By Chet Yarbrough
Knocking on Heaven’s Door
By Lisa Randall
Narrated by Carrington MacDuffie
Lisa Randall believes the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is one of the wonders of the world; competing with the pyramids of Egypt in its colossal achievement. Located near the border of France and Switzerland, it is the largest construction project ever built.
“Knocking on Heaven’s Door” is the story of the Collider’s creation, inner workings, and scientific objectives. Along the way, Randall explores physics, sciences conflict with religion, the process of scientific research, and somewhat ineptly, the near economic collapse of the financial world in 2007.
Randall’s information about LHC inspires one to visit the site, near Geneva, Switzerland. Her description is of a 17 mile tunnel that is the coldest and largest vacuum on earth, capable of hurtling particles near the speed of light to collide neutrons that are meant to separate into constituent parts. The idea of such a creation challenges one’s understanding; its reality is remarkable. How is it possible to control a neutron? What is the point of causing neutron collisions? Why should anyone care about particles of matter that cannot be seen?
Randall, as a physicist, does a fairly good job of answering those questions for a non-scientist. Neutrons are a chosen accelerator particle because they are divisible. Neutron control is exercised by magnets around an elliptical tunnel that contain accelerating neutrons within a super cooled vacuum that pushes and pulls neutrons to keep them in line.
Neutrons are particles made up of smaller elements, scientifically confirmed through repeated experiments. The makeup of a neutron was found by forcing collisions between neutrons that broke into separate elements. However, not all parts of a neutron have been experimentally identified. Einstein’s balance between energy and mass multiplied by the speed of light squared shows an imbalance between known elements of a neutron and a neutron’s mass/energy equivalence. The imbalance may be the Higgs-boson particle.
This is where the picture gets a little fuzzy for the dim-witted (meaning this reviewer). The Higgs-boson particle is sometimes called the God particle. It is surmised to be the glue or medium of mass in the universe; i.e. the key to dark matter and energy that make up 75% of the known universe.
The consequence of finding Higgs-boson is unknown which is the bête noire of pure science. Scientists seek to know for the sake of knowledge; not necessarily for its practical consequence. Is it important? Was Einstein’s pure science important? Hiroshima and Nagasaki answer that query.
As is well-known, Higgs-boson has been discovered.
A quibble one may have with Randall’s book is that she digresses into derivative finance to suggest that more scientific analysis would obviate the kind of financial disaster that occurred in 2007. She suggests that proper analysis of the risk of derivatives would have stopped the madness. The naivete of that argument is that there were only a few that saw the collapse coming. Scientific analysis only convinces some. The history of politics, ignorance, and power are shown to have more influence than science or rational thinking.
How different is expert analysis from the scientific community on global warming. Scientific analysis misses part of what makes human’s human; i.e. minds can know something and still act irrationally; not to mention, rationality is often in the mind of the beholder. The President of the United States believes he is acting rationally by ignoring science and deregulating industries believed to be huge contributors to global warming. Randal admits as much in writing about beauty and truth and clearly notes that they are not necessarily equivalent because of human subjectivity.
Randall convinces one of the formidableness of LHC and the potential of its contribution to science. America may have missed a chance to be a leader rather than follower of one of the great contributions to science, the Large Hadron Collider.