Image: John Watson

Laura Mersini-Houghton: Sexual harassment is rife in physics

The cosmologist on the different challenges of growing up in communist Albania and working in the US today
September 8, 2022

Laura Mersini-Houghton’s big idea is that there is not just one universe but a huge number of them. And, incredibly, she has proof. In her new book published in July, Before the Big Bang, she claims that in the beginning there was cross-talk between our newborn universe and neighbouring universes in what she calls a “multiverse.” This multiverse has left an indelible imprint on the night sky. In 2006, Mersini-Houghton and her colleagues predicted that there existed a giant void chiefly defined by its low density of galaxies. This prediction was confirmed in 2013 with the discovery of the WMAP Cold Spot.

Mersini-Houghton has overcome extraordinary obstacles to be where she is today. Born in communist Albania under a dictatorship so isolated and repressive that the country was often called the “North Korea of Europe,” she left as soon it was possible, becoming a professor of physics in the US and working with Stephen Hawking. In her new book she skilfully interweaves mindblowing physics with the story of her life. “I actually feel like I have lived two lives—one inside Albania and one outside,” she says.

I feel like I have lived two lives—one inside Albania and one outside

Behind the Iron Curtain, even remarks such as “Oh, there is no cheese today in the shop” could attract the authorities’ wrath. In the case of Mersini-Houghton’s father, it was a letter inviting him to speak at Oxford University in 1975. Nexhat Mersini was a widely admired economist. Because of the invitation, the communist dictatorship put him on ideological “trial” and forced his university colleagues to denounce him. Mersini-Houghton remembers her first day at school, clutching flowers for the teacher. As her father walked away from the school gate, he turned back to her with sorrow in his eyes, knowing he was going into internal exile, often—although not in his case—the first step to execution. 

In 1997, the family learned that a cousin of her father, murdered by the regime, had been preserved in formaldehyde for the local medical school. “There followed a macabre and spooky funeral when his siblings buried a man 30 years younger than them,” she says. 

Her father, seeing she shared his interest in maths and science, encouraged her academically. At 11pm he would wake her and, together, they would listen to a classical music programme on Albanian state radio. It expanded her horizons, transporting her to a world beyond the straitjacket of her country. It helped her imagine another kind of life.

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 enabled her to make that life a reality. In 1991, the US set up an embassy in the Albanian capital: friends and family urged Mersini to apply for a Fulbright scholarship. “I couldn’t believe anyone would give me such an opportunity, but I applied and was accepted,” she says. It was “the first of many chance events,” culminating in a professorship in physics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Mersini-Houghton says her life in the US has different challenges. The day she got her big idea—in a coffee bar in Chapel Hill—she arrived home late at night; soon afterwards someone was banging on the front door. Terrified, she phoned the police. It turned out to be flowers from her husband, Jeff, who was in Europe. She had thought it was a faculty member who had been harassing her. “Sexual harassment is rife in the male-dominated field of physics,” she tells me. It remains hard for women in the field to have their ideas accepted.

Mersini-Houghton’s theory of the multiverse explaining the improbability of our universe’s existence is her crowning achievement. She is the only cosmologist with a theory of the origin of the universe to have had their predictions borne out by observation.