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Seven Brief Lessons on Physics

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All the beauty of modern physics in fewer than a hundred pages.

This is a book about the joy of discovery. A playful, entertaining, and mind-bending introduction to modern physics, it's already a major bestseller in Italy and the United Kingdom. Carlo Rovelli offers surprising—and surprisingly easy to grasp—explanations of general relativity, quantum mechanics, elementary particles, gravity, black holes, the complex architecture of the universe, and the role humans play in this weird and wonderful world. He takes us to the frontiers of our knowledge: to the most minute reaches of the fabric of space, back to the origins of the cosmos, and into the workings of our minds. “Here, on the edge of what we know, in contact with the ocean of the unknown, shines the mystery and the beauty of the world,” Rovelli writes. “And it’s breathtaking.”

81 pages, Hardcover

First published October 22, 2014

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About the author

Carlo Rovelli

32 books2,959 followers
Carlo Rovelli is an Italian theoretical physicist and writer who has worked in Italy and the USA, and currently works in France. His work is mainly in the field of quantum gravity, where he is among the founders of the loop quantum gravity theory. He has also worked in the history and philosophy of science. He collaborates regularly with several Italian newspapers, in particular the cultural supplements of Il Sole 24 Ore and La Repubblica.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 5,028 reviews
Profile Image for Brian Clegg.
Author 205 books2,574 followers
November 11, 2015
This strikes me as the kind of book that would really impress an arts graduate who thought it was giving deep insights into science in an elegant fashion, but for me it was a triumph of style over substance - far too little content to do justice to the subject. It is, in effect, seven articles strung together as a mini-book that can be read comfortably in an hour, but is priced like a full-length work.

Don't get me wrong, Carlo Rovelli knows his stuff when it comes to physics and gives us postcard sketches of a number of key areas, mostly in the hot fields like cosmology and quantum gravity (though interestingly focussing on the generally rather less popular loop quantum gravity). However he's not so good on his history of science, and can, as scientists often do when writing for the general public, over-simplify.

The last of the articles is different from the rest - rather than take in a specific field (quantum physics, say) as the earlier articles do, it looks at how people and science interact. In some ways this is the freshest and most interesting part of the content... it's just hard to see why it's a 'lesson in physics.'

This book came across to me like a taster menu from a fancy restaurant. It will certainly hit the mental tastebuds, and contains a number of delights - but it is insubstantial and leaves you wanting far more. I can see the title doing very well as a gift book. It looks pretty and is handsomely bound, but there are plenty of better options out there if a reader really wants to be introduced to the wonders of modern physics.
Profile Image for Darwin8u.
1,559 reviews8,690 followers
March 21, 2016
"Physics opens windows through which we see far into the distance. What we see does not cease to astound us. We realize that we are full of prejudices and that our intuitive image of the world is partial, parochial, inadequate."
― Carlo Rovelli, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics


At the highest level a discussion of physics doesn't just operate on a mathematical level, but a poetic and philosophical level as well. Look closely at the writings of Aristotle, Lucretius, Einstein and Feynman, and one discovers not just some code to the operation of the Universe, but love songs to that Universe, a desire to connect to and explain the beauty and transcendence of Nature and our role in this complex and amazing world.

This book reminds me of a funeral I went to for a former (obvious) client of mine. He was the first nuclear medicine physician in my state and had his PhD and MD. He was a friend and an amazing person. At my table in the church's cultural hall, after the service (but before the burial) was his son, who had his PhD in genetics, a Pulitzer Prize winning political cartoonist, and a theoretical physicist from UC Santa Barbara. The conversation drifted from music to politics to art to nature. It was random, beautiful, and one of those moments that happens by accident and you cherish for years to come. I am reminded of this meal when I read this book.


This book is short. It is 7 chapters (Six lesson and a conclusion) of about 10 pages each. Imagine you are having a nice, elegant, six course Italian meal with physicists past and present, poets, and philosophers outside in pricy Roman restaurant garden. It is night. It is dark. The canopy of the heavens spins above your heads. Each course brings a new topic. You discuss Einstein and the theory of relativity while eating the appetizer, you move onto Quanta as you eat the soup. The pasta is served just as the conversation turns to the architecture of the Cosmos. When the main course is served, people are already talking about Quarks and the Standard Model. The discussion gets intense. A Romaine salad is served and the host interrupts to talk about the grains of space and, since he is paying, he also talks about loop quantum gravity. Things are slowing down. It is late, the discussion jumps to probability, time, and the heat of black holes as the desert dishes are set down. Finally, as everyone is given their bitter digestifs, they move away to the table to walk in the gardens to discuss everyone's favorite subject: ourselves. Poetry and alcohol flow quickly, conversations grow hot and cold. The center cannot hold. The company departs.

Anyway, I loved it.
Profile Image for Lori.
308 reviews100 followers
March 8, 2020
Seven Brief Lessons on Physics
Carlo Rovelli

A theoretical physicist philosophical guide to modern physics. It’s written as an assessable introduction for people unfamiliar with the concepts. Successfully, I believe. A lot of times beginner guides are overly simple for the first chapter and then require years of study to understand the rest of the book. At less than 100 pages, you can’t expect a thorough explanation and quantum physics is mind-bending. You might want the text to best appreciate it. Thanks to Houston Public Library I had both.
A university student attending lectures on general relativity in the morning and others on quantum mechanics in the afternoon might be forgiven for concluding that his professors are fools, or have neglected to communicate with each other for at least a century. In the morning the world is curved space where everything is continuous; in the afternoon it is a flat space where quanta of energy leap.
The paradox is that both theories work remarkably well. Nature is behaving with us like that elderly rabbi to whom two men went in order to settle a dispute. Having listened to the first, the rabbi says: ‘You are in the right.’ The second insists on being heard, the rabbi listens to him and says: ‘You’re also right.’ Having overheard from the next room the rabbi’s wife then calls out, ‘But they can’t both be in the right!’ The rabbi reflects and nods before concluding: ‘And you’re right too.’

For millennia people thought there was only Earth and sky:
Twenty-six centuries ago, Anaximander figured out that there's space on all sides:
Other Ancient Greeks concluded that the earth was a sphere, with celestial objects orbiting it:
Then Copernicus figured out that Earth orbited the sun:
Then we realized our solar system was just one of one hundred billion in our galaxy:
The confusion between these two diverse human activities—inventing stories and following traces in order to find something—is the origin of the incomprehension and distrust of science shown by a significant part of our contemporary culture. The separation is a subtle one: the antelope hunted at dawn is not far removed from the antelope deity in the night’s storytelling.
The border is porous. Myths nourish science, and science nourishes myth. But the value of knowledge remains. If we find the antelope, we can eat.

I really liked the ending. It’s dark, but I liked it.

Profile Image for Orsodimondo.
2,153 reviews1,692 followers
June 24, 2020

Sono pagine che raccontano di gente che aveva lo sguardo che sapeva spaziare oltre l’orizzonte.
Prima di tutto sono lezioni sulla bellezza.
E su occhi nuovi per vedere il mondo.
Il mondo continua a cambiare sotto i nostri occhi, man mano che lo vediamo meglio.

Il tempo non è universale,
lo spazio è curvo,
la realtà oggettiva non esiste, è solo interazione,
esistono più galassie, ciascuna con più soli, il sistema solare è uno dei tanti nei tanti…
Siamo polvere di stelle.

Certo, ci vuole un percorso di apprendistato per digerire la matematica di Riemann e impadronirsi della tecnica per leggere un’equazione. Ci vuole un po’ d’impegno e fatica. Ma meno di quelli necessari per arrivare a sentire la rarefatta bellezza di uno degli ultimi quartetti di Beethoven. In un caso e nell’altro, il premio è la bellezza, e occhi nuovi per vedere il mondo.

Profile Image for Nataliya.
745 reviews11.9k followers
July 4, 2022
Physics is fascinating and also breaks my brain.

But this compact little book is not really physics. Yeah yeah, it’s written by a physicist and talks about relativity and black holes and nature of time and all kinds of quantum everything, and even boasts one supposedly simple and elegant equation (I’m not an expert on equations beauty, so I have to trust Rovelli on that front).
“A handful of types of elementary particles, which vibrate and fluctuate constantly between existence and nonexistence and swarm in space, even when it seems that there is nothing there, combine together to infinity like the letters of a cosmic alphabet to tell the immense history of galaxies; of the innumerable stars; of sunlight; of mountains, woods, and fields of grain; of the smiling faces of the young at parties; and of the night sky studded with stars.“

Pretty nebulae.... because look how cool they are!

