A poetic and jargon-free textbook on theoretical physics is a surprise Christmas bestseller

Carlo Rovelli’s Seven Brief Lessons on Physics has outsold even Fifty Shades of Grey in his native Italy

12 December 2015

9:00 AM

12 December 2015

9:00 AM

Physics is said to go deeper than other sciences into the riddle of existence. The laws of physics — gravity, energy, motion, time — underpin those of chemistry, astrophysics and meteorology combined. So an understanding of the world requires a basic understanding of physics; something which has just become a little easier thanks to a cult book by an Italian academic which is due to be stuffed into an extraordinary number of stockings this Christmas.

Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, by Prof Carlo Rovelli, has already sold more copies in his native Italy than Fifty Shades of Grey. The English translation has become Penguin’s fastest-selling science debut ever. In less than 80 pages, Ravelli’s slim poetic meditation seeks to clarify the troubling uncertainties of Einsteinian relativity, quantum theory and other physical exotica. Not since Stephen Hawking’s (admittedly hard-going) Brief History of Time has there been such a consensual success in the science book market. So far, rights have been sold in 28 countries, including Turkey, Egypt and China. How has Rovelli done it?

When I meet him, he is still struggling to come to terms with his Piketty-like success. ‘My aim was always to write my book for the layman,’ he says. In fact, his book started as a series of newspaper articles — the idea was to write only about the most interesting bits. ‘I decided to focus on the beauty of modern physics and cut out everything which sounded dull.’

In this, he continues a tradition of jargon–free scientific writing from Galileo to Darwin — an art which disappeared in the academic specialisation of the last century.

In the first of his book’s lessons, Rovelli explains Albert Einstein’s general theory, formulated 100 years ago last month. Aged just 36 years old at the time, Einstein set out a theory of gravity that superseded Isaac Newton’s and treated time and space as essentially the same.

In Rovelli’s elucidation, the Earth moves round the Sun because of the distortion of ‘space-time’ by the Sun’s greater mass. An analogy represents ‘space-time’ as a rubber sheet distorted by a heavy ball representing the Sun; a smaller ball rolling by, representing a planet, will tend to fall into this depression, apparently attracted. In Einstein’s universe, this is what is known as gravity.

Nobody said that post-Newtonian physics was easy, but Rovelli writes of ‘warped time’ and other tentative physics with bracing clarity. That’s not to say that the lay reader won’t be a bit baffled at times.

‘That’s normal,’ he says: the human brain is not designed to deal with galaxies or the invisible world of atoms. ‘We think that our minds are all-powerful. But in reality, they’ve evolved to do what we need to do —like hunt, eat and talk to one another.’

It is only in recent years that science has become, in publishing terms, popular and attractive. Before Rovelli, the Italian writer-scientist Primo Levi sought to make chemistry accessible in his literary–scientific commentary The Periodic Table, which reached the UK bestseller list in 1985 alongside Dick Francis. Rovelli said he revered Levi for his ‘lapidary integration of science and literature’. His own book displays a very Levi-like enthusiasm for knowledge of all kinds, ranging from King Lear to neuro-science to James Joyce.

Educated at a liceo classico (classical school) in Verona, Rovelli is known for his work on loop quantum gravity theory and Anaximander, a pre-Socratic Greek philo-sopher. He is impatient of religious fundamentalists of any denomination — and the idea that science is ever settled. ‘Physics questions everything all the time,’ he says. ‘I don’t believe anyone who says we’re close to the final theory of anything.’ Scientists such as Richard Dawkins who pretend to atheist omniscience are, he says, no less intolerant or prejudiced. ‘If I am allowed to be polemical, the world is not necessarily as Dawkins thinks it is.’

Science, he says, is not about certainty. ‘It’s about finding the most reliable way of thinking at the present moment. At any moment we have a vision of reality that is effective, it’s good, it’s the best we have found so far. But, at the same time, it’s not taken as certain, and any element of it is a priori open to revision.’

Rovelli adds: ‘I find beliefs hard to believe, not because I know the answers — no one does. Why should a militant atheist know better than a lapsed Catholic like me?’

