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About the Author

Lisa Randall studies theoretical particle physics and cosmology at Harvard University, where she is Frank B. Baird, Jr., Professor of Science. A member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, she is the recipient of show more many awards and honorary degrees and was named one of Time magazine's "100 Most Influential People" in 2007. Warped Passages (2005) and Knocking on Heaven's Door (2011) were New York Times bestsellers and 100 Notable Books. Her standalone e-book, Higgs Discovery: The Power of Empty Space, was published in 2012. show less
Image credit: Photograph by leslieimage.com who took it at TED 2006

Works by Lisa Randall

Associated Works

A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader (2018) — Contributor — 234 copies
The New Humanists: Science at the Edge (2003) — Contributor — 230 copies
The Earth and I (2016) — Contributor — 24 copies


Common Knowledge



This book is a lot. It starts with cosmology and the Big Bang, goes into particle physics to explain what dark matter is, touches on theories of the origin of life, finally gets to the fossil record and what that tells us about mass extinction events, goes into some concepts of probability theory and statistical significance, then describes large scale features of the Milky Way and our solar system’s traversal through it.

All of this is used to illustrate her idea (which she is very careful to describe as speculative and a “thought experiment”) that there is a disc of dark matter, much thinner than the distribution of normal matter, through the central plane of the galaxy, and that the spike in gravity caused by this disc is responsible for knocking objects out of the orbit of the Oort cloud at the edge of the solar system every 30-35 million years and sending big spikes in the number colliding with Earth, causing mass extinction events including the death of the dinosaurs.

Randall is very clear, though out the work, that some ideas are not established yet and should not be taken as factual, but she does heavily reference other academic work on the variety of fields involved. As a nonexpert I am unable to verify all of the background material, but provided there are no glaring omissions or misrepresentations I believe she makes a compelling case for her theory.

Overall this book is densely packed with a lot of science and will take some thought to follow, but the frame of her “dark matter killed the dinosaurs” hypothesis allows the book to flow reasonably well.
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jdm9970 | 20 other reviews | Jan 26, 2023 |
As the subtitle indicates, this book covers some fairly broad scientific topics, including some discussion about the history of science and the importance of scientific thinking. A lot of it, however, is more specifically about particle physics and the Large Hadron Collider. It was written in 2011, though, so the discussions here about attempts to find the Higgs Boson (which did happen pretty much as predicted) and the possibility that LHC data could overturn or amend the currently reigning Standard Model of particle physics (which so far hasn't happened) are inevitably somewhat dated now.

Honestly, this book feels kind of all over the place. Sometimes it outlines things on what's intended to be a layman's level, although I think having a little bit of physics knowledge going in does help. In other places, it gets very technical, and, in my experience, going in with a little bit of physics knowledge helps very little in understanding concepts like the Higgs field. At least, it's certainly never helped me. I think no matter how clearly anyone tries to explain some of these things, it's just really not possible to entirely understand it without knowing the right kind of mathematics. I can't say that this is the best stab I've seen anyone take at it, either, or that Randall's prose is especially lucid. She's not bad or anything, but definitely not someone I'm going to hold up as a paragon of good, clear science writing.

She does have a few insightful things to say, and anyone who's especially interested in the specifics of how the LHC works is likely to find her detailed descriptions of its technology and operation useful. But, overall, this volume is kind of dense and unfocused and often not particularly good at getting the author's points across. I feel like there are much better books on these topics out there.
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bragan | 10 other reviews | May 8, 2022 |
I put this book on the bedtime story shelf and my fourteen-year-old picked it up, which means that I read this whole thing out loud to my family. There were times when I thought that this book's structure wasn't very friendly to a read aloud format, as there was a LOT of repetition and circling back on theories which sometimes made me impatient to read so slowly. But really, it probably helped the kids, especially as we read it one chapter at a time, so it helped with the "where we left off..." reminders.

Okay, so there is a really interesting premise at the heart of this book, and that is: is there a cyclical nature to mass extinctions in the fossil record supporting evidence for cyclical catastrophic meteor strikes? And if so, could that cycle be linked to a structural issue in our solar system — and if so, could that structural issue be related to dark matter? Clearly, there are a LOT of interconnected features to unpack here, which means that even if at the end, you are unpersuaded by the thesis that dark matter killed the dinosaurs (which is not actually a foregone conclusion of this book), you still have learned about the fossil record, mass extinctions, meteor strikes, the structure of the solar system, dark matter, and predictive modeling. In a way, that is more FUN — a depiction of the way that science searches for connections and patterns, and that you don't have to prove your hypothesis correct in order to learn an impressive amount about the universe.

A very worthwhile adventure.
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greeniezona | 20 other reviews | Sep 20, 2021 |
I reviewed this once before and a tecnical snafu ate it when I tried to up load it...

This book is dreadful: here are the many reasons why:

The material is disorganised. The book is ostensibly about extra spatial dimensions. The concepts are introduced in the first few chapters then don't re-appear until the last few chapters. The Standard Model is introduced twice.

The explanations are poor and sometimes wrong. The section on the Pauli Principle is riddled with errors and omissions that should embarress a good A-level chemistry student. The section on CP symmetry and CPT symmetry is so bad that I did not recognise these concepts for what they were until several chapters later. These concepts are not actually difficult to explain, even if it is hard to see why they should be true: In CP symmetry, all matter is swapped for it's antimatter equivalent and the directions left and right are reversed. When this is done, no difference can be detected between before and after the swap. This symmetry is known to work for all physical processes except those involving the weak nuclear force. In CPT symmetry, as well as swapping matter for antimatter and left for right, the direction of time is reversed. This symmetry was believed to hold for all circumstances - it could have happened five times since you started reading this review and you would never be able to tell the difference! However, very recent results have suggested that neutrinos and antinuetrinos may have different masses which would mean that CPT symmetry does not apply to them. This isn't a well established result yet, though. So, really, how hard was that to explain? Randall also offers the worst introduction to the fundamental mysteries of quantum mechanics I've ever read (and I've read quite a number).

Randall can't write: Additionally to giving bad explanations, Randall also gives us a very bad story at the beginning of each chapter. These stories have no literary merit and do not make understanding the forthcoming material any easier. They are like the dialogues from Godel, Escher, Bach by Hofstadter with all wit, literary merit and purpose removed, except they aren't dialogues, either.

Pop song wisdom: Each chapter begins with a quote from a pop song. These are not profound or witty. Many, many years ago I developed the principle, "Do not get your life wisdom from pop songs." One could also say, "Do not quote pop songs at the heads of chapters unless you want to look as if you've never read a book in your life."

Repetition: Using the same unclear explanation over and over again does not make a topic easier to understand. Since it was very difficult to understand Randall's explanations of concepts I am already familiar with repeating them isn't helpful.

Bloat: The new "physics" Randall wants to explain comes in the final two chapters of a long book which is full of digressions that are irrelevant to the main thrust. Weirdly the author includes every theoretical development of the last 20 years except the only one that has a firm experimental basis (i.e. neutrino oscillation, which I'm not going to explain here). Weirdly, this would have been useful, unlike the ones she does include, because the issue of "flavour mixing" comes up at one point. Again it took me some time to realise that this "flavour mixing" was something I knew about - neutrino oscillation!

Is there anything good about this book? Well, there's an explanation of why one theory of relativity is Special and the other is General that you won't find in many other places. Is that compensation for nearly 500p of tedious, repetitive and extremely speculative barely comprehensible explanations?

Stick to the maths, Lisa; you're good at maths.
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Arbieroo | 26 other reviews | Jul 17, 2020 |



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