Carlo Rovelli (2014)
A description of the weird world of quantum theory by someone who is both an expert in the field and a gifted communicator. It’s notoriously hard to explain quantum ideas, and Rovelli is wise and experienced enough not to try to make facile analogies that confuse rather than simplify.
The only reason for not giving the book five stars is that Rovelli occasionally can’t resist the temptation to throw in formulae, even though almost none of the readers will appreciate them (and I include myself in that). Even physicists would struggle unless they happened to be expert in exactly the right areas, and it weakens the presentation in my opinion – and is also completely unnecessary, given the lightness of his prose.
I think the place this book most shines, though, is the last chapter on the nature of scientific enquiry. It’s text that could stand alone:
Science is sometimes criticised for pretending to explain everything,
for thinking that it has an answer to every question. It’s a curious
accusation. As every researcher working in every laboratory throughout
the world knows, doing science means coming up hard against the limits
of your ignorance on a daily basis – the innumerable things that you
don’t know and can’t do. This is quite different from claiming to know
everything. We don’t know what particles we might see next year at
CERN, or what our next telescopes will reveal, or which equations
truly describe the world; we don’t know how to solve the equations we
have, and sometimes we don’t understand what they signify; we don’t
know if the beautiful theory on which we are working is right. We
don’t know what there is beyond the Big Bang; we don’t know how a
storm works, or a bacterium, or an eye – or the cells in our own
bodies, or our thought processes. A scientist is someone who lives
immersed in the awareness of our deep ignorance, in direct contact
with our own innumerable limits, with the limits of our understanding.
…and so on, and I’m very tempted to quote it at great length. It’s text that should be read by everyone and widely disseminated amongst those who mistrust or denigrate science and expertise.
Finished Wednesday 12 July, 2017.
(Originally published on Goodreads.)