Knocking on Heaven’s Door: How Physics and Scientific Thinking Illuminate the Universe and the Modern World

Knocking on Heaven’s Door: How Physics and Scientific Thinking Illuminate the Universe and the Modern World

Lisa Randall
New York: Ecco, 2011. Hardcover, 442 pages, $29.99 

Located amid the farmland and urban sprawl just west of Geneva, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) lies a hundred yards and more beneath the Swiss earth. With a circumference of seventeen miles, this state-of-theart particle accelerator is the largest machine in the history of the world. It may also be the most prodigious magic circle ever fashioned. Built by the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) at a cost of more than $9 billion, this extraordinary piece of equipment will put the Standard Model of particle physics to the test. A lot rides on the data soon to be generated by the LHC—after all, the Standard Model is the closest thing science currently has to a “theory of everything.” Hopes are running high that the most elusive of all elementary particles, the Higgs boson—postulated to impart mass to all the other particles, and the only one that has not yet been observed experimentally— might at last be revealed. Without such confirmation, the Standard Model falls short, perhaps fatally. Thus, if high-energy physics has a Holy Grail, the Higgs boson is it.

For most of us, the rarefied realms of theoretical physics are best toured under the direction of a knowledgeable guide. Certainly none comes better qualified than Lisa Randall, a professor at Harvard University and one of the world’s leading experts on particle physics, string theory, and cosmology. Her previous book, the highly acclaimed Warped Passages: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Universe’s Hidden Dimensions (2005), provides a clear and companionable introduction to some rather formidable intellectual terrain. Her new book is intended as a kind of “origin story” for the previous volume, directed toward “an interested lay reader who would like to have a greater understanding of current theoretical and experimental physics and who wants a better appreciation of the nature of modern science—as well as the principles of sound scientific thought.”

In addition, Knocking on Heaven’s Door casts a considerably wider net, as Randall intends “to correct some of the misconceptions—and perhaps vent a little of [her] frustration with the way science is currently understood and applied.” To this end, she ventures onto that cratered battlefield where science and religion have been thrashing it out since at least the days of the Presocratic philosophers. Alas, the casualties incurred here are significant.

Knocking on Heaven’s Door is most successful when its author sticks to what she knows well—the world of science. When it comes to theoretical physics and especially those chapters devoted to the important work now being conducted at CERN, the writing is clear and informative. When Randall describes what it is that scientists do and how they do it, when she points out that science itself is not a static pile of facts but rather a rigorous practice with an “evolving body of knowledge,” or when she explains the intrinsic role uncertainty plays in all genuine scientific endeavors, the reader’s enjoyment is akin to that of the fortunate students under her tutelage.

Regrettably, the book is far less satisfying when Randall proffers illinformed speculation on subjects spiritual and philosophical. When it comes to religious matters, she appears to align herself with the so-called New Atheism and its less accommodating attitude toward those who are of a more metaphysical bent. In a passage as remarkable for its hauteur as for its dubious coherence, she writes: “It’s easy to see why some turn to religion for explanations. Without the facts and the inspired [sic] interpretations that demonstrated surprising connections, the answers scientists have arrived at so far would have been extremely difficult to guess. People who think scientifically advance our knowledge of the world. The challenge is to understand as much as we can, and curiosity— unconstrained by dogma—is what is required.” Sometimes the author’s unsupported pronouncements are simply astounding: “The religious part of your brain cannot act at the same time as the scientific one.” Unless of course your religion is scientism.

In the end, Randall’s casual assaults upon what Thomas Browne calls “those wingy mysteries in Divinity and ayery subtilties in Religion” are unfortunate, as they distract the reader from her magisterial exposition of what is going on right now at the very frontier of scientific knowledge. The fault lies not only with Randall but with her editor, whose job it was to keep the author on course.

John P. O’Grady

John P. O’Grady’s contributions to Quest include “Shadow Gazing: On Photography and Imagination” for the Fall 2009 issue.