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

Knocking on Heaven’s Door, by Lisa Randall. Vintage Books. Paperback. © 2012. $20.

The idea behind my book reviews is to focus on the geographical themes present in the books I review. This book experienced quite a journey before I was able to even begin reading.  I ordered the book used from one of the Amazon resellers on December 10th, 2013, planning on some reading over the Christmas break. The book didn’t arrive until January 6th, 2014, so reading over the holidays was no longer an option, and I was pretty hot about not having my book. My emails with the reseller were not helpful, as they had guaranteed delivery by January 3rd, 2014. When the book eventually arrived, I noticed the book had been pulled from a bookstore in Sussex, England, and then shipped via Malmö, Sweden. My book had traveled more in a month to arrive at my house in Kentucky than I have traveled in a decade.

Knocking on Heaven’s Door (KOHD) has been on my to-read list since I first watched Lisa Randall on Book TV (C-SPAN). I’m mesmerized by cosmology, astronomy, and astrophysics. My grandparents took my sister and I to the Hutchinson Planetarium for shows each summer we visited them. Today, the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center (link) is a great experience for any person interested in cosmology or astronomy. To my grandmother’s credit, she realized how fascinated I was by the universe, yet did not find her deep-seated religious ideology challenged or impaired by sitting in the planetarium and listening to the programs. If she did, anyway, she did not let her personal difference impair my enjoyment of the planetarium.

When I saw Dr. Randall on Book TV, two thoughts occurred to me, nearly simultaneously: Who is this attractive woman and how does she seem to know so much about cosmology and astrophysics? Knocking on Heaven’s Door is written by a physicists who happens to be a woman. And, an attractive woman. I think this is great. The United States, and the world, needs to see more women and people of color (I do not want to say “minorities,” as globally, the people we think of as minorities tend not to be) in science.

We need to see and hear women being involved in science. The sciences have been dominated by men since the dawn of Time. Simply look at the Nobel Prize winners by gender. Only about 5% of winners IN ALL CATEGORIES COMBINED have been women. When we examine only science, the proportion is even smaller. This is fundamentally ignorant of our society to behave in this way, to exclude women, or, as some currently societies still insist, women are not capable or should not be allowed to have a science education. Or, education, in general. Yes, I am calling out the Taliban and their retarded, misogynistic culture. At least Hamid Karzai had the backbone to veto the recent legislation which would have banned family members from testifying against other family members accused of rape or incest. Seriously – the Taliban and anyone who supports them are morally bankrupt.

At first, I thought the woman speaking was a journalist who had merely shadowed some physicists around for a while and put some interesting thought on paper. My impression changed quickly as she seemed too knowledgeable, too able to shift and adapt and handle the questions from the audience. She was not a journalist writing a book about CERN, but an in-the-trenches, get-your-hands-dirty theoretical physicist equal in caliber to any other physicist/author I’ve read: Brian Greene, Leonard Susskind, Alan Muth, Lawrence Krauss, and Kip Thorne, to name most of my reading list.

A woman and a physicist who knows her stuff and is a great communicator; I must read this book.

Let’s say you’ve read cosmology books, and books by Dr. Greene, Dr. Susskind, and Dr. Krauss, and Dr. Muth; you still need to read Dr. Randall’s book. None of the books – and maybe I should provide a reading list – go into the details of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) as well as Dr. Randall does. No book I have read to date explains the engineering, the planning, the financing, or any of the problems or concerns associated with the LHC as well as Dr. Randall has done in KOHD. But, detailing the history of the LHC is not really Dr. Randall’s purpose with the latest book.

In order to understand where we are in terms of our understanding of the universe today, we have to know something about the Large Hadron Collider. The LHC is the largest measurement device, perhaps the most complicated device, ever devised and built by Mankind. The LHC is the largest device built to measure the smallest of distances, the distances inside an atom. Not just the distances inside an atom, but the distances inside the particles that comprise the protons which comprise the atoms. Electrons are fundamental particles; break an electron down and, well, there is nothing but an electron. Protons are different, as are neutrons.

Physicists have known for a while protons are composed of different stuff, and neutrons, too. Many countries have built accelerators to discover traits associated with these particles. The United States build the first linear accelerator in way back in the 1930’s. The University of California – Berkeley built the first “cyclotron” in 1931. These early particle accelerators were instrumental in discovery the properties of uranium, and led to eventual development of the atomic bomb, atomic energy, and nuclear energy. More accelerators were built, which led to further advances in science, including current medical devices. Anyone who says this technology has “no real world implications” is speaking from a position of ignorance. But, ignorance is not a terminal illness; it can be ameliorated by reading Dr. Randall’s book, at least in part. Oak Ridge National Laboratory (link), in Tennessee, has a few particle accelerators.

The Tevatron, 45 miles west of Chicago, was completed in 1983, and is operated by Fermilab (link).

