Knocking on Heaven's Door, By Lisa Randall

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The Independent Culture

Lisa Randall is a hugely gifted theoretical particle physicist, but on top of the irri-tating title (presumably designed to stir up controversy in the science versus religion debate), Knocking on Heaven's Door is an uneven and unbalanced read. Randall hints at the inherent problems in the introduction: "The book alternates between details of science being done today and reflections on the underlying themes and concepts that are integral to science but that are useful for understanding the broader world as well .... In some respects, it is two books in one – but books that are best read together."

It is certainly two books in one, but I would disagree that they're best read together. The focus of the first is on the Large Hadron Collider, the gargantuan particle accelerator beneath Switzerland and France, and the experiments being done there. This is Randall's area of expertise, her whole career having been spent working on theories, models and experiments leading up to the current exciting programme of work at the LHC.

But for some reason Randall has chosen to hide her excellent account of the theoretical and practical work being carried out in the field of particle physics among a hotchpotch of seemingly random musings.

So, for the first hundred pages we get muddled and repetitive passages about the history of science, the nature of the scientific method, different scales of measurement and calculation, and a particularly ill-advised toe in the water of science-versus-religion. It's all overwritten and prone to vapid, grandiose declarations: "Scientists knock on heaven's door in an attempt to cross the threshold separating the known from the unknown." That is some first-class flimflam right there.

This is highly frustrating, especially because, when Randall is on her home turf, she's really very good. The round-up of theories and models concerning fundamental particles is succinct and lucid, which is not an easy task given the complexity of the Standard Model. And her account of the humungous engineering and logistical achievement that is the building and running of the Large Hadron Collider is fantastic; full of passion and jaw-dropping facts. (A quick example: the cooling system for its superconducting magnets is the coldest known place in the universe.)

The LHC is the largest machine ever built, a truly astonishing international collaboration, and the computer processing power that goes along with it is also mind-boggling. Hopes are high that it will deliver data in the near future that will confirm or refute a variety of theories, and Randall does a good job of discussing the search for the Higgs boson, the as yet hypothetical fundamental particle that can provide real insight into the inner workings of the universe.

At the heart of this mixed up book is a fascinating account of modern particle physics, both theoretical and practical. It's just a shame it's buried so deeply.

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