Book Reviews - Summer 2021

Physics for the Feeble-Minded

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A crash course on our boundlessly bizarre universe

By Jethro K. Lieberman | June 1, 2021
Cezary Borysiuk (Flickr/cezaryborysiuk)
Cezary Borysiuk (Flickr/cezaryborysiuk)

Helgoland: Making Sense of the Quantum Revolution by Carlo Rovelli (Translated from the Italian by Erica Segre and Simon Carnell); Riverhead, 256 pp., $20

Carlo Rovelli’s newest book, Helgoland: Making Sense of the Quantum Revolution, is, the author writes, for readers “who are unfamiliar with quantum physics and are interested in trying to understand, as far as any of us can, what it is.” The field is not merely the stuff of academic esoterica, he assures us, but a realm of intense study about matter at its ultra-tiniest—and one that carries massive practical consequences. Not only Nobel Prizes but also financial fortunes can ride on quantum physicists’ findings, which propel technologies “from computers to nuclear power.” Indeed, as a body of knowledge, Rovelli writes, quantum theory “has never been wrong.” Sounds like something worth understanding, right?

Unfortunately, the only thing harder than doing quantum mechanics, it seems, is explaining it. Richard Feynman, the most celebrated American physicist of the second half of the 20th century, famously declared that no one understands it. Almost all who write about it, including Rovelli, begin by quoting Feynman—and then plunge recklessly ahead as if Feynman couldn’t really have meant what he said. Invariably, they end up past the end of the road, tumbling over the cliff. Initially, Rovelli seems to be driving in the same direction, but it turns out that he has his own itinerary. An internationally known Italian physicist and the author of several other unconventional books on physics, Rovelli is a guide worth following, even if he does wander off topic now and then. What could be more pleasurable than an evening or two in the company of an amiable chatterbox who likes to quote Shakespeare, reflect on the musings of contemporary philosophers, and express his amazement on encountering a two-millennia-old text of a Buddhist sage who anticipated Rovelli’s own theorizing?

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