By Kathy Wang ‘14, THURJ Staff

In 1992, Melissa Franklin became the first female to receive tenure in the Department of Physics at Harvard University. She is currently Chair of the Physics Department and Mallinckrodt Professor of Physics. As an experimental particle physicist, she has collaborated with thousands of international scientists at Fermi National Laboratory and the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, studying particle interactions using the highest-energy colliders in the world to test possible theories governing our universe. Here, Professor Franklin shares her views on life, teaching, and research with THURJ.


You once said, “The most interesting thing about you is what you’re interested in.” What are your interests outside of particle physics?

Physics education. I’m interested in jazz, film, the novel, I’m really interested in graphic novels…pretty much everything. Not everything. Not so interested in English History.

Do you still have time to keep up with your interests?

No. But I read a lot.

What books are you currently reading?

I’m reading Dante’s Inferno, that’s one canto a week, and I’m reading short stories by Don DeLillo. I’m reading a lot of books right now, and a new Julian Barnes book.

How have your interactions with men in the physics department changed since you first joined the faculty here?

Well, now that I’m chair, I’m older than a lot of them, actually. That’s changed. So now, I can give them advice and before, I was always younger than them. You know, I found it very helpful whenever I would get slightly upset or unhappy with somebody, I would just imagine what they were they like as babies, because it’s really hard to feel anger towards babies. So that’s helped a bit.

It’s such a big question, because when you’re young, everybody wants to help you. As you get older, they want to help you less in general, I think. And when you get really old, they want to help you again. I’m in the mid­dle stage [laughter]. I’m helping others, yeah. So that’s a difference in the relationship. When I first came here, I was the first woman. That was pretty weird for them. They might have felt a bit icky about the whole thing, like “When is she going to stop talking?” Now, there are so many women […] I don’t think they really notice.


What would be a course that you would teach, if you could teach anything?

I’ve been thinking over a lot of different courses.

Course #1: How Flat Is It?

One course I really like the idea of is just, (I know you are going to think I’m insane) “how flat is it?” So the idea is, every week you ask the question, “how flat is ‘this thing’”? ‘This thing’ changes every week, and you have to use different tools, depending on the thing. Some­times you might have to use an electron microscope to see how flat it is, or sometimes you would just have to use a ruler. I know it seems kind of strange, but it’s an idea about measurement. “How flat is it?” I mean, you could also say, “how round is it?” I like flat better. It’s a little bit easier to start with.

Course #2: Bring Your Own Question

I wanted to teach a course [where] the students had to come [to class] every week with a list of ten questions that they came up with, and then just spend the next week trying to answer them. But the thing is, it’s all the questions you would ask yourself in one day. In one day, yeah. So you would have to spend a really intense day asking yourself a lot of questions and answering them.

I don’t know if this is an apocryphal story, but appar­ently there was a professor who would come in to class on the first day of school and sit on the bench, a lab bench, and sit there and just wait. The class would come in and wait for the professor to start, and the professor would just sit there. Then, after like ten minutes, the student would ask, “is this ‘this course’,” and the professor would answer, “yes, is there something you want to know?” He would just wait until the student said, “I just wanted to know about THIS.” It’s really a nice story, because students often feel: “It’s your job to put stuff in my head, and do it well, thank you, and we don’t have any responsibility. We just have to sit here. If we want to be on Facebook, it’s our business.” Right? “You perform, and we’ll just judge.” So there’s a big disconnect between [students and teachers]. So [this class setup] just changes that whole dynamic. I also like teaching labs a lot, because you’re actually with the students doing something. You can’t just sit there.

Course #3: Lab IKEA

And the newest course I just thought of this morning starts with: you come into a completely empty classroom, but the classroom is sort of like a lab. Not like a lab in biology, but just an empty room, with high ceilings, and nothing in it at all. You get five IKEA boxes of chairs, and you have to build them. That’s the first [week]. The second [week], you get five more IKEA boxes, and there are no instructions and no tools, but there’s a toolbox in the room. So you have to build [the chairs] just with­out instructions. And then, the third [week], you have a bunch of pictures. You have a bunch of pictures of things from IKEA. You have a whole bunch of parts all over this table you’ve already built, and you have to figure out which parts to put together, and which tools to use. The next time, you have to look around the lab and figure out what you need in the lab and then you have to build it out of a jumble of IKEA parts. Eventually you have saws, and I love this idea of building your own lab. All of these are things are kind of crazy, but I’d like to teach them. But I’m old and there’s not enough time. I really need about twenty people.

