The Road to Reality: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe, by Roger Penrose

Truth is no Apollo
Belvedere, no formal thing. The wave may go over it if it likes.
Know that it will be there when it says,
“I shall be there when the wave has gone by.”
–Marianne Moore, “In the Days of Prismatic Color”

Did you ever think about sitting in on graduate level mathematics and physics lectures at Oxford, letting the formulas flit by, and hoping that something would sink in? If so, then this is your book.

Penrose’s aim is to show the mathematical and physical basis for all of reality. If you’re not already halfway to your own Nobel prize, he says, it’s OK, just skim the math. This works in some spots, but at over 1000 pages, there are numerous stretches that are just incomprehensible to a lay reader.

The author spends a certain amount of time arguing with his fellow mathematicians and theoretical physicists. Unlike others, Penrose is not convinced that mathematical concepts must have application in the real world. (He shows that this was the belief of the Pythagoreans, and many contemporary mathematicians also want it to be true.) Complex numbers, for example (using the square root of -1, or i) actually have real-world applications. Other elegant theories, however, such as string theory, have never been shown to have any existence outside of the lecture hall (or Mathematica v. 1000).

An interesting point that the lay reader can appreciate is the nature of entropy as applied to gravity. Penrose illustrates that although for a gas, entropy increases as the molecules become more dispersed, gravitating bodies increase their entropy as they clump together, ultimately forming a black hole. So, then, since the Big Bang assumes that the origin of all matter and energy that we now see was once compressed in a singularity of maximum gravitational entropy, what would cause it to explode and create the universe? He asks the question, but doesn’t attempt to answer it.

Spaceman Klaatu solving the Professor's problem in The Day the Earth Stood Still

Spaceman Klaatu (Michael Rennie) solving the Professor’s problem in The Day the Earth Stood Still



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