But it’s really an eloquent and strangely poetic book of musings on nature of life and ourselves through the prism of physics, written so beautifully and passionately that I find myself excitedly embracing the concepts and agreeing with them, stretching my overtaxed hundred billion of neurons in attempts to understand — until I have to admit to myself that it all just whooshed way above my head¹ and I just need to go with the flow and enjoy the explanation and admit that certain things for me will forever remain shrouded in fascinating mystery.
¹ Apparently time flows² faster up high - faster in the mountains than at the sea level.

² Except that time doesn’t really *flow*. Or exist. It’s just that our consciousness is limited. Also, heat is involved.
I’ve read a few of physics-y popular science books — and this one is very different. It’s certainly the most poetic of them all. It does not as much explain as just present the ever-crazier (except completely scientific) ideas about the fabric of the world that, if I really stop to think about them, is brain-melting stuff. And then it waxes philosophically and wonderfully, and asks us to keep exploring, keep wondering, keep on with the curiosity that had driven humanity since the start, in all this “granular structure of space”.
“Ever since we discovered that Earth is round and turns like a mad spinning-top, we have understood that reality is not as it appears to us: every time we glimpse a new aspect of it, it is a deeply emotional experience. Another veil has fallen.“

And that whole last chapter, last lesson on physics is just about ourselves, humans, in this weird quantum granular bouncy timeless universe and us being a part of that universe, a part of nature. And yeah, I guess it indeed is breathtaking.
“When we talk about the big bang or the fabric of space, what we are doing is not a continuation of the free and fantastic stories that humans have told nightly around campfires for hundreds of thousands of years. It is the continuation of something else: of the gaze of those same men in the first light of day looking at tracks left by antelope in the dust of the savannah—scrutinizing and deducting from the details of reality in order to pursue something that we can’t see directly but can follow the traces of. In the awareness that we can always be wrong, and therefore ready at any moment to change direction if a new track appears; but knowing also that if we are good enough we will get it right and will find what we are seeking. This is the nature of science.”

Yeah, Carlo Rovelli really loves this loop quantum gravity brain-melting stuff.

And this book is basically a poem written in physics.

4 Planck loop quantum gravity stars.

Recommended by: Mark Hands
July 19, 2021
Ok, I admit to some of my sins. I picked this up to make myself feel better on my loafing, which is something that keeps happening often! I might be deluding myself... or not.

The fabrics of reality, as we try to understand it now, is described in this book in a visionary language. We are able to follow a journey through centuries, to see links between the greatest mind influencers of all ages.

I do too feel better about myself and my lapses in 'daily toil'. Cheers!!!

