Knocking on Heaven’s Door: How Physics and Scientific Thinking Illuminate the Universe and the Modern World
By Lisa Randall
HarperCollins
Hardback: $29.99
E-book: $14.99

Lisa Randall’s new book Knocking on Heaven’s Door has an interesting choreography. It reads almost as though it started out as a conversation with the author at, say, a dinner party that turned into a tour of CERN and the LHC. With many personal references and anecdotes thrown in, it certainly isn’t your standard popular-science volume about the LHC and the current state of particle physics.

For example, Randall, well known role-model theorist and media darling (this is meant in a good way), doesn’t start with the theory. Instead, she ends with it, explaining the open questions of the Higgs or missing antimatter, delving deeply into string theory and dark matter before she closes with an aside on theoretical methods and the notions of science as a quest, scientific genius and patience, thus giving a nice insight into the proverbial question: "What do theorists do all day?"

So why does it read as though it started out as a dinner conversation? Because the first quarter of the book is dedicated to the explanation of what science is all about, i.e. that is it guided by evidence, proof and experiment, and that these sometimes lead to readjustments in theories but rarely to complete revolutions. Doesn’t this sound like a question somebody might ask at a dinner table? Or the famous question of how science and religion can survive side by side, a topic that is hinted at in the book’s title.

After an evening of explanations and justification, the next natural step would be to invite the interrogator for a tour, which is what follows. Randall gives a quick introduction to CERN and a longer one on the LHC, and then while making her way to detector technologies there’s an aside on black holes, cost-benefit analysis and ecological arguments. The grand finale of the tour takes place in the cafeteria, where the really interested visitors are treated to the whole state of theoretical thinking.

Knocking on Heaven’s Door may not be the most stringent introduction to particle physics and its problems today, but it offers a fascinating insight into the world of science and manages to get across the excitement that the whole field, theorists and experimentalists alike, feels at the brink of discoveries to come from the LHC.

Barbara Warmbein, DESY.


Cosmic Numbers: The Numbers That Define Our Universe
By James D Stein
Basic Books
Hardback: £17.99 $25

Numbers are much better than words at conveying the immensity of our universe and the smallness of its components. We appear to sit uneasily on a fragile perch somewhere in the middle, using mighty telescopes to look outwards and hi-tech microscope devices to peer inwards. However, to make them digestible, these huge numbers still need words, imagination and humility.

Martin Rees’ commendable book Just Six Numbers: The deep forces that shape the Universe examined a selection of numbers, mostly large ones, which miraculously ensure that the universe as we know it is possible. If the dial that set these numbers had been tuned otherwise, even slightly, any outcome would have been unrecognizable.

Rees’ book was published by Basic Books in 2001. Ten years later, the same publisher now offers another book on numbers, and author Stein acknowledges this pedigree. His book takes a few of the numbers already looked at by Rees and adds some more.

Each number gets its own chapter and most of the headings are instantly recognizable: the gravitational constant, the speed of light, the ideal gas constant, absolute zero, Avogadro’s number, the Boltzmann constant, the Planck constant, the Schwarzschild radius, the Chandrasekhar limit and the Hubble constant. Some require further explanation: electricity and the proportionality constant, and the efficiency of hydrogen fusion.

Most impenetrable of all is the cryptic "omega" of the final chapter, which looks at matter density in the universe. Here, new supernova measurements show that the expansion of the universe is accelerating. This new Copernican revolution with its mysterious dark energy earned the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics.

In "omega", Stein applauds his own scientific judgement and regrets not having been able to bet on the demise of some recent tenuous theories. This emboldened him to scorn the value of the supernova finding: "It just somehow seems wrong to me." However, this apparently did not carry much weight in Stockholm. Any betting odds must now have lengthened considerably.

Gordon Fraser, Divonne-les-Bains.


L’Energia del Vuoto (Vacuum’s Energy)
By Bruno Arpaia
Guanda
Paperback: €16.50

Another thriller based at CERN, but this time far removed from the science fiction of Angels & Demons. In L’Energia del Vuoto, the science plays a major role, not only because the whole action takes place around the LHC, but also because the book is full of well written pages explaining the science of elementary particles and the Big Bang. Probably the weakest part of this book is the thriller plot itself.

