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on 8 October 2011
Eminent theoretical physicist Lisa Randall regards her new book "Knocking on Heaven's Door" as a "prequel" to her earlier "Warped Passages". But it is much more than that, as a clearly written statement by a distinguished scientist explaining how science works to an interested, if substantially scientific illiterate, public. While there are other books, such as those written by her high school and college classmate, physicist Brian Greene, which emphasize the state-of-the-art thinking in theoretical physics, Randall's is one that still deserves a wide readership, especially for its emphasis on how scientists conduct their scientific research, and in noting how the public often misinterprets it. These aspects of science, and the public's understanding of it, are the most important reasons why "Knocking of Heaven's Door" is an important contribution to popular scientific literature.

The notion of scaling - or rather, scale - is one of the most important concepts which Randall returns to again and again in "Knocking on Heaven's Door". She argues persuasively that, on a macroscopic scale, Newton's laws of motion are still relevant in explaining the motions of large objects such as planets and moons in the Solar System; it is only at atomic and subatomic scales that quantum mechanics does a much better job in explaining motions of subatomic particles. In other words, in plain English, Newtonian classical mechanics has become merely a subset of modern theoretical physics. A similar analogy exists for biology, with regards to the Darwin/Wallace Theory of Evolution via Natural Selection, now subsumed within the Modern Synthesis Theory of Evolution; the latter also incorporates population genetics and some aspects of both developmental biology and paleobiology (As an aside, I also recommend her reminder that evolution denialism isn't a problem only for religious conservatives, by recounting at the end of Chapter Three, an airplane conversation she had with a Hollywood actor trained in molecular biology, an Obama supporter, who rejects the biological evolution of humans since it is contrary to his religious views.).

Probabilistic thought is something which Randall also stresses throughout much of "Knocking on Heaven's Door". While she does not explain probability theory at any great length, she does explain via probability, why science is by very nature, a very tentative process in which there are no clearly defined answers that can be answered in the affirmative or negative with utmost certainty. This very underlying theme is one which underscores her conversations with noted Hollywood screenwriters and New York City dance choreographers that she cites as notable examples of misconceptions about the nature of science widely shared by the public. A firm understanding of probability theory is required for determining risk, which is discussed at length late in "Knocking on Heaven's Door" (Chapter Eleven). In a similar vein, I found equally rewarding her discussion of uncertainty as it pertains to both risk and experimental design (Chapter Twelve).

