Exploring Matter and the Cosmos

Peter Pesic in American Scientist:

2011101144838676-2011-11BrevPesicFALisa Randall’s new book, Knocking on Heaven’s Door: How Physics and Scientific Thinking Illuminate the Universe and the Modern World, takes us 10 years past her initial conjectures and in some ways may be even more ambitious. As the subtitle indicates, she wishes to take up larger questions about the nature of scientific thinking, including its relation to religion and its reliance on probability. At the same time, she wishes to bring her audience up to date regarding the status of her theory within the larger ambit of particle physics and cosmology as the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) begins its work, a monumental collaboration involving the whole world. (Americans are the largest single nationality involved in its operation, although the United States is not an official member state of CERN, its operating consortium.)

The resulting book is valuable and engaging; like its predecessor, it is a tour de force of popularization. The good part about its wider ambition emerges in Randall’s clarification of the exact purport and scope of scientific work. But as she interweaves this with descriptions of theories and experiments, past and present, the reader may feel some tension between her somewhat divergent goals, which work together but also divide the reader’s attention and hence lead to organizational challenges.

Randall acknowledges in the preface that Knocking on Heaven’s Door is “in some respects . . . two books in one,” a statement that portends problems for the unity and cohesive force of the whole.

More here.