Book Review 2 – Reality is Not What it Seems by Carlo Rovelli

Welcome back everyone and thank you for following me into week two of my 52 book quest. Another week over, another book read and another tweet sent – this time to that genius of a man Carlo Rovelli.

You may be wondering what brought me to this book. The truth is (and this is just between you and me so don’t go spreading it about) I am a bit of a closet science nerd. All those programmes about space and black holes, far away galaxies and the search for extra terrestrial life; I’m always hooked. So Reality is Not What it Seems was always going to be right up my street. I originally discovered this little scientific gem through a Guardian Books podcast and it immediately spoke to that latent science nerd that dwells within me. I knew then that it was my kind of book.

However between buying the book and reading it I set myself this 52 book challenge, and as I mentioned in the last post I was concerned about having to get through the book in a week. It turns out I needn’t have worried. Rovelli actually wrote Reality is Not What it Seems, specifically for me.

‘I’ve written with a particular reader in mind. Someone who knows little or nothing about today’s physics but is curious to find out…’

He might as well have followed this up with, ‘Yes, you, Rekha Shane from 52 Good Books. I wrote it for you.’ That’s not to say there wasn’t a certain amount of head scratching and Googling going on whilst I read. There were concepts that I kept chewing over and only coming away with a hazy understanding of, like a dream that I was sure I could recall that persistently eluded my grasp; but these moments were interspersed with flashes of enlightenment. I remember being sat on the Southern rail service to London Victoria (rarely a delightful experience) and suddenly grasping the efficiency of electromagnetic fields. I think I must have been the happiest passenger in Southern rail history.

Rovelli’s t-shirt suggestion

Essentially this book brings physics to the masses. Rovelli is keen to show how cool science is. I’m inclined to agree, science is way cool. The universe we live in is fascinating. How could we not want to find out everything there is to know about it? Mind you, I figured he may be going a bit far with his suggestion of putting the loop quantum gravity equation on a t-shirt, but then I’m not a scientist. Keen to find out if there were people out there wearing t-shirts like this, I asked my brother-in-law, who is a genuine, bona-fide astro-physicist, whether he owned such a piece of clothing. Disappointingly he didn’t, but he did say he once met someone with a tattoo of Schrodinger’s equation on their back. I have no idea what Schrodinger’s equation is, but the fact that someone thought it was brilliant enough to permanently ink onto their back is simply awesome. See, science is cool! Anyhow, let’s get back to the book.

There are two parts to Reality is Not What it Seems. The first part is about the history of physics and established scientific principles. Rovelli makes a clear demarcation between this and the second part of the book where he moves into much more speculative territory. Now I wouldn’t usually do spoilers (the electron did it!) but I’m not sure I’m going to make any sense anyway (let’s just say that Rovelli is better at this than me) so let me try and sum up the major thesis of the second part of the book. Space is apparently made up of a kind of space atom which are not actually in space but themselves are what space is constituted of. This struck me as a bit “Emperor’s new clothes,” but stick with me because things are about to get weirder still.

Rovelli goes on to say that both space and time disappear at this level, which sounds a tad spooky, but from what I understand is just a scientists way of saying, don’t use space or time in the equation. Not putting space and time into a physics equation however appears to be tantamount to social suicide in physicist circles. It’s one sure fire way to make certain you’re talked about around the physicist water cooler. But then you know what they say; the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about. Rovelli is blasé. He reminds us that if we didn’t challenge populist thinking we would still think the world was flat and resting on a tortoise’s back.

Let those sticklers ride their tortoise. The rest of us can hitch a lift to reality instead. It really is, not what it seems.

Thank you for coming back to my blog. Swing by next Monday to read my review of Tin Man by Sarah Winman.

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