Hello darkness, my old friend | Thoughts on SEVEN BRIEF LESSONS ON PHYSICS by Carlo Rovelli


seven brief lessons cover 2

Author: Carlo Rovelli

Publisher: Penguin

Publication Date: 2014

Length: 79 pages

Format I read: Paperback

Rating: 4 stars


Everything you need to know about the beauty of modern physics in less than 100 pages.

In seven brief lessons, Italian theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli guides readers with admirable clarity through the most transformative physics breakthroughs of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. This playful, entertaining and mind-bending introduction to modern physics, already a major bestseller in Italy, explains general relativity, quantum mechanics, elementary particles, gravity, black holes, the complex architecture of the universe, and the role of humans in the strange world Rovelli describes. This is a book about the joy of discovery. It takes readers 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.


In those moments of life when the grim figures of anxiety, stress, or panic grip me tight and threaten to never let go, I have learned that the one thing sure to scare them off is a nice little face-off with the end of the universe.

That’s my super casual way of saying I’ve been having a bit of a hard time with anxiety recently. Anxiety is a fucker because it messes with my ability to concentrate which is something very necessary for actually reading and enjoying books rather than continually picking them up and putting them down and wandering around the house worrying about the fact that you haven’t read any damn books to talk about on your book-related social media and feeling like you should be doing something productive instead but not actually being able to do it and then worrying about that as well. BASTARD.

But back to the subject at hand: science books!

When none of my fictional favourites can hold my attention I find that often a little non-fiction does the job. And so on my latest foray to the book shops I spotted SEVEN BRIEF LESSONS ON PHYSICS by Carlo Rovelli and snapped it up. It’s such a wee little thing and yet so intriguing with its evocative title that it seemed perfect. 78 pages of basic science, what could possibly be more innocuous. Little did I know.

The tiny size of SEVEN BRIEF LESSONS ON PHYSICS belies the size of the utter mind-fuck that is held within.

Allow me to explain. It starts amicably enough:

“These lessons were written for those who know little or nothing about modern science.”

That’s me, right there. Little to nothing; me and Jon Snow are with you. The principle of the book is to give a tiny “overview” of the revolutions in the understanding of physics that have happened in the past century or so. It begins with lesson one – Einstein that fluffy haired moppet, who changed the world by suggesting that space isn’t, well, space. It’s not an empty area populated by waves and forces and things – it literally IS those forces. There was some visualising of rubber sheets which left me a little cross-eyed but essentially getting the gist of it. But then Rovelli happily hopped onwards to lesson two where he calmly announced that quantum mechanics means that reality only sometimes exists.


By lesson five time itself had gone out the window and the entirety of the universe followed shortly thereafter. Physics, it seems, does not fuck around. But it was the seventh chapter that really leaves you staring into the void.

Rovelli uses this final lesson to grapple with the relevance of physics to our lives. Or, more accurately, of the relevance of our lives in the vast and uncaring strangeness of the cosmos. With the same sparse simplicity of words that he used to set out the mind-bending reality that is revealed by physics, he touches on the concepts of thought, learning, philosophy, ethics, and, of course, of death. Like many of the books where science meets philosophy, the wording gets close to religious in its solemn beauty.

We are born and die as the stars are born and die, both individually and collectively. This is our reality….

That’s dark stuff, man. COLD. But actually I found myself weirdly comforted. Rovelli takes pains to explain that however dark and weird the universe may seem, we are not alien to it, but part of it. We are at home in its weird unreality. It’s quite a moment when you can look into the void and the only thing that comes to mind is that old song by Simon and Garfunkel…

Can’t see the video? Watch it on YouTube. 

It reminded me of THE GOOD BOOK, that strange and lovely conglomeration of scientific ideas, literature and philosophy compiled and presented by A.C. Grayling as a secular bible. Like a religious person seeking succour in a religious text I find my calm in the place where science meets philosophy.

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.

The concepts set out in this book are mind-bendingly weird. I’m not sure I really comprehended the full meaning of it all (which is probably the point, temptations to learn more and all that) but it was completely and utterly engaging. My only criticism was, really, its brevity. For some of the more complex concepts just a little more time spent trying to give me a better mental grasp of these slippery thoughts would have been perfect. A page, maybe two. No more.

The writing style is excellent – elegant, flowing, and measured. And a translated text I can only suppose that this is a sign of both an excellent author and some damn fine translators. It balances the need for simple explanations of complex ideas with evocative, beautiful prose – it’s a science book written for readers, not scientists after all.

It’s worth reading for the madness of the physics alone but for my anxious brain it was the strange, warm bath in the restaurant at the end of the universe that it needed. And for that,  Carlo Rovelli, I thank you.

Buy it here: SEVEN BRIEF LESSONS ON PHYSICS by Carlo Rovelli 


Review – The Just City by Jo Walton

Just City coverAuthor: Jo Walton

Publisher: Tor Books

Publication Date: 13 January 2015

Length: Novel (368 pages)

Format I read: eBook

Disclaimer: I received this book for free from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

The Just City was created as an experiment by the goddess Pallas Athene to see if Plato’s thought experiment, as set out in The Republic, could work in real life. How would the idealistic but strange rules he sets out work when they come up against imperfect humans? A few hundred adults, one thousand ten-year olds, a bunch of futuristic robot helpers, and two gods in human form. It’s the recipe for some fascinating times.

The story is told by three characters: Pytheas, who is secretly the god Apollo trapped in a child’s body and vulnerable to the emotions and imperfections of mortal life; Maia, formerly a Victorian lady trapped by her social position and now fighting to impose equality in the Just City, and Simmea, an intelligent child eager for knowledge who embraces the Platonic ideal and befriends Pytheas.

Then, a few years in, Sokrates arrives to ask all the troublesome questions that both Plato and Athene would really rather you just wouldn’t.

Jo Walton is one of those writers that you can happily recommend to people who love SFF and people who think they don’t. Her novels are always something different (she’s a  genre blurring genius) , something special and something that will leave you with a lot of thinking to do.

If you’ve ever read any of Jostein Gaarder’s philosophical novels (The Solitaire Mystery, The Christmas Mystery, Sophie’s World) then this book will feel somewhat familiar. Obviously the gods and their divine intervention put this in the fantasy field but the real meat of the novel is in the philosophical exploration. It pulls apart Plato’s ideas and examines the problems within it – How would you correct for people’s preexisting ideas? How would the proportions of children to adults work? How do you deal with the necessity of work? How do you populate the city? It’s full of intriguing questions and also explores, through the actions of the characters, things like equality of work, slavery, misogyny, rape, political power, and the importance of individual agency versus the importance of the state. That’s some big things to cope with.

But it does so well. Jo Walton has this effortless-seeming light touch to her writing. You’re just swept along, happily enjoying the story before suddenly realising that you’ve learned significant amounts about philosophy, engaged in socratic dialogues about the ethical basis for society, and had a thoroughly good time doing it. Her characters are, as ever, wonderful: witty, intriguing, flawed and wonderful. And I loved being able to see how the society both helped and held back our three protagonists with their very different viewpoints. And the robots. You’re going to love the robots.

All I can say is that I’m glad there’s more to come. The adventure continues with THE PHILOSOPHER KINGS in July 2015 and NECESSITY soon after that.

Rating: 4 .5 out of 5 stars