On asking questions

You want to be part of the answer. Why is it that stu­dents, until they’re in graduate school, and way in gradu­ate school, don’t have to ask themselves any questions? So all of a sudden in graduate school, people say, “Oh. I don’t have any questions. I’m really good at problem sets but I don’t have any questions.” And then they go, “Oh. Why am I in graduate school?” And then they get really sad. And then they go into finance.

So, it would be good if people started asking [ques­tions] in the beginning. But don’t just ask somebody. You can do that already on the Internet. [Instead] you say, “this is my question,” and then you have this whole team of people you can try and figure it out with, all together. That would be cool. And the professor could go, “I don’t know, but maybe you could try this.” Don’t you think that would be cool? And then you could model it. You could have more IKEA [laughter].


Why do you like experimental physics?

I like experimental physics because I grew up in a fam­ily that was totally not hands-on about anything, like all in the head. But a few years ago, there was this arts task force at Harvard. I think I was the only scientist, and I said, “We should have a class, a required class like Expos, where you have to build something.” They asked, “What do you mean?” and I said, “You build something with your hands.” And they said, “Well what do you mean?” And I said, “Like a box. It’s pretty hard to build a box. Or you know, build a box that does something. It would be required, because what you learn from trying to build something is different from what you learn from reading about building something.” They thought that I just had not understood after 25 years what Harvard was, which was all about ideas. I worry that Harvard is all about ideas, but of course, you have all the labs, so obviously, that’s doing stuff. Somehow, I don’t think that Harvard knows what we’re doing in the lab. I don’t think they actually know what it takes to do experiments. Anyway, I thought this was a brilliant idea, and the humanists just said, “No, I’m not good at making boxes. I wouldn’t get an A. And it’s not fair.”

What kind of laboratories do you work in?

I work in experimental particle physics, so there are only a few accelerators in the world. So, right now, I just finished working in the accelerator outside of Chicago, [called] Fermilab, and now I’m working at CERN in Geneva. It’s a big, huge accelerator.

What does the lab where you work at Harvard look like?

We used to have a lab downstairs on 38 Oxford Street, where we build most of the stuff. [Near the Northwest Building], there’s a building that’s old, and has a ramp down it. It’s a big old building, and it used to have an accelerator in it. It has a high base, so it has a big crane and forklifts, and we built everything there. We used to have a building that was next to it, our office building, where we had labs, but they tore it down and made the Northwest Building [in its place]. They said they would give us space in the Northwest Building, but then they said, “No, you’re not doing biology, so we’re not going to give you space.” So I cried for a long time. And then, I said, “I’m a biologist.” So then they said, “Okay, you can have some space.” So we have like 1/100th of the space we had before. So I have a little R&D lab there. That’s it. It’s supposed to have some glassware, but I don’t have any glass. It has a biology bench in it, but I don’t have any pipettes.

What do you have in a physics lab?

It depends on what kind of physics lab, but basically you can put anything in there, whatever you want. But it has a lot of capability to move stuff around. There’s power supplies and high-voltage supplies and pumps and all kinds of things. I mean, it’s not fixed. That’s what I like about it. The reason I like particle physics is because you can drive around in forklifts and carry stuff around. You could never do that in a biology lab, right? Never!


What is it like working with scientists abroad?

Oh it’s great. There are peo­ple from all over the world. So my experiment right now has 3,000 physicists on it. It’s weird.

There has been recent excitement about the possibility that physicists might be able to detect the Higgs Boson soon. What is the Higgs Boson and why the excitement?

