Image Credit: NASA / ESA

A fabric that bends and ripples under the weight of the stars. A clock that runs slower perched high in the mountains. Objects that only exist when they’re being watched. Endless tiny particles, swarming restlessly in the void.

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These aren’t flashes from a peyote-induced fever dream. They’re glimpses of our universe, real but teeming with phantasmagorical madness. Worked out piece by piece, equation by equation, by hundreds of brilliant minds driven to understand not just the what, but the how of reality.

Few writers have dared to compress the knowledge of a century’s worth of physics into less than 80 pages. Even fewer have succeeded with a touch of Carlo Rovelli’s clarity and verve.

From the elegance of general relativity to the dizzying realities of the quantum world and the elusive nature of consciousness itself, Rovelli’s Seven Brief Lessons on Physics delivers a sweeping presentation of the great ideas and discoveries of 20th century physics, aimed at readers with no scientific background whatsoever. It’s a joy to read.

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You can find numerous reviews signing this book’s praises—it came out in Europe last fall, and hit stores in the US last week—so I’ll wrap this one with a quick story.

On a chilly Friday night several weeks ago, I read Seven Brief Lessons on Physics aloud to my boyfriend. It took about an hour. He was building a bookcase (Ikea, I think) and we were sipping a dark roast coffee.

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By the end of the hour, several things had happened. For one, the bookcase was complete, but not in the way we expected: It had evolved into a physical representation of infinite quantum particles fluctuating between existence and non-existence. Strangely, I felt a little better about the fact that it would inevitably buckle and bust under the weight of possessions too heavy for its cheap plastic supports. Second: The chill in my apartment was no longer a nuisance, but rather, a visceral manifestation of atoms and molecules dancing alone in an vastly expansive ballroom. Had an hour really passed? It was hard to say—time had been demoted to a placebo effect, no more or less powerful than the illusion of a single cup of coffee sparking my caffeine-addled mind.

Seven Brief Lessons on Physics is far from comprehensive. But it’s a beautiful introduction to some amazing ideas—and for me, at least, the universe has been a little stranger and more fascinating ever since.


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