By Chet Yarbrough
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. It is also a story of America’s loss of leadership in science.
Randall explores physics, sciences conflict with religion, the process of scientific research, and somewhat ineptly, the near economic collapse of the financial world in 2007/2008.
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. This tunnel is capable of hurtling neutrons in opposite directions at near speeds of light that result in particle collisions. The colliding neutrons explode into constituent parts.
These fundamental elements are cataloged by a trigger mechanism embedded in a complex software program that is designed to focus on unique particle characteristics. The idea of such a complex automated analytic system staggers belief and imagination.
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 push and pull neutrons to keep them in line at an accelerating pace. Neutrons are made of smaller elements, many of which are scientifically proven through repeated smaller centripetal experiments. These smaller colliders could not achieve the segmenting explosive force of the LHC; i.e. at lower neutron acceleration, some parts of a neutron could not be segmented or experimentally identified. Einstein’s balance between energy and mass before and after neutron collisions did not balance which suggests that some elements of the neutron had not been identified. 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. maybe the key to dark matter and energy that make up 75% of the known universe.
Higgs-boson is the catalyst for agglomeration of particles into what we see as mass. However, Randall does not correlate the discovery of Higgs-boson with revelation about dark matter or dark energy. Toward the end of her book, the narration turns to WIMPS (weakly interactive massive particles) as a primary element of dark matter and energy. Randall believes the LHC may be the vehicle to test the existence of WIMPS but detection because of the weak force nature of WIMPS is the biggest obstacle to discovery. Presumably a WIMP is not a Higgs-boson particle. The more this reviewer reviews, the less this reviewer knows.
The consequence and benefit of finding Higgs-boson is unknown which is the bête noir of pure science. (Higgs-boson identified on July 4th, 2012 at the LHC.) 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.
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 real estate derivatives would have stopped the madness. The naiveté of that argument is that there were a few that saw the collapse coming but their scientific analysis only convinced a small number of people. Few financial “geniuses” chose to believe real estate derivatives were a financial instrument of destruction. How different is that from the scientific community’s position 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. Randal admits as much in writing about beauty and truth and clearly notes that they are not necessarily equivalent because of human subjectivity. If one can make millions of dollars off a quant’s mistaken calculations, what incentive does that person have to ignore the opportunity?
Randall convinces one of the formidable reality of the LHC and its potential contribution to science. America may have missed a chance to be a leader rather than follower of one of the 21st century’s great contributions to science, the Large Hadron Collider.