Seven Brief Lesson on Physics by Carlo Rovelli outsold Fifty Shades of Grey in Italy, where it was first published, before climbing onto bestseller lists in a multitude of countries. Shortly after embarking on the seventy-eight-page collection of articles-turned-lessons, it becomes increasingly clear why.
Theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli exaggerates nothing in the second word of the title – “brief” does indeed accurately describe these seven chapters. Yet, it must be considered an impressive feat to have condensed such massive concepts of relativity, quantum mechanics, the cosmos, loop quantum gravity and consciousness into so few pages while offering such clear introductions to each. It follows that the reader is deprived of the detail and in-depth physics to satisfy the curiosity Rovelli so successfully inspires. He is not Richard Feynman, yet. Written to be palatable to the most extreme non-physicist, one singular equation (Einstein’s field equation of general relativity) manages a feature, and this only to demonstrate the beauty of its visual simplicity. Instead, illustrations appear on nine of the pages to gently assist in the reader’s struggle to make sense of “granular space” and “the Big Bounce”.
I do, however, take issue with the third word of the title. These chapters feel far from “lessons”, instead seeming almost fictional as Rovelli infuses stories of our mysterious existence with poetic comparisons to music, art, and dance. This is an author who knows his audience, and how to appeal to their aesthetic inclinations. The effort and reward in understanding Reinmann’s mathematics is described as tantamount to that of appreciating a late Beethoven string quartet, and Rovelli withholds no enthusiasm in gushing about the “infinite arabesques of forms which constitute reality”, of which we, humanity, are “merely a flourish among innumerably many such flourishes”.
Scientific-minded or not, Rovelli voices the existential questions asked by all of us lying awake at night: What else is out there on the margins of the cosmos? How did all of this get here? And what is our role as human beings within this “swarm of ephemeral quanta of space and matter”? Upon promising to not to attempt to answer the latter, he devotes a chapter to doing exactly this and offers conciliatory musings of his own as answers. However, do not expect to be continually uplifted by Rovelli’s continual awe at science, as sobering predictions of an end to humanity and civilisation round off an almost rambling conclusion: “I believe that our species will not last long… We belong to a short-lived genus of species…What’s more, we do damage.”. We are made to live and die, as the stars and nature that we find around us and indeed, as Rovelli emphasises, that we belong to, is.
Seven Brief Lessons on Physics is well worth the short amount of time it requires to be read. Indeed, such is the quantity of mind-boggling concepts mentioned that the reader is likely to want to return to it again – especially during a late-night existential crisis.