Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Seven Brief Lessons on Physics

Seven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo Rovelli (2016)

As the title suggests, this very short book (81 pages without the index) contains seven lessons on physics. We learn about general relatively, quantum mechanics, particles, gravity, black holes, the architecture of the universe, and the role of humans in all of this. Each chapter is like a simple but beautiful essay on the topic at hand, though later chapters do build on the information that came before.

I am not a science person. Although I was generally a good student in high school, I barely passed my science classes and never felt like I really understood them. In college I took two sciences, one of which I found really interesting (Marine Biology) yet was shocked every time I sat down to take an exam because it seemed like it was for a different class than the one I was experiencing. As for physics, I lasted one quarter in high school - not even a semester - before dropping it to take music. (Despite how upset my guidance counselor was about this decision, it is one I have never regretted. My senior year music teacher was awesome. More than 25 years later we're even friends on Facebook.)

My point is that science is something that interests me in a documentary-about-owls kind of way not an understanding-astrophysics kind of way. This book wasn't at all what I had in mind when I picked science as a category on my 2017 Personal Reading Challenge. But a coworker mentioned hearing positive reviews of this book and considering how short it is I decided it was worth a try. Because the truth is that I want to understand these concepts. I want to understand the universe I live in. I even tried watching Cosmos at one point and managed to get through a handful of episodes before losing interest. Understanding difficult abstract concepts is not something I put a lot of time or effort into.

But Rovelli approaches these topics in a way that geared towards the layperson, and what makes this book truly stand out is just how beautifully he writes. You can't help but by infected by his sense of wonder at the universe as you read these essays, even if you don't grasp every single thing. And I definitely didn't.

I am still thinking about a sentence very early in the book illustrating how time passes more quickly higher up: "If a person who has lived at sea level meets up with his twin who has lived in the mountains, he will find that his sibling is slightly older than he." I understand time passing differently for someone who is in space, but surely these two brothers are not separated by more than a few time zones? But I moved on through the book, getting what I could out of it and not letting myself get stuck on the bits that were, for me, impossible to grasp.

It was easy to get through a book which such lovely passages as this one:

"A handful of types of elementary particles, which vibrate and fluctuate constantly between existence and nonexistence and swarm in space, even when it seems that there is nothing there, 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."

The whole book is like that. It's like a love poem to science.

Now I'm under no illusion that I have actually learned everything in this book. Already I'm forgetting what I've read. But I do feel more confident about reading other books or articles on scientific topics because I know now that it's possible to for me to understand it. I just need to find sources of this information from those who express themselves as simply and beautifully as Carlo Rovelli.

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