As moviegoers were mesmerized by the futuristic stories in Christopher Nolan’s science fiction film Interstellar, Harvard University’s theoretical physicist Lisa Randall says the high-grossing movie – even though "technically accurate" – failed to illustrate the type of extra dimensions she tries to picture in her own mind.
"They have to make it [the fifth dimension] visible to people looking at the screen, which means that some of the subtle effects – that are on scales that you’d never be able to see with your naked eyes, won’t be shown in the movie," Randall explains in a recent interview with China Money Network in Hong Kong during her trip in Asia.
But as the Frank B. Baird Jr. Professor of Science at Harvard University with research interests in elementary particles, fundamental forces and extra dimensions of space, Randall appreciated how the movie inspired people’s interests in science. That inspiration is critical in pushing scientific research forward, she believes.
Outside of sci-fi movies, what China has done in practical measures is "inspirational" too, and could be "ground-breaking", Randall says. For example, China’s ambitious plan in building the world’s most powerful particle collider will produce something twice the size and seven times as powerful as the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) built by the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN).
The planned particle collider, namely China Electron Positron Collider (CEPC), is a long-term project first proposed by the Chinese high energy physics community in 2012. It is a facility used to measure the precise properties of the Higgs boson, or the so-called "God particle", which is regarded as a crucial link that could explain why other elementary particles have mass.
Scientists in China have released details for the collider, saying it will produce over one million Higgs bosons in a seven-year period. The project is expected to start construction in 2021 and be completed in 2027, and then put into operation one year after.
"Just the idea that it might exist [in China in the future] already has been an incentive for many people to come here," said Randall. "The prospect of having this collider has brought a lot of American physicist who I know – I mean, maybe other countries as well – to China."
Concerning the overall research environment in China, Randall says her main concern lays in the "hierarchical system" that she has observed. "It seems like it’s an environment where there’s one person who gets a lot of resources and people have to accommodate that," she says.
Instead of focusing funding a few great scientists and let them have the right to determine everything, Randall believes that China should spread resources more widely, so that the young generation can be more independent and have a chance to lead new innovations.
Lisa Randall is an American theoretical physicist working in particle physics and cosmology at Harvard University. Her research connects theoretical insights to puzzles in the current understanding of the properties and interactions of matter. She has developed and studied a wide variety of models to address these questions, most prominently involving extra dimensions of space.
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Below is an edited version of the interview.
Q: If you look at the global top 20 best universities to study physics, twelve are American universities and only one university is from China, which is Tsinghua University. Why American universities are so strong in providing good physics research environment? And what should China do to improve this?
A: Well, (American universities) have a longer history of doing this. I think it’s only recently that China has had these very big modernization. One thing China is doing is promoting experiments and observations. There are dark matter experiments, particle experiments, and maybe gravity waves (experiments).
Q: Basically, you think China is on the right track? Given time, it will catch up?
A: I don’t think there’s one track in China. I think some of the tracks are definitely right. On the one hand, science is sort of peaking. But on the other hand, a lot of people are looking at tech and business, and thinking about "getting rich quick" schemes. Tech does wonderful things too but it’s more instant gratification. I think it’s going to be a little bit of a learning curve to figure out how to create a stable scientific environment.
Q: But overall, it sounds like you’re quite optimistic?
A: This is optimistic. I’ve certainly spoken to colleagues who think that everything is going to happen in China (in the future). I think there’s some learning to be done but the rate of change is so fast that if things continue at this rate of change, of course, it will be wonderful.
Q: One of your focus area is extra dimensions. Even though you said that "when describing hard-to-understand concepts like extra dimensions, a thousand words are better than one picture". Did you find the movie Interstellar doing the theory justice?
A: Personally, I don’t think the movie helps me visualize it [the fifth dimension]. It’s not that they did anything inaccurate, but I think that they have to make it visible to people looking at a screen, which means that some of the subtle effects – that are on scales that you’d never be able to see with your naked eye, won’t be shown in the movie.
But it’s technically correct and exciting and fun. I’ve spoken to people who become interested in science because of this. For me, I don’t think it’s necessarily illustrated in the kind of dimensions that I’m thinking about.
Q: What is the best way to think about the extra dimensions concept?
A: Depends what you’re asking. Some of the questions when you’re just trying to imagine what things might be, and then you think about slices or projections and how you put those together to create a higher dimensional object.
There are some questions like the kind I look at in physics, where there were symmetries, so I can just draw a two-dimensional thing but still say, this line represents three dimensions, which of course, is a bit of an assumption but it helps me think about it. So, there are pictures you can draw but you have to be clear on what everything represents.
Q: Chinese popular science fiction novel, The Three-Body Problem, describes a weapon called two-dimension foil. It actually decreases dimensions. How do you think about these dimensional theories where dimensions can increase but also decrease?
A: Well, that’s actually one of the things we did research on. You could ask if there are extra dimensions and why don’t we see them? And one of the reasons could be that they are very small and we just don’t see it.
But another reason could be that it’s very warped and that’s what we have discovered that the geometry could just be such that it really hides dimensions. It hides the dimensions by focusing gravity in a very small region of the extra-dimensional space.
When you have a curled-up dimension, you see it as something lower dimensional. The dimension exists but it’s very tiny. So, if you don’t see it, you might imagine a string. A string is truly three-dimensional. But you see it as one one-dimensional object because the other dimensions are just tiny. So, we’re thinking about real ways that dimensions can be hidden.
Q: Another area of your research is particle physics. Currently the largest particle collider, the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva is for physicists to test predictions of different theories of particle physics. As you may know, there has been a long-lasting debate in China about if China should build a super particle collider. What’s your take on this issue?
A: I mean personally, I just want it to be built because I think there’s new physics to be discovered there. So, I’m very excited that China is taking this seriously and thinking about putting resources into doing that. I think everyone could benefit from it.
Yes, it would be a question of where it is and who is putting up a lot of the resources to some extent. But in terms of the science, I think it would be an international project for sure.
Q: Some scientists argue that China is still a poor country, and money is better spent elsewhere on improving people’s lives.
A: Well, I don’t think it’s a trade-off between just those two things. I mean, every country spends on many different things. And in terms of developing the country, having a strong scientific program is often the backbone of every advanced industrialized society.
So it’s hard to see the country really coming into the forefront without having great (scientific investments). It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t help poor people but there’s other places in the budget that you can look to.
Already, just the prospect of having this collider has brought a lot of American physicists who I know – I mean, maybe other countries as well – to China. So just the idea that it might exist has been an incentive for many people to come here. And there are institutes being developed and there’s some really good scientists who are spending time in China now.
Does that change things overnight? No. But does it make a big difference? Probably, yes. But also, it’s not like these results happen overnight. There’s a lot of expertise that goes into it. So, developing the technology, developing the expertise, developing the numerical methods, all of it and the physics, all go into making a more robust scientific environment.
Q: One of the projects that’s under consideration in China right now is a circular electron positron collider (CEPC). What do you think are some realistic results that can be achieved from this?
A: The idea behind this project is not only to do the electron-positron collider, which is very exciting, but it can also do detail studies of Higgs boson interactions among other things.
The Large Hadron Collider near Geneva has been a wonderful success. We would like to get higher energies to really understand more. So, CEPC could be based on the same model that CERN first collided electrons and positrons, and then it was changed into be a collider that collided together protons.
This would be ground breaking. It would be really a jump in energy and there are good reasons to think that we would discover something there. So, I personally very selfishly of course, would be super excited about this. And I think a lot of my colleagues would be too.