Newtonian certainties were further disturbed when Einstein predicted that time passes more quickly ‘high up’ than below, nearer to the Earth. So if a man who has lived at sea level meets his twin who has lived in the mountains, he will find that his sibling is slightly older than him.

The notion that time does not pass identically for everyone unsettles Catholic church hierarchies even today, says Rovelli. Of course, back in the 17th century, the church had warned curiosity-driven researchers like Galileo not to put divine laws to the test. ‘It’s scarcely against nature to be curious,’ Rovelli told me. ‘It is in our nature to be so.’

He says familiarity with Latin, combined with a wilful ignorance of science, is a mark of social status in Italy. ‘Most of those at the top of Italian society today have been to a liceo classico. I wrote my book with them very much in mind,’ he adds.

Rovelli is taking aim at what C.P. Snow called the ‘Two Cultures’ of science and the arts. Writing in the 1960s, Snow argued that the world of words and of numbers were slowly divorcing — with potentially disastrous effects for basic human understanding — and that the scientists would become boffins, unable to communicate outside their milieu, and that the rest of us would give up even attempting to understand science.

‘I see no incompatibility between the two cultures, only mutual attraction,’ Rovelli insists. This is his belief: that non-specialists are fascinated by science, if only it can be explained properly. The sales of his book suggest that he might just be right.

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  • right1_left1

    Modern scientific theoretical cosmological analysis is in a mess.
    There is no concept so abstruse that intelligent layabouts wont promote it
    In fact such propositions seem to be promoted simply because they are abstruse not because of any intrinsic worth

    The question is …why ?
    (1) To bolster a failing Big Bang theory which violates all known scientific principles and rests on an interpretation of Red Shift which at a minimum is known to have exceptions and is probably almost certainly wrong.

    (2)At a deeper level: a misinterpretation of what science actually does.
    Science does not explain nature but uses observation coupled with theory to allow hypotheses to be created that describe nature

    Leaping forward electro magnetec forces are applied everywhere without the least understanding why they occur.

    How is it possible to define the boundary within which space can be bent and time warped without recourse to I believe amongst other things Tensor analysis ?

    The fact that the results predict motion under an inverse square law come about because that is what the analysis was designed to do not because of any inherent truth..
    Lets leave a aside the fact that the motion of galaxies violate the inverse square law and clusters exist that it is estimated have taken longer than the estimated age of the universe to form

    Can existence create itself ?

    Science has nothing to say on the matter.
    It’s a philosophical question.

    On a political level as an aid to austerity all the uni departments concerned with cosmology economics management studeies and evolution by natural selection should have state funding removed.

    • fundamentallyflawed

      Sounds like its from the “We don’t know the real answer so here’s a theory now give me some money” Science branch

      • Observer1951

        You obviously don’t know what a scientific theory is hint a theory in science is the opposite of what you think it means

    • Observer1951

      I don’t think you understand modern cosmology and what Big Bang actually says. To say Big Bang rests on an interpretation of red shift is a joke, ever heard of the microwave background radiation? Which galactic clusters are older than the age of the universe and what is their age. Do you think there are no experimental tests of General Relativity and curved spacetime?

      • right1_left1

        Observer: I have noticed before you have a tendency to ‘parrot’ conventional ‘wisdom’ and thereby believe that what you post is true..
        I think you a sixth former still pining for the first love of your life.

        Can you tell me what is the rationale of projecting backwards in time to arrive at the BB ?
        .Answer:Red Shift.
        On what basis is the distance of CMBR assessed ?
        Answer:Red Shift.:

        The energy output of Quasars cannot be produced by an known scientific principle.
        The are too bright when their distance is calculated
        What is used to calculate that distance ? .
        Answer:Red Shift.

        When it was pointed out that the temperature of the CMBR is isotropic what was the solution ?
        Introduce ‘inflation’ into the equations describing the evolution of the cosmos in order to get the right result.
        Not a shred of evidencnce exists that ‘inflation’ occurred.
        Same in principle with Dark Energy and Dark Matter.

        The truth is it’s the theorectical cosmologists who are in the dark.

