Lisa Randall is a theoretical physicist and professor at Harvard University. She has big questions about what the smallest pieces of matter inside the nucleus of the atom are, how they’re put together, and how it all works. Her job is to work toward getting answers to those big questions for all of us. If you explore one of our favorite web sites, Scale of the Universe, you can get a relative idea of just how tiny the parts of matter are that she is investigating. She focuses on things that exist or occur between the symbols v for neutrino and the cartoon of an atom on the sliding scale. Obviously, things this small can’t be observed directly with our eyes or even with the aid of powerful microscopes. But in order to get definitive answers, she still needs evidence to prove that these things really exist. This means she must try to answer her questions by getting experimental information provided by new types of super sensitive and accurate instruments that can detect such miniscule pieces of matter.
Ironically, the world’s smallest pieces of stuff are detected and measured with the world’s largest equipment. Dr. Randall and thousands of other atomic particle physicists from around the world are carefully interpreting the experimental results that are coming out of the Large Hadron Collider experiment–LHC for short–at CERN in Switzerland/Italy. The LHC is a giant underground circular machine many miles across in diameter that is being used to observe the resulting debris cast off when protons harvested from the nuclei of hydrogen atoms collide with each other or lead ions near the speed of light.
If you want to wallow in the awesome technical details and monumental specifications of the LHC, Dr. Randall gives a glorious in-depth description of the phases of construction, as well as the components and operation of the machine in her book Knocking on Heaven’s Door. The book will be a challenging but rewarding read for most teenagers. It’s a good idea to keep your browser open to Google and a dictionary site for reference as you read. However, if you have even the slightest interest in the cutting edge of science and technology you will be in, well…heaven.
Here is a video of Lisa Randall talking about her quest for answers. She also talks about the theoretical or speculative questions she is investigating like particles that move through extra dimensions. Cool.