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Customer Review

177 of 192 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Top particle physicist reveals how she thinks, how they think, and how you may think, September 20, 2011
This review is from: Knocking on Heaven's Door: How Physics and Scientific Thinking Illuminate the Universe and the Modern World (Hardcover)
Several string theorists such as Brian Greene or Leonard Susskind and cosmologists such as Alexander Vilenkin have written popular books about physics but as far as I know, Lisa Randall is the only popular writer among the "high-energy phenomenologists", i.e. the theoretical particle physicists who think about Nature from the viewpoint of phenomena that have been observed or that may be observed in a foreseeable future (mostly at the particle accelerators).

And we, the readers, have been especially fortunate because the book about physics from the viewpoint of phenomenologists wasn't written by a random phenomenologist but by one of the most prominent ones. In fact, Randall was identified as the most referred to particle physicist - among both women and men, just to be sure - in a recent 5-year period. She remains extremely active and influential.

Knocking on Heaven's Door has two basic goals. One of them is to introduce the reader to the cutting-edge research in particle physics which is dominated by the LHC experiment. Collisions of protons inside the 27-kilometer ring on the Swiss-French border have interrupted decades of theoretical dominance and relative experimental impotence (even though the book describes some smaller colliders or LHC predecessors, too). Randall who constantly interacts with the experimenters offers us an exciting story of the LHC collider from its conception to the first femtobarn of collisions.

We learn how it was built, what it is composed of, how it accelerates the particles nearly to the speed of light, how it observes the products of every collision (in the detectors such as CMS and ATLAS) and identifies the particles that are born in the collisions, and how the resulting huge amounts of data are being processed by computers and statistical techniques to learn something new. However, we also learn many things about the human factor: who are the people who work there, how they interact with each other, how they assure their colleagues that they're right, what they like to cook, how the Americans differ from the Europeans, and so on. I am not aware of a competing book written in plain English that could give you the feeling of being an LHC insider. And the book covers not only the colliders but also experiments trying to detect dark matter on Earth and many others.

But the book has another, grander goal which is nothing less than to clarify how scientists actually think. Philosophers would call these issues "gnoseology" or "epistemology" but the content of their thoughts would be less tangible. Instead, Randall talks about the actual strategies and issues that are important and misconceptions that the laymen often believe. One of the key methods to organize our knowledge is the concept of scale: different basic objects and "effective theories" describing their mutual interactions are being used for different sizes or, equivalently, different energies per particle. For a particle phenomenologist, and not only for her, the laws of physics resemble a giant onion. The laws relevant for longer scales may in principle be derived from those at shorter scales. But the former are independent of many details of the latter and it is often useful to think about them independently.

These initial chapters about scale are no random musings. They're the essential skeleton on which particle physics (phenomenology but not just phenomenology) organizes the insights from the experiments such as the LHC. A related question is what it means for our knowledge to expand. The book does a very good job in explaining that the theories we typically use are approximate and aware of their own limitations; on the other hand, it means that when new phenomena and better theories are found, the older theories are not completely eliminated.

Randall's book also talks about non-physicists (in many cases, famous people from all walks of life whom Randall has met or whom she knows very well), their way of looking at the physical phenomena, and what a physicist finds funny about this looking. One example is the relationship between science and religion: Randall, who is obviously an atheist, doesn't stay on the surface. She is not satisfied with claiming that "religious people are silly" which is what many other books do (with a great commercial success) but she also tries to find the core differences. One of the major lessons is that scientists are able to live and work with ignorance or uncertainty about a particular issue; in fact, they view it as a part of their knowledge (especially if they know rather accurately where their knowledge ends). This point is often misunderstood by other self-described atheists whose thinking is actually religious and dogmatic in character.

For another example, a chapter is dedicated to the LHC doomsday scenarios which assume (or attempt to "prove") that the collider will create a black hole or another lethal object that will devour our blue planet. The book explains several different levels of evidence we have to be sure that such a catastrophe won't happen.

I forgot to say that the book also covers theoretical models (which are the focus of her first book, Warped Passages) that are being tested by the LHC, including the models with supersymmetry and especially extra dimensions for which Randall (and Sundrum) became particularly famous. The Higgs boson gets its well-deserved chapter as well. Randall compares the phenomenological, bottom-up approach to physics with the top-down approach favored by string theorists.

To summarize, it is a book about some very exciting and specific experimental developments that are underway combined with all the infrastructure one needs to place these experiments into their proper place and to interpret them correctly. Highly recommended to everyone who doesn't want to lose touch with particle physics and any cutting-edge science as of 2011. Randall is a multi-dimensional personality and so is her book: but I am confident that most readers may find a lower-dimensional projection of the book that will enrich the way how they look at the world.
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Showing 1-10 of 15 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Sep 21, 2011 5:34:14 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Oct 1, 2011 6:36:56 AM PDT
[Customers don't think this post adds to the discussion. Show post anyway. Show all unhelpful posts.]