The story is about a group of fundamentalist techno-terrorists who plan to corrupt the data of one of the large LHC experiments to provide fake evidence for a discovery, causing a great deal of confusion in the whole field of high-energy physics. The idea is original and it is intriguing from the point of view of scientists involved with "big science" experiments. It is indeed a scientist’s nightmare to make a false discovery or to lose a major discovery in an experiment that took 20 years to build and will not be possible to repeat. However, this aspect is not likely to interest most readers.

The narrative centres on Emilia and Pietro, a couple heading for a deep crisis. On one side there is Emilia’s total commitment as the leader of one of the large LHC collaborations: on the other, the normal lives of Pietro and their son Nico. One day Emilia does not return home and Pietro and Nico have to make a get-away, avoiding strange people who are trying to capture them.

In a parallel story, Nuria Moreno, a fascinating Hispanic journalist in charge of writing an article about CERN, is trained in the subtleties of modern physics. These pages on science are the best part of the book; dense but terse, understandable, entertaining, but possibly too much for a thriller. Angels & Demons also has long passages devoted to philosophy, science, religion and history, but there they are a mixture of science and fiction cleverly conceived to capture the reader’s attention. For Dan Brown, adherence to scientific or historical truth is not an issue. This is why Angels & Demons is a "bad" educational book but a successfully entertaining story. In L’Energia del Vuoto, Arpaia instead tries his best to mix true science with a fictional story, hoping that the fascinating science of the beginning of time and of infinitesimally small things will capture the reader’s imagination. The success of his attempt, however, is somewhat limited.

On the other hand, for anyone who knows CERN a little, this book has another interesting aspect: almost all of the fictional characters have clear correspondences with real people. There are no secrets about this – looking at the acknowledgment page it is easy to find the names of the scientists who helped Arpaia during his stay at CERN and to identify the main figures. For the CERN-based audience this could be definitely an amusing part of the reading.

Roberto Battiston, University of Perugia.

The Fear Index
By Robert Harris
Hutchinson
Hardback: £18.99
E-book: £19.81

When Robert Harris came to CERN to research a new novel inspired by the financial crisis, I wondered whether we were in for a tale of scientists too clever for their own good – and ours – bringing down the global financial system. Instead, what we’ve got is a tight, well researched and fast-paced thriller in which CERN serves as a sort of "UN with Asperger’s": a home for the smart but socially challenged.

As always, Harris’s attention to detail is impressive, and for anyone who knows Geneva well, some things are bound to raise a smile: the plague of independent financial advisors, for example, who cleverly persuade people to part with their money, only for them to see it halve in value, or the phalanx of locals standing by the kerb of an empty street waiting for the lights to change. However, as with any story that’s big on detail, to anyone who really knows the lie of the land, some things don’t quite gel: surely you couldn’t get from A to B that fast, even at the crack of dawn, and CERN’s main building seems to be confused with the lab’s reception. When the last page is turned, however, these things don’t matter, because the plot carries you through with consummate ease.

Alex Hoffman is an ex-CERN scientist and computer whizz who has made a successful move into finance. His clever software has generated unimaginable wealth for his clients, his staff and himself, and it seems that someone is jealous enough to want him dead. Without giving anything away, the plot keeps you guessing and drives relentlessly on to a rather surprising conclusion.

The Fear Index is almost a foray into sci-fi, extrapolating reality only slightly into the realms of the unknown to tell a cautionary tale. Harris’s warning concerns what might happen when mathematical wizardry meets a global financial system built on gambling and an unhealthy dose of human naivety and greed. The shocking speed of transactions, with people holding positions for fractions of second before taking multimillion dollar decisions, is truly terrifying, leaving this reader with the feeling that current financial reforms might only be scratching the surface and that the next time we plunge into crisis it won’t be the clever scientists who are at fault. In The Fear Index, Alex Hoffman is as much a victim as the rest of us.

James Gillies, CERN.