Late Night HEP TV

Particle physics is enjoying a wave of popularity on the late night talk shows this week. On Friday, MIT experimentalist Peter Fisher appeared on the Conan O’Brien show, helping O’Brien see how long he could keep his wedding ring spinning on his desk.

Last night it was a theorist’s turn, with Lisa Randall appearing on the Colbert Report, promoting the idea of extra dimensions.

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22 Responses to Late Night HEP TV

  1. Analyzer says:

    Conan’s on on Saturdays now?

  2. woit says:


    My bad, it was Friday night. Shows how well informed I am about popular culture. Fixed.

  3. Luzo says:

    The movies of Conan’s show are down so maybe you can include this link.

  4. anon. says:

    I watched the video link of ‘Colbert Report: Lisa Randall’. I didn’t find it funny. String theorists will go to any lengths to hype the claim that string theory is checkable and predicts the weakness of gravity, without making any solid calculations. It’s just pseudoscience. Colbert should have asked for the alleged (non-existent) formula for the weakness of gravity and if something was supplied off-the-cuff on the back of an envelope, he should probed how it was derived. Everything Colbert did say was purely pro-nonsense, just giving more airing to vacuous hype. Extra dimensional hype was funny for a day sometime around 1985, but the joke is wearing a bit thin nowadays.

  5. Tom Whicker says:

    I actually think Colbert did a great job. In a four minute interview he got to some essential questions: Colbert, “This is all very fancy, but is there any way to make a buck off this?”, and next ” Is this just theoretical math, or is there some experiment you can do?”
    He also suggested it was similar to looking for “angels or god”.

  6. Eric says:

    Lisa Randall is not a string theorist and was not discussing string theory on the show. As for the testability of large extra dimensional theories, this is clearly possible at LHC.

  7. IMHO says:

    The Colbert with Lisa Randall was brutal…

    There are better representives than her…she’s not the only good looking Theoretical Physicist.

  8. Luiz says:


    Yeah, right. Do you care to name a few?

  9. lostsoul Ph. D. says:


    Britney, and the girl out of the Wonder Years – get serious. Professor Randall did a good job, given the circumstances. At last she’s not a politician.

  10. anon. says:

    Eric: yes, Lisa does work on some alternative extra dimensional ideas to mainstream string, but it seems that such ideas are string theories; at least, they are Kaluza-Klein theories with extra spatial dimensions.

    Remember, it’s widely claimed that not all dimensions were necessarily compactified to unobservable size in the landscape of 10^500 variants of the Calabi-Yau are supposed to have become unravelled into vast cosmic strings that astronomers should be able to see (when they point their telescopes in the right direction, and remove the lens cover).

    Lisa’s idea is that gravitons, unlike electromagnetic gauge bosons, are free to propagate in an extra spatial dimension, and this dilutes the gravitational interaction relative to electromagnetism, whose photons can only move in observable spacetime dimensions.

    M-theory in fact has 11 dimensions, with 10 dimensional superstring resting like a (mem)brane or a surface structure on an 11-dimensional complete ‘bulk’.

    Lisa’s idea would suggest that in M-theory photons are confined to the 10 dimensional brane (3+1 spacetime dimensions + 6 compactified spatial dimensions), but gravitons can also travel through the 11 dimensional bulk.

    Because the gravitons have one extra dimension to travel in, they appear to us in 3+1 spacetime dimensions to give rise to a gravitational coupling constant weaker than electromagnetism, because gravitons spend less time on the brane than photons do.

    Photons are a bit like a film of oil floating on the surface of a bulk of water, very concentrated (giving strong electromagnetism), whereas gravitons are like dye thrown into the bulk of the water, which dilutes them throughout the entire volume not just the surface (brane). C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la science.

  11. woit says:

    Please, direct discussions of Lisa Randall’s appearance to Tommaso Dorigo’s blog…

    As for whether she’s a string theorist, here’s what she has to say on the topic, from

    “Do you consider yourself a string theorist?”

