Review by: Rick Kleffel
To do science requires courage at both a granular and a grand scale. Any scientific endeavor begins with the details, but the conclusions of science are by definition profound. They’re supposed to rattle the status quo, which may make some people unhappy. Lisa Randall’s latest book, ‘Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs: The Astounding Interconnectedness of the Universe’ scores on both levels. In it, she offers a new and ingenious explanation for the comet that brought about the fifth extinction, that of the dinosaurs, some 66 million years ago. In Randall’s world, that qualifies as the granular.
For grandeur, Randall settles for no less than life, the universe, and everything, and in a concise narrative, she conjures them all through the lens of the latest science. She does so with a minimum of fuss, a maximum of engaging writing, and an ability to turn science, as it is actually, practically practiced, into what amounts to a ripping yarn. ‘Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs’ is hard to put down. Randall will transform your vision of the world around you. The night sky will never seem the same.
Make no mistake; it’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of what Randall ultimately reveals in ‘Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs.’ It’s a super idea, combining several areas of science. But that’s not as obvious and she makes it seem. Randall does quite a bit more than simply lay out a very smart idea here. To make sure we understand the implications correctly, she dives into the background of her own work, where she makes discoveries with the reader, not just for the reader. She makes science exciting and immediate.
As with her previous book, ‘Knocking on Heaven’s Door,’ Randall does not shy away from the political, societal and even the spiritual implications of science. That she manages to do so in an understated manner makes her efforts all the more admirable. Reading ‘Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs,’ you’ll understand first-hand why our society, our politics and our spiritual lives are all made better by an understanding of reality as described by the latest science.
‘Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs’ begins with an introduction to exactly where Randall is headed, and then takes readers there by exploring the underpinnings of well, everything. Randall explores and explains the Big Bang and the bell-shaped universe with clarity and a few nice images. She then pulls her focus in, to the solar system, from the sun to the Oort cloud. We meet a few quirky and fascinating scientists along the way.
But the real story in this book, incredibly well told, is the story of the ideas of science. This happens at two levels. Randall is superb at crafting pocket histories; the Big Bang, mentioned above, is one example, but not alone. She also discusses the meteorite crater in Arizona, gives a fascinating history of just how we determined that it was indeed an asteroid (or comet) that brought about the fifth extinction, how background radiation helped determine the age of the universe, how we discovered the existence of both dark matter and dark energy, and more.
Each of these histories makes for a great story, and each slots into the bigger arc of scientific ideas that form the narrative here. One reason reading this book is something of a revelation is that Randall is adept at crafting a story of ideas, as opposed to our usual notion of a story as a series of events. All the while, Randall makes it clear that science is not just about finding ideas, but about finding new questions as well. The ability of science to question its own theories and results is integral to her understanding of science. Of course, this ties in to her low-key commentary on politics, society and our spiritual lives.
You can certainly read ‘Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs’ for the latest and greatest information on how and why an object struck the earth and brought about the demise of our favorite earthbound monsters. But Randall’s smart and quietly profound prose tells a much bigger story than even that. From the particles that are us to the forces at the edge of the universe, ‘Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs’ tells a story of science in ideas that will change the way you think about the world around you.