As a culture, we have a tendency to separate science and language. We celebrate the value of a liberal arts education, and yet we funnel students into distinct math/science courses and English/arts courses, rarely bothering to combine the two disciplines. As a result, each individual tends to consider himself either a “numbers” person or a “words” person.
I’m not immune to this phenomenon. In high school, I enjoyed all of my classes equally, but when I came to college and declared a creative writing major, I suddenly saw myself as only an English guy. Literature courses and writing workshops dominated my schedule, and I forgot how much chemistry and physics used to excite me.
Which is partly why I was so exhilarated by “Seven Brief Lessons on Physics,” a book of essays on physics by Carlo Rovelli. An Italian theoretical physicist who was one of the founders of the loop quantum gravity theory, Rovelli is ostensibly a “numbers” guy, someone who has no business excelling as a writer.
But I’ll be damned if Rovelli’s prose hasn’t reignited my love for science.
The book consists of seven essays, each of which describes a scientific theory, such as general relativity or quantum mechanics. But don’t be turned away by the fancy terminology; Rovelli writes in a way that makes these advanced theories accessible to anyone.
I don’t mean to say this is some sort of beginner-level textbook written in laymen’s terms. Rovelli’s writing isn’t in plain English; it’s in gorgeous English. Rovelli is awestruck by these theories, the ways in which they allow us to view the world and the doors they open into the cosmos. He describes Einstein’s general theory of relativity as a masterpiece, akin to that of Mozart or Homer. He wants all of humanity to join him in his admiration, to enjoy the beauty that these theories offer.
Just look at the way in which he conveys the implications of quantum mechanics, which, among other things, suggests that the universe is made up entirely of minute, swarming particles:
“The world is a continuous, restless swarming of things, a continuous coming to light and disappearance of ephemeral entities. A set of vibrations, as in the switched-on hippie world of the 1960s. A world of happenings, not of things.”
The book is brief, comprising only 96 pages, and yet those pages are all dripping with curiosity and wonder.
The rigors of a college course load can be demoralizing. Students drowning in papers and assignments might have a tendency to forget what brought them to school in the first place. Rovelli’s essays read like refreshing bursts of scholastic clarity, invoking fascination for what we know and what we have yet to understand. His pure and genuine awe acts as a reminder of humanity’s love for the pursuit of knowledge.
It is this universal pursuit that Rovelli seems to be most passionate about. He often embarks on tangents about the discoveries of these theories, describing the debates between Einstein and Neils Bohr regarding quantum mechanics, and noting the pattern of physicists to use the phrase, “I think” in their articles (“Genius hesitates,” he notes).
He understands that while he offers the basics of these theories, not everyone will be able to fully grasp their complexity after reading a book the size of a video game manual. His main aim, rather, is to remind us of the importance of learning and discovery
“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,” he writes. “Every time we glimpse a new aspect of it, it is a deeply emotional experience. Another veil has fallen.”
And all of his readers, whether “words” people or “numbers” people, will undoubtedly be left eagerly waiting for another major discovery, another fallen veil.