        • Observer1951

          I’m pleased you follow my postings, at least someone reads me! I certainly don’t parrot dogma eg I suspect string or M theory is going down a black hole and is incorrect. I’ve not mentioned inflation in my post so why have you? I happen to agree with you it’s an interesting idea but not a shred of evidence for it. Don’t forget though that the concept of negative energy is inherent in the field equations. I happen to think theoretical physics is in trouble so hardly repeating dogma am I? Regarding red shift and cosmological expansion the concepts flow from GR and that theory has been pretty well tested. I have never said anything about dark energy or dark matter but there’s very good experimental for the rate of expansion speeding up, after all a Nobel was awarded for the work. Regarding dark matter I agree it’s speculation, Interesting discussion

          Sent from my iPad

    • jim_joystique

      This argument, “science hasn’t answered every question therefore science hasn’t answered any question” is quite spurious.

      • right1_left1

        Quite feeble response.
        I’m being attacked by love struck 4th formers.
        You dont even understand what I am saying.

        I challenge you to tell me how energy is transferred across free space.
        You will probably reply by Electro Magnetic radiation
        I then ask you what is EM radiation
        You may well say how energy is transferred across free space

        That is a tautology.
        Nothing at all is clarified !!!!

        When we consider cosmological analysis solutions are just concocted to support the inexplicable.

        • jim_joystique

          I do understand what you’re saying. I have thought about it often. But it’s completely meaningless. In order to provide an answer to a question you have to have a framework within which something can be understood to be true. Metaphysics (the Transcendent) does not give you such a framework.

          You can think about and do practical physics, which is effectively enumerating, describing and codifying the correlates of experience and still believe in The Transcendent. Whether you believe ultimate explanation is beyond Human understanding or not doesn’t matter.

          • right1_left1

            The framework is/are the definition(s) (axioms) from which reasoning progresses.
            In the past the framework was empirically based leading to spectacular resuts
            Today it is ‘made up’ to suuport the BB theory.
            This is done in the belief that ‘rational’ science can explain everything

            The existence of the Universe is trancendental.

          • jim_joystique

            IDK if you realise this, but Quantum Mechanics and Relativity, the two theories of physics, together make the universe we see inevitable. There’s so much experimental evidence to support both of them that any new or different theory has almost no room for divergence. All else is speculation and perhaps will always be speculation.

            Another interesting fact: In order to probe smaller and smaller distances you need to put more and more energy into a smaller and smaller region of space. If you want to probe the Planck length, you would have to put so much energy into such a tiny region of space you’d collapse it into a black hole.

            So perhaps it’s just impossible to ever know what actual reality is made of. And so what if they “think” X or Y. It isn’t like theoretical physicists are going to build concentration camps based on their speculations is it. They have built many other things though.

          • right1_left1

            The logic of your first paragraph is completey wrong.
            No man made theory has any affect on nature.
            Most laypersons seem to have no idea what theoretical science actully does.
            They, the laypersons, are totally bamboozled by the success of technology and extrapollite backwards to conclude that science ‘explains’ things.
            It’s crucial you understand that point.
            You say you do but your posts reveal you do not.

            I pretty sure that Quantum Mechanics is not compatible with General Relativity
            In what particular I do not know.

            I do notice that often arguments based on QM are extarpolations up to the macro scale.
            In fact QM is concerned with the micro scale.
            Conclusiion ?
            Too much lackadaisical extrapolation going on.

          • jim_joystique

            I didn’t say man-made theory has an affect on nature. I said that these two principles together constrain *any* physical theory you can have about the physical universe simply because any new theory you come up with has to be at least as good at explaining physical phenomena as they are (Occam’s Razor).

            No, QM isn’t only concerned with the micro scale. It’s laws hold at the macro scale too. There is only a distinction for all practical purposes with respect to experiment.

            The rules of special relativity hold in QE but it’s not possible to quantize GRE. This is why most top physicists think that space-time has to go and that it will eventually be replaced with a new concept.

          • right1_left1

            ‘ IDK if you realise this, but Quantum Mechanics and Relativity, the two
            theories of physics, together make the universe we see inevitable.’
            ‘I didn’t say man-made theory has an affect on nature’

            What you claim you meant
            ‘ I said that these two principles together constrain *any* physical theory you can have about the physical universe’
            You simply dont grasp the truth that QM and GR have been developed to describe the nature our experience reveals to us.
            So if the outcomes coincide with what they were constructed to describe they are considered true.
            No more.
            You POV is almost equivalent to saying a sketch of a building made the building

            re : Your rationalistion for Evo. by NS .
            Some are wrong
            The fossil record shows sudden emergence of new species ie a form of quantisation.
            None of the others demonstrate the truth of Evo by NS.

