String theorists had looked at the idea of confining all forces to a brane and having gravity leak, but they had not worked out the mechanism, says physicist Joseph Lykken of Fermilab in Batavia, Ill. Randall and Sundrum, he remarks, "changed people's thinking about this stuff entirely."
As Randall and Sundrum refined their idea, they realized that if the extra dimension of spacetime were warped in anti-De Sitter fashion, it could be infinitely large and what we observe about gravity could still be true. This model came to be known as RS-2. "Working that out was mind-blowing," Sundrum recalls. "We had reason to be dead scared. In each of these cases, there was a distinct fear of making complete fools of ourselves."
"It was counterintuitive," notes theorist Michael J. Duff of Imperial College London. "It came as a surprise even to those working in extra dimensions that even though the extra dimension is very large, we wouldn't be aware of it. Newton's law would still be an inverse square law, not an inverse cube law, which is what you might naively expect."
It took a while for many physicists to realize what Randall and Sundrum were suggesting, but the time was right for such thinking. Anti-De Sitter space was popping up in some models, branes were thriving, and in 1998 Nima Arkani-Hamed of Harvard, Georgi Dvali of New York University and Savas Dimopoulos of Stanford University (or ADD, for short) had postulated a three-brane within two large extra dimensions.
Randall and Sundrum offered a new set of options of what went on in the early universe.
Some of the recent models, be they RS, elaborations of ADD or others, will be put to the test when the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN near Geneva fires up in 2007. "If there is any solution to the hierarchy problem, it should be revealed at the energies the LHC will explore," Randall enthuses. Evidence could include gravitons, supersymmetric partners or evanescent, tiny black holes. "Even if we don't know the answer, it should tell us what the answer is," she adds.
In typical fashion, Randall recently took on two things new to her. The first was writing a book about physics, released last month. The second was participating on a task force formed by Harvard president Lawrence Summers after his comments about women in science. She says she is nervous about the reception of the first project and dislikes talking about the second one. "I like to solve simple problems like extra dimensions in space," Randall declares. "Everyone thinks [women in science] is a simpler issue, but it is so much more complicated."
She should know: she was the first female captain of her high school math team, and even though Stuyvesant is famous for cultivating science and math whizzes, she did not find it supportive of girls. "There was one teacher who kept saying that Stuyvesant was much better when it was all boys, even though the two best students in his class were girls, and he liked us both. It was this weird cognitive mismatch," she says. Regarding Harvard and the task force, Randall is reticent: "I just want to see a whole bunch more women enter the field so these issues don't have to come up anymore."
The 43-year-old Randall is now collaborating with Andreas Karch of the University of Washington, investigating some of the cosmological implications of branes and extra dimensions. According to Randall, we may live in a three-brane, but "there are regions beyond the horizon that look really entirely different. And we haven't fully explored them yet."
If her ideas don't feel obvious to you, don't fret. You are in good company. "I often don't understand her," Karch confesses. "When she says things, they don't make sense and I first think 'she is crazy.' But I don't say anything, because she is usually right. Lisa just knows the answer."
This article was originally published with the title The Beauty of Branes.