On Our Bookshelves:
Seven Brief Lessons on Physics


BOOK: Seven Brief Lessons on Physics

AUTHOR: Carlo Rovelli



Much of what I know about science, I learned from Isaac Asimov. Of course, I did take science classes as part of my schooling: earth science, biology, chemistry, physics in high school, and some not particularly challenging electives in college (genetics and astronomy, both geared towards liberal arts freshmen). But I tend to learn more from narrative texts than from textbooks or from lectures. And when I was young and had free time I’d often go to my local library, sit on the floor among the stacks, and read whatever struck my fancy. Isaac Asimov was extremely prolific. In fact, his books were all over the place, being quite widely distributed among the various Dewey Decimal classifications.

Mostly known for his science fiction (his stories “Nightfall” and “The Last Question” are classics, and the Robot series and the Foundation series remain very popular and influential), he also wrote mysteries, humor, literary criticism, autobiographies, fantasy, essays on a variety of subjects, and history. But what I remember best were his books on popular science, big, fat hardcovers about astronomy, physics, mathematics, chemistry.

There were dozens of them, and in clear, unfussy prose, he explained it all in a straightforward way.

Those books, mostly written in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, are probably rather out of date today. Fortunately for those of us in the twenty-first century, we have a new science explainer to enjoy. Much less long-winded than Asimov, Carlo Rovelli writes instead in extremely elegant, ornamental, and polished prose. An Italian theoretical physicist who specializes in loop quantum gravity theory (an attempt to merge quantum mechanics with general relativity), he has written a series of what he calls “lessons,” (originally articles in an Italian newspaper, now somewhat expanded as book chapters), to explain modern physics to the general reader: elementary particles, gravity, black holes, probability, and so on. The book, a bestseller in Italy, recently translated into English by Simon Carnell and Erica Segre, is a delight.


It’s the work of a lifetime, of a distinguished academic career, distilled into fewer than 100 pages. It’s clear, it’s concise, and it’s utterly lovely. Rovelli compares Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity to Shakespeare’s King Lear, Mozart’s Requiem, Homer’s Odyssey, and the Sistine Chapel. He gives us some history of the science he covers, astounds us with the brilliant simplicity of his explanations, and comforts us about our place in this baffling and beautiful universe. There are gorgeous passages throughout, but I’ll just provide you with his conclusion in the final lesson (right after he quotes from Lucretius):

It is part of our nature to love and to be honest. It is part of our nature to long to know more and to continue to learn. Our knowledge of the world continues to grow.

There are frontiers where we are learning and our desire for knowledge burns. They are in the most minute reaches of the fabric of space, at the origins of the cosmos, in the nature of time, in the phenomenon of black holes, and in the workings of our own thought processes. Here, on the edge of what we know, in contact with the ocean of the unknown, shines the mystery and the beauty of the world. And it’s breathtaking.


Although I no longer have endless expanses of free time to sit on the floor and read science books, I would love to see some more writing by Rovelli. I hope very much that this is a brief taste of more detailed, denser work to come, for those of us who love good writing and those of us who love to learn about the mystery and the beauty of the world, and our place in it.


RATING (one to five whistles, with five being the best): 4.5 Whistles





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Laura LaVelle is an attorney and writer who lives in Connecticut, in a not quite 100-year-old house, along with her husband, two daughters, and a cockatiel.

Laura can be contacted at laura@newswhistle.com


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