Just one example of why the Society of Fellows at Harvard made me humble

After I got my Ph.D. in economics, I had the incredible luck to get to spend three years at something called the Harvard Society of Fellows. It is an interdisciplinary academic club which draws top young scholars from across a wide array of disciplines whose only obligation is to do great research and drink expensive wine.

One of the people I got to talk to there was the physicist Lisa Randall, who recently wrote a pop physics book entitled “Warped Passages” that seems to be selling well.

This passage describing Lisa Randall’s first insight into a problem from a recent New York Times profile of her brought back fond memories of my conversations at the Society of Fellows (or more accurately, listening to other people having conversations, because I was so confused that I couldn’t even be part of it):

“What they drew pictures of was a kind of Oreo cookie multiverse, an architecture similar to one first discovered as a solution of the string equations by Edward Witten of the Institute for Advanced Study and Petr Horava, now at Berkeley. Dr. Randall and Dr. Sundrum’s model consisted of a pair of universes, four-dimensional branes, thinly separated by a five-dimensional space poetically called the bulk.

When they solved the equations for this setup, they discovered that the space between the branes would be warped. Objects, for example, would appear to grow larger or smaller and get less massive or more massive as they moved back and forth between the branes. Such a situation, they realized to their surprise, could provide a natural explanation for the hierarchy problem without invoking supersymmetry. Suppose, they said, that gravity is actually inherently as strong as the other forces, but because of the warping gravity is much much stronger on one of the branes than on the other one, where we happen to live. So we experience gravity as extremely weak.

“You can be only a modest distance away from the gravity brane,” Dr. Randall said, “and gravity will be incredibly weak.” A result was a natural explanation for why atomic forces outgun gravity by 10 million billion to 1. Could this miracle be true? Crazy as it sounded, they soon discovered an even more bizarre possibility. The fifth dimension could actually be infinite and we would not have noticed it.

And believe it or not, I was better able to understand the physicists than the literary types. I still don’t get what Postmodernism is.