking him on this issue, people have really tried to focus on — at least as far as the women in science, they’ve really focused on that. The attacks have been about other things, too.

    RANDALL: And I’ve also heard there are problems at Duke University, where there’s actually a lot of harassment of the women faculty. So, you wonder if in that environment students prefer that kind of thing.

    DOBBS: It’s — it’s — the irony here is, that Harvard has worked mightily, spending great money and moving progressively forward to bring an all-men’s institution, that is Harvard College, and an all-women’s institution, Radcliffe, together to bring equality in education. This gets to be sort of mind numbing in the fad of the day. I don’t think anyone would doubt we’re richer for the fact that we have men and women learning together. The fact that there’s a choice for women or a choice for men, in terms of going to a gender specific school, if you will. It seems to me to be regressive.
    RANDALL: But, Lou, we’re not pillaring him. We just want — we just want this situation to be better. I think to characterize it as sort of crazy people yelling is kind of silly. I mean, we’re just trying to make the situation as good as it can be.

    DOBBS: Well, you say that, but at the same time, I wonder. Because what are you going to say, for example, Professor Randall, when all of the women who are now moving into college, they outnumber men now. What will you be saying in 10 years as we’re discussing the failure of men to be moving into these prestigious and important and high-performance jobs like you and all your professor colleagues here now hold.

    RANDALL: I can’t wait to see that outcome. I’m looking forward to that.

    DOBBS: That’s politically incorrect, Professor Randall. My goodness, we’re going to have a storm of protests.

    RANDALL: I’m really glad you think that will happen.

    DOBBS: Can we — can…
    DOBBS: And Professor Randall?

    RANDALL: I think we should look to where people have dealt with this issue more effectively. I mean, there are people where it — I mean, there’s a lot of lawyers that work 80-hour weeks, too. And we should look at what they’ve done and see, can we help address the issue in academia as well.

    DOBBS: And can we all agree that maybe there’s still room for freedom of expression and academic freedom in our universities?

    RANDALL: Go for it. Go for it.


  • hack

    To paraphrase Bush, Crunching out Feynman diagrams is hard work.

  • LM

    I think Sean’s review was overly generous to Kaku, who we all know is a publicity seeking poseur who hasn’t done worthwhile research in decades, though he somehow makes his way onto every PBS special involving physics that comes along. Of course, you can’t just come out and say such things in the American Scientist. But still, if left to his own devices, Kaku will continue to bridge the gap between physics and crackpot new age mysticism.

  • Michael D

    why is it that gravity is rescaled in our universe, but the other 3 forces aren’t?

    or is it related to the distances of which the forces operate?


  • JoAnne

    I respectfully disagree with Dissident on his second point. Determining the relevant experimental signatures of a model is a scientific art in itself. It takes alot of insight, intuition, creativity, and ideas. Once this phenomenological creativity has been applied, then it’s a matter of performing the technical calculations, but the calculations are not possible without the idea and insight of what one should do. (Not to neglect that the calculations are sometimes a technical tour de force.)

    It has been my experience that the people with the model ideas are simply not that good at creating the signature ideas. There are two different types of creativity and it takes both to do science. (Actually, it takes three, since the experimentalist is just as crucial!)

    Lastly, as Graviton383 noted, models are not worth much, until they can be tested. And that part is up to the phenomenologist’s creativity. Only the models with calculated, testable signatures become famous. And, I think that if the LHC signatures of a model are important enough to be covered in an article, or to have an entire book chapter devoted to them, then the people who created them should be cited.

  • Shantanu

    Sean, Joanne and others , I have a question on frame-dragging effects in Randall-Sundrum models.
    The paper hep-th/0107201 (Page 4) says that Randall-Sundrum model predicts that Gravity probe B will see NO gravitomagnetic field. Is this really true?
    or am I misinterpreting this paper or are the conclusions of the paper incorrect?
    If they are right, wouldn’t that imply that RS model is ruled out since we have other evidence for frame dragging. If these authors are wrong, is there
    areference where this has been correctly worked out.

  • Sean

    Michael– It’s because the other three forces are “confined” to the brane, while gravity leaks out into the bulk. A little more technical than that, but that’s the basic idea.

  • Sean

    Shantanu– I have no idea, I hadn’t noticed the paper before. My impression was that weak-field gravity should be the same in RS models as in ordinary GR, but there’s always the possibility of someone turning up a subtle effect. And I think you’re right, we shouldn’t have to wait for GPB, the data are already there.

  • dennis

    In answer to JoAnne, in profiles, whether or men or women (you can check our for example Fred Kavli earlier this year) I do invariably do try to include such information as marital status and who their partners are if they have them.
    As far as LHC goes, I agree that there is a lot more to be written about the work of discerning the signatures and who does it.

  • JoAnne

    Hi Dennis,

    Thanks for your reply. Indeed, I am well-known for being perhaps overly sensitive to the female martial status issue. Ever since I first started to walk, one of the things that really peeved me, was that women had to classify Miss vs Mrs, while men were just Mr. It STILL comes up at times, and when I am asked if I am a Miss or a Mrs I get peeved all over again. When asked, I always respond “Dr.”

  • chimpanzee

    Recommendations to Attract More Women and Minorities into Science, Engineering,
    and Technology

    Thursday, July 13, 2000

    Danica McKellar
    Mathematics graduate from the University of California at Los Angeles
    Los Angeles, California

    [Moderator's note: extremely long excerpt deleted. Please try to keep comments at a reasonable length!]


    I’d like to summarize the above with the following. You may have heard the phrase:

    “People don’t buy Good Products, they buy GOOD MARKETING”
    – business saying

    Replace Product with “SET [ Science, Engineering, Technology ] career”, & Marketing with “PR, Role Models”:

    “Students don’t buy-into a SET career, they buy-into GOOD role-models”

    If you read the above, you (woman) just might want to goto UCLA rather than Harvard! I remember seeing M. Franklin’s comments about Harvard’s physics dept as “arrogant & rough”. I think the Larry Summers incident is a reflection of “elitism & arrogance” at these “top” schools.

    I think the video-blogging thing could a be a really powerful tool (“Alternative Model”, video-blog, video podcast: mass-consumer device iPod over iTunes distribution network) for female scientists to do some pro-active outreach. The “Standard Model” of traveling & making speeches is old fashioned (time-consuming & localized reach):

  • JoAnne

    Danica, thanks for writing in and sharing your thoughts and experiences! However, I think every person’s story is different. For me, junior high and high school were great – could not have had more supportive teachers. I had problems in college, and even more so in grad school. I will post about that someday.


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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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