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Knocking on Heavens Door

Book Review of: Knocking on Heaven's Door

How Physics and Scientific Thinking Illuminate the Universe and the Modern World

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Review of 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)


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

  1. 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 "solder."
  2. 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.




About these reviews

You may be wondering why the reviews here are any different from the hundreds of "reviews" posted online. Notice the quotation marks?

I've been reviewing books for sites like Amazon for many years now, and it dismays me that Amazon found it necessary to post a minimum word count for reviews. It further dismays me that it's only 20 words. If that's all you have to say about a book, why bother?

And why waste everyone else's time with such drivel? As a reader of such reviews, I feel like I am being told that I do not matter. The flippancy of people who write these terse "reviews" is insulting to the authors also, I would suspect.

This sound bite blathering taking the place of any actual communication is increasingly a problem in our mindless, blog-posting Webosphere. Sadly, Google rewards such pointlessness as "content" so we just get more if this inanity.

My reviews, contrary to current (non) standards, actually tell you about the book. I always got an "A" on a book review I did as a kid (that's how I remember it anyhow, and it's my story so I'm sticking to it). A book review contains certain elements and has a logical structure. It informs the reader about the book.

A book review may also tell the reader whether the reviewer liked it, but revealing a reviewer's personal taste is not necessary for an informative book review.

About your reviewer

  • Books are a passion of mine. I read dozens of them each year, plus I listen to audio books.
  • Most of my "reading diet" consists of nonfiction. I think life is too short to use your limited reading time on material that has little or no substance. That leads into my next point...
  • In 1990, I stopped watching television. I have not missed it. At all.
  • I was first published as a preteen. I wrote an essay, and my teacher submitted it to the local paper.
  • For six years, I worked as an editor for a trade publication. I left that job in 2002, and still do freelance editing and authoring for that publication (and for other publications).
  • No book has emerged from my mind onto the best-seller list. So maybe I'm presumptuous in judging the work of others. Then again, I do more describing than judging in my reviews. And I have so many articles now published that I stopped counting them at 6,000. When did I stop? Probably 20,000 articles ago! (It's been a while).
  • I have an engineering degree and an MBA, among other "quant" degrees. That helps explain my methodical approach toward reviews.
  • You probably don't know anybody who has made a perfect or near perfect score on a test of Standard Written English. I have. So, a credential for whatever it's worth.

About reading style

No, I do not "speed read" through these. That said, I do read at a fast rate. But, in contrast to speed reading, I read everything when I read a book for review.

Speed reading is a specialized type of reading that requires skipping text as you go. Using this technique, I've been able to consistently "max out" a speed reading machine at 2080 words per minute with 80% comprehension. This method is great if you are out to show how fast you can read. But I didn't use it in graduate school and I don't use it now. I think it takes the joy out of reading, and that pleasure is a big part of why I read.

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