We have this thing called the Standard Model of Phys­ics, which works incredibly well. It’s a theory. It’s a model. It’s a theory-model. And there’s one thing that hasn’t been explained. And there is an explanation, a hypothesis for how it might be explained, and it involves this Higgs particle. And so, [the particle] is predicted, but you don’t know what mass it has. So if we find it, the whole Standard Model is going to make a lot of sense. And if we don’t find it, it will mean that there’s something even more interesting, that we didn’t expect. What we’ve been doing is looking and ruling out possible masses [of the Higgs particle]. For instance, we know it’s above 114 billion electron volts (GeV). We know it’s less than 1000 GeV. And now we know it’s greater than 135 GeV and less than 450 GeV. So we’re ruling out places. We’re looking and saying, “It’s not there.” And while we’re doing that, we notice that there’s a little bit of a hint at 125 GeV. So that’s what’s very exciting. That’s why it could be on CNN. “CNN! The Higgs.”

And for some reason, like 15 years ago, one physicist wrote a book and called [the Higgs particle] the “God Particle,” I guess to sell books. I can tell you, not many books sold, of that particular book. So that’s why [the publicity]. It’s kind of silly.

Do you think that science popularizers should be more careful with word choice?

I don’t like bringing too much religion into science, personally. But, I think they should be less careful. I think they should be wilder, like everyone else. I guess the whole purpose [of science writing] is to get people stimulated, excited about science, so you can take a few licenses here and there, I guess. I just hope that all the religious people don’t think that if we find the “God Par­ticle” it’s sacrilegious [laughter]. I don’t think that they realize [the term God Particle] is just marketing. I think that they are all wonderful popularizers. And if it gets people’s attention, then that’s good.

Apart from the Higgs Boson, what are we looking for with the accelerators?

People are looking for supersymmetry, this symmetry in nature between half spin particles and integer spin particles. You know, electrons have angular momen­tum, called spin. String theorists think that there’s this thing called symmetry. For every electron with spin 1/2, there will be a selectron (supersymmetric electron) with integer spin. They should have the same mass, but they don’t. Anyway, people are still looking for supersymme­try. There’s this idea that you could have symmetry and have it not be symmetric. You can have a symmetry that’s “broken,” but you can still see that there’s a symmetry there. Not quite a symmetry, but you can see that it used to be a symmetry. In the kind of physics I do, there’s a lot of symmetry involved, like the left-handedness and right-handedness in chemistry. In chemistry, most things are symmetric. They can interact—both left-handed and right-handed versions of them—but some don’t. You can imagine there’s a symmetry there, but sometimes it’s bro­ken in some cases. Physics is like that a lot, in particular in the handedness of elementary particles. It’s broken. We try and understand everything in terms of these sym­metries, and supersymmetry is one symmetry that we are looking for.

People are [also] looking for crazy extra dimensions, like maybe there is another dimension: X, Y, Z, and another one. Can we find that? We’re just testing the Standard Model a lot. We’re looking for a lot of things. Everybody’s looking for something. Love, that’s what we’re looking for. We’re looking for love.

How would you know if you found a fourth dimension?

So everybody has their own model of extra dimensions, and there are situations in which what an extra dimen­sion would look like is missing energy. All of a sudden, something went into this other dimension and you don’t see it, so it would look like you’re losing energy, since energy is conserved, in general. We’ve done an experi­ment where you collide two particles, stuff comes out of them, and there’s a huge amount of missing energy. And you go, “Oh, where did it go?” And you go, “Oh, it could be in another dimension.” And you say, “Actually not. This is where it goes.” All the theorists upstairs have a lot of theories and have a lot of predictions for what you might find. I think if you read Lisa Randall’s book—any of her books—you’ll find some predictions.

How do you see physics relating to other disciplines?

Most of the boundaries are pretty fake at this point. A lot of the people who said they were physicists teaching in our department actually spend a lot of their time in other buildings, like MCB, Chemistry, OEB. Everybody’s everywhere. People are just working on problems. So I think physics is probably in everything. Soon we won’t even have a Department of Physics. And I won’t have to be the chair. We’ll just have people. People working on stuff.




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