Knocking on Heaven’s Door

Lisa Randall’s new book is about to come out, it’s entitled Knocking on Heaven’s Door: How Physics and Scientific Thinking Illuminate the Universe and the Modern World. It turns out that it’s really two books in one, both of which are much better and more clearly written than her previous effort, Warped Passages. One reason might be help from well-known novelist Cormac McCarthy who is thanked (together with Lubos Motl) for extensive feedback during the book’s writing.

One of the books here is not surprising, it’s somewhat of an update of the earlier book, emphasizing the story of the LHC. This includes a very detailed explanation of the history of the LHC and how it works, together with a wonderful and clear examination of the design of the ATLAS and CMS detectors, as well as the physics they are looking for. All in all, this is about the best popular-level explanation of what is going on at the LHC that I’ve seen, up-to-date as of a few months ago.

The second book inside the book is of much wider scope. Randall’s prominence as a scientist has brought her into contact with a wide range of people (Bill Clinton’s endorsement is on the book’s cover), including artists, government officials, financiers, technologists, and a wide range of thinkers of different sorts. She has taken on the role of a public face of physics, and has written a book which is in part a very general defense of science and the materialist, rationalist world-view that modern science is based on. Her experiences with non-scientists are reflected in how she writes about a range of topics, including the notion of beauty in science, the question of how to analyze risk, the relation of religion and science and much more. Her discussions of these topics are uniformly sensible, although rather conventional and unsurprising.

In the end though, the book left me somewhat uncomfortable. Understandably, Randall is overly enthusiastic about the prospects of Randall-Sundrum models, describing them as “an idea that probably stands as good a chance as any of being right” (most theorists would assign a much higher probability to SUSY). She writes that, if correct, the LHC is expected to see KK gravitons at a mass of around 1 TeV. Recently limits on masses of such particles have been pushed up to nearly 2 TeV. These extra-dimensional models were considered interesting but not especially plausible by most theorists pre-LHC. Like SUSY, they’re starting to be ruled out by the LHC, a process which may take a while until their defenders finally admit that the expected signals just aren’t there.

The time period of Randall’s career roughly corresponds to my own (she’s a few years younger), and, as she acknowledges, her field of model-building throughout this career has been dominated by string theory-inspired SUSY and extra dimensional models. These were never very convincing, and they are now biting the dust. From the experimental side, this is an inspirational story of the triumph of the scientific method and the huge achievements of the LHC machine and detectors, but from the theoretical side, the story of this period is darker and much less inspirational. It’s not something that makes the best topic for a defense of how science is conducted.

One odd thing about the book is the title, which for Randall carries a positive meaning that she acknowledges doesn’t correspond to the very dark one of the Bob Dylan song from the soundtrack of the Sam Peckinpah film. It’s a beautiful song, but one not about finding truth, but about getting shot in the gut and facing death, hopefully not relevant to particle physics in the LHC era:

Mama, put my guns in the ground
I can’t shoot them anymore.
That long black cloud is comin’ down
I feel like I’m knockin’ on heaven’s door.

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13 Responses to Knocking on Heaven’s Door

  1. Proudmemberofthecult says:

    Like SUSY, they’re starting to be ruled out by the LHC, a process which may take a while until their defenders finally admit that the expected signals just aren’t there.

    “Science advances one death at a time”: Models only ever really go away once their proponents have died.

  2. Bernhard says:

    “but about getting shot and facing death, hopefully not relevant to particle physics in the LHC era”

    Well, getting shot and facing death is basically what will happen with all this extra dimension models…

  3. Pingback: Illuminata* « Log24

  4. Henry Bolden says:

    Peter, you’re wrong about string theory not being good for anything: it’s good for making money by selling popular books to the public. Fiction writing is still a profitable business for a select group of authors. Brian Greene and Lisa Randall are essentially part of the entertainment industry. Look for more cameos on “The Big Bang Theory”.

  5. Hamid Gupta says:

    This is a reply to Henry Bolden’s comment.

    Why you should not expect a Lisa Randall cameo on “The Big Bang Theory”.

    It has been alleged that Dr. Elizabeth Plimpton character in the “The Big Bang Theory” episode “The Plimpton Stimulation” (Season 3, number 21) is modeled on Lisa Randall. If there is any truth to this rumor then expect lawsuits rather than cameos. The fictional character is a Princeton lady cosmologist, not from Harvard, so perhaps that’s how the producers of the show might defend themselves against possible legal action. One person connected to the show allegedly said that the original script mentioned “Plimpton-Humdrum models” but this was deleted on advice by lawyers. Of course all this is probably just more internet disinformation only slightly more likely to verified than the physics of a Randall-Sundrum model.

  6. Mitchell Porter says:

    Lisa Randall already appeared on The Big Bang Theory.

  7. abbyyorker says:

    Do y’all watch TBBT? I watched one episode and it was terrible.

  8. Peter Woit says:

    abbyyorker,

    I’m a fan. Any TV show with a main character pretty much based on Lubos is bound to be a hoot.

    Sorry though, discussing the pros and cons of TV shows is really off-topic here, the discussion is fluffy enough as it is…

  9. Anne Marie Thomas says:

    Given that string theory and multiverse theories have slid from speculative physics into a form of entertainment, perhaps the discussion of TBBT is justified. By the way, which episode of TBBT features a guest appearance by Lisa Randall? I couldn’t find her in Wikipedia’s list of cameo appearances for the show:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_The_Big_Bang_Theory_characters

    Now, if we could only get a Peter Woit cameo on the show, that would be way cool. Readers of this blog lobby the producers for it!

  10. martibal says:

    Anne Marie: great idea ! Peter on TBBT!!
    How can we lobby the producers for it ?

  11. Sebastian Thaler says:

    Peter,

    Speaking of interesting new books, you might like the upcoming title PHYSICS ON THE FRINGE by Margaret Wertheim. Most of her book is devoted to the motivations of crank physicists and their bizarre theories, but chapter 11 includes a bit on string cosmology and multiverses. I’m pretty sure the string community will not be happy to see itself mentioned in a book like this…

  12. Peter Woit says:

    Thanks Sebastian,

    I look forward to seeing that book. Over the years I’ve received large numbers of documents from cranks. It has struck me that it’s unclear how to distinguish a lot of multiverse papers by respectable scientists from the crank literature.

  13. “These were never very convincing, and they are now biting the dust.” So why do people keep doing string theory? I found a possible answer in the April 2011 issue of Discover Magazine, in an interview with Lynn Margulis :

    Population geneticist Richard Lewontin gave a talk here at UMass Amherst about six years ago, and he mathematized all of it — changes in the population, random mutation, sexual selection, cost and benefit. At the end of his talk he said, “You know, we’ve tried to test these ideas in the field and the lab, and there are really no measurements that match the quantities I’ve told you about.” This just appalled me. So I said, “Richard Lewontin, you are a great lecturer to have the courage to say it’s gotten you nowhere. But then why do you continue to do this work?” And he looked around and said, “It’s the only thing I know how to do, and if don’t do it I won’t get my grant money.” So he’s an honest man, and that’s an honest answer.

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