Carlo Rovelli’s “Seven Brief Lessons on Physics”: Book Review

Poor Ash’s Almanack > Book Reviews > Science/Engineering

Seven Brief Lessons on Physics - Carlo RovelliOverall Rating: ★★★ (3/7) (mediocre for its category)

Learning Potential / Utility: ★★ (2/7)

Readability: ★★★★★ (5/7)

Challenge Level: 3/5 (Intermediate) | 96 pages

Blurb/Description:  Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli sums up some physics concepts in an extremely brief and digestible book.

Summary: A friend gave me this book as a Christmas present and I was very excited to read it, as one of my goals for 2018 was to deepen my knowledge in science and history.  While this book does fit my general pattern of finding a “hook” to build interest and knowledge in an area, unfortunately, I think the book ultimately suffers from being too brief (an extremely rare criticism coming from me).  I don’t think it explores enough concepts, nor does it provide enough depth/detail to make mind-bending concepts like “time is an illusion” accessible to lay readers.

Highlights: The book does provide some nice insights into how scientists learn and think, both in the author’s own life as well as that of Einstein and Bohr, as well as a few quips about the difference between school and education.  Some of the analogies (like a marble in a funnel for understanding gravity = space) are useful.  This is a super fast book and you can probably get through it in an hour or so.

Lowlights: The third and seventh “lessons” taught very little of use, and the book never addressed physics at a “human” level (seeing as I can’t directly interact with quarks or gluons, nor black holes or galaxies far far away, it would’ve been nice to have some higher-level human-sized takeaways on topics like gravity, thermodynamics, friction, etc – like, explain to me how planes stay up in the air, and that is more interesting/useful than how forms of matter that may or may not exist bend light billions of years away).  

While the remaining lessons introduced the very high level foundations of relativity and quantum theory, they didn’t provide nearly enough detail to make it accessible to me as a lay-reader (despite two semesters of “physical chemistry,” i.e. quantum mechanics and Schrodinger’s Wave Equation, when I was in college.)

Thinking Points: schema, knowledge/curiosity, probability

You should buy a copy of Seven Brief Lessons on Physics if: you want a quick overview of quantum mechanics and relativity, and want a book with a very pretty cover that looks nice in a shelf or on a coffee table.

Better to read instead: [link to other book reviews]

Reading Tips: Skip the last chapter (“Ourselves”) and skim chapter 3.  The book doesn’t go into enough depth on a lot of the issues it brings up, so keep your phone handy to provide more context on certain topics.

Reread Value: Low

More Detailed Notes (SPOILERS BELOW):

There are seven very brief lessons in this very brief book:

(1) Relativity

Space IS gravity – gravity isn’t a “force” – matter bends space and time and that bending is what creates attraction (imagine a large boulder on a soft bed; water would then flow from the edges to the center)

(2) Quantum Theory

Energy is “quantized” into packets (photons) and thus is not continuous but operates at discrete levels – in other words, energy is like a staircase, not a handicap-accessible ramp.  You can be at one level or the next step up or down, but cannot move at infinitesimally small steps.

Page 15 – Rovelli notes that “genius hesitates” – Einstein’s initial conclusions, like Darwin’s “I think,” are cautious and hesitant.  He later notes that Niels Bohr similarly doubted and rechecked.

Quantum mechanics is inherently probabilistic – no object has a definite position – you can only predict the probability of an electron materializing somewhere

Page 19 – interestingly, Einstein, who proposed this strange theory of relativity, eventually had trouble believing in quantum mechanics because he wanted, per Rovelli, “an objective reality independent of whoever interacts with whatever” (where quantum theory is more or less just interactions.)

Page 20 – nice note on knowledge that bears some excerpting – “The equations of quantum mechanics […] are extremely useful in all contemporary technology […] but they remain mysterious.  […] What does this mean?  That the essential reality of a system is indescribable? […] Our knowledge grows, in real terms.  It allows us to do new things that we had previously not even imagined.”  

I take a very Ben Franklin-like view to the world and I’m always looking for the practical utility in things; clearly there is value in figuring out the nature of underlying reality independent of applications (because the applications will follow), but for the casual observer who isn’t going to dedicate their life to science, I also think there’s a pretty hardcore 80/20 deal here – I like to make the analogy that I don’t need to know how an internal combustion engine works to turn my car on and drive somewhere.  

Similarly, I think there are some people who, for whatever reason, have a tendency to get overly fascinated with attempting to determine the underlying reasons for things that are somewhat inscrutable and pointless: as an example, being able to quantify the percentage influence that my nationality, genetics, and family have had on my preference for ice cream flavors doesn’t really change what I’m actually going to eat at the end of the day.  

I think there is some optimal level of “why,” in other words, where for any given question, going too far actually reduces rather than enhances our ability to understand and solve problems.  In other words, “this company is doing well” – okay, “why” is a good question here.  “They have a strong competitive position” – again, okay, “why.”  But by the time we’ve gotten to “because quarks,” well, we’ve gone way too far.  

This is obviously not in the book but is what I was thinking about while I was reading this page of the book.

(3) Cosmos

Perhaps the least educational chapter in the book; the TL;DR is “there are galaxies.”  Okay.  Great.

The one nice thing here was a (tangential and non-cosmos-related) quote about schema as it applies to science: “Science begins with a vision . Scientific thought is fed b the capacity to “see” things differently than they have previously been seen.”  Schema sighting!  Cross-reference Kuhn/paradigms here.

(4) Particles

Fewer than 10 types of particles comprise the world.  They disappear and reappear probabilistically.  Don’t worry, nobody else understands either.

The “standard model” of particle theory (built in part by our friend Richard Feynman) works well to describe most everything except dark matter.  It’s also not very elegant and requires unintuitive “adjustments” to make it match up to reality (a bit like some companies’ accounting!)

(5) Grains of Space

It turns out, sadly, that relativity and quantum mechanics both work relatively (pun!) well to describe the world, and also totally contradict with each other.  There is a theory, loop quantum gravity, that tries to bridge the two by describing the word as links of chain mail that loop together.  

Page 41 reminds me of Kuhn again.

(6) Probability/time/heat

Here’s the easy stuff: heat = motion.  We all know that.  Slightly less easy is that it’s theoretically possible (but very improbable based on the way molecules bounce) for a cold piece of snow to heat up your warm hand.

This is where the book actually ends up being unhelpful because it’s too brief; either I’m stupid, or I still have traumatic memories from two semesters of quantum mechanics and my brain refuses to process some of these topics, but after reading the book three times, I don’t understand most of this chapter at all.  Basically time is an illusion and… I don’t know.  I don’t know if it’s me or if it’s just not explained in enough depth to be helpful.

(7) “Ourselves

Probably the weakest chapter; I couldn’t bring myself to read this again after skimming it the first time.  He attempts to solve life, the universe, and everything (what is the meaning of life) and starts with the extremely uninspiring statement: “I cannot even imagine attempting to really answer such a question in these simple pages.”  Well then, don’t; this is a case where a brief answer is worse than none at all… there’s not really a platform here to dive into metaphysics.


Last Read: January 2018

Number of Times Read: 3 (it was short enough and fast enough to read that I read it another couple times to make sure I had gotten everything)


Review Date: January 2018

Notes Date: January 2018