Lisa Randall on M-Theory

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Dr. Lisa Randall is a leading scientific authority on M-theory, an incredibly powerful model of theoretical physics that offers solutions to problems that are off-limits to conventional physics. The core idea is that the there are 11 dimensions in the universe, contained on different membranes. Billions of years ago, two of those membranes collided in space, and the overlap between them became the big bang. M-theory offers big answers to questions about how our universe began, but that’s not what I wanted to speak with her about.

Interviewing Randall was a dream come true in terms of timing. About a month before our interview, two of the first applied physics papers on M-theory were published: the first one was a proof of the Alcubierre Warp Drive and the second proposed a way to utilize neutrinos to communicate backwards in time. I interviewed the authors of both those papers, and wanted to follow up by speaking to an authority on the subject who might offer some perspective. For me, seeing applied physics papers on M-theory meant that this theoretical model was starting to come of age, which recast it for me as something worth being seriously discussed.

I would have loved to do the same for String theory, but then again so would everybody else. For decades, proponents of String theory (the precursor to M-theory) spent considerable time promoting their theoretical model, and yet never offered any practical, real-world predictions based on it. M-theory arrived later, based closely on String theory, and for a while it appeared that it wouldn’t offer predictions either. However, in 2006 we finally saw M-theory start to stretch its legs, and those first two papers were aimed directly at disruptive technologies, which seems like a great place to for M-theory to start.

Don’t get me wrong: there’s no better place for a theoretical model to start than by supporting the predictions of earlier theories. However, if the primary value of M-theory was to tell us what we already know then it wouldn’t be very useful. The place to start is with predictions that conventional models just can’t address, and that’s what M-theory is producing.

It is worth noting that M-theory is still very young, and still hasn’t been fleshed out enough to answer a lot of the questions that I asked Randall. As a mathematically-derived theory, in a sense M-theory is a bunch of relationships searching for definitions to anchor them in reality. However, what I feel it truly offers is a new sense of hope for mainstream physics, as the conventional theories just don’t seem able to keep pace with the human imagination. M-theory most certainly does.