The One Question This Brilliant Physicist Wants People To Stop Asking Her

Hint: It involves Larry Summers.
Courtesy of Chika-Dike Nwokike

Lisa Randall, the Harvard physicist and best-selling author of Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs, a fascinating look at the role that the former may have played in wiping out the latter, is a woman of many impressive distinctions.

To pick a few (but definitely not all), she was the first female theoretical physicist to get tenure at either Harvard or Princeton (she got tenure at both); one of the 100 most influential people of 2007, according to Time magazine; and, during the five-year period from 1999 to 2004, the most cited theoretical physicist in the world.

She is also sometimes referred to as “the physics babe" -- a moniker she detests.

This last title may offer a window into why she reacted the way she did when The Huffington Post asked her to talk about what it’s like to be not just one of the most acclaimed scientists in the world, but, more specifically, a female scientist.

She was hesitant, to say the least. And that was before I even asked her about Larry Summers.

By taking time on these distractions you just make my job harder!” she shot back over email. “We all advance a lot further by going beyond this.”

Despite her initial reservations, Randall agreed to answer questions about the role of women in science -- and why she wishes we could all just move on.

You mentioned before we talked that you had to be very careful with the “women” angle. I’d love to hear more about that -- why do you think you have to be careful?

These issues are very important. However, there is an implicit assumption that any woman who achieves prominence in a male-dominated field will want to discuss them, rather than the actual thing that she does -- which is very likely to be a lot more interesting. I almost didn’t do this interview, as you know. I’ve had a rewarding career, but also a rather unique set of experiences. It’s difficult to convey the subtleties involved in a short Q&A.

Plus, when women speak on controversial topics, the haters are almost invariably more vocal than those in agreement -- which adds to the challenge of going ahead. But I recognize the importance of awareness of women in my field and I’ve had enough experiences now that some questions seem worth discussing -- hopefully to avoid similar mistakes in the future.

“In the simple process of asking me these other questions, it turns into a book by a woman physicist.”

Here’s an example of what can go wrong: I recently appeared on the NPR show "Wait Wait... Don’t Tell Me" in the "What’s My Job" segment. I was truly excited to be a guest on the show, which I really like, and which would reach a great audience. I ran on adrenaline throughout the interview, which was full of challenging questions -- I definitely had to duck some uncomfortable ones that I am pretty sure never would have been asked of one of my male colleagues.

But the conversation mostly was enjoyable, even though it broached some challenging topics. A few days later when the show aired, I saw the Twitter reactions and then listened to the heavily edited radio broadcast itself, which focused almost exclusively on the parts of the interview that make people squirm. I’m sure it wasn’t intentional.

Nonetheless, instead of remembering a good interview and some nice points about physics and science communication and my new book, Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs, what people took away were some uncomfortable questions about appearance. Here’s my "Wait Wait" interview with very light editing, which I give them a lot of credit for releasing. Here’s what aired. I have nothing against humor -- but the edited version wasn’t funny. The focus on gender interfered with what could have been far more entertaining and interesting.

I go out of my way to talk about physics and not about myself in my books. I do leading research in my field and work very hard to write big sweeping overviews of contemporary science in a way that doesn’t talk down to people but is readable and enjoyable -- even if sometimes challenging. But people don’t usually associate women with these activities, so they end up focusing on my being a woman who does physics while shortchanging the content no matter what I say -- at least at first. This goes for reviewers as well as for interviewers. Only a very few talk about the books I actually wrote.

I'm super excited about what I'm discussing in Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs. It's a book not only about my research on dark matter but about the universe, how it evolved, the nature of dark matter, the solar system, asteroids and comets and what hits the Earth, the development of life and the connection to the environment, as well as the destruction of life through mass extinctions.

In the simple process of asking me these other questions, it turns into a book by a woman physicist. Yes, I want everyone -- girls and boys, men and women -- to be interested in physics. And yes, I think my doing it helps people realize there are no prescribed boundaries. But no, I don't think my talking explicitly about it necessarily adds to that interest. On an individual level I can probably change minds. But interviews in newspapers rarely do this.

Courtesy of Harper Collins

You were the first female theoretical physicist tenured at Harvard. Can you talk about some of the challenges you faced to get to that position?

