|English: black and white picture of lisa randal at interview at cern 2005 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
|MUNICH, GERMANY - JANUARY 22: Lisa Randall of Harvard University speaks during the Digital Life Design conference (DLD) at HVB Forum on January 22, 2012 in Munich, Germany. DLD (Digital - Life - Design) is a global conference network on innovation, digital, science and culture which connects business, creative and social leaders, opinion-formers and investors for crossover conversation and inspiration. (Image credit: Getty Images via @daylife)|
As I recall, I purchased Knocking on Heaven’s Door by Lisa Randall after reading a review in Barron’s. Subtitled How Physics and Scientific Thinking Illuminate the Universe and the Modern World, it is an exploration of both cosmology and particle physics, and a spirited defense of scientific analysis, hypothesis and testing. I refer to the prior review because I expected (perhaps unfairly) reporting on the state of knowledge on the specific physics topics. While that was indeed there, there was far more of an exposition on the scientific method, the importance of experiments, and how scientific theories develop, are refuted or refined.Before going further, for the benefit of someone choosing to read this review, let me say that I consider myself a reasonably smart guy who is reasonably educated and well-read. I say that not to brag, but to follow it with the comment that I found some of the material very difficult. Simply put, even though I think Dr. Randall tried to make this accessible to the lay reader, topics such as quantum gravity are difficult. For the reader who is more literate on these topics and, frankly, more intelligent than I am, you’ll likely find this quite interesting and informative. If you avoided high school physics like an STD, you might want to steer clear.
Not surprisingly, the book builds logically – although I was confused at the start. Early chapters develop the concept of scale, i.e. incredibly tiny to incomprehensively large. Dr. Randall spends a great deal of time on that, to the extent that I started glancing ahead to other chapters. However, the good Dr. was up to something, and the discussion of scale and why scale matters to scientific thinking became more apparent as the book began to explore behavior (that is, forces) at the subatomic scale versus behavior at the galaxy scale.
After that introduction, the book covers in very great detail the Large Hadron Collider (CERN) and its scientific promise. (If one is researching particle colliders, put this on your background materials list). To be blunt, I learned more about the collider than I cared to, but I am very interested in its results. In turn she covers the state of understanding at the subatomic scale as well as the topics researchers either don’t understand at all, or have a testable hypothesis for that they are seeking more data to prove, disprove or modify. She also explores, although somewhat less, the bounds of knowledge of cosmology. This isn’t a shortcoming of the book; the author after all is a particle physicist, so it makes sense that she would concentrate there.
Early in the book is quite a commentary on religion and the interplay of s and science. My conclusion is that Dr. Randall is not a believer. I would also speculate that she has found the Creation movement and its adherents as opponents to science and funding of research. I am a believer in a Supreme Being, but I part company with those who take a completely literal view of the Bible, in particular Genesis. I would ask them to read Isaiah 55:8-9 very carefully.
Having said that, I’m not completely comfortable with the current evolution theory either. I’m familiar with all the primordial soup stuff, presence of carbon and water, etc. But at the end of the day, something that wasn’t alive became alive. That’s not a little jump, that’s an interplanetary leap. I found the authors view on religion harsh, as quoted here:
But any religious scientist has to face daily scientific challenge to his belief. The religious part of your brain cannot act at the same time as the scientific one. They are simply incompatible.
Sorry Professor, I don’t accept that. And, if you are very religious, consider yourself warned that she has written this in part to challenge you.
I have one other quibble with the book. There are a number of illustrations including pictures of the Large Hadron Collider. Some of them were quite difficult to see. While I understand that it would have added considerable cost to the book, this is a place where better quality photos and paper, possibly including color photography, would have been a real improvement.
Nonetheless, I enjoyed the book, and if Ms. Randall publishes a sequel with results from the collider, I’ll be sure to buy it.