Home > Blog Posts, Book Discussion > Book: “The Road to Reality” by Roger Penrose

Book: “The Road to Reality” by Roger Penrose

I just started The Road to Reality: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe by Roger Penrose (2004, Vintage Books). Read it? Interested in the subject matter? Let me know what you think!

I’ve only ever read short pieces by Penrose, before, or else excerpts from his stuff quoted in other peoples’ works. It seemed like a good move to begin with this approximately 1050 page leviathan before diving into his other books for the simple reason that The Road to Reality is sometimes considered to be Penrose’s magnum opus.

The first 16 chapters, according to Penrose’s brutally honest preface, are devoted to the ideas of modern mathematics, and the entire book is peppered with mathematical exercises to help the reader to understand what mathematicians and physicists think about a lot of the important and profound ideas of cutting-edge science. It is also, he says, his humble attempt at demonstrating the beauty of maths to a population largely terrified of the subject. I welcome this sort of approach from a popular science book for the same reason I appreciated Brian Greene’s inclusion of maths in the endnotes of his books: I’m one of those people who was brutalized by mathematics early in life, but instead of resenting maths I have chosen instead to resent the presentation of it which I suffered. As a rationalist-at-heart, I know that maths are vital to understanding the reality with which we are presented daily; as something of a Platonist (a self-identification I share with Sir Roger Penrose), I also understand that mathematics have a beauty, even a poetry, all their own, and an independent self-existence, which all speak to the very nature of the cosmos more directly than most certainly any other language. So, I relish the anticipation of digging-in and trying my hand at Penrose’s exercises all the while enjoying his flowing prose explanations of the ideas the maths embody.

So here, it seems, is an exercise in not just popularizing science (though certainly that), but also in respecting the intelligence of the readership enough to challenge them in multiple levels. No mere Dawkins-esque “Everything you know is wrong, which is why I am a better man than you,” Penrose seeks not to bully us with his ideas but to use them as tools for treating us as his equals. I would expect no less from a man often called “one of the world’s most original thinkers.”

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  1. November 9, 2011 at 2:48 am

    The preface is one of the best I’ve ever read. The comparison he offers of himself reading chess magazines as a child is one of the most useful I’ve seen.

    • November 9, 2011 at 4:20 am

      Yeah, I’m always puzzled by people telling me that they always skip prefaces, prologues, and introductions because they’re impatient to get to the “meat”. Especially in books of an intellectual or informative nature, the author’s words of introduction are usually very important for understanding the spirit in which the book was written, if not the information therein. And you’re absolutely right; this is definitely one of the better prefaces I’ve read, given his prose style and the sincerity of his intention to really educate his readership.

  2. November 22, 2011 at 8:17 am

    Has Mr. Penrose made any comments on the recent C.E.R.N. Data?

    • November 26, 2011 at 10:48 am

      Not in this book, at least. It came out in 2004, which was a number of years too early to even contain a mention of the LHC. I’d be surprised if you couldn’t dig up something he’s said about it online, but I wouldn’t really know where. Even his newest book, “Cycles of Time”, came out in May of this year and so just barely too early to have a lot of the latest C.E.R.N. data.

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