Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Seven brief lessons on physics Carlo Rovelli (reviewed)

Carlo Rovelli   Seven brief lessons on physics 
Translated Simon Carnell and Erica Segre  
Penguin 2016  £6.99 ISBN 978-0141981727 96pp

This Italian bestseller is spreading the world as word gets round of a scientist who can put a century’s achievement into less than 100 readable pages. I appreciated the simple, clear text despite translation and some of his intriguing lines that beg philosophical and theological engagement. ‘It is part of our nature to love and to be honest. It is part of our nature to long to know more, and to continue to learn’. 

Over the last century the frontiers of science have advanced through relativity theory’s insight into the cosmos, quantum theory’s insight into the subatomic and the acknowledgment that the working of our own thought processes make for a fuzziness between observer and observed. Rovelli is excited by the way we stand ‘on the edge of what we know, in contact with the ocean of the Unknown’ and senses breathtaking mystery and beauty.

The seven lessons he gives are on relativity, quantum mechanics, the architecture of the universe, elementary particles, quantum gravity, probability and ourselves. They were initially given in an Italian Sunday newspaper and were so well received that they were published further afield across the world. It is a mark of great intellect to both grasp deep truth and be able to communicate it simply and clearly, itself evidence of your firm grasp. Here particularly is a lesson for theologians reminding of the need to distil thinking again and again into the vernacular, as Lewis used to say. Truth isn’t esoteric.

The wisdom Rovelli distils seems to have been acquired indirectly, even through wasting time! We’re told the young Albert Einstein ‘spent a year loafing aimlessly’. This is a typical counter-cultural aspect of this fascinating and lucid treatise. I liked the way it goes head on at the paradox of space being all curves in relativity theory and granular in quantum mechanics. Both theories work well independently but can’t both be right. A current scientific endeavour called ‘quantum gravity’ is an attempt at resolving this schizophrenia.

When the universe gets compressed, according to quantum gravitational theory, there’s a counter force so what we know as the ‘Big Bang’ might conceivably be a ‘Big Bounce’ with our world being born from a preceding universe’s contraction with an intermediate phase where there’s neither space nor time. This is fascinating reading, as is the perception that the distinction between past and future is inseparable from the inevitable flow of heat from hot to cold. ‘Time sits at the centre of the tangle of problems raised by the intersection of gravity, quantum mechanics and thermodynamics. A tangle of problems where we are still in the dark’.

It’s an achievement of the author to take unschooled readers out of the dark so far as the main achievements of science in the last century whilst making us more aware of current frontiers of knowledge awaiting illumination by thought and experiment. Ongoing eagerness for discovery and honesty in facing challenges to age old thinking aren’t just the preserve of the scientist.

Canon John Twisleton   Rector of St Giles, Horsted Keynes                          18th March 2016