          • jim_joystique

            Don’t be obtuse. All theories are descriptions of the regularities of experience. Making the universe we see inevitable is saying no more than that they describe the universe we see and not some other universe.
            Sorry, where does the fossil record show the “sudden” emergence of new species? The fossil record is a very coarse grained record. “Sudden” on geological terms could be millions of years. There’s a time dependence here too. There are no fossil flowers in the Jurassic because flowers evolved in the Cretaceous. There are no fossil lagomorphs (rabbits) in the Cambrian.

          • right1_left1

            synonyms for make
            :construct, build, assemble, put together, manufacture, produce, fabricate, create, form, fashion, model, mould, shape, forge, bring into existence.
            So your para 1 is wrong. It was when you first posted it.
            It still is.

            re Evo
            All of the major physical structures of life came into existence in what in geological terms is ‘sudden’
            To believe that this happened by any explanation offered by Natural Selection aka Dorkonionists (ie influenced by Dawkins) is preposterous.

            The errors arise because of the belief that sooner or later reductive science will be capable of explaining everything and what is worse anything outside the domain of science is suspect.
            Zillions of pounds are being wasted on projects the major consequence of which will be to request even more zillions to answer questions raised.

          • right1_left1

            Further comment on paragraph 1
            I bet you believe Evo. by Natural Selection is true.

            At root you will reason as follows
            If Natural Selection is true then higher species will exist
            Higher species do exist
            Therefore Evo. by NS must be true

            Erroneous extrapolation as described in my other response.
            Better known as the conclusion does not follow from the premise.

          • jim_joystique

            I don’t believe evolution by natural selection is true because I exist, no. I believe it because of (1) the geological record, (2) the fossil record, (3) statistical patterns in mitochondrial DNA, (4) statistical patterns in ordinary DNA, (5) physiological similarities between species that also correlate with divergences in their DNA, (6) the existence of ring species, (7) how many do you want?

      • hobspawn

         “This argument, “science hasn’t answered every question therefore science hasn’t answered any question” is quite spurious.”

        Nobody has put forward that argument.

  • Torybushhug

    It all took a wrong turn when Maxwell, Faraday and the real observational scientists were usurped by acrobatic theoretical mathematics of Einstein.
    Much of the standard model, based around gravity is nonsense upon nonsense.
    94% of the Universe is said to be made of dark stuff no one can see or detect. Inflation is based on very flimsy assumption and exotic math. Red shift’s discoverer had grave doubts of it’s validity and so much nonsense science has flowed from red shift.
    We couldn’t find a downed airliner in the India Ocean and yet the theoretical mob talk as if they were present 13.7bn years ago, taking notes.
    Prior to Einstein we were on the cusp of discovering the importance of the real forces that run the Universe, electricity and plasma.
    As ever the scientific establishment is always blind to the new.

    • jim_joystique

      The standard model is based on and confirmed by experiment to an extremely high precision. There is something wrong with it, yes. Physicists think space-time has to go but at the moment they don’t know what to replace it with (there are hints in geometrical structures such as the Amplituhedron). If the “electric universe” theory solved any current problem don’t you think physicists would be using it? I mean a Nobel Prize is not to be sniffed at.

      Good grief. Do some reading.

  • hedgemagnet

    “Familiarity with Latin, combined with a wilful ignorance of science, is a mark of social status in Italy.” The same is true of Britain if you replace Latin with classical literature in general. Every scientist or engineer I’ve known has had an interest in at least one aspect of the the arts or philosophy, some with a very in-depth understanding. Conversely, I’m genuinely surprised when I encounter somebody from an arts background who possesses even a rudimentary grasp of scientific basics.

  • anna

    I’m an arts graduate who failed O level science largely, I think now, because science was so appallingly badly taught at my otherwise excellent girls’ school – carttoads went on to read greats at Oxford but few read science. It is only since I married a scientist that I have discovered how inherently interesting science is – but also how hard it is. I am currently reading Rovelli’s book which is a delight. It is beautifully produced and poetically written. The translators too deserve congratulations for the elegance and lucidity of the English version.

