Helgoland by Carlo Rovelli – Book Review

Title: Helgoland (review copy)

Author: Carlo Rovelli

Genre/Themes: Science, History of Scientific Discoveries, Physics, Non-Fiction

Blurb from Goodreads

The Number One bestselling author of The Order of Time is back with a stunning book about the enigma of quantum physics

In June 1925, twenty-three-year-old Werner Heisenberg, suffering from hay fever, retreated to a small, treeless island in the North Sea called Helgoland. It was there that he came up with one of the most transformative scientific concepts: quantum theory.

Almost a century later, quantum physics has given us many startling ideas: ghost waves, distant objects that seem magically connected to each other, cats that are both dead and alive. Countless experiments have led to practical applications that shape our daily lives. Today our understanding of the world around us is based on this theory. And yet it is still profoundly mysterious.

In this enchanting book, Carlo Rovelli, one of our most celebrated scientists, tells the extraordinary story of quantum physics and reveals its deep meaning: a world made of substances is replaced by a world made of relations, each particle responding to another in a never ending game of mirrors.

Shifting our perspective once again, Rovelli takes us on a riveting journey through the universe so we can better understand our place in it.

My Review

I am a wannabe physicist. All my life I’ve been in awe of those people who have a natural aptitude for it. I studied physics at school and took some electives in it during my first year at university… but I was always hopelessly inadequate and knew that my strengths lay with biological sciences which is where I ultimately earned my BSc.

But that love for physics has never left me which is why I love Carlo Rovelli’s books so much. He is nothing short of magical. His books are perfect for the armchair physicist like myself.

In “Helgoland” Rovelli tackles the subject of quantum physics. Ordinarily when society thinks of quantum physics it conjures up ideas of difficult to follow theories and formulae that are the remit only of the most mathematical of brains. But what Rovelli does in Helgoland is to make the core concept of quantum theory accessible and relevant. I left this book feeling that I could make sense of the subject and it has given me a thirst for more knowledge.

There is a true beauty to Carlo Rovelli’s writing that makes for the most wonderful reading. Part science, part philosophy… This is quantum physics made poetic. It’s enlightening, thought provoking, and incredibly informative. It’s a book that casts much light on the seemingly mysterious nature of quantum theory making it relevant for the fabric of life as we know it.

It’s also a book that illustrates the open minded nature that we all need with regards to understanding existence through scientific research and experimentation; how information and understanding evolves with how much we know, or more appropriately how little we realise we know in the grand scheme of things.

Helgoland takes its name from the island where Heisenberg in 1925 is said to have come up with key concepts behind quantum theory. And so the book also informs us of the lives of the young physicists who were at the forefront of bringing greater understanding to the area at the time. It’s so interesting to learn about the dialogue, the debate, and the practically rebellious ideas that these young scientists (and future Nobel laureates) all engaged in.

Overall I thoroughly enjoyed this book. There’s a lot that went over my head and I need to go back and reread; particularly the philosophical exploration of quantum theory. I’m much better at understanding mathematical equations it seems! But that’s not a criticism of the book. It’s a book that needs to be savoured. A book that requires the reader to pause and engage in their own reflective thoughts on the concepts offered. I do however wish that there were some more diagrams in the book. This is a complaint I frequently make when it comes to reading Rovelli but perhaps this is rather a personal opinion because my means of understanding physics has always required visual aids to help with my comprehension of the topic.

I’d definitely recommend this to anyone with a passing interest in quantum theory but for whom the subject seems a bit daunting, because this book will make you feel that you can grasp some of the core essence of quantum physics. I certainly feel enlightened after the read.

*An e-copy was kindly provided to me by the publisher via NetGalley for honest review*

Publishing 25th March 2021, Allen Lane

Other Works by Carlo Rovelli I’ve Reviewed

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