Quantum Physics World

Monday, March 20, 2006

Road to Reality Book Review

In The Road to Reality, Roger Penrose promises to take us on a whilwind tour of math and physics. From this perspective, the book does not disappoint. When I got my copy of the book I was shocked to find that Penrose has virtually laid out the entire mathematics curriculum in the format of a popular book. After a semi-philosophical review of the ancient Greeks, he embarks on a detailed chapter by chapter review of virtually every math topic. Chapters include calculus, complex variables, Fourier series, and topics from differential geometry. If this wasn't enough to give you a headache, that is only the first half of the book. Now that we have the math under our belts, he tackles every imaginable topic in physics. The topics he chooses to include involve much of the standard fair, quantum mechanics is covered in detail as are cosmology, relativity and string theory. But there are a lot of topics readers probably haven't come across in a popular book before, such as Lagrangian dynamics. What is more the physics covered in this book is covered in dramatic detail.

I found his text on quantum mechanics particularly interesting. He puts forward his idea that quantum mechanics needs to be modified, contrasting the deterministic time evolution of the wavefunction with the "collapse" process of measurement, suggesting that these divergent phenomenon speak to a fundamental problem in quantum theory.

I would not really classify this book as a "popular" science book. Rather, it seems to mark out a genre of its own, treading a middle ground I have not seen in a book before. I would call it "semi-popular" instead. The book is a top seller, yet it has many equations throughout the book, contracting the advice once given to a famous physics writer (was it Stephen Hawking?) that every added equation would halve book sales. Add to this the fact the book actually includes exercises for the reader! The book is written with enough detail to make it useful for professional scientists and students, as well as to "laymen" without formal physics training who are interested in the topic-provided they are willing to sit down and wade through the serious text.

The approach taken by Penrose with this book is nothing short of bold. Perhaps it will open up a new genre of physics books written for the general audience that don't completely shy away from the mathematical underpinnings of the science. I would also hope that the detailed exposition on mathematics will help increase interest in math topics.

However, I am not completely comfortable with the writing style used by Penrose, and often don't enjoy his books as much as I do other authors. I believe a book of this type written by Hawking or Brian Greene would be far superior.

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