I aimed to do interesting and important research. I hope I’ve succeeded. Anything else I add about my experiences will be misunderstood or misinterpreted. Everyone faces challenges getting to tenure. Maybe the dress code was less clear (that is a joke).

How did you react when you heard Larry Summers' comments suggesting that women are just not suited for science and mathematics?

I can't believe that 10 years later I'm still being asked about Larry Summers' comments. I am pretty sure no one is asking him about them. In case that answer isn't clear or sounds dismissive, let me elaborate: When you ask me about Larry Summers’ comments, which aren’t really very interesting, it diminishes what I do, which I think is pretty important.

Physics is hard enough to explain. By taking time on these distractions you just make my job harder! We all advance a lot further by going beyond this.

Do you think things have changed in the sciences at Harvard since that comment, and the outrage it inspired?

Maybe they have. I haven’t noticed significant differences, unfortunately.

You and your sister are both renowned and influential in the sciences. Do you think your childhood had anything to do with that?

My sister and I grew up in a somewhat different context in the sense that when she is asked if there were other scientists in the family growing up, she says yes, and when I'm asked I say no (which she gets mad at me for). But she is four and a half years younger, so as a kid I didn't grow up in a family of scientists and had to figure it out myself. Having said that, she is absolutely brilliant and now does mathematics, so don't get me wrong.

“I don’t have all the answers. I prefer simpler questions like figuring out the makeup of the universe.”

But here is what is really interesting and is also totally unscientific. If you ask about the leading women in my field of theoretical particle physics, the same few names will frequently come up, such as Ann Nelson and Eva Silverstein, who -- like me -- have only sisters. I might be the only person who cares enough to know this fact even in my field.

I haven't done a statistically significant study and like all such observations it’s not clear what constitutes the category. But few of the women I’ve asked have older brothers. I'm sure lots of people will yell at me and tell me all sorts of exceptions and they will probably be right. But I’m guessing nurture plays a significant role. Whatever the parents’ intentions, in families with no older boys, the girls are probably treated differently.

In Eileen Pollack’s recent book, The Only Woman in the Room, she talks about how isolated she felt in the physics department at Yale, and how she never received the academic support or encouragement of her male colleagues. Does this resonate with your experience at all?

This sort of thing certainly does still happen. Whether inadvertently or deliberately, people tend to support others like themselves. Women at universities therefore don’t always receive the same type of support that men do. And almost all women know they are more likely to be interrupted (and that when they do the interrupting it is far more obvious).

But there are measures of success beyond what your immediate colleagues say. Like people inviting you to speak on your research or referencing it. I was at one point the most cited theoretical physicist over a five-year period, which is incontrovertible proof that scientists are paying attention to my work -- whether I received immediate encouragement or not.

So if you focus on the facts and not a few dismissive remarks, it’s pretty good actually. Yes, there are times you might feel isolated but there is also an entire community out there with similar interests, which is actually pretty wonderful. And many of my colleagues are great.

In an interview with the Smithsonian a few years ago, you said that gender imbalance in the sciences is “part of a bigger issue about women in society and I think [the focus on science] is like trying to solve the problem of a dying tree by looking at a little tiny branch somewhere.” Can you elaborate on that?

I find that a lot of the issues that concern me are issues I'll talk about with women in completely different fields or occupations. There are so many assumptions built into the culture. It's hard to know where to begin. My litmus test, when in doubt, is to translate the remark and replace woman with a minority group to the extent the remark makes sense and see whether we would be as forgiving.

For some reason women are supposed to laugh off offensive remarks and not admit they matter. The remarks are disturbing when addressed to minorities and they are disturbing when they are addressed to half the population. Yes, we can all have a sense of humor. But the jokes add up. And sadly often reflect more truth than people admit. (I’ve also gotten in trouble too for making jokes that reflect my true opinions more than I realized.)

Do your female students have concerns about entering a male-dominated field? And if so, what do you tell them?

I mostly tell them to take themselves seriously and do their best work. Worrying doesn’t necessarily get them far. I tell them if they are concerned they are not as good, look at the guy next to them and ask if they think they’re as good or better. If the answer is yes, they should go ahead if they want. Yes, they might face extra challenges but maybe that just makes them try harder. I don’t have all the answers. I prefer simpler questions like figuring out the makeup of the universe.

This interview was lightly edited for clarity and length.

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