In his youth Albert Einstein spent a year loafing aimlessly. You don’t get anywhere by not ‘wasting’ time – something, unfortunately, which the parents of teenagers tend frequently to forget. He was in Pavia. He had joined his family having abandoned his studies in Germany, unable to endure the rigours of his high school there. It was the beginning of the twentieth century, and in Italy the beginning of its industrial revolution. His father, an engineer, was installing the first electrical power plants in the Paduan plains. Albert was reading Kant and attending occasional lectures at the University of Pavia: for pleasure, without being registered there or having to think about exams. It is thus that serious scientists are made. (c)
Einstein became a renowned scientist overnight and received offers of employment from various universities. (c)
It would take ten years to resolve. Ten years of frenzied study, attempts, errors, confusion, mistaken articles, brilliant ideas, misconceived ideas. (c)
‘The General Theory of Relativity’, his masterpiece and the ‘most beautiful of theories’, according to the great Russian physicist Lev Landau.
There are absolute masterpieces which move us intensely: Mozart’s Requiem; Homer’s Odyssey; the Sistine Chapel; King Lear. To fully appreciate their brilliance may require a long apprenticeship, but the reward is sheer beauty – and not only this, but the opening of our eyes to a new perspective upon the world. Einstein’s jewel, the general theory of relativity, is a masterpiece of this order. (c)
Undistracted by schooling, one studies best during vacations. vacations. I was studying with the help of a book that had been gnawed at the edges by mice, because at night I’d used it to block the holes of these poor creatures in the rather dilapidated, hippy-ish house on an Umbrian hillside where I used to take refuge from the tedium of university classes in Bologna. Every so often I would raise my eyes from the book and look at the glittering sea: it seemed to me that I was actually seeing the curvature of space and time imagined by Einstein. As if by magic: as if a friend was whispering into my ear an extraordinary hidden truth, suddenly raising the veil of reality to disclose a simpler, deeper order. (c)
an extraordinary idea occurred to him, a stroke of pure genius: the gravitational field is not diffused through space; the gravitational field is that space itself. (c)
The student in question, Bernhard Riemann, had produced an impressive doctoral thesis of the kind that seems completely useless. The conclusion of Riemann’s thesis was that the properties of a curved space are captured by a particular mathematical object which we know today as Riemann’s curvature, and indicate with the letter ‘R’. Einstein wrote an equation which says that R is equivalent to the energy of matter. That is to say: space curves where there is matter. That is it. The equation fits into half a line, and there is nothing more. A vision – that space curves – became an equation. (c) I love how this allows a layman (a laywoman in my case) to get a rare glimpse into the inner sanctum: the workings of the mind of a visionary!
But within this equation there is a teeming universe. And here the magical richness of the theory opens up into a phantasmagorical succession of predictions that resemble the delirious ravings of a madman, but which have all turned out to be true.
To begin with, the equation describes how space bends around a star. Due to this curvature, not only do planets orbit round the star, but light stops moving in a straight line and deviates. Einstein predicted that the sun causes light to deviate. In 1919 this deviation was measured, and the prediction verified. But it isn’t only space that curves; time does too. Einstein predicted that time passes more quickly high up than below, nearer to the Earth. This was measured and turned out to be the case. If a man who has lived at sea level meets up with his twin who has lived in the mountains, he will find that his sibling is slightly older than him. And this is just the beginning. (c)
In short, the theory describes a colourful and amazing world where universes explode, space collapses into bottomless holes, time sags and slows near a planet, and the unbounded extensions of interstellar space ripple and sway like the surface of the sea … And all of this, which emerged gradually from my mice-gnawed book, was not a tale told by an idiot in a fit of lunacy, or a hallucination caused by Calabria’s burning Mediterranean sun and its dazzling sea. It was reality.
Or better, a glimpse of reality, a little less veiled than our blurred and banal everyday view of it. A reality which seems to be made of the same stuff which our dreams are made of, but which is nevertheless more real than our clouded quotidian dreaming. (c)
Q: Perhaps anyone reading this will still be able to appreciate its wonderful simplicity:
Rab − ½ R gab = Tab
That’s it.
You would, of course, need to study and digest Riemann’s mathematics in order to master the technique to read and use this equation. It takes a little commitment and effort. But less than is necessary to come to appreciate the rarefied beauty of a late Beethoven string quartet. In both cases the reward is sheer beauty, and new eyes with which to see the world. (c)
The work of Einstein was initially treated by colleagues as the nonsensical juvenilia of an exceptionally brilliant youth. (c)
Heisenberg imagined that electrons do not always exist. They only exist when someone or something watches them, or better, when they are interacting with something else. They materialize in a place, with a calculable probability, when colliding with something else. The ‘quantum leaps’ from one orbit to another are the only means they have of being ‘real’: an electron is a set of jumps from one interaction to another. When nothing disturbs it, it is not in any precise place. It is not in a ‘place’ at all.
It’s as if God had not designed reality with a line that was heavily scored, but just dotted it with a faint outline. (c)
This lesson is made up mostly of simple drawings. The reason for this is that before experiments, measurements, mathematics and rigorous deductions, science is above all about visions. Science begins with a vision. Scientific thought is fed by the capacity to ‘see’ things differently than they have previously been seen. I want to offer here a brief, modest outline of a journey between visions. (c)
A world of happenings, not of things. (c)
So, for the moment we have to stay with the Standard Model. It may not be very elegant, but it works remarkably well at describing the world around us. And who knows? Perhaps on closer inspection it is not the model that lacks elegance. Perhaps it is we who have not yet learnt to look at it from just the right point of view; one which would reveal its hidden simplicity. (c)
A handful of types of elementary particles, which vibrate and fluctuate constantly between existence and non-existence and swarm in space even when it seems that there is nothing there, combine together to infinity like the letters of a cosmic alphabet to tell the immense history of galaxies, of the innumerable stars, of sunlight, of mountains, woods and fields of grain, of the smiling faces of the young at parties, and of the night sky studded with stars. (c)Unexpectedly poetic.
A university student attending lectures on general relativity in the morning and others on quantum mechanics in the afternoon might be forgiven for concluding that his professors are fools, or have neglected to communicate with each other for at least a century. In the morning the world is curved space where everything is continuous; in the afternoon it is a flat space where quanta of energy leap.
The paradox is that both theories work remarkably well. (c)
It is not the first time that physics finds itself faced with two highly successful but apparently contradictory theories. The effort to synthesize has in the past been rewarded with great strides forward in our understanding of the world. Newton discovered universal gravity by combining Galileo’s parabolas with the ellipses of Kepler. Maxwell found the equations of electromagnetism by combining the theories of electricity and of magnetism. Einstein discovered relativity by way of resolving an apparent conflict between electromagnetism and mechanics. A physicist is only too happy when he finds a conflict of this kind between successful theories: it’s an extraordinary opportunity. Can we build a conceptual framework for thinking about the world which is compatible with what we have learnt about it from both theories?
Here, in the vanguard, beyond the borders of knowledge, science becomes even more beautiful – incandescent in the forge of nascent ideas, of intuitions, of attempts. Of roads taken and then abandoned, of enthusiasms. In the effort to imagine what has not yet been imagined. (c)
The illusion of space and time which continues around us is a blurred vision of this swarming of elementary processes, just as a calm, clear Alpine lake consists in reality of a rapid dance of myriads of minuscule water molecules. (c)
We realize that we are full of prejudices and that our intuitive image of the world is partial, parochial, inadequate. ... If we try to put together what we have learnt in the twentieth century about the physical world, the clues point towards something profoundly different from our instinctive understanding of matter, space and time. Loop quantum gravity is an attempt to decipher these clues, and to look a little further into the distance. (c)
Why does heat go from hot things to cold things, and not vice versa?
It is a crucial question, because it relates to the nature of time. In every case in which heat exchange does not occur, or when the heat exchanged is negligible, we see that the future behaves exactly like the past. For example, for the motion of the planets of the solar system heat is almost irrelevant, and in fact this same motion could equally take place in reverse without any law of physics being infringed. As soon as there is heat, however, the future is different from the past. While there is no friction, for instance, a pendulum can swing forever. If we filmed it and ran the film in reverse we would see movement that is completely possible. But if there is friction then the pendulum heats its supports slightly, loses energy and slows down. Friction produces heat. And immediately we are able to distinguish the future (towards which the pendulum slows) from the past. We have never seen a pendulum start swinging from a stationary position, with its movement initiated by the energy obtained by absorbing heat from its supports. The difference between past and future only exists when there is heat. The fundamental phenomenon that distinguishes the future from the past is the fact that heat passes from things that are hotter to things that are colder.
So, again, why, as time goes by, does heat pass from hot things to cold and not the other way round?
The reason was discovered by Boltzmann, and is surprisingly simple: it is sheer chance.
Boltzmann’s idea is subtle, and brings into play the idea of probability. Heat does not move from hot things to cold things due to an absolute law: it only does so with a large degree of probability. The reason for this is that it is statistically more probable that a quickly moving atom of the hot substance collides with a cold one and leaves it a little of its energy, rather than vice versa. Energy is conserved in the collisions, but tends to get distributed in more or less equal parts when there are many collisions. In this way the temperature of objects in contact with each other tends to equalize. It is not impossible for a hot body to become hotter through contact with a colder one: it is just extremely improbable. (c)
Einstein wrote a moving letter to Michele’s sister: ‘Michele has left this strange world a little before me. This means nothing. People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction made between past, present and future is nothing more than a persistent, stubborn illusion.’ (c)
Within the immense ocean of galaxies and stars we are in a remote corner; amidst the infinite arabesques of forms which constitute reality we are merely a flourish among innumerably many such flourishes. (c)
Myths nourish science, and science nourishes myth. But the value of knowledge remains. If we find the antelope we can eat. (c)
The information which one physical system has about another has nothing mental or subjective about it: it’s only the connection that physics determines between the state of something and the state of something else. A raindrop contains information on the presence of a cloud in the sky; a ray of light contains information on the colour of the substance from which it came; a clock has information on the time of day; the wind carries information about an approaching storm; a cold virus has information of the vulnerability of my nose; the DNA in our cells contains all the information in our genetic code (on what makes me resemble my parents); and my brain teems with information accumulated from my experience. The primal substance of our thoughts is an extremely rich gathering of information that’s accumulated, exchanged and continually elaborated. (c)
It is not against nature to be curious: it is in our nature to be so.
One hundred thousand years ago our species left Africa, compelled perhaps by precisely this curiosity, learning to look ever further afield. Flying over Africa by night, I wondered if one of these distant ancestors setting out towards the wide open spaces of the North could have looked up into the sky and imagined a distant descendant flying up there, pondering on the nature of things, and still driven by the very same curiosity. (c)
I believe that our species will not last long. It does not seem to be made of the stuff that has allowed the turtle, for example, to continue to exist more or less unchanged for hundreds of millions of years; for hundreds of times longer, that is, than we have even been in existence. We belong to a short-lived genus of species. All of our cousins are already extinct. What’s more, we do damage. The brutal climate and environmental changes which we have triggered are unlikely to spare us. For the Earth they may turn out to be a small irrelevant blip, but I do not think that we will outlast them unscathed – especially since public and political opinion prefers to ignore the dangers which we are running, hiding our heads in the sand. We are perhaps the only species on Earth to be conscious of the inevitability of our individual mortality. I fear that soon we shall also have to become the only species that will knowingly watch the coming of its own collective demise, or at least the demise of its civilization.
And it’s certainly not the first time that this will have happened. The Maya and Cretans, amongst many others, have already experienced this. We are born and die as the stars are born and die, both individually and collectively. This is our reality. Life is precious to us because it is ephemeral. And as Lucretius wrote: ‘our appetite for life is voracious, our thirst for life insatiable’ (De rerum natura, III, 1084). But immersed in this nature which made us and which directs us, we are not homeless beings suspended between two worlds, parts of but only partly belonging to nature, with a longing for something else. No: we are home.
Nature is our home, and in nature we are at home. This strange, multicoloured and astonishing world which we explore – where space is granular, time does not exist, and things are nowhere – is not something that estranges us from our true selves, for this is only what our natural curiosity reveals to us about the place of our dwelling. About the stuff of which we ourselves are made. 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 being nothing other than what we can’t help but be: a part of our world. (c)
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. Our knowledge of the world continues to grow.
There are frontiers where we are learning, and our desire for knowledge burns. They are in the most minute reaches of the fabric of space, at the origins of the cosmos, in the nature of time, in the phenomenon of black holes, and in the workings of our own thought processes. Here, on the edge of what we know, in contact with the ocean of the unknown, shines the mystery and the beauty of the world. And it’s breathtaking. (c)
Profile Image for Kevin Kelsey.
405 reviews2,201 followers
June 3, 2017
This book explained the basic concepts of physics, and major breakthroughs in the field over the years in such an effortlessly poetic way, that I couldn't help but be drawn in and understand them a little bit better. Really fantastic stuff.
Profile Image for Jamie.
224 reviews117 followers
August 5, 2017
Quick read. I felt the author talked about himself more than any of the theories he was trying to convey in his book.
These are such complex theories, that were so dumbed- down it was impossible to read at times.
Profile Image for Sean Gibson.
Author 6 books5,721 followers
April 4, 2017
It should be noted as a point of fact that “brief” does not mean “simple.”

I really like physics. It explains how everything works, and it’s a discipline that doesn’t dogmatically cling to outmoded ideas when new evidence suggests that everything we thought we knew was completely and totally erroneous (I, conversely, very much enjoy clinging dogmatically to outmoded ideas, including, but not limited to, the idea that parachute pants are cool, Van Hagar was the best incarnation of Van Halen, and it’s not a crime to wear socks with sandals).

Do I understand physics? Heck no. If you could have seen my brain (insert microscope joke here) as I read this slim but enlightening tome, it would have looked distressingly like one of those delightful taffy pulling machines you see at quaint, old-fashioned candy stores on Mackinac Island or a boardwalk somewhere.


That said, for someone who hasn’t read much on physics in about 20 years, this is an excellent (and mercifully high-level) overview of the current state of the field and includes brief forays into topics ranging from general relativity to cutting-edge loop quantum gravity theory. Of particular note is the current thinking on the dimension of time and how our perception of time may, in fact, be just that—a perception and not a fixed value (reading that section was the point at which my poor taffy puller exploded and left me all sticky…insert atrocious double entendre here).

