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The non-expert’s guide to modern physics

Seven Brief Lessons on Physics

Carlo Rovelli
Riverhead
2016
96 pp.
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Age Range: Young Adult

Grade Level: 9 – 12

To the average person, physics is likely either a subject struggled through in school or an abstract set of theories behind mind-blowing hypotheses about the universe. Carlo Rovelli’s short book is designed to help the novice understand not just the basics of the primary physical theories but their elegance as well.

Beginning with special relativity (“[t]he most beautiful of theories”), he presents seven theories that most contribute to our current understanding of physics and the universe. Throughout each lesson, he weaves a substantial amount of history regarding the development of each theory, focusing heavily on the people behind them. For example, in chapter three, Rovelli describes how Albert Einstein and Max Planck formulated
early ideas related to the theory of quantum mechanics, which Niels Bohr later built on. In chapter four, simple images help to describe how our understanding of our relative place in space and time has changed from ideas put forward by early philosophers like Pythagoras.

In the last lesson, “Ourselves,” he succinctly and compellingly describes the human condition and our relationship to the immense universe. The idea that we are but blips in the immensity of space and time may cause some to feel overwhelmed, but it has always left me feeling better about our place and our effect on our own world. Rovelli’s last chapter captures this feeling elegantly and leaves the reader having learned not only a little bit about the mysteries of the universe but about his or her place in it, too.