'Here, on the edge of what we know, in contact with the ocean of the unknown, shines the mystery and the beauty of the world. And it's breathtaking' These seven short, simple lessons guide us through the scientific revolution that shook physics in the twentieth century and still continues to shake us today. Theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli, a founder of the loop quantum gravity theory. explains Einstein's theory of general relativity, quantum mechanics, black holes, the complex architecture of the universe, elementary particles, gravity, and the nature of the mind. In under eighty pages, readers will understand the most transformative scientific discoveries of the twentieth century and what they mean for us.
Rovelli published the 7 lessons as newspaper articles (in the culture section of an Italian magazine). Because of that they had to be short and being designed for someone with no background in the science, they tend to be on the shallow end. Except when he gets a bit excited and dives head first into the topic and things get very technical.
The book's 7 lessons can be easily classified in 2 groups - the actual Physics articles and the musings of a man that are just marginally connected to Physics and are instead about climate change, the human brain, humanity and whatever else he managed to connect to them. Thankfully there are 6 from the first type and just one from the second - but that one is the last one so the book ends up in a bit of a jumble.
But before this, the first 6 are short, shallow and yet pretty good high level overviews of relative theory, quantum physics, the structure of the cosmos and of a particle, thermodynamics (and somehow we manage to lose time around here - Rovelli explains very concisely but also very clearly why time does not really exist) and the theories of how the universe came to exist, how it looks now and his own theories for some of those (after all he is a Physicist and part of the creators of one of the theories.
The articles are part history, part science. They just scratch the surface of their concepts but the thing that is there is the progression and the connections that led to the discoveries. Nothing was discovered in a vacuum and without cooperation and that is what the book shows clearly.
And then comes the last essay. Which was rambling, disconnected and just did not fit the book. At all. I really wish they had kept it out - it drags the book down.
I still would recommend the book to anyone that can take some science (and that is not a scientist). It won't teach you the science but it is readable, brief and will get you the basics and the connection between them. And that is more than most people know about the topic.
I have to say I'm very grateful for this book and will probably purchase a copy for myself, something I do very rarely, for reference on the scientific theories and for the poetry of the last chapter. The translators have done a wonderful job of making Dr. Rovelli's prose so effectively available to English speakers.
That brevity is one of characteristics that have made the book so popular. Another is the fact that Rovelli often uses near-poetry and evocative allusions in his descriptions. Consider what he says about particles:
Even if we observe a small, empty region of space in which there are no atoms, we still detect a minute swarming of these [miniscule moving wavelets]. There is no such thing as a real void, one that is completely empty. Just as the calmest sea looked at closely sways and trembles, however slightly, so the fields that form the world are subject to minute fluctuations, and it is possible to imagine its basic particles have brief and ephemeral existences, continually created and destroyed by these movements.
Descriptions like this can convey the essence of the concept to readers whose own understanding of physics is almost surely Aristotelian. Rovelli has jumped his audience at least two scientific paradigms beyond the knowledge brought by the typical reader, but he does so in a way that is far more comfortable that would be a more scientific explanation.
For my money, I would prefer to be provided with some evidence or logical justification for this strange picture of the world. For me, allure of science, and of physics in particular, is in the voyage more so than the destination. While lots of people consider themselves fans of science, very few are interested in actually learning it. For them, never mind - Rovelli presents a very poetical version of modern physics, appealing to the artist in the reader and stimulating the imagination, but providing none of the evidence in the form of experiments, mathematics, or reason that would connect these seemingly impossible conclusions to their justifications. Seems to me to take most of the fun out of it! One could also argue that his viewpoint of particle physics and cosmology is parochial, giving lots of space to his own specialty, loop quantum gravity, but omitting another forefront viewpoints, including the string theory of particles.
Okay, I stand corrected. The fifth chapter on Loop Quantum Gravity was really good. LQG endeavors to combines the two theories of general relativity and quantum mechanics and with that we find that space is not continuous but is itself made up of infinitesimally small particles, a billion, billion times smaller than an atomic nuclei: "atoms of space." "Where are these quanta of space? Nowhere. They are not in space because they are themselves the space."
Oh, and the concept of time disappears. Is your mind hurting yet? LOL.
And then there is the study of black holes and the theory that once stars finish reducing to the ridiculously small sizes of a black hole--our star, were it to become a black hole, might condense to to one and a half kilometers-- they continue to collapse inward to the dimensions similar to an atom, known as a Planck Star. Then they would rebound back out. This makes perfect sense to me. Scientists are looking for evidence of this, but although cosmically this may be happening incredibly quickly, from our perspective it may look like nada. And then, of course, time doesn't matter, soooo...
And the Big Bang might actually be the Big Bounce! My husband prefers the Curtain Theory.
