Rovelli: Seven Brief Lessons on Physics

September 6, 2016

Seven Brief Lessons on Physics
Carlo Rovelli
(Riverhead, 2016)
96 p.

These short “lessons” were originally serialized in the Italian press, and are here collected and rendered into elegant English. Rovelli is an eminent physicist who gives us a series of meditations on developments in physics since 1900.

They are arranged in order of increasing speculation: he begins with general relativity and quantum mechanics, presenting in non-technical language the main points — space and time are dynamic and responsive, and are filled with a restless boil of quantum fields. He proceeds to give brief — and I do mean brief — overviews of modern cosmology and the Standard Model of elementary particles. All of this is solid science; questions linger, of course, and he draws attention to those loose threads and nagging problems, but basically he is describing successful theories.

In the last three sections of the book he moves to topics of greater uncertainty. The outstanding problem of how to reconcile general relativity with quantum mechanics he broaches with a very interesting discussion of theories of loop quantum gravity, the basic postulate of which is that space-time is quantized. (Rovelli is himself one of the architects of this theory.) Amazingly, and rather gratifyingly, he doesn’t even mention the other principal effort to solve this problem: string theory. This is unquestionably the book’s finest witticism, one that I imagine has raised a few consternated eyebrows in faculty lounges.

The last section specifically about physics tackles the vexing puzzles that arise at the intersection of gravity, quantum mechanics, and thermodynamics. Laying great stress on the time-irreversibility of thermodynamic processes, he argues that thermodynamics has something crucial to tell us about the uni-directionality of time itself. This is a common trope in physics circles, but, correlation not being causation, it seems to me suggestive at best. But then he reminds us of Hawking radiation, in which quantum effects near black holes actually cause them to radiate heat, and one feels a chill of delight running up the spine.

Alas, the same cannot be said of the book’s final chapter, in which Rovelli takes a step back to ponder the implications of all this for human self-understanding. He emphasizes that modern physics has revealed the world to be radically different from the way we intuitively think of it, which is fair enough, and then argues that more such intuitions — those pertaining to human freedom, for instance, or consciousness — are due to be superseded by counter-intuitive scientific explanations. There appears to be nothing more to his argument than the power of analogy. He tries to declare a peace between his commitment to the power of physics to completely describe the world, on one hand, and his commitment to the legitimacy of humanistic values, on the other, but it is far from convincing. And he is rather dispiritingly emphatic in his devotion to immanence:

“Immersed in this nature that made us and that directs us, we are not homeless beings suspended between two worlds, parts of but only partly belonging to nature, with a longing for something else. No: we are home.”

Nothing new here, of course, and this view does have about it a certain poetry — he even cites Lucretius, the patron poet of materialism — but there are such a host of issues being passed over in silence that such poetry as it possesses sounds rather hollow.

The book is written in a lyrical tone, and would be accessible, I imagine, to anyone who has an interest in the subject matter. There is only one equation — Einstein’s field equation for general relativity, which he describes as “the most beautiful of theories,” and I’ll not argue with that.

3 Responses to “Rovelli: Seven Brief Lessons on Physics”

  1. Old Man Doug Says:

    Hi! I found this at the library and read it at your recommendation. Some things I couldn’t get my mind around – I did drop Physics 30 in high school after all. I would need more visuals and diagrams. But all in all a great read. Coincidently, I started reading a little collection of Karl Barth’s essays, God Here and Now. Rovelli takes up “here” and “now” in the sixth lesson…

  2. cburrell Says:

    So good to hear from you, Old Man. Did you find the book in English at your library? I wonder if it would read as elegantly in Swedish.

    Alas, I’ve never read a word of Barth. Where should I start? I have one called Dogmatics in Outline, I think, which I bought many years ago and is somewhere in a box in my basement (along with a lot of other good books that we don’t presently have a place for).

  3. Old Man Doug Says:

    Hi again! I read the book in English but there is a Swedish version. I haven’t read much Barth. I’m checking him out because I’ve been reading theologian Robert W. Jenson who studied under Barth. In that case I would first recommend Jenson’s little book A Theology in Outline: Can These Bones Live? (OUP, 2016), and then work backwards to Barth. This is a concise, lucid, and more informal presentation of Jenson’s (Barth-informed) theology and takes up contemporary problems. Jenson’s theology is also framed in an ecumenical-catholic perspective which you might appreciate. I suspect the title of the book is a honorary reference to the book in your basement! Barth’s God Here and Now seems a good intro but I haven’t finished it (Routledge Classics, 2003).

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