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Lisa Randall: Physicist and explorer of tiny particles and big ideas

Lisa Randall reads little while writing a book, but afterward devours anything on hand. Lisa Randall reads little while writing a book, but afterward devours anything on hand. (Christopher Kim)
By Amy Sutherland
October 16, 2011

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Lisa Randall has done what few physicists have done - make physics sexy, or at least close to it. Her investigations into the true nature of matter have won her many accolades while her best-selling book, “Warped Passages,’’ took physics to the masses. She’s at it again with her new book, “Knocking on Heaven’s Door.’’ She’ll discuss her latest work at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge on Nov. 8.

BOOKS: What have you brought to read while on book tour?

RANDALL: I have “Up in the Air’’ by Walter Kirn, who I met this summer, and just read his other book “Lost in the Meritocracy’’ and liked it. I have a collection of Alexander Pushkin short stories and “The Design of Everyday Things’’ by Donald Norman, a great book about sensible design.

BOOKS: How did you pick these books?

RANDALL: Mostly because they were not heavy, and they were lying around. I have a lot of books that friends send me or that are by friends. My friend Jen Sacks wrote “Quitter.’’ It’s about a hit man with feelings. I read a graphic novel, “Headache,’’ by my friend Lisa Joy. She makes Athena into a misunderstood adolescent who’s smart and strong. I and a lot of my friends liked Greek mythology when we were kids. There are a lot of strong women characters in it.

BOOKS: What have you finished recently?

RANDALL: I hadn’t read a lot until I finished my book. Then I just kept picking up books and finishing them. I had physics to do, but I was traveling a lot so could read on planes. I read “Welcome to the Goon Squad’’ by Jennifer Egan because I was at a fund-raiser where they gave copies out. I read short-story collections, Kevin Wilson’s “Tunneling to the Center of the Earth,’’ which was really clever, and A.M. Homes’s “Safety of Objects.’’ It’s a pretty random list and not like what I usually read.

BOOKS: Sounds like you were just hungry to read?

RANDALL: It was a little bit like when I sit down to eat and think I’m not hungry and then eat a ton. I actually thought I had lost some interest in reading. Then it turned out I did have this hunger. I’m over it now. I’m back to spending more time on physics. If I’m on a plane I often work.

BOOKS: What science books do you like?

RANDALL: “Flatland’’ by Edwin Abbott, which is very smart. The play “Copenhagen’’ by Michael Frayn, which is very clever about the way it plays with quantum mechanics. I thought “Guns, Germs, and Steel’’ by Jared Diamond had a lot of interesting ideas though it’s not quite science. A couple of books that were interesting but maybe had more ego than I would want, Stephen Jay Gould’s “Wonderful Life’’ and John McPhee’s “Basin and Range.’’ I often read books based on where I’m traveling. I ended up reading the McPhee because when I was a postdoc in Berkeley I was driving between there and Aspen through Nevada. I thought I would be driving through this boring desert. It was amazing. I wanted to understand the geology better.

BOOKS: What other kinds of nonfiction do you like?

RANDALL: I loved “The Power Broker’’ by Robert Caro. It’s a fantastic book about Robert Moses. I grew up in Queens. It taught me why I had trouble getting to high school. There was supposed to be a subway line built, but Moses nixed it. Consequently I had to take a bus. It’s the kind of book I really like, broad and deep, not a one-topic book the way a lot are today. It took me a while to read. This sounds so sacrilegious. It was too heavy to carry around on planes so I tore the paperback of it in half. That’s a trick I learned on climbing trips. I’m not going to read 500 pages on a trip so why not just bring 200 pages?

AMY SUTHERLAND

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