If you’re an armchair science enthusiast like me, this is probably just the right amount of detail; if you’re smarter than I am (likely) or more well read on what’s going on in physics these days, though, you may want to look elsewhere for a dose of enlightenment.
Profile Image for Barbara.
1,346 reviews4,864 followers
July 9, 2021

These seven brief lessons about physics are interesting, enlightening, and (more or less) accessible to non-scientists. The author, Carlo Rovelli, is a theoretical physicist with great enthusiasm for his subject matter.

The lessons (which I'm greatly simplifying) include:

Special Theory of Relativity: The faster you move, the slower time passes. This would be really obvious if you could travel at the speed of light.

General Theory of Relativity: Space is not empty, but composed of particles of some kind. The sun bends space around itself, and the planets circle around the sun because they follow the curve of space (like marbles that roll around a funnel). This explains the 'force of gravity' that prevents the planets from flying off into the galaxy.

Quantum Mechanics: The energy of a field is distributed in 'quanta', or packets of energy, like electrons in an electrical field. But quanta only exist when they're interacting with something else - so they bleep in an out of existence. Moreover, quanta move randomly so we can't know where they'll manifest themselves. (If you can't wrap your mind around this don't feel bad. Albert Einstein couldn't either. LOL)

The Architecture of the Cosmos: Our sun is one star among billions of stars in the galaxy.....and there are billions of galaxies.....and so on. There may even be more than one universe, but we don't know.

Particles: The universe is teeming with particles called electrons, quarks, gluons, photons, neutrinos, and Higgs bosons. Rovelli explains that these particles are 'like bricks in a Lego set' that make up the material things surrounding us.

Moreover, 'the nature of these particles and the way they move is described by quantum mehanics'.....so they're always winking in an out of being. All the particles, fields, and forces in the universe are summed up in 'The Standard Model of Particle Physics' which no one understands. Ha ha ha.

Quantum Gravity: Unfortunately the theories of general relativity - where the universe is a continuous curved space, and quantum mechanics - where the universe is composed of particles that bleep in and out of existence, contradict each other. But both theories work well. So physicists are trying to merge the ideas in a field of study called 'loop quantum gravity.'

One combined theory suggests that space is not continuous but made up of infinitesimally small 'grains of space' called loops.....connected somewhat like a chain link fence. This theory has repercussions that mess with the reality of time - so it needs a lot more of work.

Probability, Time, and The Heat of Black Holes: The notion of 'time' is elusive and has been the subject of much debate among physicists. Rovelli points out, though, that heat distinguishes the past from the future. As time goes by, heat passes from things that are hotter to things that are colder (for example, a teaspoon heats up in hot tea). The science of heat is called thermodynamics.

We don't know what happens to a gravitational field when it heats up, but a clue might be found in a black hole - a collapsed star with a gravitational field so strong that nothing (not even light) can escape. Black holes are hot - in essence hot 'spots' of space-time. Thus they combine quantum mechanics, general relativity, and thermodynamics. Eventually, scientists might be able to use black holes to reveal the true nature of time.

Ourselves: If humans are composed of ephemeral particles, the same stuff as the rest of the universe, where do we get our sense of ourselves......of being conscious and making decisions. Scientists studying the brain are trying to shed light on this.

I liked the book - which is short and sweet - and recommend it to readers interested in the subject.

You can follow my reviews at http://reviewsbybarbsaffer.blogspot.com/
Profile Image for [ J o ].
1,938 reviews428 followers
August 24, 2019
The first thing that needs to be said is that I have overrated this book by at least one star, maybe two. And I reason thusly...

It is at times poetic, always interesting and forever thought-provoking. It is a beautifully bound hardback (if you have that copy), small enough to take with you everywhere and enjoy anywhere, and tactile enough to let you enjoy what you have just read in a way many books do not allow.


Carlo Rovelli is the Italian version of our beloved may he never go back to the d:ream of keyboards Professor Brian Cox. He is a physicist who writes to help the everyday man understand what he does on a daily basis. This is a good thing. You can't just go talking to people about quarks and expect them to know their neutrons from their neurons and their neutrinos.

The science is-as science can be-accurate and wonderful. It's the basics, without going in to entropy, but Rovelli does not have the best bedside manner. His explanations are not on point and he seems to run over himself a few times. Once or twice I lost the train of thought, because, even though atoms make up molecules, they are different things in essence, but they're the same as well, and Rovelli doesn't quite get this across in a way that doesn't make me want to just start reading Alan Bennett in Alan Bennett's voice and to hell with atoms.

It's also focused heavily on space, which is the of-the-moment sexy side of physics (and science as a whole). It's popular, so here's a book on it. "Let me tell you about gravitational waves and these quarks I got... *eyebrow wiggle*" Space is sexy right now. Eau de Elon Musk. Base notes of glandular secretions etc

Seven Brief Lessons on Physics was also originally written in Italian and has been translated in to English, and that always presents a problem. It seems ridiculous to wonder why it couldn't have been written in English in the first place, because almost 99% of the poetry and wonder will have been lost. Unless someone who speaks both English and Italian fluently and has read the both of them can tell me otherwise, I'd say this is a pointless book in it's current format.

A beautiful book, nonetheless. Which brings me on to why the stars are shining more. And the reason is, this book will bring in the readers who read it purely for the pretty cover. Or because Emma Roberts was seen reading it on Instagram. And I like that.

Popularity very rarely touches at the heart of the deserving and, whilst it may not be perfect, it is accurate (as accurate as theories can be, aye? (that's a physicist joke #sorrynotsorry)) and will either spark the imagination of the reader, make them wonder about the world and want to find out more... or will make them continue as they were before.

But to be given the chance, in this world of over-paid talentless fecks, where women who can't string a sentence together get paid millions because everyone is horny but won't admit it and people who make stuff with their own hands still are labelled weirdos...

To know that I've kept the average 5-star rating quite high and that anyone who bases a book on the average of its stars on GoodReads might pick this up (the exact kind of person who needs to read this). Well done me.

So why not the ever-elusive five stars? Because I'm a sparkly lion not a sheep. And I'm not your mam.
Profile Image for Warwick.
824 reviews14.5k followers
November 22, 2016
Engaging but over-slight summary of a few foundational concepts of modern physics, including special relativity, quantum theory, the standard model, as well as some leading hypothetical ideas like loop quantum gravity.

It's always welcome to read someone who's working from the conviction that these ideas should be accessible to everyone, not just a coterie of science graduates, and Rovelli certainly has an appealing turn of phrase. For instance: talking about Hawking radiation in the context of competing descriptions of the universe, he writes that

The heat of black holes is like the Rosetta Stone of physics, written in a combination of three languages – Quantum, Gravitational and Thermodynamic – still awaiting decipherment in order to reveal the true nature of time.

The problem is that these chapters are so brief – they began as a series of weekly columns for Il Sole 24 Ore – that they are only really of use to someone who has had no exposure to these concepts whatsoever. There is no room to touch on any but the most preliminary of introductory points. It's like scanning the headlines. The ‘lessons’ are fine, they're nicely written, they're suitably curious and awe-struck – but they're somehow unsatisfying.

And at times, he can perhaps be a little disingenuous. To illustrate the concept of loop quantum gravity, he talks about a hypothetical entity called a Planck star, something whose existence, as far as I know, has only ever been proposed by one C. Rovelli….

But overall, you're left with the impression that you just spent half an hour chatting with a particularly engaging lecturer at a party, without getting the chance to hear him actually lecture. Oh – and his wide-eyed, cheerful demeanour makes it all the more sobering when he sums up the prospects for our immediate future as follows:

We belong to a short-lived genus of species. All of our cousins are already extinct. What's more, we do damage. The brutal climate and environmental changes which we have triggered are unlikely to spare us. For the Earth they may turn out to be a small irrelevant blip, but I do not think that we will outlast them unscathed – especially since public and political opinion prefers to ignore the dangers which we are running, hiding our heads in the sand. We are perhaps the only species on Earth to be conscious of the inevitability of our individual mortality. I fear that soon we shall also have to become the only species that will knowingly watch the coming of its own collective demise, or at least the demise of its civilization.
Profile Image for Nooilforpacifists.
856 reviews37 followers
July 14, 2021
Why is everyone so crazy for this book? It's written about the most abstract generalities (yet he can't resist including the general relativity equation for gravity without explanation). It's a high-level history almost anyone could have written, with one chapter expressing the favorite European flavor of the day: "we're doomed."

