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Book: “The Road to Reality” by Roger Penrose

November 9, 2011 4 comments

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.”