Who could resist a book subtitled “A Complete Guide to the Laws of The Universe”?
If you didn’t know that the author was Roger Penrose, you could be forgiven for assuming that The Road to Reality was one of the very many quasi-scientific, faith-based, wild-eyed polemics that appear each year under increasingly garish covers, but instead this tome sets out to be
a comprehensive account of the physical universe and the essentials of its underlying mathematical theory.
Daunting? Absolutely. Weighing in at 1.4kg and 1100 pages the physical presence of this book sets a certain level of expectation. Beyond that, there’s no doubt about it, this book contains mathematics, lots of it. That in itself will put a lot of people off, as the author notes in the preface:
The reader will find that in this book I have not shied away from presenting mathematical formulae, despite dire warnings of the severe reduction in readership this will entail. I have thought seriously about this question, and have come to the conclusion that what I have to say cannot reasonably be conveyed without a certain amount of mathematical notation and the exploration of genuine mathematical concepts.
Yes, mathematics. Tricky one that. At school it was one of my favourite subjects, but somehow by the end of an engineering degree it was a subject that had carried on inexorably past the limits of my interest and ability. In engineering terms the sheer fun of making early micro-processors jump through hoops was more appealing, and away from the lecture-room and lab my technical nous was finding more practical applications in the challenge of applying sound and light to actors and musicians (with a healthy grounding in the social skills of working in teams and dealing with non-technical people thrown in for good measure!).
So why have I just invested full list price in such a book? Interest, yes, but also a sense of challenge, a feeling that maybe I could get to grips again with the mathematical, maybe, indeed, that I should re-capture the knowledge that I took so long to acquire a quarter of a century ago. I think there’s another root too – last year I attended a business strategy course that was heaviliy influenced by game theory. One of the other delegates was a professor of engineering from one of the best engineering faculties in the UK who, over coffee, waxed lyrical about the underlying mathematics (which the course had avoided) and how the same approach was used all the time in the design of complex control systems. Even though I didn’t know it then, at that moment, I think I was re-infected with some of that curiousity, and the first expression has been the serendipitous contact with this book in a 10 minute bookshop-browse snatched at the end of a mundane shopping trip.
Will I stick with it? Good question. I’ve just finished Chapter 2 which has skated lightly over the surface of Euclidean and hyperbolic geometries, and already I feel I am reading things of which I have no conscious memory (maths at my school was the so-called “New Mathematics”, so I’m not sure we ever touched anything so prosaic as geometry…). This is a book for digesting in small bites, and I know my track-record of grasshopper-brained bricolage is not necessarily the most obvious approach to this feast, but we shall see…