Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Seven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo Rovelli Review


I wish I was more interested in reading about science because every time I hear about a science story or read a random article in New Scientist, I’m always impressed – science is great and my knowledge of it is pitifully lacking. But when it comes to tackling even a 200 page science book, I know I’m setting myself up for a fall and I inevitably abandon it. Still, as Carlo Rovelli writes, “It is part of our nature to long to know more, and to continue to learn”, and it’s good to get out of our comfort zones and try something different, which is why I gave this book a shot – and I’m so glad I did because I loved it!

Italian theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli has written the ideal book for someone like me with Seven Brief Lessons on Physics. The title says it all with seven short chapters eloquently explaining some basic physics to people with next to no knowledge in this area. It’s accessible, interesting, and easy to devour at 79 pages long – though I purposely slowed down my reading to absorb as much information as I could. 

Rovelli explains the Theory of Relativity well but the chapter on Quantum Physics still left me wondering what the subject is about – then again I think it’s partly meant to be an unknowable subject! I read this book last week and I’m surprised how much information has stuck – I thought I’d forget it all within hours of reading it! – like how space is curved and constantly moving like an ocean, what black holes are, and the Big Bounce idea, where the universe exploded but will at some point contract, then explode again, and so on, as an alternate theory to the Big Bang.

He also manages to cover the history of physics, showing how the discipline has evolved over time, in a mere chapter, effortlessly tying together Galileo, Newton, Einstein, Hawking, and a number of less famous but no less important figures into a coherent sequence. 

Rovelli’s writing style is a huge reason why this book works so well. It’s not just clear and direct, but also conjures up some fantastic imagery. I know the universe is a big place but the way he talks about it really impresses the vastness of it and how utterly insignificant Earth is in the greater scheme of things – and that’s not even touching on the idea of parallel universes! 

His closing chapter also talks about how humanity is doomed, talking about how humans just haven’t evolved in the same way as a turtle has (who’ve been around for millions of years in the same state as they are today) so that one day Earth will inevitably be without humans – but the planet and other animals will endure. 

It sounds like depressing stuff but it’s strangely comforting – at least to me – and makes our own lives all the more interesting, unique and special. The visions of the universe, of incomprehensibly large space clouds made of substances we haven’t discovered yet, right down to the mysteries of our wonderful blue marble of a planet, and our still largely unknown brains, are brought vividly to the reader with Rovelli’s words. It’s almost poetic! 

He writes "Physics opens windows through which we see far into the distance" and that’s the book’s biggest strength: not necessarily throwing as many facts at the reader as it can in a short space but rather allowing them a glimpse into the breath-taking scope that this subject explores. 

Obviously anyone who’s well-versed in the subject won’t find anything worthwhile in this book but for laymen like me who’re happy to splash about in the kiddie pool end of this subject, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics is a perfect read.

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