As anybody who specialises in the field will be enthusiastic to tell you, the study of the physical sciences is not exactly an undertaking which is graced with unexacting accessibility. Interesting and attracting as it may seem to the likes of me, a self-identified ‘science enthusiast’, I don’t doubt for a moment that I would be briskly floored by the overwhelming difficulty and arduousness of pursuing an academic career in the subject if I ever attempted to do so.
It is for this reason that I’m endlessly appreciative of people such as Carlo Rovelli, who continually produce engaging literature which is aimed at those who wish to learn about the sciences, but wish to do so only to a casual extent and without, frankly, the onslaught of algebraically-induced headaches which are intrinsic to gaining an actual qualification in the area. Seven Brief Lessons On Physics is an example of such a book.
Rovelli here has not written a book that will suit everybody’s appetite: for a start, it is too simplistic to offer anything of real worth to an experienced academic, other than perhaps a reminder of the elegance of modern physics. In order to preserve simplicity and thinness, each chapter (or rather each ‘lesson’) is confined to around ten pages, allowing space for just enough words to convey the fundamental premise of each topic area, but not quite enough to offer any kind of comprehensive level of understanding to the reader. I don’t think, however, that the latter is the goal of this book.
To me, Rovelli is with this volume serving the invaluable purpose of displaying physics in the light of an often unexplored romanticism—whilst you may not finish this book with an extensive knowledge of the actual science behind the prose, you will likely find yourself yearning to gain something of the sort. Take for example the comparison in the first lesson of Einstein’s relativity with Homer’s Odyssey or Shakespeare’s King Lear. This is what made Seven Brief Lessons on Physics stand out to me. Rovelli focuses not on that which is most important to obtaining a deep understanding of the mechanics of the universe, but rather on that which is most important to revealing just how breathtaking, moving and humbling (but also how confusing, bizarre and counterintuitive) its physics can be. This profound exploration of the poetry of the natural world is literature of the sort which can inspire a generation of readers to begin a journey towards, at the very least, scientific literacy, but also possibly somewhere beyond.
One particularly intriguing example lies in the sixth lesson, where Rovelli explains the nature of time in relation to temperature and thermodynamics, as well as pointing out the suspiciousness of time as a dimension which is unique to all others, fascinatingly comparing the concept of ‘here’ with the concept of ‘now’. Such considerations, along with instances of discussion regarding the reluctancy of current mathematics to reconcile the relationship between relativity and quantum theory, may offer some fulfilment to the more knowledgeable reader, although will still likely be too elementary to entertain the experts.
Somehow, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics manages to be concise, engaging, and educational, whilst simultaneously not feeling too pacy or lacking in content. I would highly recommend this book to anybody who wishes to learn not just about how physics works, but also why we should care that it does at all. Prepare to be inspired by a charming overview of modern science’s ever-expanding understanding of the universe, but with a continuous and touching reminder of just how ignorant we truly are, and just how much there is left for us to discover.
You can purchase Seven Brief Lessons on Physics here.
To the very last, the desire to challenge oneself and understand more. And to the very last: doubt.