Without footnotes pointing to the more exacting details of physics, what is the audience for this book? The Sunday Supplements? The readers won't learn much--for example, the first chapter purports to be about special and general relativity, but doesn't explain it. The next chapter is about Quantum Mechanics, and says: yes, there are a lot of elementary particles (quarks, gluons, Higgs Boson), but no one has the foggiest idea how to simplify it--at least that chapter was honest, if potentially confusing to the uninitiated.

There's a very short chapter on cosmology, saying space is curved and expanding, but then he's off talking about black holes, without mentioning the "Schwarchild Radius", where even light cannot escape.

I say again: who is the intended audience?
Profile Image for Matteo Fumagalli.
Author 1 book8,157 followers
November 16, 2017
"Non siamo curiosi contro natura, siamo curiosi per natura. [...] Nasciamo e moriamo come nascono e muoiono le stelle, sia individualmente che collettivamente. Questa è la nostra realtà. Per noi, proprio per la sua natura effimera, la vita è preziosa."
Profile Image for Manny.
Author 29 books13.7k followers
October 29, 2017
Carlo Rovelli considers that everything is relational, and things only exist in virtue of their interactions with other things, so it's perhaps appropriate that I read Setti brevi lezioni di fisica in the way I did. Rovelli knows physics and Italian, and has used that knowledge to produce the book, so there is a relationship R between the book, physics and Italian. Most readers will know Italian, have the book in front of them, and make use of R to obtain knowledge about physics. I'm in a different position: I have the book, and I know the physics, but I want to use R to obtain knowledge about Italian, where I'm still a beginner. It turns out that this works too!

How much have I learned? I'm not sure either, so I'll give myself a quick test. I'll use a random number generator to choose a paragraph and see how well I understand it. Here goes...

My random number generator picks page 27, 63% of the way down the page. The paragraph is as follows:
Ma c'è di peggio: questi salti con cui ogni oggeto passa a un'interazione all'altra non avvengono in modo previsibile, ma largamente a caso. Non è possibile prevedere dove en elettrone comparirà di nuovo, ma solo calcolere la probabilità che appaia qui o lì. La probabilità fa capolino nel cuore della fisica, là dove sembrava tutto fosse regolato da leggi precise, univoche e inderogabile.
I certainly don't understand everything, but quite a lot. Let me see...
But this is ?the point?: these jumps with which each object passes from one interaction to another do not happen in a predictable way, but largely by chance. It is not possible to predict where an electron will ?turn up? again, but only calculate the probability that it appears here or there. Probability makes ?? in the heart of physics, there where it seemed all was regulated by laws precise, unequivocal and unbreakable.
Well, I seem to be making progress. I think I will reread the book, and see if R can fill more holes in my still extremely uncertain vocabulary...
Profile Image for Riku Sayuj.
653 reviews7,022 followers
August 21, 2017
Short and sweet. Six extremely brief lessons on six crucial areas of Physics and a final one on where we fit into all of it. Rovelli starts with General Relativity and shows us how elegant and simple it is - to re-imagine space as a place that bends, stretches, and interacts with the stars. What a leap of imagination it must have taken to think of emptiness itself as an object which interacts. Rovelli says that that is a key to modern physics, the realization that it is all about interactions and not about absolute properties - maybe all properties arise form interactions and nothing has intrinsic properties?

We move onto quantum mechanics and see how it gradually got muddier - muddy enough that even Einstein, chief-imaginer, couldn’t fathom its weirdness anymore. At this point, the reader would be excused in thinking that each lesson is a bit shorter than warranted… The next lessons takes us to the architecture of the cosmos itself and shows us that unless we figure out a way to reconcile relativity and quantum mechanics, we will never figure out this weird place we find ourselves in. The sixth lesson about thermodynamics, turns the focus to the grandest mystery of modern science - time. Time might just be an illusion, arising out of our sensory limitations and might require science to allow us to look past it - just like how the movement of the stars and the surface of the earth looked different once we substituted the lens of of our senses with the lens of science. We might learn to ignore time, in time. The last chapter gets a bit fuzzy and philosophical, but that is from where we summon the sense of grandeur required to plod on in the face of all the weirdness that modern science is - to keep exploring this strange, multicolored and astonishing world which we inhabit – where space is granular, time does not exist, and things are nowhere.
Profile Image for Jonathan O'Neill.
160 reviews324 followers
May 14, 2021
4 ⭐

”We are born and die as the stars are born and die, both individually and collectively. This is our reality. Life is precious to us because it is ephemeral.”

Doesn’t exactly read like something out of a ‘Fundamentals of Physics’ textbook, right? Well, that’s because it isn’t.
This is not a handbook of lessons on 7 specific areas of Physics as much as Rovelli’s love letter to the field, its history, its greatest contributors and its mission going forward. We’re taken, like children on an excursion, on a very brisk tour through Einstein’s development of the “relatively” simple and concise General Theory of Relativity to the murkier, but no less ground-breaking depths of Quantum Theory and then offered a glimpse at Loop Quantum Gravity, the name given to the current field of Science which aims to combine the two somewhat contradictory theories into one cohesive whole.

Rovelli waxes lyrical on both a cosmic and sub-atomic level, alternating between the two in a beautiful and seamless manner, always imbuing his lessons with an infectious passion and emanating an insatiable curiosity. From the grandeur of Black holes, the Big Bang (or was it ‘Big Bounce’), and the “Thousands of billions of billions of billions of Planets such as Earth” that exist in the Universe, to the near-infinite minuteness of Electrons, Neutrinos and Quarks, if you’re a layman like myself you’ll often find yourself having to cork your ears as your overworked cerebrum overheats and seeks the easiest point of evacuation. Though, honestly, the nature and brevity of the lessons prevent this for the most part and the best thing to do is accept that you’ll perhaps not fully comprehend everything thrown at you but still enjoy the ride.

My favourite thing about this book, and Physics in general, is how small it makes you feel! It is truly humbling to think of our insignificance on the Grand Scale of the Universe and everything that it contains. If you spin this in a positive way, given that we are so insignificant, everything that we concern ourselves with, stress and pull our hair out about (money, work, relationships, illness, life, death) suddenly has less importance and actually seems a little bit silly. That’s not to say that we don’t, or shouldn’t, care about these things but if you view yourself for a moment as the relatively small mass of sub-atomic particles that you are, belonging to a 13.8 billion year-old (minimum), ever-expanding universe, containing some two trillion galaxies just like our own… Well, I don’t know, I think you can feel slightly better about that fresh bowl-cut your mum gave you, or that sexy-time photo you accidently sent to your boss.

Carlo Rovelli has offered us a fantastic appetiser here and I’m hungry to delve a little, no… a lot deeper! I’ve added a few more physics books to the tbr already and can’t wait to learn more. After all:

“What we know is a drop, what we don't know is an ocean.” - Isaac Newton
Profile Image for Amin.
356 reviews324 followers
November 17, 2020
بزرگترین ویژگی این کتاب کوچک به عنوان اثری برای معرفی مفاهیم فیزیک این است که با تئوری نسبیت عام شروع می کند. یعنی به تاریخ و مفاهیمی که شاید بارها از فیزیک نیوتونی و مکانیک شنیده ایم باز نمی گردد و مبنا را از فیزیک مدرن میگذارد تا در حجمی اندک به آخرین دستاوردها بپردازد. از این لحاظ اثر مقدماتی بسیار مفیدی است که به آخرین دستاوردها و مهم تر از آن ارتباطات منطقی و مفهومی بین نظریه های نسبیت عام، مکانیک کوانتومی وگرانش کوانتومی حلقوی می پردازد و بحث را به پیچیدگی های تعریف مکان و زمان در مقیاس کوانتومی و همین طور رابطه شان با مفهوم حرارت و ترمودینامیک می کشاند

اما دو نکته قابل بهبود وجود دارد: در برخی درسها گاه جزئیاتی ارائه شده است که کمی به قول معروف بحث را بازتر می کنند، اما آنقدر رویشان بحث نمی شود که سوالات و پیچیدگی های ایجاد شده مرتفع شوند و بر این اساس گاهی روانی و سلیسی متن را کاهش می دهند. از طرفی فصل آخر شبیه به تاملات فلسفی نویسنده است که پیوستگی و سازگاری معنایی و مفهومی با سایر فصول ندارند و گاه خواننده با خودش فکر می کند این هم یک شکل دیگر از مغلطه روشنفکران و متخصصین است که تمایل دارند فهمشان از دانش تخصصی خود را به حوزه های دیگر تعمیم دهند
Profile Image for Roberto.
627 reviews1 follower
August 2, 2017

Chi sa sa, chi non sa continua a non sapere

Queste sette lezioni (che poi sono sei più una parte dedicata a riflessioni generali sull’uomo) sono parzialmente tratte da una serie di articoli pubblicati dall’autore sul “Sole 24 Ore”.

