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

by Lisa Randall

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“Science has a battle for hearts and minds on its hands….How good it feels to have Lisa Randall’s unusual blend of top flight science, clarity, and charm on our side.”
—Richard Dawkins

“Dazzling ideas….Read this book today to understand the science of tomorrow.”
—Steven Pinker

The bestselling author of Warped Passages, one of Time magazine’s “100 Most Influential People in the World,” and one of Esquire’s “75 Most Influential People of the 21st Century,”  Lisa Randall gives us an exhilarating overview of the latest ideas in physics and offers a rousing defense of the role of science in our lives. Featuring fascinating insights into our scientific future born from the author’s provocative conversations with Nate Silver, David Chang, and Scott Derrickson, Knocking on Heaven’s Door is eminently readable, one of the most important popular science books of this or any year. It is a necessary volume for all who admire the work of Stephen Hawking, Michio Kaku, Brian Greene, Simon Singh, and Carl Sagan; for anyone curious about the workings and aims of the Large Hadron Collider, the biggest and most expensive machine ever built by mankind; for those who firmly believe in the importance of science and rational thought; and for anyone interested in how the Universe began…and how it might ultimately end.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780062096890
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 09/20/2011
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 480
Sales rank: 530,037
File size: 4 MB

About the Author

Lisa Randall studies theoretical particle physics and cosmology at Harvard University, where she is Frank B. Baird, Jr., Professor of Science. A member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, she is the recipient of many awards and honorary degrees. Professor Randall was included in Time magazine's "100 Most Influential People" of 2007 and was among Esquire magazine's "75 Most Influential People of the 21st Century." Professor Randall's two books, Warped Passages (2005) and Knocking on Heaven's Door (2011) were New York Times bestsellers and 100 Notable Books. Her stand-alone e-book, Higgs Discovery: The Power of Empty Space, was published in 2012.

Read an Excerpt

Knocking on Heaven's Door

How Physics and Scientific Thinking Illuminate the Universe and the Modern World
By Lisa Randall


Copyright © 2011 Lisa Randall
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780061723728

