Seven Brief Lessons on Physics

by Carlo Rovelli

Hardcover, 2016

Status

Available

Publication

Riverhead Books, (2016)

Description

'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.

Media reviews

User reviews

LibraryThing member AnnieMod
Physics used to be one of my disciplines in high school - it was easy for me to understand, it was interesting and there was always something new to learn. Then after I finished school, I moved to other things and had not touched a Physics book since. So when I saw this one, I figured out that it may as well be my way back on the field. It did not end up working out exactly like that but I am not sorry that I read it.

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.
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LibraryThing member auntmarge64
This is a lovely little book which, in a few brief chapters, lays out the basics of modern physics and then goes on to summarize current thought on time, the human mind, and the definition of "I". The examples used to explain complex theories were very effective. In the last chapter, the author waxes philosophical about the past and future of the human species, a summary which mirrored my own thoughts but expressed them more gently and succinctly than I could. "I believe that our species will not last long. It does not seem to be made of the stuff that has allowed the turtle, for example, to continue to exist more or less unchanged for hundreds of millions of years, for hundreds of times longer, that is, than we have even been in existence. 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 that we have triggered are unlikely to spare us."

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.
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LibraryThing member hcubic
Theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli is head of the Quantum Gravity group at Aix-Marseilles University in southern France. His unlikely NY Times best-selling book is a translation of a collection of essays he wrote for the Italian business newspaper, Il Sole24 Ore, in order to bring to laypersons the wonder and beauty of modern science. It eschews all of the mathematics and almost all of the justification for what we think physics tells us about the universe. Rovelli very ambitiously begins with the general theory of relativity and writes an additional chapter each on the topics, in order, of quantum mechanics, cosmology, elementary particles, quantum gravity, the heat of black holes and, finally, to the place of humans in all of this. Given the immensity of the subject matter, it does not seem possible that the task can be accomplished in only just over eighty small pages.
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.
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LibraryThing member flashflood42
As a non-scientist, I found most very challenging but am glad I read it, if only for quantum physics and how black holes contract til they explode out thus showing how our universe was created along with many others. Einstein's theory of relativity was explained well but much was too hard for me!
LibraryThing member Berly
So, I am reading Seven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo Rovelli, which I am finding a little more simplistic in its exploration of these amazing concepts than I had hoped for, but it is an amazingly short book, so I should have known. But it is a good refresher, clearly written and I will finish it for the occasional pearl. For example, up popped a literary gem. I did not know, or perhaps I forgot, that the term "quark" comes from Finnegan's Wake: "Three quarks for Muster Mark!" An apparently random inspiration from "a seemingly nonsensical word in a nonsensical phrase" by James Joyce. Cool! But the book should have gone on to mention a favorite of mine--the silly names for quarks (the small particles that make up protons and neutrons). They only come in pairs, which is why for a long time, most did not believe they existed, but they do, and they have the most random names. They are up and down--these are the lightest pair; then strange (for the "strangely" long lifetime of the K particle, the first composite particle found to contain this quark) and charm; and finally the fifth and sixth quarks were sometimes called truth and beauty, but perhaps that surpassed the cuteness boundary, so they eventually became known as top and bottom. And, of course, the force that hold the pairs together was called...wait for it...wait for it...gluons. LOL! Not your typical scientific names at all!

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.
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LibraryThing member mhanlon
This was another audiobook from the library through Overdrive, and it's a short and sweet romp through the transformations in physics in the last little while or so.
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.… (more)
LibraryThing member UnderMyAppleTree
I enjoy hard science fiction and the technical dialog that goes along with it. I’ve taken classes in physics and always struggled — probably because as a science major the classes I had to choose from were too technical, and the concepts of quantum mechanics and advanced mathematics were always a bit much for my brain to comprehend. I did absorb a little physics, and as a result, I already knew a lot of what he discussed and didn’t learn much that was new. It was, however, an enjoyable book and an interesting refresher.