Most readers will appreciate her extensive discussion on the building and ongoing operation of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN's Swiss research facility. She eloquently ties that into current theoretical models in particle physics and cosmology, as well as to the two overarching themes of scale and probability that the reader encounters repeatedly throughout "Knocking on Heaven's Door". However, as compelling as that discussion is, the reader shouldn't forget that hers is a book which conveys to the general public, the very nature of science as seen through the eyes of this distinguished physicist.
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on 4 February 2013
I looked forward to reading this book as I am a physicist myself, but I ended up disappointed. There is a good deal of interesting information in the book but its wrapped up in personal comments which add nothing to the explanations of the LHC and the current thinking in particle physics. But the thing that really lets it down are the figures and photographs - they really are very poor and if a good diagram or picture is worth a thousand words then this book deserved much better. Some of photos and pictures of the LHC are either so small as to be useless or so devoid of contrast in black and white as to be blobs on the page.
As this book was written before the LHC had seen the Higgs boson then better books will surely be available for those interested in learning more.
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on 17 October 2011
You may need to be American to really like this book. I found it to be too verbose, too repetitious, and thin on detail. There are also too many sermons and an embarassing amount (to English eyes) of name dropping and self-promotion. That said, I did learn things from it which I haven't seen elsewhere, and I write as a regular New Scientist reader.
A great deal of the book is devoted to the philosophy of science. Unfortunately, like many practicing scientists, Lisa Randall's philosophy of science is naive and confused to a toe-curling degree. She thinks she's in the business of proving things to be true, and says so, often.
If you loved "The First Three Minutes" and "A Brief History of Time", then you'll probably find this book to be a disappointment. But if there is a better one on the market, I haven't heard of it.
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on 9 December 2011
There's probably a need for a book that explains the state of cutting edge science at the moment in an accessible and intelligent format for the layman. Unfortunately, this book isn't it. There's no doubt that the author knows her stuff. But science writing, ironically, is an art, and Randall isn't very good at it. Her prose is dull and highly repetitive. In order to digest a difficult subject for an uninitiated audience, you need to tell a good story, but Randall really makes this a laborious, grinding job, forever repeating, meandering, and circling back to her theme (...'as I said in Chapter 3'), without building up any tension or interest. Other problems: 1) she has a habit of name dropping throughout the text, letting us know what this or that celebrity, irrelevantly, thinks of current science issues. This gives the disagreeable impression that the Large Hadron Collider is a lifestyle club for the rich and famous. It probably is, but it doesn't help the book. 2) Scientists are not known for their mature sense of humour. The author would have been well advised to leave out most of the jokes. 3) The illustrations in the book are largely superfluous, and more patronising than the text. 4) You don't need to put citations throughout the text. It's not an academic paper, so noone is going to accuse you of stealing their work. You don't need to attribute every idea to its originator here. Scientists must be paranoid.
There are science writers, and then there are scientists, like Randall, who need either a good ghost, or a skilled copyeditor to pull her text together. Knocking on Heaven's door could be half as long, and twice as good. Bit of a shame, really.
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on 8 November 2011
The universe is 96% full of stuff and we have no idea what it is. I bought this book after a good review in New Scientist hoping to get an inkling of how physicists are approaching this exciting problem. Physics/Astrophysics has not seen such an exciting time since Einstein and Bohr were turning the classical world upside down at the turn of the last century. This is a great time to write a book about the frontiers of physics. Unfortunately, this is not that book. Lisa Randall is not a great writer. Sadly, she's not even a good writer. Too often I came to the end of a chapter thinking "And your point is?" Too often I turned to Wikipedia to provide the details that should have been there. Understanding the details of multi-dimensional space is one thing. Presenting a reasoned train of thinking that can be followed by the lay person is another. She may be good at the former, but falls flat on her face at the latter.
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on 3 November 2011
I have read all the books by Brian Greene and I enjoyed them so much. Someone suggested I should read Warped passages by Lisa Randall. I did and I got stuck in the middle - it was a little too ambitious for me. So far I have been able to read Knocking on heven's door without getting stuck, I have covered maybe 70 % of it.
The main difference between Greene and Randall is that he is the fantastic narrator, sweaping you awa on a fantastic journey, seeing the grand design of things. That kind of teacher makes you breathless and wanting to learn more. Randall is more ambitious and very carefully wants you to learn everything, and actually, you do. She gave me the answer to my question about the inflation of the universe, which must have been very fast, much faster than the speed of light. The speed of light is how fast light can move in the universe but it's not a limit for the universe itself.
I am very impressed by this book and learning so much. Thank you so much Lisa Randall, after finishing this book I shall most certainly tackle Warped passages again.
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on 9 October 2011
This is the sort of book I was hoping for when I bought the book I last reviewed, somewhat critically.

It too is quite wide-ranging, but it never loses relevance with the science she wishes to convey. Quite a lot of different slants too, while keeping it very interesting: a discussion of probability and risk appreciation; a fairly detailed 'engineering' description of the LHC and its main experiments; a brief survey of the alternative proposals for resolving a couple of big issues with the Standard Model, and a good discussion of the critical relevance of scale in proposing scientific explanations, including an interesting caveat that there are limits to the extent to which unknowns can affect events at the human scale, including the 'black Hole' scare brought up about the new energies at the LHC.

Quite a long but very interesting book, which covered a lot of ground within a logically connected framework.
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on 20 May 2012
As a subscriber to New Scientist and reader of plenty of popular science books I was quite excited to get this book by a leading physicist. But I found it so frustrating - the author seems to talk on and on about things I just dont need or want to know. Yes there are some interesting things in here, but you have to work hard to get to them. Far from the best science writing.
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on 3 March 2013
I am sure Randall is a brilliant, and possibly an original scientist, however I find her thoughts on the philosophy of science, on creativity, and on human nature generally mundane. This would not matter so much if it were not for the fact they take up so much of her book. This inadvertent banality somehow extends into the scientific passages, in the form of repetitions - she sometimes repeats the same point three times in the same paragraph - as if she does not trust her audience will be able to accept some of the more surprising ideas she is presenting.
On the positive side, the author did come across as a genuine and likeable person, if not a great stylist. Perhaps she just needs a bit more faith in her readers.
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on 30 May 2014
Subtitled 'How physics and scientific thinking illuminate our universe' this is a book that definitely falls into the category of 'pop science' and is described early on as a prequel to Randall's 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 other reviews on this site, 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

However, 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, so we may give her the benefit of the doubt.

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.

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.

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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