Book Review: “Reality Is Not What It Seems”, By Carlo Rovelli

Reality Is Not What It Seems is physicist Carlo Rovelli’s guide to quantum physics – particularly quantum gravity.

The Author

Carlo Rovelli is a theoretical physicist with numerous contributions to quantum physics. He is a founder of the loop quantum gravity theory, which is covered in the second part of this book.

Rovelli rose to fame outside of scientific circles on the back of the bestselling Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, which he actually wrote after this book. The popularity of that work led him to create a translation of Reality Is Not What It Seems from the original Italian. This is the more substantial work of the two.

The Book

Reality Is Not What It Seems is written for anyone with even the slightest interest in physics. It is not particularly challenging, and relegates most math to footnotes. You can come in with no knowledge about physics whatsoever and find tremendous value, but the book still serves those familiar with physics.

Structure

Rovelli guides us through “the journey to quantum gravity”, which is the book’s subtitle. And it is quite a journey. From 450 BC in Miletus, Greece, to the Large Hadron Collider in 2017, to the future of quantum physics, Rovelli provides a guided tour of the major achievements in physics as a field.

Many popular science books include history as filler, but this is not the case here. A thread is woven throughout, carrying the ideas of Democritus and Socrates all the way through to modern quantum physics. The ideas of early physics are referenced throughout, with constant testing. In some cases, ancient Greeks appear to have had a better understanding than modern scientists, until recently. The history is integral to Rovelli’s narrative, and worth reading even if you’re familiar with the ideas discussed.

Reality Is Not What It Seems is a two-part work. The first covers what we know so far; a summary and exploration of the history and conclusions of physics as a field. The second is what we don’t know; a speculative exploration of Rovelli’s own loop quantum gravity theory, problems in physics yet to be solved, and ideas as to where physics may be headed as a discipline.

Content

I have an interest in physics but have not studied it at any advanced level. I was familiar with some, but not all, of the concepts covered here. This is as good a summary of “what we know” in a scientific field as you are likely to find.

Rovelli makes the complex ideas of quantum mechanics and general relativity almost poetic in their simplicity. I had read about spacetime, general and special relativity, etc. before; but I’d never quite grasped them in the way this book makes so easy to do. You will have at least a couple moments reading this where you have to put the book down and sit in awe for a bit. I mean that.

Reality Is Not What It Seems covers a number of physics theories in beautifully elegant language:

  • Quantum Mechanics
    • Granularity
    • Indeterminacy
    • Relationality
  • General & Special Relativity
  • Particle Physics
  • Spacetime, Energy, Electromagnetics

among many others. This is the rare book where you’ll get a chapter title like “Time Does Not Exist” and not even think of rolling your eyes.

After establishing our current understanding, Rovelli moves on to where the future lies. His treatment of the loop quantum gravity theory is captivating, and especially valuable considering his work in developing that same theory.

The book’s final section covers a few speculative theories – on the Big Bang, black holes, informational networks, and thermal time. Rovelli wraps up with a short ode to science and its capacity to shine light on the dark parts of reality.

A couple things were missing from this book, by my understanding, including quarks (not covered) and string theory (barely mentioned). It’s worth noting that string theory is a competitor to the loop quantum gravity theory – if you’re interested in that, you’ll find plenty here to stimulate further reading.

The Verdict

I absolutely, completely, recommend this book with no reservations. It is probably the best popular science book I’ve ever read. You will rarely find science covered in such an elegant way. That Rovelli accomplished this with quantum physics of all things is quite an achievement.

In Reality Is Not What It Seems, the author’s love for the subject matter drips from every page. Rovelli loves physics, and it shows. His passion is infectious, while the content itself will blow your mind – and likely more than once. Buy this book, read it, and keep it on the shelf – you’ll probably end up coming back a couple times.


Read the book? Drop me a note below the line. And if you like thinking about the nature of reality, join me on Twitter, where I also post daily.

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