Chapter One

Among the many reasons I chose to pursue physics was the desire to do
something that would have a permanent impact. If I was going to invest
so much time, energy, and commitment, I wanted it to be for something
with a claim to longevity and truth. Like most people, I thought of scientific
advances as ideas that stand the test of time.
My friend Anna Christina Büchmann studied English in college
while I majored in physics. Ironically, she studied literature for the same
reason that drew me to math and science. She loved the way an insightful
story lasts for centuries. When discussing Henry Fielding's novel Tom
Jones with her many years later, I learned that the edition I had read and
thoroughly enjoyed was the one she helped annotate when she was in
graduate school.
Tom Jones was published 250 years ago, yet its themes and wit resonate
to this day. During my first visit to Japan, I read the far older
Tale of Genji and marveled at its characters' immediacy too, despite the
thousand years that have elapsed since Murasaki Shikibu wrote about
them. Homer created the Odyssey roughly 2,000 years earlier. Yet
notwithstanding its very different age and context, we continue to relish the
tale of Odysseus's journey and its timeless descriptions of human nature.
Scientists rarely read such old—let alone ancient—scientific texts.
We usually leave that to historians and literary critics. We nonetheless
apply the knowledge that has been acquired over time, whether from
Newton in the seventeenth century or Copernicus more than 100 years
earlier still. We might neglect the books themselves, but we are careful
to preserve the important ideas they may contain.
Science certainly is not the static statement of universal laws we all
hear about in elementary school. Nor is it a set of arbitrary rules. Science
is an evolving body of knowledge. Many of the ideas we are currently
investigating will prove to be wrong or incomplete. Scientific descriptions
certainly change as we cross the boundaries that circumscribe what we
know and venture into more remote territory where we can glimpse hints
of the deeper truths beyond.
The paradox scientists have to contend with is that while aiming for
permanence, we often investigate ideas that experimental data or better
understanding will force us to modify or discard. The sound core of
knowledge that has been tested and relied on is always surrounded by
an amorphous boundary of uncertainties that are the domain of current
research. The ideas and suggestions that excite us today will soon be
forgotten if they are invalidated by more persuasive or comprehensive
experimental work tomorrow.
When the 2008 Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee
sided with religion over science— in part because scientific "beliefs" change whereas
Christians take as their authority an eternal, unchanging God—he was not entirely misguided,
at least in his characterization.
The universe evolves and so does our scientific knowledge of it. Over
time, scientists peel away layers of reality to expose what lies beneath
the surface. We broaden and enrich our understanding as we probe
increasingly remote scales. Knowledge advances and the unexplored region
recedes when we reach these difficult to access distances. Scientific "beliefs"
then evolve in accordance with our expanded knowledge.
Nonetheless, even when improved technology makes a broader range
of observations possible, we don't necessarily just abandon the theories
that made successful predictions for the distances and energies, or speeds
and densities, that were accessible in the past. Scientific theories grow and
expand to absorb increased knowledge, while retaining the reliable parts
of ideas that came before. Science thereby incorporates old established
knowledge into the more comprehensive picture that emerges from a
broader range of experimental and theoretical observations. Such changes
don't necessarily mean the old rules are wrong, but they can mean, for
example, that those rules no longer apply on smaller scales where new
components have been revealed. Knowledge can thereby embrace old ideas
yet expand over time, even though very likely more will always remain
to be explored. Just as travel can be compelling— even if you will never
visit every place on the planet (never mind the cosmos)— increasing our
understanding of matter and of the universe enriches our existence. The
remaining unknowns serve to inspire further investigations.
My own research field of particle physics investigates increasingly
smaller distances in order to study successively tinier components of
matter. Current experimental and theoretical research attempt to expose
what matter conceals—that which is embedded ever deeper inside. But
despite the often-heard analogy, matter is not simply like a Russian
matryoshka doll, with similar elements replicated at successively smaller
scales. What makes investigating increasingly minuscule distances
interesting is that the rules can change as we reach new domains. New forces
and interactions might appear at those scales whose impact was too tiny
to detect at the larger distances previously investigated.
The notion of scale, which tells physicists the range of sizes or energies
that are relevant for any particular investigation, is critical to the
understanding of scientific progress—as well as to many other aspects of the
world around us. By partitioning the universe into different comprehensible sizes,
we learn that the laws of physics that work best aren't
necessarily the same for all processes. We have to relate concepts that
apply better on one scale to those more useful at another. Categorizing in
this way lets us incorporate everything we know into a consistent picture
while allowing for radical changes in descriptions at different lengths.
In this chapter, we'll see how partitioning by scale—whichever scale
is relevant—helps clarify our thinking—both scientific and otherwise—
and why the subtle properties of the building blocks of matter are so hard
to notice at the distances we encounter in our everyday lives. In doing
so, this chapter also elaborates on the meaning of "right" and "wrong" in

