Physics books engage your mind with the power of ideas. Lyrical writing opens your heart to the beauty of the world. Physics with a poetic touch elevates existence from the mundane to the spectacular.
The book we are discussing today apparently sold more copies than Fifty Shades of Grey in the author’s home country1. I have your attention now right?
“Yeah”, you agree, surprised that a physics book could outsell a pulp-fiction book – and in Italy!
And to date, it has been translated into 41 languages. Incisive science writing is a treasure that is universally loved. And Carlo Rovelli, the author is a theoretical physicist of renown.
The book discusses the great happenings in physics. The author introduces us to the general theory of relativity, Quantum mechanics, Black Holes, and our own place in the world. We are offered tasty samples, like the Belgium chocolates provided at the counter. You try one, and you develop a taste for it forever. The book is unputdownable. You start and race right to the end of the slim volume in one go (it’s about 100 pages long).
Great books start with a bang, and this one is no different:
In his youth, Albert Einstein spent a year loafing aimlessly. You don’t get anywhere by not ‘wasting’ time – something, unfortunately, which the parents of teenagers tend frequently to forget.2
And the further down Carlo continues:
Undistracted by schooling, one studies best during vacations.3
A man in search of truth
You realize that we have here a true man of Science in the quest for truth. And “truth” for him is not confined to one specialization. He has the rare ability to enjoy a requiem and an equation equally.
There are absolute masterpieces which move us intensely: Mozart’s Requiem; Homer’s Odyssey; the Sistine Chapel; King Lear. To fully appreciate their brilliance may require a long apprenticeship, but the reward is sheer beauty – and not only this, but the opening of our eyes to a new perspective upon the world. Einstein’s jewel, the general theory of relativity, is a masterpiece of this order.4
When you look into his background, you realize that he has lived an eventful life where his rebellious, individualistic streak has coexisted with success as a professor. If there’s a common thread that runs through his life, it’s this. He is first and foremost an “ideas” man. And he has an uncanny knack for story-telling. Sample this on the General Theory of Relativity.
Bernhard Riemann, had produced an impressive doctoral thesis of the kind that seems completely useless. The conclusion of Riemann’s thesis was that the properties of a curved space are captured by a particular mathematical object which we know today as Riemann’s curvature, and indicate with the letter ‘R’. Einstein wrote an equation which says that R is equivalent to the energy of matter. That is to say: space curves where there is matter. That is it. The equation fits into half a line, and there is nothing more. A vision – that space curves – became an equation.5
Adopting the Wittgenstein ruler
Carlo asks us a question that physicists seldom ask in the open. When a theory seems complex – is the theory at fault, or is it our limitation to understand its elegance? Is the problem with the measure or the ruler we are using for the measurement? Nassim Taleb brilliantly summarises the so-called Wittgenstein ruler:
Unless you have confidence in the ruler’s reliability, if you use a ruler to measure a table, you may also be using the table to measure the ruler.6
Quantum physicists find way too many paradoxes in their theories, but it works! Carlo asks an uncomfortable question:
So, for the moment we have to stay with the Standard Model. It may not be very elegant, but it works remarkably well at describing the world around us. And who knows? Perhaps on closer inspection, it is not the model that lacks elegance. Perhaps it is we who have not yet learnt to look at it from just the right point of view; one which would reveal its hidden simplicity.7
You can almost hear him chuckling as he contemplates the life of a student.
A university student attending lectures on general relativity in the morning and others on quantum mechanics in the afternoon might be forgiven for concluding that his professors are fools, or have neglected to communicate with each other for at least a century. In the morning, the world is curved space where everything is continuous; in the afternoon it is a flat space where quanta of energy leap. The paradox is that both theories work remarkably well. Nature is behaving with us like that elderly rabbi to whom two men went in order to settle a dispute. Having listened to the first, the rabbi says: ‘You are in the right.’ The second insists on being heard, the rabbi listens to him and says: ‘You’re also right.’ Having overheard from the next room, the rabbi’s wife then calls out, ‘But they can’t both be in the right!’ The rabbi reflects and nods before concluding: ‘And you’re right too.8
The big questions
Outstanding scientists are always asking profound questions. And they realize that while we know so much, there’s still a lot to learn. And they sense that we humans are part of a larger scheme of things. Here’s Carlo on our place in the world.
As our knowledge has grown, we have learnt that our being is only a part of the universe, and a small part at that. This has been increasingly apparent for centuries, but especially so during the last century. We believed that we were on a planet at the centre of the universe, and we are not. We thought that we existed as unique beings, a race apart from the family of animals and plants, and discovered that we are descendants of the same parents as every living thing around us. We have ancestors in common with butterflies and larches. We are like an only child who, on growing up, realizes that the world does not revolve around them alone, as they thought when little. They must learn to be one amongst others. Mirrored by others, and by other things, we learn who we are.9
He summarizes brilliantly toward the end of the book:
Life is precious to us because it is ephemeral.10
I hope you got a fleeting glimpse of this little wonder of a book. The audible version is a masterpiece, too, with the author having recorded it himself. This book should be read during times of crisis like the one we are going through – preferably on a. Winter afternoon with a hot cup of tea. It will warm your soul and bring the child in you alive. And that surely is a delightful thing?
Who is the book for?
It’s for people of all ages and all backgrounds. It’s perfect for gifting – to your child, spouse, parent, or friend. You can also make it your book club read of the week or gift a copy to your team. No matter who you give it to, they’ll love it – it’s guaranteed good karma!
I’ll leave you with a lovely interview – where artists, scientists, authors, and lay-people ask him intriguing questions. If you are still on the fence w.r.t the book, this interview may get you over the line!
2-5, 7-10 Rovelli, Carlo. Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.
6 Fooled by Randomness (p. 225). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.