A book explaining Einstein’s theory of general relativity seems an unlikely contender for a bestseller. But in Italy, Sette Brevi Lezioni di Fisica (Seven Brief Lessons in Physics), written by a physicist who spends most of his time grappling with the unsolved problem of quantum gravity, took many by surprise recently when it became the highest selling book for two straight months, sharing shelf space in bookstores with Cinquanta Sfumature di Grigio (Fifty Shades of Grey).
The book’s success – it has sold 140,000 copies in six months – has left its author, 58-year-old Carlo Rovelli, “a bit overwhelmed”. “It has gone much, much beyond the readership that I imagined. I think that what people like is that it is relatively simple, but there’s a lot of poetry in it – in the sense of trying to show the beauty of nature.”
The book, published in Italy, is as straightforward as its title implies. Rovelli explains scientific theories and concepts that were discovered in the 20th century, including quantum mechanics and black holes. He also describes the problems that have yet to be solved in the 21st century. In his explanation of the most “beautiful theory” – Einstein’s theory of general relativity – Rovelli writes of space curving, bending and stretching all around us. “I recount the emotion I went through as a student when I started visualising it, and suddenly things started to make sense, like the Earth going around the sun,” he said.
Rovelli believes that sales of the book – which will be published in English later this year– have benefited from the popularity of recent science-themed films such as “The Theory of Everything” and “Interstellar.” Rovelli said science had often been viewed with suspicion in Italy because of the influence of the Catholic church, and more broadly in Europe because of “leftwing” arguments that suggest that knowledge based on the study of humanities – philosophy, art, and literature – is superior to scientific knowledge. “I am from that generation that, when I was a kid, there was much more fascination and much less fear about science. I think people are tired of science-bashing,” he said. “Science is beautiful. It is just knowledge.”
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