    “I just don’t like labels in general, but I certainly don’t object to being called a string theorist if it’s said in a nice way.”

  12. Eric says:

    Dear anon,
    You are confusing extra dimensional brane-world theories and string theory. While it’s true that string theory gives a concrete realization of brane-worlds with extra dimensions, they are not necessarily the same thing as Professor Randall herself would emphatically tell you.

  13. Fru says:

    As for Lisa Randall’s preference for being called string theorist or not, reading her response from the link that Peter provided I wouldn’t conclude that she is since, after saying what Peter reported, she adds
    “Basically, I’m just a theoretical physicist who, like all the rest of us, would like to figure out how the world works. If that involves some string theory, great, but ultimately I think we should be able to connect it to what we see in the world and be able to test it. I’m just trying to put those things together.”
    which seems to expose a different attitude compared to the pure abstractism that people don’t like (for those who don’t of course) about string theory.

  14. Uncle Enzo says:

    Who cares if Lisa Randall is a “string theorist” or not. She’s a theoretical physicist working on stuff that interests her. Also, Stephen Colbert is a comedian, not Barbara Walters, and The Colbert Report is supposed to be funny, not serious. If you watch the show, you’ll realize that those interviews aren’t supposed to be all that serious, as evidenced by Colbert’s behavior. Remember, the show is on Comedy Central.

    Anon: “Colbert should have asked for the alleged (non-existent) formula for the weakness of gravity and if something was supplied off-the-cuff on the back of an envelope, he should probed how it was derived.”
    If he asked those types of questions, nobody would laugh. The show is a comedy. None of his interviews are designed to be serious.

  15. wb says:

    Not only was the spot with Conan and Fisher more entertaining, but also Peter demonstrated something very important to the public. Physicists can figure out things that we all can we.

  16. Damnit, Peter!!! 🙂

    …Ok, I’ll admit it – if mine could be a good gossip blog I’d take the traffic and say thanks. But I will never be a good host for gossip. I suck – my interest in the human nature is quite limited (say, to one particular gender and one particular age range).

    So people, if you want to discuss the appearance of Lisa Randall forget Peter’s advice – he was being facetious – and rather go to Cosmic Variance. There you’ll find people really willing to take you on that.


  17. martin says:

    If anyone really wants to discuss Lisas ideas, come over here 😉 (I welcome any scientific chat about randall-sundrum apart from pseudo philosophic branish discussions… )

    On-topic. Is it just me or does conan appear kind of disrespectful? I don´t know his usual attitude, but he tries to turn everything in the conversation into (mostly lame) jokes.
    And besides that prof. Fischer did a good job, in my opinion.

  18. Tom Whicker says:

    Lisa Randall gave a much longer and more serious TV interview with
    Charlie Rose on December 12, 2006. You can google it or get the entire 40 minutes on YouTube. Here is a transcript from about 11 minutes in, where she explains her ideas on extra dimensions. I think the transcription is close to word accurate, but please view the video as it is probably a bit unfair to make opinions based on text versions of live, off-the-cuff discussions.

    Lisa Randall to Charlie Rose, Dec 12, 2006:

    “The idea of extra dimensions has been around for a long time. I mean Abbott wrote his book in the late 19th century, and Einstein completed his theory of relativity in 1915, general relativity, and
    only a few years later somebody named Theodor Kalusa proposed the idea of an extra dimension.

    “So why is it that physicists today are thinking about extra dimensions? Well, one of the reasons is that we think it might actually have something to do with our universe, I mean that’s for me I think the most important reason.

    “But another reason is in fact string theory; it has introduced the idea that maybe those dimensions are really there because that’s the only way the theory makes sense.

