Physicist Lisa Randall awarded an honorary doctorate by the UAB
Harvard professor in theoretical physics and renowned science communicator Lisa Randall was awarded an honorary doctorate by the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona. Randall pointed out the surprising connections between the most abstract physics and the reality of our everyday world.
On 25 March, the UAB held the investiture ceremony in which Dr Lisa Randall, theoretical physics professor at Harvard and renowned science communicator, was awarded an honorary doctorate. The event took place at the Auditorium of the Rectorat building of the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona.
The new honorary doctor was sponsored by Professor Àlex Pomarol, Chair Professor in Theoretical Physics at the UAB Department of Physics, who praised her “interest beyond the cutting-edge research and her tasks in transmitting this knowledge to the general public”. Pomarol recalled the role of Professor Randall in understanding the Higgs particle long before it was experimentally discovered, and highlighted her participation in the external scientific committee of the Institute of High Energy Physics (IFAE). According to Professor Pomarol, Randall “has known how to relate the knowledge discovered in her field with that of philosophy, the humanities and music” and mentioned the booklet written for the opera by Hèctor Parra Hypermusic Prologue, A Projective Opera in Seven Planes, and her participation on the production of “El somni (una òpera en dotze plats, un banquet en dotze actes)” by El Celler de Can Roca and Franc Aleu, together with other known artists such as chef Ferran Adrià, painter Miquel Barceló, and opera director Josep Pons.
In her induction speech on dark matter, which she qualified as the “anonymous heroine” of matter and “bastion of the Universe”, Lisa Randall stressed the importance of communicating knowledge of physics in order to connect the most abstract concepts in physics with the specific reality surrounding us. She specifically spoke on the hypothesis described in her book Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs: The Astounding Interconnectedness of the Universe (2015), which focuses on the relationship between dark matter and the mass extinction which took place 66 million years ago. There is a lot of evidence of the existence of dark matter, but no particles of this type have ever been discovered. Nevertheless, she assures that “it is not true that dark matter has not been discovered, what has not been discovered is the Weakly Interacting Massive Particles”, the type of particle this type of matter is supposed to be made of. However, Randall also asks “What happens if dark matter does not interact with ordinary matter?”.
She considers the possibility of dark matter only interacting with itself, in a new type of radiation called "dark photons". “Perhaps dark matter is even more interesting than it seems, it radiates its own type of photon and come together in the form of a disk”, so that “within the disk of the Milky Way galaxy there could be a thin, dense dark matter disk”. With this hypothesis, Randall arguments that “the solar system could suffer gravitational perturbations when crossing periodically with the galaxy's dark matter disk”. Thus, these perturbations could explain the periodicity with which meteorites strike, such as the one which caused the extinction of dinosaurs.
Professor Randall was invited to appear in an episode of the popular TV series The Big Bang Theory, which she posed as a metaphor, and finalised her speech by saying that “there are things out there” –such as an image of her in a photogram of the series- “but cannot be seen if you do not look hard enough”.
UAB Rector Margarita Arboix highlighted the capacity of Dr Randall to "bring theoretical physics close to people", which is demonstrated by her frequent appearances in communication channels and the popular science books she writes. Her work “allows us to walk, without getting lost, amongst these matters, and enjoy it as if we were walking through the woods on a spring or autumn day”. Rector Arboix described Dr Randall as a “flexible, open, creative woman capable of breaking barriers and being a trailblazer” and also emphasised the honour it was for the UAB community to include a “scientist expertly trained in the humanities”.
The event ended with the musical performance of the UAB Chamber Choir, which included the interpretation of the piece Secrets of the Cosmos, composed by Poire Vallvé with text by Lisa Randall.
Randall is author of books such as Warped Passages: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Universe's Hidden Dimensions (2005), Higgs Discovery: The Power of Empty Space (2012), Knocking on Heaven’s Door: How Physics and Scientific Thinking Illuminate the Universe and the Modern World (2011) and Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs: The Astounding Interconnectedness of the Universe (2015).
This is one of the five exceptional honorary doctorates awarded by the UAB this year in commemoration of the university's 50th anniversary. The honorary doctorates already awarded corresponded to freedom of expression (Congolese lawyer Caddy Adzuba), solidarity (microbiologist and activist Marie-Paule Kieny) and cultural identity (sculptor Jaume Plensa). On 7 May, journalist Joaquim Maria Puyal will receive the award for his commitment to the Catalan language and society.
More information: The Audacity of Knowledge: 50 years of the UAB