Le lezioni trattano, in 88 pagine complessive, cosucce come la relatività generale di Einstein, la meccanica quantistica, le particelle elementari, l’architettura del cosmo, i buchi neri ed altro ancora.

Arrivato alla fine del saggio mi è venuta in mente una freddura che lessi tempo fa su un libro inglese: “ho letto Guerra e Pace con la lettura veloce: parla della Russia”.

Gli argomenti trattati, indubbiamente complessi, sono spiegati con un linguaggio semplice. Ma è sufficiente un linguaggio semplice per fare comprendere cose notevolmente complicate? È facile dire che il tempo non è universale, che le cose cadono perché lo spazio s’incurva, che il campo gravitazionale è lo spazio stesso, che il tempo passa più velocemente tanto più ci si allontana dalla Terra, che l’energia si distribuisce nella materia in maniera discontinua? Questi concetti sono veramente comprensibili a tutti?

La mia sensazione è che al termine della lettura chi conosce questi argomenti, per quanto incuriosito dalle considerazioni filosofiche esposte in merito alle teorie scientifiche, non ne saprà di più. Chi ignora la fisica contemporanea continuerà a ignorarla.

L’unica nota positiva del libriccino è il tentativo di avvicinamento della cultura scientifica con quella umanistica, normalmente troppo (e purtroppo) separate.
Profile Image for Panagiotis.
297 reviews111 followers
January 30, 2018
Ο Ροβέλι είναι μια εξέχουσα μορφή της θεωρητικής φυσικής. Πέραν της καθαρά ερευνητικής του δραστηριότητας, γράφει σε μια Ιταλική εφημερίδα, φέρνοντας τον καθημερινό άνθρωπο λίγο πιο κοντά στα επιτεύγματα της φυσικής. Σε τούτο το βιβλίο μαζεύει τα πιο σημαντικά του άρθρα, τα εμπλουτίζει και φτιάχνει έναν τόμο.

Το βιβλίο είχε εξαιρετική επιτυχία, πέρασε σε πωλήσεις μεγαθήρια. Δεν μου κάνει εντύπωση. Πέραν του ότι στην χώρα του ο Ροβέλι έχει μεγάλη απήχηση, γράφει με πάθος αλλά και σεμνότητα. Μέσα στα έξι κεφάλαιά του, ισάριθμα μαθήματα/διαλέξεις σε συμπυκνωμένη μορφή, θα φέρουν σε επαφή τον αναγνώστη με την πρόοδο της φυσικής. Η θεωρία της σχετικότητας, η αντιμαχόμενη κβαντική θεώρηση της ύλης, η κοσμολογία και η σωματιδιακή φυσική, οι σύγχρονες προσπάθειες για μια κβαντική θεώρηση του χωροχρόνου (στην προμετωπίδα των οποίων είναι και ο Ροβέλι ενεργός) και τέλος μαύρες τρύπες, χρόνος και θερμότητα.

Η γραφή του Ροβέλι και η δομή του βιβλίου δημιουργεί μια ανεπανάληπτη αφηγηματική ροή. Τα κεφάλαια διαδέχονται το ένα το άλλο σε μια εξιστόρηση μυστηρίου. Ο ενθουσιασμός του Ροβέλι μεταδίδεται στον αναγνώστη που θέλει να δει "τί έγινε παρακάτω". Ποιό ήταν το επόμενο βήμα του ανθρώπου μέσα στους λαβύρινθους του αγνώστου. Η συναρπαστική αυτή ιστορία κορυφώνεται στον πρόλογο, τον έβδομο μάθημα, όπου η φυσική συναντάται αναπόφευκτα με την φιλοσοφία.

Είμαι φυσικός και ασχολούμαι με ένα παρακλάδι της ως ερευνητής. Όταν τελειώνω ένα τέτοιο βιβλίο που απευθύνεται στο ευρύ κοινό, πάντα είμαι σκεπτικός: θα καταφέρει ένας άσχετος να καταλάβει κάτι; Θα το έδινα, για παράδειγμα, στην αδερφή μου; Αυτά τα επιτεύγματα μέσα από τους αγώνες λαμπρών μυαλών, είναι κτήμα όλων μας. Είναι η πεμπτουσία της ανθρώπινης περιέργειας, που μας έβγαλε από τις σπηλιές και συντέλεσαι σε μια εξέλιξη ραγδαία, με ό,τι καλό και κακό συνεπάγεται αυτό. Και ένα τέτοιο βιβλίο σαν του Ροβέλι, διασκεδαστικό και ανθρώπινο, είναι ο καλύτερος τρόπος για έναν άνθρωπο δίχως τριβή στις θετικές επιστήμες να γνωρίσει που έχει φτάσει η κατανόησή μας για την πλάση.
Profile Image for Douglas.
111 reviews146 followers
May 3, 2016
As a poem, this is quite beautiful. As a brief lesson, I'm confused. If the purpose was to ignite curiosity, I suppose this book met its objective. If its purpose was to distill the laws of physics into a comprehensible narrative, I'm afraid it did not work for me. I'm more confused now than when I started. I'm admittedly just starting my exploration of physics, but so far to me it seems like a subject you need to do a deep dive. Though this writing is poetic, the towering concepts seemed ethereal and inaccessible to me, a novice to the world of physics.

And listen to this doom and gloom of a conclusion:

"We are perhaps the only species on Earth to be conscious of the inevitability of our individual mortality. I fear that soon we shall also have to become the only species that will knowingly watch the coming of its own collective demise, or at least the demise of its civilization."

So, if I'm reading this correctly, there's all these wonderful and beautiful theories of physics that have been developed over the last few centuries that have changed the way we observe the universe and ourselves, but in the end, it's not going to matter because we're (mankind) insignificant, weak, and unable to change course.

Well, based on these lessons and observations, I have no choice (and please forgive me if it goes astray) but to heed the advice of another great observer and theorist:

The sky was all purple
There were people runnin' everywhere
Tryin' to run from the destruction
You know I didn't even care

They say two thousand zero, zero
Party over
Oops, out of time
So tonight I'm gonna party like it's 1999

I guess what I'm saying is that after reading this book I'm grappling with the question of whether to read more introductory books on physics or just spend the time listening to my complete collection of Prince albums. Prince. Definitely Prince.

Profile Image for withdrawn.
263 reviews259 followers
May 29, 2018
One brief book on modern physics for those of us who know nothing of the subject. I recall a friend talking excitedly about quantum physics in 1968. I paid little attention at the time and since. Now I want to understand a bit of this, just a bit.

Rovelli does a good job of explaining complex concepts in plain language. Some of it did not come through very well but the book has served its purpose - to give me a sense of the basic problems and concepts of modern physics. In 80 pages, I cannot expect too much.

My next step will be to read Rovelli’s ‘Reality is Not What It Seems’ and then his ‘The Order of Time’. A bit more detail. Then I shall see.

Recommended for those who, like me, have ignored all of the hoopla - the Higgs what?
Profile Image for Trevor.
1,294 reviews21.7k followers
September 23, 2019
The Guardian has a list – the hundred best books of the 21st century https://www.theguardian.com/books/201... and I was reading over it, mostly to see which books that had gone by without leaving so much as a ripple upon my attention – and one of them was this book. It sounded interesting, I tracked it down.

This was quite nice, not least since it is clearly written and covers quite a lot of ground in what is a remarkably small amount of space. The author is a physicist, not that that is much of a guarantee that the book will be interesting, clearly written or worth reading. This is very much an introduction to the broad strokes of the subject, but having recently watched a BBC documentary on Einstein and Hawking, I would have to say this was a much better text and covered in a fraction of the time many multiples of information on the subject.

I didn’t really know anything about quantum gravity before reading this and his explanation of why black holes might be hot or why they might not collapse down to a pin head was particularly interesting. That is, that while the gravitational attraction of a black hole would compress matter down as far as matter is capable of being compressed, if space is made up quanta there are necessary limits to how far that compression can go. This would then mean a battle between the quantum force and gravity which would have the black hole bounding back and forward as the two battle it out. And this pulsation of force would occur at insanely high speeds, but would appear to us as occurring over very long periods of time due to time the distortion effects of Einstein’s general relativity.

