Book Review: Knocking on Heaven’s Door by Lisa Randall

I must confess that in reading this I have been guilty of tokenism. Last year, I took a look through the list of authors who I have read over the last few years and noticed a paucity of women writers. So, having asked around for some recommended reading, I added a whole swathe of extra books to my reading list (of which this was one which ultimately ended up on my Christmas wishlist and which I was subsequently gifted by my little sister and her family). This is the last of the science books I was given for Christmas. I still have the last two parts of The Forsyte Saga to work through as well as finish Paul and the Faithfulness of God which I got for my birthday (at the time of writing this, I am on page 1,284 out of 1,519 of the main text).

Enough about other books, though. What of this one? Subtitled ‘How physics and scientific thinking illuminate our universe’ it definitely falls into the category of ‘pop science’ and is described early on as a prequel to her earlier work, Warped Passages, which I have not yet read.

It is mainly about the large hadron collider (LHC), the work that it is intended to do and the theories underpinning it, as well as a look to what may come later. Randall’s writing style, though, isn’t exactly linear. She takes us down various side avenues for some time before returning to the main theme. Looking at some of the reviews on Amazon, this seems to have irritated some readers, as did some of the diagrams. I can’t say I agreed with those other reviewers. So long as you expect a slightly idiosyncratic take then what you get is not just another rehash of A Brief History of Time, Cosmos or The Elegant Universe. Indeed, given the heavy focus on the LHC, I would liken it far more to Paul Halpern’s Collider, though with both a beginning and a conclusion regarding scale, there is also more than a hint of You Are Here by Christopher Potter.

After a gentle opening chapter, Randall looks at scientific thought. In so doing, she attempts to contrast scientific thinking with other modes of thinking, though instead of offering a balanced approach which might take in history, philosophy and art, she takes some cheap and rather unwarranted pot shots at religion. Given her rightful advocacy of rigour in scientific thinking, it is clear that she has not applied such rigour to her analysis here. Such is evident when one’s starting point is Dictionary.com 

She tries to strike up a reconciliatory tone (so as to not deter the many scientifically minded people who also might be considered, however, loosely, “religious”) but ultimately ends up in a bit of a muddle. I cite: “Religious adherents who want to accept religious explanations for how the world works as well as scientific thinking are obliged to confront a tremendous chasm between scientific discoveries and unseen, imperceptible influences – a gap that is basically unbridgeable by means of logical thought…Either way, it is still possible to be an accomplished scientist….But any religious scientist has to face daily the scientific challenge to his [sic] belief…They are simply incompatible.” So that’s clear, then. You absolutely can be religious and a scientist, as well as the two being incompatible. No confusion there at all. No wonder one of the endorsements on the back comes from Richard Dawkins! [Late edit: Having now finished the book, I note that in the acknowledgements in the back, she admits this was not her area of expertise and that she thanks some who helped her with this section. As such, perhaps the trouble was that she took poor counsel]

After this, the book improves considerably. In terms of a book intended for public consumption, Randall does a good job of clear communication without patronisation. We get a fairly detailed picture of the history of the LHC as a progression (culmination?) of investigations into particle physics. In doing so, we get to Randall’s case for why the investigation is important though she doesn’t quite delve into the economics and politics of it to the same extent that Halpern does in his account. By steering clear of any controversy and presenting a rather idealised account of how science progresses (contrast this with the more realistic/cynical view of Lee Smolin) I would encourage any reader of this to take Randall’s relentless optimism with a big pinch of salt.

Over and above the other works referenced, what we get here is a fairly detailed description of how the LHC works, along with the particular experiments, with particular focus on ATLAS and the LMS. The precision with which Randall examines the inner workings is a symptom of the passion that she has for the experiment, which is evident throughout the book. Along the way, we get sidetracked a bit, but though these diversions resulted in some negative reviews I thought they rather enriched the text. The only downside here was one passage where Randall posited that good ideas will always find an audience, citing as an example a single instance where someone who wasn’t part of the scientific establishment had their work noticed by someone who was, and that idea flourished. What surprised me was that a rationalist like Randall didn’t recognise this as an example of a variation of Survivor Bias.

The culmination of the book is a good description of how the Higgs mechanism works. While much has been said about the Higgs boson in recent years, I have read far too many second-rate descriptions of the science underlying the theory. This is absolutely not second-rate. Randall gives a very clear account which anyone with an A-level in physics should have no problem grasping. Of course, at the time of writing, the discovery was still not confirmed and was a tantalising opportunity which was expressed with what by now I realised was Randall’s customary rosy-tinted exuberance.

It would not surprise me in the least if Randall were either writing another book giving more details about the discovery or if the chapter in this book were being re-written for a later edition. This reader, though, may be more inclined to give John Butterworth’s new book a spin.

The book ends with a look beyond the then hoped-for Higgs discovery to look at what may well be the most pressing issues in physics: dark matter and dark energy. Randall stays with the standard terminology but rightly points out the names are a little misleading. I had not really thought about them too hard, but when you do, you realise that “dark matter” doesn’t convey the meaning quite as well as “transparent matter” does. It is here that the reach of physics stretches beyond our experiments and where theorists like Randall come to the fore. My personal view is that theorists should be at the vanguard of physics, with the experimentalists following on behind, trying to falsify or (as far as possible) confirm the work of the theorists, whilst keeping in mind Popper. Randall differs from this slightly with a slightly confusing take on “top-down” versus “bottom-up” approaches, though her usage seems topsy-turvy compared to what one might naturally think those terms mean.

At over 400 pages, it’s not the briefest of takes, but Randall’s writing style makes it quite easy to get through without getting bogged down. There are a few sections alluded to above that could do with trimming or revising, but on the whole it is a very creditable work that I would recommend to anyone interested in particle physics.

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