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.
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LibraryThing member knightlight777
A nice brief and very readable book on principles of physics and the universe. I contrasted this to a book I recently finished on dark matter and dark energy that was so technical as to make it not understandable. Rovelli had a way in this book of making some complex principles fluid and basic in plain language. He ends the book with some interesting observations of mankind, our role in the universe, and our likely eventual demise.… (more)
LibraryThing member 5hrdrive
Remarkable, yet all too brief book that beautifully describes the state of physics and our knowledge of the universe as it stands today. Spends a little too much time on history and not enough on actual science, but still manages to concisely describe some pretty heavy concepts. I really enjoyed the last chapter. Well worth the hour or two that it takes to read.… (more)
LibraryThing member neurodrew
This is a beautiful little book, a collection of essays written for an Italian newspaper to explain some topics in modern physics. His first lesson is entitled "The most beautiful of theories" and is an elucidation of Einstein's general theory of relativity, explained as an evolution of thought about how objects fall. The second lesson is "Quanta"; the familiar story of quantum mechanics and the unsettling notion that the world is described by probability. The next lesson discusses space and cosmology, and the fourth lesson touches on particle physics. The fifth is called "grains of space" and is an attempted explanation of quantum gravity, a very difficult topic. Lesson six is the most profound and thought stimulating, on the nature of time, probability, and the relation of time to heat flow in black holes. The last lesson considers consciousness, a favorite topic of physicists even though their training is not in human physiology. It is the least successful, but still beautifully written. He briefly discusses Giulio Tononi, working on his integrated information theory of consciousness, described in his book Phi
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.
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LibraryThing member nmele
Brief, poetic and magically simple expositions of concepts like gravity waves, the curvature of space, and general relativity. An excellent book!
LibraryThing member fpagan
For readers "who know little or nothing about modern science"*, prominent physicist Rovelli offers ~80 fine little pages on general relativity, quantum mechanics, cosmology, particle physics, loop quantum gravity (LQG)**, thermodynamics and the nature of time, and where humans fit in. An example of something not commonly mentioned elsewhere: in the context of LQG, "a black hole is a rebounding star seen in extreme slow motion" (p47).
* (to whom I would recommend something like Sean Carroll's _The Big Picture_ as their next book)
** (no mention of string theory!)
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LibraryThing member Razinha
The Wikipedia article on this book says it sold more in Italy than 50 Shades. Certainly not so in America, where people seem to prefer IQ destroying mental Novocain to something, anything, of substance. Even this short book that is light on substance. Mixed thoughts...good that he wrote it, but, short as it is, the author manages necessarily to not really say a lot. There are better books by say, Brian Greene, with a little more tooth, on the subject. Apologists might argue "At least he got people reading about physics...", but I think that a hollow victory. Regardless, it's still orders of magnitude better than 50, and doesn't cut your IQ in half.… (more)
LibraryThing member Widsith
Engaging but over-slight summary of a few foundational concepts of modern physics, including special relativity, quantum theory, the standard model, as well as some leading hypothetical ideas like loop quantum gravity.

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.
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LibraryThing member johnm1958
Lovely translation of fluid and inspiring prose ideas outlining complicated and sophisticated ideas clearly. I think some of the other reviews are a bit harsh although I agree it's not a beginners guide to Physics. I don't think it's meant to be either.
LibraryThing member Neftzger
This is a nicely put together summary of some of the most ground breaking theories in physics. Whether you want a quick review of topics you studied in college or if you['re new to the subject and simply want to learn enough to handle a conversation intelligently, this is a great read. If you've been diving in depth into these theories the book may appear simplistic, but I don't think it was meant for that group of individuals. The writing is elegant and Rovelli explains complexity with ease, making the topics accessible for the average person. A great cursory introduction to the field.… (more)
LibraryThing member nbmars
Carlo Rovelli, an Italian theoretical physicist, is one of the founders of a theory known as loop quantum gravity. His very short (81 pages) book, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, is a compilation of columns that appeared first in the culture section of an Italian newspaper. It represents an effort to popularize abstruse scientific concepts such as general relativity, quantum mechanics, cosmology, and thermodynamics for the benefit of nonscientists.

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.

(JAB)
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LibraryThing member wagner.sarah35
Incredibly brief - but also a wonderful introduction to contemporary physics and the scientific problems it wrestles with. I really wish I had read this when I was taking my college astronomy class - some of the black hole lessons might have made a lot more sense! I applaud the author on making this complex subject accessible to lay readers and I particularly enjoyed the final concluding discussion, which admitted was more philosophy than science, but still fascinating.… (more)
LibraryThing member DLMorrese
This is what the title says, a brief lesson. It's only about 100 pages, so there are no details or nuances. It's just a broad brush overview of what we currently understand of the physics of time and space, which is still pretty mind-bending. Because it's so brief, it glosses over the problems and controversies, making the advancements that have been made appear more straightforward than they were, but I still found it a good (if overpriced) introduction of the subject.… (more)
LibraryThing member RandyMetcalfe
These elegantly written brief essays are both illuminating and inspiring. If you weren't fully aware of how remarkable Einstein was, you will find out. Likewise with Bohr and others. Physicists are remarkable even when their physics is less than clear to the likes of me.

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.… (more)
LibraryThing member alanteder
Poetic view of the Universe

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.

#ThereIsAlwaysOne
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."
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Language

Original language

English

Barcode

10287
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