If you are after a thumbnail introduction to modern physics that doesn’t give you vertigo, this is short, sharp and to the point.
Profile Image for Neva.
Author 52 books533 followers
November 29, 2017
Прочетох я бързо, преведох я бавно, редактирах я мууудно... Но какво е това във Вселена, в която "Хайзенберг допуска, че електроните невинаги съществуват..."? Нищо :)

Много поучителна и със забавни моменти като този, в който авторът (кликнете, кликнете, ще чуете и него на английски, и любимите му Джанис и Джана :) прави сравнение по повод двете несъвместими, но верни теории (на относителността и квантовата): "Природата се отнася с нас като онзи стар равин, при когото отишли за съвет двама спорещи мъже. Щом изслушал първия, равинът казал: „Прав си”. Вторият настоял също да бъде чут, та равинът изслушал и него, след което заявил: „И ти си прав”. Тогава съпругата му, която надавала ухо от съседната стая, се провикнала: „Ама не може да са прави и двамата!”. Равинът се позамислил, кимнал и отсякъл: „И ти си права”."
Profile Image for Markus.
637 reviews77 followers
July 16, 2018
Carlo Rovelli

This little book is a summary of the seven major science subjects condensed into seven lessons of no more than twelve pages each.

It is written for readers like me, who know little about modern science and are grateful to get to know a little more.


The first lesson is dedicated to Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity, “the most beautiful of theories.”

Newton, the great father of modern science, had his ideas about “the force of gravity” but was cautious of offering a complete theory. Michael Faraday and James Maxwell had added a key element: “the electromagnetic field.”
Einstein came to understand that gravity, like electricity, must also be conveyed by a field:
“a gravitational field.”
And then a stroke of genius occurred to him: “the gravitational field is not diffused through space, it is that space itself.”
“Space and gravitational field are the same thing.”


The second to quantum mechanics, or quantum theory.

The Dane Niels Bohr was the first to understand that the energy of electrons in atoms can take on only certain values and crucially that they can only jump between one atomic orbit and another with determined energies, emitting or absorbing a photon when they jump.
these are the famous “quantum leaps.”

Werner Heisenberg was the first to write equations of the new theory and even imagined that electrons do not always exist. They materialize only when colliding with something else.
When nothing disturbs it, it is not in any precise place. It is not in a “place” at all.

Does this mean that reality is only interaction?
Our knowledge grows. It allows us to do new things that we had previously not even imagined. But the growth has opened up new questions. New mysteries.

I recently read “Life on the Edge.”, ‘The Coming age of Quantum Biology.’ It helped me understand this theory

The third is the Architecture of the Universe that we inhabit.

For thousands of years, humans have perceived the universe as simply: the earth below, and the sky above.
Then Anaximander 2600 years ago and then following Parmenides, Pythagoras, Aristotle, all contributed to our perception of the stars in the sky.

The next leap came with Copernicus that included a big difference from Aristotle's view;
he understood that the sun was the central object and the earth with all the other planets danced around it.

The growth of our knowledge continued, and we soon learned that our solar system itself is only one of a large number of others, a tiny spot in the galaxy of one hundred billion stars.

And then in the 1930s, astronomers discovered that our galaxy, “the milky way” is only one grain of dust in a huge cloud of galaxies out there as far as the eye can see with even the most powerful of telescopes.

Hubble, the telescope in space, produced an image showing more than a hundred billion suns similar to ours, the majority of these suns are orbited by planets.
There are thousands of billions of billions of billions of planets out there such as earth!

I think that so far we are quite familiar with the structure. But then we are told that we have to imagine the texture of the universe, with its groups of galaxies being moved by waves similar to those of the sea, sometimes so agitated that it creates gaps, the black holes.

And all the immense elastic cosmos, fifteen billion years in the making, originated from a hot and dense small cloud. It began as a small ball and then exploded, the famous big bang, and became our present universe.
What was before? Is there anything else? We don’t know.


The fourth is to its elementary particles. Particle physics.

The science of the other extreme of nature is about atoms, electrons, protons and neutrons, and even smaller particles called quarks.

Everything we see and touch is made of atoms of electrons and of quarks. The force that glues these particles together is generated by particles called gluons.
The nature of these particles and the way they move is described by “quantum mechanics.”

According to the strange laws of quantum mechanics, everything that exists is never stable but is nothing but a jump from one interaction to another. Miniscule wavelets, appearing and disappearing. A set of vibrations. A world of happenings, not of things.

The particle theory is the work of scientists during the 1950th to 1970th
and led to the “The Standard Model of Elementary Particles.”
Yet it is thought that this model is not satisfactory; it has not solved the problem.

A handful of elementary particles, which vibrate and fluctuate between existence and nonexistence and swarm in space, combine together the reality of infinity of galaxies, stars, sunlight, wood, and fields of flowers and mountains of snow.


The fifth deals with Quantum Gravity.

There is a paradox at the heart of our understanding. We have two theories:
General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics.

These two theories cannot both be right, because they contradict each other.
The paradox is that both theories work remarkably well.

A group of theoretical physicists around the world is working on a study called Quantum Gravity, or Loop Quantum Gravity, trying to settle the issue. The objective is to combine general relativity and quantum mechanics.

The central property of loop quantum gravity is that space is not continuous, is not infinitely divisible, but is made up of grains, or “atoms of space.” Where are these quanta of space? Nowhere, they themselves are space.

The second consequence of this theory is that its equations no longer contain the variable “time.”
There is no longer space that contains the world, and there is no longer ‘time’ in which events occur.
Another of the consequences of the theory concerns the origins of the universe. The equations of the loop, theory allow us to go even further back than the big bang.

Our world may have been born from a preceding universe that contracted under its own weight until it was squeezed into a tiny space, before bouncing out and beginning to re-expand and become our present universe.

Loop quantum gravity is an attempt to decipher these ideas and to look further into the future.


The sixth is on probabilities and the heat of black holes.

What is heat? Thermodynamics. Atoms and molecules, small clusters of atoms bound together are always moving. Cold air is air in which atoms, or rather molecules are moving more slowly. Hot air is air in which atoms move more rapidly.

Heat as we know always moves from hot things to cold things. Why not vice versa?
This is a crucial question because it relates to the question of time.
The fundamental phenomenon that distinguishes the ‘future’ from the ‘past’ is the fact that heat passes from hotter things to colder things.

It is statistically more probable that a quickly moving atom of the hot substance collides with a cold one and leaves it a little energy, rather than vice Versa.

This bringing of probability into the heart of physics was initially considered absurd.
The branch of science that clarifies these things is called ‘statistical physics.’

In the course of the twentieth century, thermodynamics and statistical dynamics were extended to electromagnetic and quantum phenomena. How the gravitational field behaves when it heats up is still an unsolved problem.

The gravitational field is space itself, in effect space-time. But what is a hot gravitational field?
The heart of the problem is: what is exactly the flow of time? What is here and now?
Special relativity has shown that the notion of “the present” is also subjective.

Physicists believe that past present and future is nothing but a stubborn illusion.
There is a detectable difference between the past and future only when there is a flow of heat.
The flow of time emerges thus from physics in the context of statistics and thermodynamics.
This may hold the enigma of time.
Time sits in the center of a tangle of problems raised by the intersection of gravity, quantum mechanics, and thermodynamics. A tangle of problems where we are still in the dark.

Stefen Hawking in using quantum mechanics has successfully demonstrated that black holes are always hot.
This phenomenon involves all three sides to the problem: quantum mechanics, general relativity, and thermal science. The heat of black holes is written in three languages, still awaiting decipherment in order to reveal the true nature of time.


The seventh and final section is on ourselves and our existence in the light of the strange world described by physics.

What role do we have, in this great fresco of the world as explained by contemporary physics?
Do we also consist of quanta and particles? We have learned that our being is only part of the universe and a small part at that.

We had thought that we existed as unique beings. We have learned who we are. We are descendants of the same parents as all the living things around us. We have great-grandparents in common with butterflies and larches.

Within the immense ocean of galaxies and stars, we are in a remote corner of our galaxy on our home planet earth among innumerable such planets in the universe.

Despite our ignorance, the limitations of our senses and of our intelligence, the images that we construct of the universe are within us, in the space of our thoughts. They are a postiory to the mental evolution of our species and are in continuous evolution.