The United States had a chance in the 1990s to be the home of home of the world’s largest super-conducting super-collider, the Large Hadron Collider. The LHC would have been constructed in Texas and would have made the United States the world leader in particle physics research. Instead, the United States Congress dropped the ball, made the decision high-energy physics was not a priority – dumb, in my opinion – and the European Union then became the global leader in high-energy particle physics research.

CERN (European Center of Nuclear Research; this is the English translation from the original French, which is why the letters of the acronym don’t appear to match), the home of the Large Hadron Collider, is found in both France and Switzerland. Yes, that’s right; the world’s largest measurement device crosses an international political boundary. In the Google image I’ve provide, one might be tempted to think the little concrete circle is the LHC. No, the LHC is huge, and underground, with little above-ground evidence of its dimensions. The circle drive is part of the CERN complex, however; just don’t be misled by the circular appearance. The real LHC is about 17 miles in diameter.

CERN also has a GIS-based facilities management division (link). Some very nice online maps and GIS information is available from the CERN website.

But, why should we still need to read Dr. Randall’s book? None of the books I’ve read so far provide the necessary background to explain why the LHC is important. The CERN/LHC is referenced by all, in comments like, “We hope to learn more about why mass has mass,” and “We really hope to find out if the Higgs Boson exists,” and even “We would really like to know more about the Higgs Energy Field.” None of the books really engages the reader as to how this information will be derived from LHC results. The authors discuss their ideas, insert the ideas in the LHC “black box” and then the LHC “black box” spits out theoretical results. We never get to really see what happens inside the box.

Knocking on Heaven’s Door opens the lid on the LHC and let’s everyone inside. Dr. Randall explains the history of the LHC, the predecessors, why the predecessors are inadequate and why the LHC is necessary. She provides detailed descriptions of the LHC components, why they are important, how sophisticated they are, and the role they play. In other words, KOHD is an anatomy lesson of the LHC. She explains many of the different components and breaks the down for the reader to understand. A really fascinating read.

Knocking on Heaven’s Door is not merely a dissection of the Large Hadron Collider. No; Dr. Randall is simply setting the stage for her later discussions of the particles we know exists and those which she (and others) hope to find, and the roles those particles might play in developing a Grand Unified Theory (GUT) of physics. She does a marvelous job of discussing scale. To a geographer, scale is right in our wheelhouse.

Revell plastic model from my childhood

Revell plastic model from my childhood

In teaching mapping, geographers must cover scale. Scale is the ratio of our model to the real world object our model represents. For instance, as a boy I loved assembling plastic models. I didn’t care for model cars like many of my friends, I assembled battleships, aircraft carriers, and aircraft. See, we assemble models, like the battleship U.S.S. Missouri (1:535 scale) because a single individual cannot build a life-sized version in their bedroom over a weekend. Scale, in my example here, translates like this: “1 inch of our model represents 535 inches on our actual battleship.” Thus, my 20-inch model, when complete, represents the 10,700 inch length (890ft) of our real-life battleship.

Geographers use analysis of scale really to help address two questions: “Where is it?” And, “Why is it there?” These two questions are also framed as problems of “site” and “situation.” In a sense (a reference frame I prefer) cosmology is geography at vast scales, and particle physics is geography at extremely tiny scales. Perhaps you think I exaggerate based on my own professional bias, but I submit National Geographic’s own “The Milky Way Map” as exhibit A. If the Milky Way Map is not evidence enough, then I submit the 2MASS Redshift Survey (below). The description of the project alone is enough to support my contention: “to map the distribution of galaxies and dark matter in the local universe.”

2MASS Redshift Survey

In particle physics, physicists do not stop at the atomic level, with protons, neutrons, and electrons. There are particles smaller than a proton and a neutron. Some of these particles, like quarks (and their various flavors) have well-established properties. Other particles are mysterious, like gluinos. Particle physics researchers examine very high energies and very small scales, like 10-27 or so. The mapped universe exists at a scale of 1026 or so. By the way, you are 101, if you were wondering.

Where are we? Cosmologists, astronomers, astrophysicists, and others examine our place in the universe. Scientists chase that question; where are we in our solar system? Where are we in March versus May? Where are we in relation to the Sun, or Mars, or Halley’s Comet? To understand our place in our solar system we have to understand the underlying geography simply to put the Mars Curiosity Rover on its eponymous planet.

Why are we here? Honestly, no one may ever be able to answer this question, not completely. Not without delving into the realms of metaphysics, philosophy, and religion, and those offer no solutions, either, not without resorting to accepting faith as the bottom-line solution. Not to say we can’t answer some components of the question, however. Where did our (our any) mass come from? Where did the elements of our planet originate? Why is 93 million miles from the Sun optimum? If we circled a different class of star, at what distance could the Earth still revolve the Sun and still support life? Why do some places of the universe feature galactic clusters and others don’t? You get the idea.

By reframing cosmology as a field of geographical research, I feel much more connected to a science which could seem (and in some ways still is, sadly) very esoteric and unapproachable.

And, more importantly, no one knows why objects have mass.