    • SciPi

      Your comment implies that all scientists had excellent teachers and these scientists had no drive to learn and excell at their subjects. Blame the teachers for your failure to make an effort and not choosing science subjects because they are too hard.

      • anna

        Science is hard, as you say, and even if I had had brilliant teachers I’d never have made the grade as a scientist, however hard I worked so I don’t blame my teachers for that. I’m sorry, though, that no effort was made to show how interesting science can be so that one was encouraged to take an intelligent lay person’s interest in the world of science after leaving school. My main memory of science lessons was bewilderment despite trying hard and the total lack of interest from my teachers in addressing my difficulties. I do blame them for that.

        And one wonders why all those clever classicists never felt tempted to read science. It certainly wasn’t lack of ability or application on their part. They all passed their exams brilliantly but few were excited enough by it to choose to take science further. As a teacher myself, (now retired) I always took seriously the responsibility of trying to kindle enthusiasm even if a pupil’s ability was less than glowing, and to find ways of increasing their enjoyment of the subject. Rovelli has totally understood this need to engage the non-scientist. It his his enthusiasm and wonder that communicates itself so beautifully and so poetically in his book.

        I accept your sour little put-down about my juvenile failure, but can’t you rejoice a little that after my earlier confusions I am belatedly trying to catch up?

        • RobertRetyred

          Governments rarely include Scientists in their midst, they only employ them, and then they don’t listen to them when they are not agreeing to the political agenda.
          The best subjects for ministers to have studied are Classics, History, Law, Marketing, PPE and Archeology as then, they know little about Business, Financial Markets, Industry, Energy policy, the Armed Forces, STEM subjects and what the man and woman in the street wants.

          • rick hamilton

            Indeed the current Cabinet has no science graduates other than one with Geography. One studied Agriculture which is at least practical. All the others studied subjects which are more or less a matter of opinion, and I include Economics in that. Not an engineer of any kind in sight.

            No wonder energy policy is worse than a joke, no wonder they are taken in by the climate change hysteria and no wonder the UK is miles behind in technology, going cap in hand to the Chinese for nuclear power. We had a world first at Calder Hall in 1956 but none of them knows or cares about that.

            Still world class at rhetoric, debate and pontificating on what others should do, of course.

        • hobspawn

          I did science up to degree level, and if you think science was badly taught at school (it is), university is in another league. Many science lecturers resent having to waste their time trying to teach dumb undergraduates. Some of my lecturers would not even say “good morning” before turning to the blackboard and scribbling out eight A4 sides of algebra, then looking at a watch, and walking out. I am not exaggerating.

          I think that even those who show little aptitude at maths and science are worth teaching, because the subjects are so important. Far too much effort is wasted on the arts, and arts education, for so little gain. Before I’m accused of bias, I did English Literature, Sculpture, Maths and Physics for A-level, and English Literature was my favourite subject. I would make a pass at maths A-level compulsory.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    When considering purchase of a book on physics, particularly astrophysics, first check the publishing date, then the measurement units used. If Imperial (USCS) units are used, reject it out of hand.

    • Sausage McGuffin

      Not sure imperial units are big in Italy.

      • Jackthesmilingblack

        Publishers produce different versions for different markets.

    • EUSSR 4 All!

      I don’t know why an unemployed British expat in Japan who used to work in banks in the Far East such as yourself have so much to say about physics!

      • Jackthesmilingblack

        Keep in mind that this is the lunatic who for some 12 years, in literally hundreds of posts, insisted I was Japanese. An unbroken track record of being wrong.
        Jack, Billington, Outer Mongolia

        • EUSSR 4 All!

          When is your next dose of Olanzapine due?!

    • hobspawn

      In physics one should be allowed to use whatever units she chooses. Horse-power weeksend per furlong if it helps. It’s lucky that physicists like Hertz, Newton, Pascal, Joule, Watt, Coulomb, Volta, Farad(ay), Ohm, Siemens, Weber, Tesla, Henry, Becquerel, Gray and Sievert didn’t feel bound by your silly stricture.

