5 December, 2022

LitStack Recs: Thunderstruck & Other Stories & Seven Brief Lessons on Physics

Seven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo Rovelli7

In school, I did pretty well in the applied sciences… except for physics.  (Senior year, my counselor actually encouraged me to drop physics, as it was dragging down my GPA.)  I still appreciate physics, but whenever my husband starts to talk about quantum mechanics or string theory, I tend to shut down.  “You don’t say?”  “Really!”  “That’s nice, dear…”

And that’s too bad, because I really am interested in a lot of the topics that have physics as a fundamental:  space, time, dimension, technology.  So I do try to understand when the talk turns a bit deeper than I’m comfortable with – but I’m also not ashamed to simply shake my head and marvel at the wonders of the universe.

If you can relate, do I ever have the book for you.

Carlo Rovelli is an Italian theoretical physicist and writer, working mainly in the field of quantum gravity (he is among the founders of the loop quantum gravity theory).  In 2015 he published a slim book (only 81 pages!) entitled Seven Brief Lessons on Physics; each chapter is an expansion of one of the articles he had written for an Italian newspaper.

I know better – they were written for me.  They had to be.  Okay, okay, so Dr. Rovelli states that the lessons were written “for those who know little or nothing about modern science.”  (I take a bit of exception to that – some basic knowledge of mainstays such as Einstein’s theories and the concept of Newtonian physics is pretty necessary, but most of us can conjure up at least that much.)  Still, I felt that they were written for me because they were complex enough for me to know that I wasn’t being pandered to, yet not simple enough to be subtitled “Physics for Dummies.”

The lessons encompass:  Einstein’s theory of general relativity, quantum mechanics, the cosmos, elementary particles, quantum gravity, probability and the heat of black holes, and our existence in “light of the strange world described by physics.”  Each subject is approached in a respectfully relaxed conversational manner, straightforward in some places, waxing poetic in others, but never lacking in respect for the material or the reader.  And they were fascinating.

I read this book in the space of one morning (81 small pages!), sitting on my porch, sipping coffee.  I will admit that I had to backtrack a few times, and really think about some passages, unsure if I was understanding what was being related (most times I did, occasionally I didn’t), but there were just as many times that I thrilled at what I was being shown, and more than once I marveled at what I was reading.  Once, I even declared “Yes!” and pumped my fist in the air (when I read about “the big bounce” theory that goes along with “the big bang” theory) – yes, I did.

You should, too.  Seriously, if this sort of thing – science – interests you at all, check out this little book.  Even if you feel confident in your knowledge and understanding of physics, you’ll appreciate the enthusiasm Dr. Rovelli has for the subject, and the reverence he holds for those whose scholarship have brought us to the understanding we have today.  It’s a glorious little book, and even if you don’t understand every word, I believe you will still learn a lot – maybe not in the nuts and bolts of the field, but certainly in the ideas and the joy behind it.

–Sharon Browning


  • Lauren Alwan

    Lauren Alwan’s fiction has appeared in the O. Henry Prize Stories, the Southern Review, the Alaska Quarterly Review, StoryQuarterly, in the Bellevue Literary Review. She is the recipient of a First Pages Prize, the Goldenberg Prize for Fiction, and.a citation of Notable in Best American Essays. Her essays have appeared in ZYZZYVA, Catapult, World Literature Today, The Rumpus, The Millions, Writer's Digest, and others. She is a prose editor at the museum of americana, an online literary review. Follow her on Twitter at @lauren_alwan and learn more at www.laurenalwan.com