Knocking on Heavens Door, by Dr. Lisa Randall (Softcover, 2011; also available
in hardcover and other formats)|
(You can print this review in landscape mode, if you
want a hardcopy)
Reviewer: Mark Lamendola, author of over 6,000 articles.
This book makes a nice addition to the library of anyone who's a science
reader. Dr. Randall writes in a good, explanatory style. Sometimes she gives
perhaps too much explanation, but she's always clear. Not once in the book did I
come across something I had to re-read to figure out.
Her command of Standard Written English is exceptional, and I mean that both
in absolute terms (she could ace the test) and in relative terms (few of today's
authors seem competent in SWE).
The reason this book stands out isn't because it introduces new scientific
concepts (the concepts are in other books, as well). I would be leery of any
physics book that did. I defer to Sir Isaac Newton, arguably the brightest human being of all time, who said that even he stood on the shoulders of giants. The forward march of
both basic science and applied technology are evolutionary.
So a good book that you can trust doesn't claim to present all new
information. In scientific journals, of course, that would not be the case. But
you need significant education to be able to understand scientific journals,
which are not written for lay people.
The subtitle of this book reveals the purpose of this book. That purpose is
to explain how physics and scientific thinking "illuminate" the universe and the
modern world. The "illuminate" part leaves room for guessing, but this does make
it clear that the book is going to talk about physics and scientific thinking.
It does exactly that. It does not claim it's going to discuss the most recent
breakthroughs made in physics research.
Why some other reviewers would consider it a minus that much of this
book's information can be found in other references including the many "lay
person" physics books that have been released over the past few years, I have no
idea. I suggest those folks go back and re-read the cover. Maybe they should
write the subtitle on a blackboard 100 times.
So, what is the reason this book stands out? Dr. Randall presents physics
information from primary and secondary sources (being a primary source herself,
she is eminently qualified to vet the sources) to explain what's going on in
physics research today and where that might lead us. She presents questions
ranging from the "could thrill a scientist only" to the profound kinds of
questions lay people are asking all the time. I think her opinion is that
science can't answer all these questions, but it can answer many and help us
better come to grips with the others.
Some of the physics books on the market were written by lay people (e.g.,
journalists or science writers) for lay people. While these books are valuable
and usually well written, they weren't written by research scientists. Dr.
Randall has a different perspective, and that adds to both the charm (no
particle pun intended) and depth of this book.
She also goes into great detail about the apparatus used to conduct the
research. I'm not sure that much detail was best, but coming from a quant
background myself and having worked many years in nuclear instrumentation I eat
that kind of stuff up. People who get "eye glaze syndrome" from such material
can just treat this as sidebar material. You don't have to understand this
information to be able to enjoy the rest of the book. I'm glad she included it,
but I think many readers will find it too detailed.
I did a bit further research by looking up Dr. Randall online. If,
after reading this review, you still are unsure about her credentials or ability
to explain things, you should probably look her up online. What's there is
congruent with the book.
Dr. Randall and I share an interest in climbing, and are both mid-level
climbers. Dr. Randall, in fact, has many interests. I came from engineering and
find the stereotype about engineers to be wrong about 98% of the time. With
scientists, the same is true. Scientists tend to have an almost ravenous
curiosity about the world, and very few fit the stereotype of the absent-minded
professor who has no interests outside of the laboratory.
Two points of detraction
- Dr. Randall repeatedly referred to solder joints, and
(being from the electrical world) my reaction was that she got this wrong.
But it turns out that she got it right. The problem is she doesn't provide
enough details or explain that the problem was in one of the 10,000
connections inside the machine. So if anyone assumes Dr. Randall erred, they
assume wrong. She just didn't explain in enough detail for those who have an
electrical background to understand she didn't just guess when she said
- Dr. Randall occasionally ventures out into areas well outside her
expertise. She's far better informed than the average person, but in some
cases seems not to be fully informed and thus her emphasis is a bit off the
mark. Since these views aren't central to the book but do show she has
interests outside of her narrow specialty, I won't go into details.
To keep that second point in perspective, I need to say I broke out in a huge
grin when reading her comments on Brooksely Born. Previous to these comments,
Dr. Randall was talking about the 2008 financial crisis and I concluded she
incorrectly and naively viewed it as a series of errors. Subsequent investigation shows this was actually a deliberate heist with billions of dollars flowing to Goldman Sachs.
But just as I was about to go apoplectic over this, Dr. Randall started talking
about how Brooksely Born was "shouted down." That's a euphemistic way of putting
it, according to interviews with Ms. Born in 2009, 2010, 2011 both in
documentary films and standalone. The silencing of Ms. Born seldom gets mention,
when this crime-spree is mentioned (neither does the fact that Obama appointed
so many Goldman Sachs employees to key financial positions).
Dr. Randall's awareness of the silencing of Ms. Born suggests to me Dr. Randall
is simply not making herself an "expert" in this area though de facto she
probably is one.
So she goes with what the lamebrain media can see (such that it is) and not
beyond that. She is from New York and does list the New York "we don't do honest
reporting" Times more than once in her bibliography. My guess is she's using
common (mis)perceptions of events as a basis for explanation and discussion,
rather than trying to write a book within a book to educate people on these
events. Probably a very good strategy.
If she ever comes to Kansas City, I'd be happy to take her climbing and she
can extol her views on this in more detail. Note to Dr. Randall: No, I won't ask
you how old you are (I already know, and I'm two years older).
This book consists of 22 Chapters divided into five Parts. In softcover, this
book runs 417 well-written pages.
A note on the reviewing of this book
Some years ago I sat on an IEEE (Institute of Electronics and Electrical
Engineers) panel to judge applicants for elevation to IEEE Senior Membership. In
reading some of the applications, I felt awed. Who was I to judge the
achievements of THIS person? I'm glad judges had found me worthy back when I
applied, but nothing I did was comparable to some of the amazing achievements of
applicants I was reviewing.
Of course, I wasn't judging Dr. Randall's accomplishments or suitability for
promotion to a higher rank in a professional organization. But I still felt a sense of that same awe in reviewing this book.