Physics professor, Lisa Randall, is the Frank B. Baird, Jr. Professor of Science and co-author of a recent paper that suggests dark matter may have played a role in the extinction of the dinosaurs. Rose Lincoln/Harvard Staff Photographer

If I ruled the world: Lisa Randall

I'd hold off colonising Mars—but ensure women get heard
February 18, 2016
Read more: If I ruled the world: Umberto Eco

I’m not exactly sure what it means to rule the world. Come to think of it, I don’t even know where the world (my sovereignty) would end—should I take the usual approach of my fellow Americans and confuse the United States with the world, or should I define it as planet Earth, the solar system, or the entire universe? Ruling the universe would be challenging since without some advanced scientific and technological breakthroughs, I couldn’t communicate with any of the life forms that are probably out there. That wouldn’t be my only scientific goal, however, since science can benefit living beings in a plethora of ways and basic science is usually what drives big changes. In any case, I’m pretty curious about the inanimate objects that populate the universe too.

In the solar system, I would hold off colonising Mars. Not because I’m afraid of Martians protesting, but because it would be a good idea to address our problems on Earth first. Besides, Mars doesn’t seem very pleasant. I’m guessing that in the near future our resources can be more sensibly deployed on Earth.

I’m all for continued space exploration—just with a more realistic view of what’s achievable, which is actually pretty remarkable. I would also encourage a renewed ethic of responsibility that would apply to individuals, businesses and politics, in which everyone, including companies, would pay for rubbish disposal and any residual damage, such as environmental or economic crises that result from their actions. My economic team would be charged with devising growth measures that factor in such externalities.

We would also see a lot more scientists, or at least smart people (defined below) in positions of power. Angela Merkel, who studied physical chemistry, has done a pretty good job, despite her current trouble. I do see room for a more rational approach to governance. Clearly these examples show that science training alone is not enough. Scientists don’t know everything, and technologists don’t either. But there is something to be said for knowing what it means to address a problem, or even how to define it. And to know how to recognise the potential limitations of any proposed solution. Most big problems aren’t solved overnight, and scientists know that all too well. The breakthroughs that have changed our lives often derive from these slow-cooked, then flame-broiled discoveries.

Smart people are the ones who factor in long-term goals and who aren’t afraid to admit they are wrong in the face of contradictory evidence. This sometimes includes scientists but it rarely includes politicians. I will need to have quite a lot of global power to get this done.

Even if my rule extends only to the US, I’d have my work cut out for me. I’d start by requiring that only people who listen to the views of both genders can be in power. So, for example, Leaders would have paid attention to the men and women at the Central Intelligence Agency who predicted the attacks of 9/11. What a different world we would now live in if someone had listened. Or if officials hadn’t ignored people such as Brooksley Born, who warned of some of the problems that led to the financial breakdown of 2008. Whatever your perspective on the root causes of such problems, we need leaders who listen and argue, rather than dismiss ideas before they are evaluated.

In essence, truth and an elevated level of discourse would be more essential elements of policy, reporting and speech-making. So overturning the Citizens United Supreme Court decision of 2010 allowing corporations to make unlimited and undisclosed contributions to political campaigns would be part of my agenda. The electoral college system—where constituents in each US state vote not for the president but for electors, who nominate the president— and paid political television advertising, which have reduced US national elections to small-minded contests in a few states and substantially lowered the level of discourse, would be on the chopping block too.

With all this out of the way, I’d dig down to the really impossible stuff—like modernising the US train system, getting people to stop hogging sidewalks, and allowing only well-scripted, intelligent movies to be made. Bostonians would learn from British people how to deal with roundabouts and touchscreens would return to keypads and switches. Finally, I’d hire some guy to say all these things so I wouldn’t be subject to the often unfair, needlessly vicious attacks that women frequently face when they dare to express their opinions.

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