There is one issue that leaves us perplexed: if we are free to make decisions is there perhaps something that could escape the regularity of nature? And allows us to deviate from its basic laws?
However, the way we behave is determined by the laws of nature acting in our brains.
To the extent that the interaction of the neurons in our brain allows and determines.
There is not an “I” and the neurons in my brain; they are the same thing.

All of this is part of the self-same nature; we are an integral part of nature, we are nature.
It is the form that nature has taken here on our planet.
Who knows how many other extraordinary complexities exist in the endless cosmos?

We are a species that is naturally motivated by curiosity, the only one left of a group of species, the “genus homo.”
Life is precious to us because it is ephemeral.
Lucretius wrote: “our appetite for life is voracious, our thirst for life insatiable.”
It is part of our nature to long to know more and continue to learn.


This work is not for the reader of entertainment literature.
Rather for someone interested in science and knowledge with little prior studies of these subjects.

For these book lovers, it is an excellent summary, written in a beautiful, humorous style and easy to understand.
Profile Image for TS Chan.
700 reviews868 followers
November 21, 2019
Here, on the edge of what we know, in contact with the ocean of the unknown, shines the mystery and the beauty of the world. And it’s breathtaking.

Brief though these lessons may be, simple they are not. The preface elucidates that these are lessons for those who have little to no knowledge of modern science and serve to provide a quick general overview of “the most fascinating aspects of the revolution that has occurred in physics in the twentieth century”. My formal science studies stopped after high school and while I’ve always had the curiosity and thirst for more knowledge, it was not a subject that I believe I can tackle at a higher academic level. I was intrigued by both the title and size of the book, or basically how the author is going to distil these theories of physics into a 79-page book.

Although the title mentioned seven, the book only contains six lessons of scientific theories and one of ourselves. These lessons commenced with what Rovelli terms as “the most beautiful of theories”, Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, which was then followed by the most confounding quantum mechanics. And from these two revolutionary aspects of physics at the start of the twentieth century, emerged the understanding of the vast and endless cosmos and the study of the infinitesimally small elementary particles. It then progressed to loop quantum gravity which attempted to combine both general relativity and quantum mechanics. The last scientific topic is on probability, time and the heat of black holes; three seemingly unrelated subject matters, that is until one has read this chapter.

While these principles of physics are in no way simple, the lessons are presented and written in a manner that can be comprehended by anyone who has a general interest in science. Let me iterate that one MUST have an interest in the first place to appreciate this book.

I am also astounded by how beautifully written a book on physics can be, and this is the translated text. For example, the author described Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity as follow.

In short, the theory describes a colourful and amazing world where universes explode, space collapses into bottomless holes, time sags and slows near a planet, and the unbounded extensions of interstellar space ripple and sway like the surface of the sea… And all this, which emerged gradually from my mice-gnawed book, was not a tale told by an idiot in a fit of lunacy, or a hallucination caused by Calabria’s burning Mediterranean sun and its dazzling sea. It’s real.

Or better, a glimpse of reality, a little less veiled than our blurred and banal everyday view of it. A reality which seems to be made of the same stuff which our dreams are made of, but which is nevertheless more real than our clouded quotidian dreaming.

The closing chapter of “ourselves” and the roles humans play in this world draws in a more philosophical view, in the same vein of many of the forefathers of physics who married philosophy, religion and science. The concluding words are so stunning and impactful that upon finishing this really short book, I was filled with a sense of wonder and oddly, emotion - from a book on physics!

Nature is our home, and in nature we are at home. This strange, multicoloured and astonishing world which we explore – where space is granular, time does not exist, and things are nowhere – is not something that estranges us from our true selves, for this is only what our natural curiosity reveals to us about the place of our dwelling. About the stuff of which we ourselves are made. 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 being nothing other than what we can’t help but be: a part of our world.
Profile Image for Scott.
291 reviews302 followers
December 24, 2018
Seven brief sentences on Carlo Rovelli's Seven Brief Lessons On Physics:

1. Trying to understand Physics will melt your brain.

2. Gravity is like a giant snail shell around us that ripples like a sea - it's an omnipresent sea snail, and it's also the sea, and all the currents and my analogy is confusing.

3. A person further from the ground ages faster than one at sea level, so I'm moving my desk to the bottom of a mineshaft.

4. Actually, time isn't really a thing - you only think it is, silly human, because you are too small and stupid to comprehend the true nature of reality.

5. There are no felines in this book, named Schrodinger or otherwise.

6. There are famous physicists beyond Newton and Einstein - Heisenberg is more than just than Walter White's Meth Name.

7. Carlo Rovelli explains complex theories in an engaging way that will fill you wonder at the crazy, amazing universe we live in.

3.5 stars surrounded by hungry gravitational sea snails.
Profile Image for Sam Quixote.
4,486 reviews12.8k followers
July 26, 2016
I wish I was more interested in reading about science because every time I hear about a science story or read a random article in New Scientist, I’m always impressed – science is great and my knowledge of it is pitifully lacking. But when it comes to tackling even a 200 page science book, I know I’m setting myself up for a fall and I inevitably abandon it. Still, as Carlo Rovelli writes, “It is part of our nature to long to know more, and to continue to learn”, and it’s good to get out of our comfort zones and try something different, which is why I gave this book a shot – and I’m so glad I did because I loved it!

Italian theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli has written the ideal book for someone like me with Seven Brief Lessons on Physics. The title says it all with seven short chapters eloquently explaining some basic physics to people with next to no knowledge in this area. It’s accessible, interesting, and easy to devour at 79 pages long – though I purposely slowed down my reading to absorb as much information as I could.

Rovelli explains the Theory of Relativity well but the chapter on Quantum Physics still left me wondering what the subject is about – then again I think it’s partly meant to be an unknowable subject! I read this book last week and I’m surprised how much information has stuck – I thought I’d forget it all within hours of reading it! – like how space is curved and constantly moving like an ocean, what black holes are, and the Big Bounce idea, where the universe exploded but will at some point contract, then explode again, and so on, as an alternate theory to the Big Bang.

He also manages to cover the history of physics, showing how the discipline has evolved over time, in a mere chapter, effortlessly tying together Galileo, Newton, Einstein, Hawking, and a number of less famous but no less important figures into a coherent sequence.

Rovelli’s writing style is a huge reason why this book works so well. It’s not just clear and direct, but also conjures up some fantastic imagery. I know the universe is a big place but the way he talks about it really impresses the vastness of it and how utterly insignificant Earth is in the greater scheme of things – and that’s not even touching on the idea of parallel universes!

His closing chapter also talks about how humanity is doomed, talking about how humans just haven’t evolved in the same way as a turtle has (who’ve been around for millions of years in the same state as they are today) so that one day Earth will inevitably be without humans – but the planet and other animals will endure.

It sounds like depressing stuff but it’s strangely comforting – at least to me – and makes our own lives all the more interesting, unique and special. The visions of the universe, of incomprehensibly large space clouds made of substances we haven’t discovered yet, right down to the mysteries of our wonderful blue marble of a planet, and our still largely unknown brains, are brought vividly to the reader with Rovelli’s words. It’s almost poetic!

He writes "Physics opens windows through which we see far into the distance" and that’s the book’s biggest strength: not necessarily throwing as many facts at the reader as it can in a short space but rather allowing them a glimpse into the breath-taking scope that this subject explores.

Obviously anyone who’s well-versed in the subject won’t find anything worthwhile in this book but for laymen like me who’re happy to splash about in the kiddie pool end of this subject, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics is a perfect read.
Profile Image for John Anthony.
735 reviews92 followers
June 14, 2017
At school Physics was a mystery to me and one which I preferred to keep that way. The teachers didn't help. The beginning of my school week was made even more wretched by having a double dose of Physics first thing on a Monday morning.

With the passing of the years the time seemed right to confront this particular demon. How fortunate for me that I was able to do so with the help of Carlo Rovelli. These seven bite sized lessons are clearly and elegantly written. The last one is beautifully written and especially memorable for being so. This little book retained my interest throughout and I can't believe I'm saying this: Physics can clearly be fun!

I heartily recommend this book, especially to anyone like me, blighted by an ignorance of the subject.

After a preface the book comprises the following:

First Lesson: The Most Beautiful of Theories
Second: Quanta
Third: The Architecture of the Cosmos
Fourth: Particles
Fifth: Grains of Space
Sixth: Probability, Time and the Heat of Black Holes
Seven: Ourselves

Brilliant translation.
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