Lisa Randall: 96% of the Universe is Unknown (and Other Frightening Facts)

June 24 - Sarah Ashlock

FIRST THOUGHT: Will it Matter?

Will this matter in 50 years? Remember that question. It’s what a friend asked me recently when I was going on and on about something, as if the world was ending. (Spoiler: it didn’t). She said, “Will this matter in 50 years?” and my mouth dropped. How rude, I thought. But then I actually thought and realized, yeah, it won’t.

Perspective is everything, right? If you drop your phone in the toilet and it’s ruined, it matters, and it’s OK to be upset. But don’t take it out on yourself all the time. In 50 years - heck, 50 hours - you’ll have dealt with it and moved on. In 50 years, you’ll laugh about our silly little iPhones as you just text someone using whatever Steve Jobs’ great grandkid creates. So, chill.

WOMEN IN NUMBERS: 13.7 Billion Years

The idea that our mistakes don’t last forever can be comforting, but it can also be scary. Here’s the thing: We don’t live forever. (Except for Pat Robertson, who I swear has to be 800 years old). That can give us some major identity crises, wondering if we’re using our time wisely, if we’ll be remembered. The universe, by our guess, is 13.7 billion years old. We’re only a blip on a blip, basically. How are you going to use your time here?

WOMAN TO WATCH: Lisa Randall, Professor of Science at Harvard University

Of course, that isn’t a real guess. Scientists and smarty-pants women like Lisa Randall help figure out stuff like how old the universe is. Lisa’s making science cool again, as a professor who talks publicly about theoretical particle physics and cosmology.

Lisa says she always liked school, leaning more toward math than science. Science, she says, was “diluted.” Lisa remembers a teacher digging up an ant hole, and that was the science lesson for the day. Math, though, had answers for Lisa.

After earning her PhD from Harvard, Lisa later taught at her alma mater. She’s written four books, two of which have been included in The New York Times’ list of 100 Notable Books of the Year. Back in 2007, TIME magazine named her one of its “100 Most Influential People” and other notable people in scientific fields call her “famous.”

As the first female theoretical physicist tenured at Harvard, Lisa has accomplished extraordinary feats in her career. But what makes her so special is that she knows the universe is bigger than a title or an award; in fact, she shared with Smithsonian magazine that we only know of and can see about 4 percent of the universe. The rest is made up of dark energy and dark matter. Lisa has worked on interacting with the vast dark matter, attempting to pick up signals. Her insights have shown that dark matter isn’t dark at all; it’s transparent.

Back in school, one of Lisa’s professors explained why Lisa has made a mark on so many, from scientists to everyday folks. He says that while some physicists are great at mathematical imagination and some are great at imaginative thinking, Lisa is talented at both.

So while being a wiz at math and science got Lisa to where she’s at today, so, too, did imagination. If 96 percent of the universe is unknown and untouched, then we need all the imagination we’ve got.


Maya Angelou said:

"If you get, give. If you learn, teach."

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