      • Jackthesmilingblack

        Isn’t “Luddite” the expression I’m reaching for?

  • Shatterface

    Scientists such as Richard Dawkins who pretend to atheist omniscience are, he says, no less intolerant or prejudiced

    And that’s when I stopped taking you seriously.

    I’m sure your pamphlet will sell well among humanities graduates too lazy to read anything over 100 pages long but sill stick with Brian Green, thanks all the same.

    • dep

      Nothing like a good bit of arrogance, hey?

    • Sausage McGuffin

      You don’t agree then that Dawkins – while he started well – is now a bit of a joke?

    • A Theologian

      Dawkins gave up serious biology when he failed to define species in his otherwise excellent first book The Extended Phenotype which is his real scientific innovation i.e. that the beaver’s dam and the bird’s nest are both phenotypes of the beaver’s and bird’s genotypes. The phenotype in other words extends beyond the obvious envelope of the animal’s body into the world of space and time.

      • jim_joystique

        I think he defines species almost every time he speaks or writes anything down.

  • A Theologian

    The way I look at it is if you imagine a square with coordinates (0,0), (1,1), (0,1) and (1,0) and 0 = time and 1 = space then at the corners

    0,0 = pure Heraclitean time, chaos, pure becoming
    1,1 = pure Parmidean space, cosmos, pure being
    0,1 = the quantum world of three dimensional time plus one dimensional space
    1,0 = the relativistic world of three dimensional space plus one dimensional time

    and the square contains all possible theories of physics where slow rotation suggests the illusion of permanence.

    Gravity was just Newton’s term for the occult action at a distance which is the first moved by the unmoved, unmoving first mover. To move is to exist i.e. nothing that exists (other than the first mover) is not moving, which was first discovered in Brownian motion. Einstein simply replaces Newton’s absolute space and time (i.e. 0,0 and 1,1) for another absolute, c = the velocity of light which is just an absolute form of motion: light from light, God from God as they say in the carol.

    • Torybushhug

      We took a fatal wrong turn with Einstein, replacing proper test bench ‘real ‘science with acrobatic math. So often the case that a mathematical template is only a hint at reality.
      Dark matter, never seen and yet supposedly makes up 94% of the Universe, a prime example of math requiring a gap to be plugged, and coming up with layer upon layer of nonsense.

      Faraday and Maxwell were exploring the true fundaments underpinning the Universe, electricity, magnetism and plasma.

      Electric Universe theory makes much more sense than cosmological math and gravity theory. EU does not break down into infinity in the way General Relativity does.
      Re-discover electricity, magnetism and plasma, far more potent powerful forces than weak gravity.

      • Observer1951

        There’s loads of experimental support for both Special and General Relativity! We know from galactic stellar rotational velocities that there is missing mass, don’t you know this? The Electric Universe is nonsense eg EU predicted that comets contain no water ice but are seared rocks caused by electrical discharges. Would you care to remind us what recent lander and orbiter found yep plenty of water ice and organics.

      • jim_joystique

        Funny. Does Electric Universe theory explain or even make a prediction that atomic clocks in orbit around the Earth will tick more slowly than clocks on the surface of the Earth? Oh dear. I guess that means your Electric Universe Theory GPS doesn’t work, then.

        Failed theories need to be thrown away. That means you, Torybushhug, need to throw away your ancient books promoting the theory and buy some new ones.

  • Terence Hale

    „Physics“. Everything other is stamp collecting.

    • Hamburger

      So speaks a physicist, I have yet to meet one who understood how to live a life.

  • Digby Knight
  • Alison Houston

    Mr Flywheel will be pleased, whoever wouldathunk Rovelli would write a physics book.

  • IdPnSD

    Ayn Rand said – “Truth is not for all men, but only for those who seek it.” Only 1% knows the truth. Rest of us do not know that we do not know. There is no truth in the mainstream. Do not believe that math and science are telling you the truth, they are not. A very simple example – Newton’s first law – an object will continue in motion in a straight line with a constant velocity – have you ever seen such an object on earth or in space? No, never. But we are still teaching this subject in schools. Same is true for quantum mechanics and Einstein. Take a look at https://theoryofsouls.wordpress.com/ for many examples from math and physics. Science is all wrong.