The email came from Amazon last week. They are almost a daily occurrence, sometimes more than one per day: “new recommendations for you based on items you purchased or told us you own.” This list included a short book by Carlo Rovelli, an Italian theoretical physicist, titled: Seven Brief Lessons on Physics. A quick check indicated that the seven essays covered general relativity, quantum mechanics, cosmology, particle physics, loop quantum gravity, black holes and human beings. While I recognize all the topics–although I must confess that loop quantum gravity is one I was familiar with only because it was referenced several times on The Big Bang Theory, a popular TV sitcom–quantum mechanics was the only one of these topics I studied in my PhD program in solid state physics. And I completed that forty five years ago. My career quickly deviated from physics, and I made no real effort over the years to keep up with developments in the science. Until relatively recently, when articles on quantum mechanics, black holes, relativity, cosmology, the Higgs Boson and related stories started appearing in the popular press and online more frequently. I became intrigued, and it appeared this short book would provide a quick boost in that direction.
Bottom line: I was sorely disappointed. Not because the author didn’t go a good job making the topics accessible; he did. Not because he isn’t knowledgable; he very clearly is an expert in the field. Not because the topics aren’t interesting; the author does a good job of conveying the incredible inventiveness, excitement, conflict and logical consistency that defines modern physics. My disappointment is that the book makes me wonder whether physics is still dealing with reality, whether it is addressing the questions about our world that we really need to understand, whether in catching up I would be learning something useful and important, or just wallowing in fantasy.
Now I have to concede that it would be pretty arrogant of me to think that based on a couple hours of reading I can understand enough to judge the work that literally thousands of very bright people have devoted their careers to over the past fifty years. So I want to reserve judgment and to continue to try to better understand the experiments and their interpretations. But I am also somewhat emboldened in knowing that I am not alone in raising questions. I have read recently books and articles by card carrying physicists who aren’t as tentative in their condemnation. So I want to return to aspects of this topic in future posts to expose my thinking, to get feedback, and to maybe advance all our learning. And in some sense, it really isn’t even about physics. It has more to do with what do we need to feel confident that we really understand something? When should we concede the “experts” know what they are doing and we should just accept their “truth”? I think these are the real issues we are dealing with when we talk about learning in physics or really any other topic in life.