Some people might say, “Well, why does this matter? Stuff has mass, we aren’t prevented from doing things because we can use Standard Model Physics to understand mass. Who cares.”

Dr. Randall does address these questions in later chapters, though not specifically these questions. These questions are mine, which I pose to highlight her prose.

“Science epitomizes the extra richness  that can enhance creative endeavors that take place in constrained settings … math and technology were themselves discovered and formulated by people who were thinking creatively about how to synthesize ideas – and by those who accidentally came upon an interesting results and had the creative alertness to recognize its value.

Medical technology has been a direct beneficiary of particle physics research. If you, or anyone you know, has had an MRI, then you (or your friend) has directly experienced the technology derived from particle physics research.

If you have used the Internet and exchanged files with family or friends, then you have been the beneficiary of particle physics research. Particle physics research was fundamental in atomic and nuclear research, which a few governments fund via Departments of Defense. DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, helped create the initial Internet backbone in order to support the communication of data resulting from particle physics research. No one can argue today that government and academic efforts have had little to no impact on the economic viability of the United States, or any other highly developed country, for that matter. Any politician or businessperson who claims the U.S. government or higher education do not create sustainable economic efforts – only “the free market and the free enterprise system can create jobs and innovate” – are simply ignorant.

Yes, the very same Internet used to watch Grumpy Cat videos and stream House of Cards today, was built specifically for the communication of data associated with high energy physics.

Everyone should care about the LHS because of what the human race has the potential to learn from any and all discoveries directly or indirectly related to the LHC. Everyone should care about the LHC, not simply because of the unfortunately nicknamed “God particle,” the Higgs Boson, but because of the ramifications of the discovery of the fundamental particles of our lives and how the knowledge of our environment, our planet, our energies, our place in space, will transform as a direct result of our pursuit of the fundamental basis of who we are.

KOHD is a well-planned and logically organized science book. Dr. Randall opens with numerous essays detailing the importance of being inquisitive, of questioning our knowledge, and the unfortunate complacence of some religious people who rely merely on faith or the unseen actions of Providence as a sufficient substitute for science. Evidently, the same science which powers our smartphones is not suitable for exploring the universe nor our own genome.

Initial chapters provide a history of former particle science research. Some particle accelerators are linear, while others are circular. Linear particle accelerators are good for some research but cannot reach energies in the realm of those energies present when our universe was less than 400,000 years old or so. CERN, when fully operational, will bring research into that domain. Really fascinating details she provides, the scale of the magnets necessary, getting equipment aligned, budget problems – the minutiae of Mankind’s greatest machine.

Middle chapters are heavy on particle physics. No math is involved, but the mathematical relationships between mass, energy, and charge are fairly robust. Chapter 14 covers the details of real particles, virtual particles, and particles which may or may not exist. Honestly, I wish I could converse in this topic better. Of all the topics of quantum mechanics and phyics, the nature of decay, energy, spin, charge, and the technicolor nature of quarks bogs my brain. I have some books on the way to help improve my knowledge. At some point, I may have to dip into some math.

The last few chapters bring together CERN experiments, like ATLAS, our knowledge of particles, and speculates on the near and distal future of physics. Finally, Dr. Randall brings us back to the underlying necessity for being open to ideas. She implores us not to shun other disciplines but encourage cooperation and dialogue. Not only might we learn something, but we also need to foster and mentor those will will rise to assume our leadership roles in science.

Every book you’ll see on the shelf these days about physics and science are predominantly written by males. All of my physics books have male authors. I see this as a problem. Dr. Randall isn’t male. If you were to  open her book to any random page, the gender of the author would never be apparent. The book stands on its own merits.  Whether Dr. Randall welcomes this or not, she is a science role model for all people, and especially any young woman contemplating a degree in science. Read this book, and then give the book to your daughter, or niece, and then be open to discussing the topics and themes in the book. Then, go the next step and support and encourage her in her efforts, and discourage any males who might suggest females can’t do hard science.

Finally, there are numerous female scientists active on Twitter, who provide excellent commentaries and information pertaining to their respective disciplines. Please follow them. PAX

@elakdawalla @lirarandall @starstryder @AstroKatie @upulie @Nebula63 @DNLee5 @etreas @taphovenatrix @JenEDavison @janerrigby @drkiki @DrBondar @DrAliceRoberts @ifmoonwascookie @DrEmmaLJohnston @Doctor_Astro @cyberlyra @NoisyAstronomer @CatherineQ @PlanetDr

I provide Twitter accounts only as a service to help readers find good Twitter accounts to follow. The presence of this Twitter account list on my blog in no way indicates the support or endorsement by the account holders of me, my words, or my blog. I will remove in account name upon request, or add accounts by request. All errors are mine.

2 thoughts on “Book Review: Knocking on Heaven’s Door, by Lisa Randall

  1. Pingback: My Cosmology Bookshelf | Constant Geography

  2. Pingback: The Case for Homework | Constant Geography

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