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 21, 2011 9:01:59 AM PDT
Lubos Motl says:
Apologies, I don't understand you at all.

If someone only recognizes theology (yes, I understand it's your pet) or cosmology or Greene and nothing else in physics, and not even top physicists, then it's bad. They should be ashamed and they should read some books at least with the purpose of increasing their knowledge about the true culture of our time.

I didn't understand in what sense I sound as Lawrence Krauss because you didn't really write any explanation of this bizarre comment. And I don't know who is P.P. teaching assistant. Should I know that?

Yes, the laymen see the world in a lower-dimensional way than physicists, and those who can't even admit to themselves that this is the case have an even lower number of dimensions. Sorry but if you expect some hardcore populism from me, so that I would claim that being ignorant about science is as good as being educated about it, then your expectations will be disappointed.

I don't know of any other book on particle phenomenology that would deserve my time so that I would read and review it. And the reason why I am wasting my time with you is that I want to make it very clear why I find it undesirable when intellectually limited people start to be arrogant, whether they're reader of a blog or not.

And why everyone talks about "name dropping"? The dumb 3-star review of Lisa's book used the same cliche. I have used the names of Greene, Susskind, and Vilenkin because they're authors of recent books that I was briefly comparing with this book in the first paragraphs; I used the name of Higgs because he co-discovered the particle and field that are being importantly looked for by the LHC and it is an important topic in particle physics and the book under consideration; and I used the name of Raman Sundrum because he's co-authored some of the most famous papers on the author's CV.

Do you really have any problems with that? Could you justify such problems? You know very well that the answer is No. So why are you being so incredibly obnoxious?

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 21, 2011 9:17:51 AM PDT
Didaskalex says:
[Customers don't think this post adds to the discussion. Show post anyway. Show all unhelpful posts.]

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 21, 2011 9:59:20 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Sep 22, 2011 8:37:03 PM PDT
Didaskalex says:
"Yes, the laymen see the world in a lower-dimensional way than physicists, and those who can't even admit to themselves that this is the case, have an even lower number of dimensions."
I appreciate your time, your review is a very "educated one from a very informed expert," that is why I gave your fine review my appreciative vote. I replied also to my Amazon friend. I sympathize with your heated reply because laymen, by definition, have less degrees of freedom, and it is very demanding to be a Jack of all trades. Many readers take Science in a broader sense, not only limited to any particular domain, and I stand with you supporting the efforts of Emeritus President Larry Summers, in his support of interdisciplinary education.
Contrary to Europe, where specialist authors cover a broader range of knowledge (ex: Jan Assmann, Hans Kung,...), our present situation seems heated by a wave of an 'anti authority rebellion'. My first reading in Astrophysics was "The Mysterious Universe," by Sir James Jeans. That is why experts like Randall, also Drs Krauss, and Susskind write books, for the lay. professor Randall impressed the generalists by showing grace and modesty. Being open to discuss the book with non physicist Charlie Rose, is a point raised by a commentator on my review.

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 22, 2011 9:32:23 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Sep 22, 2011 10:00:34 PM PDT
Didaskalex says:
"CERN researchers said they clocked a neutrino, an oddball type of subatomic particle, going faster than the 186,282 miles per second that has been considered for a century the cosmic speed limit by Einstein's theory of relativity!" Intl breaking news
* Could you please comment?!!

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 25, 2011 7:32:32 AM PDT
Lubos Motl says:
Dear didaskalex, there are at least 3 widely read long texts about the Opera result on my blog, motls.blogspot.com, so please go there.

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 26, 2011 1:28:26 PM PDT
Didaskalex says:
Thanks Dr Motl
I am very curious to find out, what is going on

In reply to an earlier post on Oct 2, 2011 8:57:39 AM PDT
Thank you for a concise up to the point review. Your review is by far the most professional on Amazon. Your statement, "Knocking on Heaven's Door has two basic goals. One of them is to introduce the reader to the cutting-edge research in particle physics which is dominated by the LHC experiment." is very true.

In reply to an earlier post on Oct 4, 2011 10:56:32 AM PDT
Thanks for your time helping the readers out. According to The John Templeton Foundation, "Quantum mechanics has been one of the most successful theories in science and is believed by many to underlie all known natural phenomena." Eight decades after its discovery, a complete understanding of the theory's "physical principles." is still to be confirmed. Now;
A. Did or could the results of CERN "OPERA1 experiment" have any impact on the implications still eluding us?
B. Could the results of Fermilab 2007 experiment be reconsidered?
C. Do you believe that quantum physics poses a serious challenge to a radically new vision of reality, even after results discrepency from A. & B.?
I am posing these questions of a curious physics fan to a PhD's in Quantum physics who confirmed this informing book, hoping to hear some feed back.

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 25, 2011 12:04:24 PM PST
A. McGaw says:
[Customers don't think this post adds to the discussion. Show post anyway. Show all unhelpful posts.]
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