science, and why even apparently radical discoveries don't necessarily
force dramatic changes on the scales with which we are already familiar.
People too often confuse evolving scientific knowledge with no knowledge
at all and mistake a situation in which we are discovering new physical
laws with a total absence of reliable rules. A conversation with the
screenwriter Scott Derrickson during a recent visit to California helped
me to crystallize the origin of some of these misunderstandings. At the
time, Scott was working on a couple of movie scripts that proposed
potential connections between science and phenomena that he suspected
scientists would probably dismiss as supernatural. Eager to avoid major
solecisms, Scott wanted to do scientific justice to his imaginative story
ideas by having them scrutinized by a physicist—namely me. So we met
for lunch at an outdoor café in order to share our thoughts along with the
pleasures of a sunny Los Angeles afternoon.
Knowing that screenwriters often misrepresent science, Scott wanted
his particular ghost and time-travel stories to be written with a reasonable
amount of scientific credibility. The particular challenge that he as
a screenwriter faced was his need to present his audience not just with
interesting new phenomena, but also with ones that would translate
effectively to a movie screen. Although not trained in science, Scott was
quick and receptive to new ideas. So I explained to him why, despite the
ingenuity and entertainment value of some of his story lines, the
constraints of physics made them scientificcally untenable.
Scott responded that scientists have often thought certain phenomena
impossible that later turned out to be true. "Didn't scientists formerly
disbelieve what relativity now tells us?" "Who would have thought
randomness played any role in fundamental physical laws?" Despite
his great respect for science, Scott still wondered if—given its evolving
nature— scientists aren't sometimes wrong about the implications and
limitations of their discoveries.
Some critics go even further, asserting that although scientists can
predict a great deal, the reliability of those predictions is invariably suspect.
Skeptics insist, notwithstanding scientific evidence, that there
could always be a catch or a loophole. Perhaps people could come back
from the dead or at the very least enter a portal into the Middle Ages or
into Middle-earth. These doubters simply don't trust the claims of science
that a thing is definitively impossible.
However, despite the wisdom of keeping an open mind and recognizing
that new discoveries await, a deep fallacy is buried in this logic. The
problem becomes clear when we dissect the meaning of such statements
as those above and, in particular, apply the notion of scale. These questions
ignore the fact that although there will always exist unexplored
distance or energy ranges where the laws of physics might change, we
know the laws of physics on human scales extremely well. We have had
ample opportunity to test these laws over the centuries.
When I met the choreographer Elizabeth Streb at the Whitney Museum,-
where we both spoke on a panel on the topic of creativity, she too
underestimated the robustness of scientific knowledge on human scales.
Elizabeth posed a similar question to those Scott had asked: "Could the
tiny dimensions proposed by physicists and curled up to an unimaginably
small size nonetheless affect the motion of our bodies?"
Her work is wonderful, and her inquiries into the basic assumptions
about dance and movement are fascinating. But the reason we cannot
determine whether new dimensions exist, or what their role would be
even if they did, is that they are too small or too warped for us to be able
to detect. By that I mean that we haven't yet identified their influence on
any quantity that we have so far observed, even with extremely detailed
measurements. Only if the consequences of extra dimensions for physical
phenomena were vastly bigger could they discernibly influence anyone's
motion. And if they did have such a significant impact, we would
already have observed their effects. We therefore know that the fundamentals
of choreography won't change even when our understanding of
quantum gravity improves. Its effects are far too suppressed relative to
anything perceptible on a human scale.
When scientists have turned out to be wrong in the past, it was often
because they hadn't yet explored very tiny or very large distances or
extremely high energies or speeds. That didn't mean that, like Luddites, they
had closed their minds to the possibility of progress. It meant only that
they trusted their most up-to-date mathematical descriptions of the world
and their successful predictions of then observable objects and behaviors.
Phenomena they thought were impossible could and sometimes did occur
at distances or speeds these scientists had never before experienced— or
tested. But of course they couldn't yet have known about new ideas and
theories that would ultimately prevail in the regimes of those tiny
distances or enormous energies with which they were not yet familiar.
When scientists say we know something, we mean only that we have
certain ideas and theories whose predictions have been well tested over a
certain range of distances or energies. These ideas and theories are not
necessarily the eternal laws for the ages or the most fundamental of physical
laws. They are rules that apply as well as any experiment could possibly
test, over the range of parameters available to current technology. This
doesn't mean that these laws will never be overtaken by new ones.
Newton's laws are instrumental and correct, but they cease to apply at or near
the speed of light where Einstein's theory applies. Newton's laws are at the
same time both correct and incomplete. They apply over a limited domain.
The more advanced knowledge that we gain through better measurements
really is an improvement that illuminates new and different
underlying concepts. We now know about many phenomena that the
ancients could not have derived or discovered with their more limited
observational techniques. So Scott was right that sometimes scientists have
been wrong—thinking phenomena impossible that in the end turned
out to be perfectly true. But this doesn't mean there are no rules. Ghosts
and time travelers won't appear in our houses, and alien creatures won't
suddenly emerge from our walls. Extra dimensions of space might exist,
but they would have to be tiny or warped or otherwise currently hidden
from view in order for us to explain why they have not yet yielded any
noticeable evidence of their existence.
Exotic phenomena might indeed occur. But such phenomena will
happen only at difficult to observe scales that are increasingly far from
our intuitive understanding and our usual perceptions. If they will always
remain inaccessible, they are not so interesting to scientists. And
they are less interesting to fiction writers too if they won't have any
observable impact on our daily lives.
Weird things are possible, but the ones non-physicists are understandably
most interested in are the ones we can observe. As Steven Spielberg
pointed out in a discussion about a science fiction movie he was considering,
a strange world that can't be presented on a movie screen—and
which the characters in a film would never experience—is not so interesting
to a viewer. (Figure 1 shows amusing evidence.) Only a new world
that we can access and be aware of could be. Even though both require
imagination, abstract ideas and fiction are different and have different
goals. Scientific ideas might apply to regimes that are too remote to be of
interest to a film, or to our daily observations, but they are nonetheless
essential to our description of the physical world.
[ FIGURE 1 ] An XKCD comic that captures the hidden nature of tiny
rolled-up dimensions.
Despite this neat separation by distances, people too often take shortcuts
when trying to understand difficult science and the world. And that can
easily lead to an overzealous application of theories. Such misapplication
of science is not a new phenomenon. In the eighteenth century, when
scientists were busy studying magnetism in laboratories, others conjured up
the notion of "animal magnetism"— a hypothesized magnetic "vital fluid"
in animate beings. It took a French royal commission set up by Louis XVI
in 1784, which included Benjamin Franklin among others, to formally
debunk the hypothesis.


