Seven brilliant lessons on physics

Carlo Rovelli
Carlo Rovelli

If you have an insatiable curiosity about the world, regardless of your level of education, this gorgeous little book may guide you down the track of demystifying it.

Even though it is decades since I last picked up a school science book, I absolutely loved Seven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo Rovelli.

From the start, I must confess I am one of the millions who bought A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking and have to admit that it still lies unfinished and gathering dust on our bookshelf at home.

On the other hand, although Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything is more than twice as thick at the Hawking book, I enjoyed that look at science immensely. It was funnier, quirkier and aimed at the layman.

Then comes this slender paperback by Rovelli, an Italian theoretical physicist who is deservedly now world-famous for his clear and fresh explanation of much the same subject matter.

Rather wonderfully, he writes in a lucid and straightforward way, in thankfully brief chapters printed in large, friendly letters – and there are even a few pictures dotted throughout.

It contains, as you might guess from the title, seven lessons, one per chapter, and they start with the famous Einstein Theory of Relativity “the most beautiful of theories”.

The second chapter covers quantum mechanics, which Rovelli suggests is the second of two major pillars of 20th Century physics. From there, the scientist moves out to the cosmos and then back in to look at particles, then explores grains of space, probability, time and black holes.

I don’t pretend to understand all the concepts but throughout its 79 pages – yes, it really is that short a book – I experienced many “aha!” moments and turned to Google several times for more information on people named, or aspects of their work.

Suddenly, I want to know more about physics. I almost wish I could back to varsity and study it, although I suspect it would still make my head hurt.

It certainly has given me a different way of looking at the ingredients that make up our cosmic soup – and this includes us, as human beings. We so quickly forget our insignificance, our place in the universe, and Rovelli gently reminds us of this.

Simon Carnell and Erica Segre have done a lovely job of translating the original from Italian, so it flows smoothly and the difficult terms and concepts are presented as simply as possible.

Reading Seven Brief Lessons on Physics won’t make you a rocket scientist but it will leave you feeling terribly clever – or at least cleverer than when you gave up on A Brief History of Time.

Seven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo Rovelli is published by Penguin and retails for R160.

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