    “But string theory has also introduced something else, in the 1990s the physicist Joe Polchinski realized there were these other objects in the context of string theory called branes…they’re named
    branes now..that word is sort of related to membrane…
    and the idea is that there could be, even if you have higher dimensions, even if you have a fifth spacial dimension or a fourth spacial dimension out there, there could be objects in the universe called branes that don’t spread throughout the entire universe, and maybe stuff is stuck on those lower dimensional surfaces, so here we have an analogy [points to sketch of a shower curtain] just to give you the general idea, I mean you might have a three dimensional room but in that room there might be a shower curtain and on that curtain there could be water droplets, and those water droplets are only on the two dimensional surface of the curtain. They’re not going out throughout the three dimensional room; they’re really stuck there. And in the same way [refers to another sketch] it could be that we and the stuff of which we are
    made could really be stuck to a brane… so this brane…although it’s drawn as two dimensional, think of it as a three dimensional surface…so if you have this three dimensional brane and the stuff was stuck there, it would look just as if the universe was three dimensional and if..everything..if.. if for example photons and
    electromagnetism could only travel in the three dimensions of the brane, well that would explain why things look as if they’re three dimensional. After all, light doesn’t get outside the brane. So it could be that some of it is actually still stuck in three dimensions even though another dimension is out there.

    “What makes it interesting though, from the point of view of physicists ..I mean if everything was stuck in the three dimensions on the brane, who cares if there are other dimensions? We’d never interact with them.. But it is ALWAYS true that gravity goes out in those dimensions and so those squiggly lines in that figure
    represent the fact that gravity always interacts with the other dimensions; gravity will never be stuck on this brane. And that’s what’s so interesting with these can get the geometry of space-time….we’re used to thinking..we physicists at least.. are used to thinking of space as the same everywhere, as far as we know the laws of physics are the same throughout the three dimensional universe..but it could be that in these extra dimensions and because of the existence of these branes and energy throughout the universe, spacetime can be warped, I mean even in OUR universe it is warped to some extent; that’s why there’s interesting cosmology. But with this other dimension it could be very dramatically warped and it’s THAT that can explain the properties of gravity that we see in our universe, because gravity IS spreading out in those dimensions and so it could be that gravity isn’t just spreading out evenly everywhere; it could be highly concentrated for example in the region of a brane, and that’s one idea that we got very excited about.”

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  20. Eric H says:

    Ms. Randall is much more specific in the Rose interview than what she seems to be saying recently. I’m beginning to wonder if the reason there is less specificity and more hype in “all” recent public discussions is because physicists are wary in being specific because they themselves now see the contradictions.

    For instance, when Kalusa proposed an extra dimension is was a dimension that circled back on itself, like a circle. Well, it just so happens, (not that we all don’t already know it), that there is a particle physics analogue which is spin. So, at least physics had a physically observable behavior to attach to the math. I just don’t see anything similarly concrete to attach to additional mathematical dimensions. The same with branes. Is it just me or does it seem like a lot of this later stuff some how got detached and isolated from experimental physics and split off like a bubble. It seems to me that a lot of this work may be intrinsically interesting but it is pure b.s. to try to make the case that this higher dimensional math is attached to physics.

  21. Eric H says:

    “I’m beginning to wonder if the reason there is less specificity and more hype in “all” recent public discussions is because physicists are wary in being specific because they themselves now see the contradictions.”

    Make that “string theory physicists” as I didn’t mean it to come out as a pejorative generalization.

  22. Martin Bauer says:

    I think you should not take the extradimensions “too serious”. It might be that you get measurable predictions by extra dimensional theories but that doesnt mean that you will ever be able to travel in an additional direction. It should be understood like complex numbers. A mathematical tool which could help us out of the actual misery.

    But nevertheless I agree that (probably because the people which work on these problems today are so familiar with pure mathematics) the temptation to cross the line and think beyond to actually contribute something is huge.

    Not much to falsify at the moment. Sometimes you got the feeling el. particle physics devides into Maths and Names nowadays.

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