Excerpted from Knocking on Heaven's Door by Lisa Randall Copyright © 2011 by Lisa Randall. Excerpted by permission of Ecco. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations xi

Preface to the Paperback Edition xv

Introduction xix

Part I Scaling Reality

Chapter 1 What's So Small to You Is So Large to Me 3

Chapter 2 Unlocking Secrets 26

Chapter 3 Living in a Material World 40

Chapter 4 Looking for Answers 59

Part II Scaling Matter

Chapter 5 The Magical Mystery Tour 69

Chapter 6 "Seeing" Is Believing 94

Chapter 7 The Edge of the Universe 113

Part III Machinery, Measurements, and Probability

Chapter 8 One Ring to Rule Them All 127

Chapter 9 The Return of the Ring 143

Chapter 10 Black Holes That Will Devour the World 166

Chapter 11 Risky Business 178

Chapter 12 Measurement and Uncertainty 200

Chapter 13 The CMS and ATLAS Experiments 214

Chapter 14 Identifying Particles 241

Part IV Modeling, Predicting, and Anticipating Results

Chapter 15 Truth, Beauty, and Other Scientific Misconceptions 259

Chapter 16 The Higgs Boson 276

Chapter 17 The World's Next Top Model 300

Chapter 18 Bottom-Up Versus Top-Down 332

Part V Scaling the Universe

Chapter 19 Inside Out 345

Chapter 20 What's So Large to You Is So Small to Me 360

Chapter 21 Visitors from the Dark Side 377

Part VI Roundup

Chapter 22 Think Globally and Act Locally 397

Conclusion 411

Acknowledgments 419

Endnotes 423

Index 429

What People are Saying About This

Richard Dawkins

“Science has a battle for hearts and minds on its hands: a battle on two fronts—against superstition and ignorance on one flank, and against pseudo-intellectual obscurantism on the other. How good it feels to have Lisa Randall’s unusual blend of top flight science, clarity, and charm on our side.”

J. Craig Venter

“Lisa Randall does a great job of explaining to the non-physicist the basic science approaches of modern physics and what the latest experiments might reveal. . . . This is a must read to appreciate what is coming in our future.”

Lawrence H. Summers

“Lisa Randall is the rarest rarity—a theoretical physics genius who can write and talk to the rest of us in ways we both understand and enjoy. This book takes nonspecialists as close as they’ll ever get to the inner workings of the cosmos.”

Daniel Gilbert

“A deep and deeply wonderful explanation of how science—and the rest of the known universe—actually works.”

Bill Clinton

“Lisa Randall has written Knocking on Heaven’s Door in the same witty, informal style with which she explains physics in person, making complex ideas fascinating and easy to understand. Her book . . . just might make you think differently—and encourage you to make smarter decisions about the world.”

From the Publisher

"This volume should appeal to experts and nonexperts alike intrigued by the latest scientific advances in our understanding of the cosmos." —-Library Journal

Carlton Cuse

“I didn’t think it was possible to write a complex, detailed look at the world of physics that the non-scientist could understand, but then Lisa Randall wrote this amazing, insightful, and engaging book and proved me wrong.”

Steven Pinker

“Randall’s lucid explanations of . . . the frontiers of physics-including her own dazzling ideas-are highly illuminating, and her hearty defense of reason and science is a welcome contribution. . . . Read this book today to understand the science of tomorrow.”

