The Saturday Read ‘Seven Brief Lessons On Physics’ by Carlo Rovelli

It was the ‘chirp’ heard around the world. In February scientists announced the discovery of gravitational waves formed by two black holes colliding, confirming the century old predictions of Albert Einstein.

If you’re not a physicist or a physics major, you may have only a passing familiarity with the terms used in the previous sentence. And yet, we just experienced, in a ‘galaxy far far away’, what the New York Times science reporter Dennis Overbye described as a moment “destined to take its place among the great sound bites of science, ranking with Alexander Graham Bell’s “Mr. Watson — come here” and Sputnik’s first beeps from orbit.” 

The Saturday Read this week is ‘Seven Brief Lessons on Physics’ by physicist Carlo Rovelli of Aix-Marseille University and the Intitut Universitaire de France. Spend some time with this exquisite book and become a bit more fluent in the language of physics.

“These lessons were written for those who know little or nothing about modern science. Together they provide a rapid overview of the most fascinating aspects of the great revolution that has occurred in physics in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and of the questions and mysteries that this revolution has opened up. Because science shows us how to better understand the world, but it also reveals to us just how vast is the extent of what is still not known.”

Beginning with Einstein’s ‘beautiful theory’ of relativity, Rovelli follows the science beyond gravity to quantum mechanics and quantum gravity.

Is your hair is hurting? Hang in there.

“Physics opens windows through which we see far into the distance. What we see does not cease to astonish us. We realize that we are full of prejudices and that our intuitive image of the world is partial, parochial, inadequate. Earth is not flat; it is not stationary. The world continues to change before our eyes as we gradually see it more extensively and more clearly.”

Are we still talking about science? The magic of Rovelli’s prose is its simplicity in conveying painfully complex theories.

We learn the value of ‘wasting’ time.

“In his youth Albert Einstein spent a year loafing aimlessly. You don’t get anywhere by not ‘wasting’ time – something, unfortunately, that the parents of teenagers tend frequently to forget.”

And that we live in “A world of happenings, not of things.”

Rovelli describes concepts visually.

“…before experiments, measurements, mathematics, and rigorous deductions, science is about all about visions. Science begins with a vision. Scientific thought is fed by the capacity to ‘see’ things differently than they have been previously seen.”

And reminds us that “Genius hesitates.”

The essays originally appeared as a series for the culture section of  Il Sole 24 Ore, the Italian newspaper. Released last month in the U.S., the book is ranked third on the New York Times combined print & e-book nonfiction list.

Why read ‘Seven Brief Lessons on Physics’? Because it will take you on an adventure beyond your comfort zone in the time it takes you to commute to work.

“We are made of the same stardust of which all things are made, and when we are immersed in suffering or when we are experiencing intense joy, we are nothing other than what we can’t help but be: a part of our world.”