It’s about a space without time.
A small book, just a quarter-inch thick, made the New York Times bestseller list: SEVEN BRIEF LESSONS ON PHYSICS* by Carlo Rovelli. Bestseller? With that title? And it’s an international bestseller, too?
A little background.
Two branches of modern physics, quantum mechanics and relativity, seem like incomprehensible nonsense. That’s because the effects of quantum mechanics occur mostly in the world of atomic-sized things and the gravitational effects of relativity are usually found by looking across galactic-sized things. Our common sense is built on our bodily experiences that are neither atomic- nor galactic-sized.
To be sure, we are influenced by these things. Modern solid-state electronics, from LEDs to computer chips, operate by quantum phenomena. Metals feel cold and appear shiny due to quantum effects. The gps units within our smart phones require a relativistic time warp due to Earth’s gravity. But we don’t personally detect the underlying physical phenomena—the fact that energy comes in chunks and space-time gets twisted. Thus it is that many theoretical physicists seem to speak incomprehensible gobbledygook–even in the books they write for laypersons. But not in this book.
Enough explanation already. What about Seven Lessons?
Quantum mechanics and relativity have remained inconsistent for almost a hundred years, so even the theoreticians worry as they struggle with quantum gravity—as Rovelli does at his day job. But, in Seven Lessons, Rovelli exposes his worrying in a beautiful, emotional expression of awe regarding the universe.
Rovelli writes in poetic language. Or at least his translators** do. I can’t speak for his initial publication of Seven Brief Lessons in Italian, but it grew from his newspaper column and the book was popular in Italy. He tells us how (in his theory) time is not an actual, always evolving fact of the universe. He lets you see the beauty and the anguish of working with the known while exploring the unknown. Of feeling the pressure of time while trying to prove that it doesn’t exist. Oops, what does existence mean other than passage through time? Now you see where the problem lies. Reality has not yet been discovered.
How best to say it? Seven Lessons is short enough for one long evening, or long enough for seven separate bedtime briefs. After starting the Second Lesson, I didn’t cease reading. Rovelli gives you a sweet history of how current knowledge came to be, then lets you feel the risk of tasting the unknown.
* Riverhead Books, 2016.
** Erica Segre, lecturer in Latin American Studies and fellow of Trinity College at Cambridge, author and poet. Simon Carnell, author of Hare (cultural study of animal-human relationships), and translator of poetry. Perhaps Rovelli doesn’t need translators—reportedly, he spent ten years on the faculty of the University of Pittsburgh.