If you are interested in learning a little about physics but know nothing about it, this book is an excellent choice. In plain language the author explains difficult concepts of general relativity, quantum mechanics, elementary particles, gravity, black holes, and the complex architecture of the universe.
Audio Production: The author performs the narration. I don’t think this was a good choice. Rovelli’s accent is so strong that it was distracting and at times difficult to understand. Narration matters. I can’t emphasize this enough. Perhaps it was meant to sound like a TED talk or speech, but I would have preferred a professional narrator.
* (to whom I would recommend something like Sean Carroll's _The Big Picture_ as their next book)
** (no mention of string theory!)
I read this on a KLM flight from Amsterdam, finishing it in about 90 minutes. I am familiar with some of the topics, and I always enjoy science written for generalists.
I loved the enthusiasm that Carlo Rovelli showed for his subject: he's obviously very passionate about what he does and having him narrate his own book was a good choice.
My favourite lesson was the very first one on the astounding elegance of Einstein's equations. The lesson in which I learned the most was the sixth on probability, time, and the heat of black holes. Who knew the explanation for heat and heat transfer could be so important? The final essay, alas, goes beyond physics per se and weakens markedly as it drifts away from the rough ground of physics. But six fine essays out of seven makes this still an easy book to recommend.
Rovelli’s passion and enthusiasm for his subject matter shines through clearly in every chapter. The English translation of his writing is clear, if a little florid. To cover so much in so little space, he must over simplify at times, but he is quite effective in his scathing criticism of climate change deniers [Are you listening, Mr. Trump?].
He sometimes suffers from reading too much into equations. For example, he notes that all physical laws seem to apply equally both forward and backward in time except for one—the second law of thermodynamics. From this he infers that “there is a detectable difference between past and future only when there is the flow or heat.” Huh!? I find Richard Muller’s characterization of the flow of time in his book Now as the leading edge of the expansion of the fourth dimension (i.e. time) more to my liking.
Rovelli can wax poetic on issues that pique his interest. Speaking about the self, he writes, “Amidst the infinite arabesques of forms which constitute reality we are merely a flourish among innumerably many such flourishes.” I wonder what that sentence sounds like in the original Italian.
The book should be read as a physicist’s semi-poetic apology for modern science and its ability to expand our imaginations. It won’t get you through M.I.T., but it is a pleasant diversion.
It's always welcome to read someone who's working from the conviction that these ideas should be accessible to everyone, not just a coterie of science graduates, and Rovelli certainly has an appealing turn of phrase. For instance: talking about Hawking radiation in the context of competing descriptions of the universe, he writes that
The heat of black holes is like the Rosetta Stone of physics, written in a combination of three languages – Quantum, Gravitational and Thermodynamic – still awaiting decipherment in order to reveal the true nature of time.
The problem is that these chapters are so brief – they began as a series of weekly columns for Il Sole 24 Ore – that they are only really of use to someone who has had no exposure to these concepts whatsoever. There is no room to touch on any but the most preliminary of introductory points. It's like scanning the headlines. The ‘lessons’ are fine, they're nicely written, they're suitably curious and awe-struck – but they're somehow unsatisfying.
And at times, he can perhaps be a little disingenuous. To illustrate the concept of loop quantum gravity, he talks about a hypothetical entity called a Planck star, something whose existence, as far as I know, has only ever been proposed by one C. Rovelli….
But overall, you're left with the impression that you just spent half an hour chatting with a particularly engaging lecturer at a party, without getting the chance to hear him actually lecture. Oh – and his wide-eyed, cheerful demeanour makes it all the more sobering when he sums up the prospects for our immediate future as follows:
We belong to a short-lived genus of species. All of our cousins are already extinct. What's more, we do damage. The brutal climate and environmental changes which we have triggered are unlikely to spare us. For the Earth they may turn out to be a small irrelevant blip, but I do not think that we will outlast them unscathed – especially since public and political opinion prefers to ignore the dangers which we are running, hiding our heads in the sand. We are perhaps the only species on Earth to be conscious of the inevitability of our individual mortality. I fear that soon we shall also have to become the only species that will knowingly watch the coming of its own collective demise, or at least the demise of its civilization.
Carlo Rovelli conveys the beauty of the universe and our often feeble attempts to quantify it into formulae which nevertheless still have a mathematical grace to them. You won't completely understand concepts such as the General Theory of Relativity and Quantum Mechanics from this slim volume, but you will at least begin to appreciate some of the mystery behind them and why others devote their lives to exploring them.
13th edition (my reading copy) of this book and publisher Riverhead Books still hasn't fixed this typo at the bottom of page 28?
"And in every direction in which we look, this it what happens."