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Knocking on Heaven's Door 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 19 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Lisa Randall makes the complexities of physics not only understandable, but most importantly, enjoyable!
Phillip Harler More than 1 year ago
A somewhat wide ranging treatise on the current state of physics. The book starts with the apparently obligatory history lesson and moves through topics that include a detailed description of particle detectors. Eventually the author talks about the physics around the Large Hadron Collider and what is trying to be accomplished. Like many scientists, the author is somewhat skeptical of String Theory but acknowledges it's contributions so far. Generally well written and interesting in places. But no big breakthroughs to relate and, as always lately, we are waiting for the next big experiment.
M_L_Gooch_SPHR More than 1 year ago
After reading this latest work by Lisa Randall, I was pleased with the overall knowledge I gained into a wide scope of physics areas. In addition, I would highly recommend this book to all of my friends due to the excellent quality of writing, clarity of subject matter and great use of analogies to explain those things that are a bit outside of our mind's ability to wrap around. With that said, I did deduct one star as I expected more discussion on multiple universes and especially her take on the holographic universe. Beyond dark matter, dark energy and other deep mysteries, I believe the thinking behind the hologram nature of our existence is the new "spooky action at a distance". In my opinion, this book is not for those whose stay up-to-date on the latest scientific developments but rather the casual science/physics reader. The scope is very broad which helps greatly in developing deeper understanding. The depth is in the Goldilocks zone of not too much and not too little. While I would have personally preferred the LHC material limited to a couple of chapters, I did learn a great deal more about this important endeavor. As a final word, Knocking on Heaven's Door gave me a grim reminder of the short-sightedness of the United States congress. What absolute buffoons to cut funding for the Texas collider. And now, they have targeted NASA and the overall space program. Will we never learn? I hope you find this review/opinion helpful. Michael L. Gooch, Author of Wingtips with Spurs
Angela_J_R More than 1 year ago
Maybe this is obvious to everyone else, but I could not tell from the title, subtitle, or jacket that this is primarily a book about the Large Hadron Collider. It's a very good book about the LHC. And probably I would have read it sooner if I had realized that -- it just looked like another general "science is great" book that happened to be overhyped, and I took my sweet time in getting to it. My guess is that this was a book she had in preparation for quite a while waiting for the discovery of the Higgs, but as full operations at the LHC got postponed, she added a few chapters to the beginning and end of the book to widen the scope and sent it to the printer. That's not such a bad thing. It just feels like the marketing was a little off. The more general chapters at the end about cosmology are her wheelhouse. They're quite good. The general chapters at the beginning were not so good -- I nearly lost my motivation to read the book. The description of the standard model and the Higgs mechanism are okay but have been done better in other popular science books (my favorite description of the Higgs is Sean Carroll's). But the real gem in the heart of this book is the detailed description of the LHC itself, as well at the ATLAS and CMS detectors, the two main general purpose particle detectors at the LHC. I read a lot of popular science books, and I'm always looking for something that young students of physics (like my undergrads) would benefit from and enjoy. That chapter is going on my list of highly recommended reading. One of the best experimental descriptions I've read -- and yes, it's from a theorist. Fantastic. So, like any 400+ page science book, there were some great moments and some sections I could have done without. Overall, though, I'd recommend the book.
Standancer More than 1 year ago
Lisa Randall is a Harvard physicist who relates, in terms the average person can understand, the constantly evolving and exciting state of modern physics, from the inner workings of the smallest of particles to the vast realms of the cosmos. If you'd like a better understanding of the changes in this field and how they are likely to affect us all, then this is a must read. Can't recommend it highly enough.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Lisa Randall does an excellent job of explaining science as an essential human endeavour. Knocking on Heaven's Door not only explains the science behind the Large Hadron Collider in Cern and what we expect to discover, but more importantly why we should care. The encroaching veil of science ignorance in America is a clear and present danger to our democracy and to our ability to be relevant in the 21st Century. Professor Randall has helped to lift that veil. Everyone should read this book.
cisco940 More than 1 year ago
This work is a must read for anyone who wishes to make any sense of the world we live in and where we are headed..Lisa Randall is the "real deal", poignant and often laconic..but either way I get the sense that she speaks from the heart....I say get it, buy it, love it.. or @ the very least give it as an Xmas any format ...but by all means do not miss this masterpiece!
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Lot of name-dropping and self promotion, boasting which certainly could have been ommitted. Pretty good overview of physics, but uneven. Some paragraphs could use more explanation.
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Ms Randall wonders off topic and spends too many words glorifing herself. Did anybody edit this book?
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Lisa spoils her book by commenting on recent economic events that have nothing to do with physics. Her understanding of economics seems to come off the editorial pages of newspapers rather than any detailed studies. The yoga teacher Iyengar once said that he had a great knowledge of yoga but other things not so much. I wished that she had stayed on topic and did not indulge herself in areas outside her expertise. More science and less social commentary would help this book.