review: seven brief lessons on physics

23 June 2016


book info:
on sale: now
copy from: public library
pages: 96
review written: 21.6.16
originally published: 2014
edition read: Riverhead Books, 2016, translated by Simon Carnell and Erica Segre


title: Seven Brief Lessons on Physics
author: Carlo Rovelli


Originally published in an Italian newspaper called Il Sole 24 Ore, this series of short lessons is compiled into a tiny book that covers the most interesting developments in physics since the twentieth century. The 7 lessons are: The Most Beautiful of Theories, Quanta, The Architecture of the Cosmos, Particles, Grains of Space, Probability, time, and the heat of black holes, and Ourselves. The author, Carlo Rovelli, is a theoretical physicist who is one of the founders of the loop quantum gravity theory, which he explains "briefly" in one of the chapters. It is only when one truly understands a subject that one can condense it down to the most simple of explanations. Rovelli does just that in this orchestral non-textbook novella. My interest in theoretical physics and astrophysics had mainly been cultivated by the television programmes my brother insisted on watching when we were growing up. Programs on the Science Channel were his favourite and the stunning visual graphics that illustrated complex concepts drew me in, but never really made me stay. On a whim, I decided to see if I could kindle that interest and therefore started with the shortest and most promising book that could explain in layman's terms the math intensive, highly theoretical aspects of a field of science so beyond me that I still can't truly comprehend its subject matter.

I'm surprised it took me so long to read such a short book. Despite the brevity of each chapter, the content material was so rich, it took longer to digest. What I enjoyed most was the literary merit Rovelli deserves for not only explaining concepts in simple terms, but weaving it into a poetry that makes it pleasurable to read for those non-science sort of readers. For example, here are a few quotes that I enjoyed deeply:

" Einstein...soon came to understand that gravity, like electricity, must be conveyed by a field as well: a "gravitational field" analogous to the "electrical field" must exist"
"And it is at this point that an extraordinary idea occurred to him, a stroke of pure genius: the gravitational field is not diffused through space: the gravitational field is that space itself. This is the idea of the general theory of relativity...."
"We are not contained within an invisible, rigid infrastructure: we are immersed in a gigantic, flexible snail shell. The sun bends space around itself, and the Earth does not turn around it because of a mysterious force but because it is racing directly in a space that inclines, like a marble that rolls in a funnel. There are no mysterious forces generated at the centre of the funnel: it is the curved nature of the walls that causes the marble to roll. Planets circle around the sun, and things fall into space because space curves"
"In short, the theory describes a colourful and amazing world where universes explode, space collapses into bottomless holes, time sags and slows near a planet, and the unbounded extensions of interstellar space ripple and swag like the surface of the sea...."

The choice of ordering the chapters was well thought out like the rest of the book. Everything falls into place to make for the easiest comprehension. As I'm reading more books on quantum theory, I've come to understand that choosing what to cover first is a struggle. Physics is like a philosophy within itself, challenging ideas of the creation of the universe and trying to make sense of everything around us. Thus, it's easy to ramble and jump from thought to thought. Rovelli controls this urge and carefully details both history and knowledge giving the sense of time and progression of human history. I almost imagined it was as if I were riding the gravitational waves in the "sea" of space in a sailboat.

While the content of this book may appeal to those of a science background, I have no doubt that the English loving bookish literary readers will enjoy the pure beauty this novel has to offer. For this, I give full marks. I would recommend this to anyone of any age. I implore you to read this brilliant book and if you enjoy it, acquire a personal copy to look back and enjoy whenever you're in the mood.

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