Date finished: April 14th 2017
This slim but rather beautiful volume does what it says on the tin: Rovelli, a theoretical physicist, offers seven short lessons on the theories underlying modern physics. The first lesson covers Einstein’s theory of relativity, the second: quantum theory; then the history of what we’ve perceived as the universe; no. four concerns particles; lesson five looks at the attempts to reconcile the contradictory theories of relativity and quantum physics; we get a glimpse of the somewhat uncertain and mind-bending implications of heat and thermodynamics upon time and black holes in lesson six; and the final chapter deals with ourselves in the realm of physics.
Despite running to only 83 pages, Rovelli crams a lot of information into these short essays, covering physical concepts as well as the history and philosophy of his vocation, whilst managing to write with an almost poetic turn of phrase. There’s even time for the backstories to these discoveries such as the years long debate between Neils Bohr and Einstein on the holes in quantum theory.
The tidbits and layers of understanding Rovelli confers are valuable, even if you’re not going to instantly understand from them – in some cases that would require years of study – but Seven Brief Lessons on Physics is as good a starting place as any. The simple revelations – the gravitational field Einstein hypothesised IS space; that we still don’t understand quantum theory, but it’s responsible for everything from the periodic table to computers; that the Big Bang may have in fact been a Big Bounce: the contraction and reexpansion of a dead star on a universal scale; that the present is objective which make the true nature of time difficult to perceive – all these and more ignite a tiny spark in the brain; a new link between concepts, a new synaptic pathway.
I’ve seen a few negative reviews of the work which seem to have missed the point. People seem to think that the takeaway should be seven tangible facts about physics, but this isn’t the case. These are lessons ON physics, not physics lessons. Rovelli takes us into the nature of physics: what’s important, what’s unknown, what’s disputed, what works and what doesn’t. This isn’t a book designed to educate you on seven aspects of physics, it’s seven aspects of physics designed to educate you. That’s a subtle but important difference.
“To the very last, the desire to challenge oneself and understand more. And to the very last: doubt.”
Seven Brief Lessons on Physics seemingly defies the subject it describes – it manages to pack an incredible amount of information into a tiny book without compromising anything in the way of readability, characters, or likability. It’s a passionate and thoughtful introduction to the world of physics; a tantalising and fleeting glimpse of a whole cosmos of hypotheses, debates, confusion and solution. There’s not much one can do in such a limited volume, but Rovelli does more than would be fair to expect. And it looks gorgeous to boot.