No, you will not come away from reading Seven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo Rovelli prepared to enter full-time study of Physics or any of its sub-fields. Yes, you will find your interest and understanding of the natural phenomena of our universe – the huge and grandiose as well as the small and infinitesimal – piqued, tweaked, and broadened. You will be amazed, astounded, and informed. To accomplish this, Rovelli writes in knowledgeable but concise prose. The “Brief” in the title is an understatement, and yet, he covers black holes, thermodynamics, gravity, particles, the cosmos, and more in language that is clear and approachable. The reader understands these are just hints and snippets, but Rovelli whittles the ideas down to their core in a way that explains their wonder and mystery without sacrificing their complexity.
I loved the first two chapters, appreciated the middle chapters, and didn’t feel like the final chapter belonged. After reading the first two chapters that discussed Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity and quantum mechanics I glimpsed a fleeting understanding of each contribution’s significance and importance. The middle chapters were filled with extraordinary realities that scientists have uncovered and are still exploring. The final chapter was an effort to connect our own selves with the world. It was a noble effort, but within the context of the other chapters it sounded abstract and philosophical – not bad, just out of place.
Rovelli’s respect and admiration for the pulsating fluctuations of science is never lost. He sneaks a commentary in Einstein’s chapter at the end of a paragraph about how scientists pursue new ideas and even question the ideas themselves. “Genius hesitates.” At the end of the chapter he reiterates: “To the very last, the desire to challenge oneself and understand more. And to the very last: doubt.” There is obvious beauty in the phenomena that we can observe, there is mathematical beauty in the equations that can be derived to explain the unseen, but science is at its best as a field that questions, pursues, changes, updates, reconsiders, and doubts.
My favorite observation was nestled in the lesson on grains in space where Rovelli talks about an area he is particularly involved with, loop quantum gravity. Here, Rovelli writes a sentence that connected our daily ordinariness with what our understanding of science so far can reveal to us about priorities: “Once again, the world seems to be less about objects than about interactive relationships.” That was beautiful to read and consider for all it meant and could mean in relation to quanta of space and la vie quotidienne.
Seven Brief Lessons on Physics is less than 100 pages. You can read it in one sitting. By the end you may not understand every argument and achievement, but you will want to go look at the stars and consider just how awesome everything is that we can see-and how possible everything is that we can’t see. You can and will, as all scientists do, wonder and doubt and question and stare.