Book review: Carlo Rovelli feeds us bitesized chunks of physics, but it's still an acquired taste

Rovelli wants us to be inspired by the beauty and mystery of his science, in this paean to knowledge

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 17 October, 2015, 9:00pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 17 October, 2015, 9:00pm


Seven Brief Lessons in Physics

by Carlo Rovelli

Allen Lane

When I was a child, my mother would sneak Brussels sprouts on to my plate. I hated those revolting little orbs of bitterness - but my mother was wily. "It's only a small one," she'd say, as though size rendered the unpalatable acceptable.

I suspect Carlo Rovelli would get on well with my mother. He is also attempting to woo a tough crowd with a portion of something they find hard to swallow: physics. And he's opting for a similar approach, issuing what J.D. Salinger would no doubt term a "pretty skimpy-looking book", just 78 pages long, no doubt hoping his delicate touch will stir a taste for the subject.

Born of a series of articles in an Italian newspaper and covering just seven topics, Rovelli's book conveys a simple truth: physics is beautiful and awe-inspiring, its mysteries there for us all to muse upon. Elementary particles, he writes, "combine together to infinity like the letters of a cosmic alphabet to tell the immense history of galaxies, of the innumerable stars, of sunlight, of mountains, woods and fields of grain, of the smiling faces of the young at parties and of the night sky studded with stars".

Despite its austere title, Seven Brief Lessons in Physics is no primer for the budding student, but rather a curious paean to science. Einstein's general theory of relativity, quantum mechanics and the cosmos are covered, but other lecture hall bastions, from optics to condensed matter, get the boot in favour of loop quantum gravity and consciousness. For each, Rovelli unpicks the basics before revealing the loose ends scientists have yet to tidy up.

And there is plenty of food for thought. "The difference between past and future only exists when there is heat," explains Rovelli, deftly leading to the sort of existential ponderings more commonly fuelled by late nights and a bottle of red. "What is the 'present'?" he asks, pointing out "in physics there is nothing that corresponds to the notion of the 'now'". The flow of time, he implies, is simply a matter of statistics.

Rovelli has a rare knack for conveying the top line of scientific theories in clear and compelling terms without succumbing to the lure of elaborate footnotes. "Planets circle around the sun, and things fall, because space curves," he writes, neatly summarising the ramifications of Einstein's general theory of relativity.

While Rovelli's approach might be refreshing, it is still an acquired taste.

The Guardian