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Helgoland Reviews

Helgoland by Carlo Rovelli


Carlo Rovelli

3.90 out of 5

6 reviews

Category: Non-fiction
Imprint: Allen Lane
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
Publication date: 25 Mar 2021
ISBN: 9780241454695

The new book from the bestselling author of Seven Brief Lessons on Physics and The Order of Time. One idea, more than any other, has transformed our understanding of the fabric of the universe: the quantum. Now Carlo Rovelli illuminates its mysteries.

3 stars out of 5
28 Apr 2021

"a pleasure to travel in [Rovelli’s] company regardless"

Aware of the inadequacy of the science, Rovelli offers a second source for his intuitions. In the last third of the book we are seated with him at the feet of the Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna, who teaches that there is nothing that exists in itself, independently from something else. “For me as a human being,” Rovelli says, “Nagarjuna teaches the serenity, the lightness and the shining beauty of the world: we are nothing but images of images. Reality, including our selves, is nothing but a thin and fragile veil, beyond which… there is nothing.” Much like that damned rainbow.


4 stars out of 5
3 Apr 2021

"Carlo Rovelli describes Werner Heisenberg’s efforts to understand the wayward behaviour of atoms, and ends up questioning whether reality exists"

Part of the fun of Rovelli’s book is that your immediate reaction to his ideas — repugnance or delight — isn’t meaningless. Without mathematics or experiment, by page 81 your thoughts are at the frontier of quantum theory, and it’s time for your second brain-cudgeling walk. If things exist only by virtue of their interaction with other things, what happens to them between times? Do they vanish? Do instants of time also not exist? Does it even make sense to talk this way? Oh dear, oh dear.

4 stars out of 5
James Marriott
27 Mar 2021

"Carlo Rovelli captures the mystical aspect of physics beautifully"

It is the genius of Carlo Rovelli — in my opinion the most poetic and lucid popular science writer since Richard Dawkins — to evoke the mystical aspect of physics. Rovelli owes his scientific fame to his role as one of the founders of quantum loop theory and his literary reputation to the slim book Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, which has sold more than a million copies. His new book, Helgoland (named after the island where Heisenberg discovered his uncertainty principle), is his most beautiful yet.

4 stars out of 5
26 Mar 2021

"(a) remarkably wide-ranging new meditation on quantum theory"

With the light touch of a skilled storyteller, Rovelli reveals that Heisenberg had been wrestling with the inner workings of the quantum atom in which electrons travel around the nucleus only in certain orbits, at certain distances, with certain precise energies before magically “leaping” from one orbit to another. Among the unsolved questions he was grappling with on Helgoland were: why only these orbits? Why only certain orbital leaps? As he tried to overcome the failure of existing formulas to replicate the intensity of the light emitted as an electron leapt between orbits, Heisenberg made an astonishing leap of his own. 

4 stars out of 5
26 Mar 2021

"An illuminating account of the nature of reality that is rich in detail and clarity"

There is so much in this short but rich book, including a fascinating detour through the dispute between Lenin and his fellow Bolshevik, the polymath Alexander Bogdanov. Rovelli concludes that for all the strangeness of quantum physics, it leaves everything we value not only in place, but more remarkable than ever. “Conventional, everyday existence is not negated.” When the world of enduring objects dissolves, to be replaced by one of processes and interactions, we are left in a world that is not disenchanted by science, but even more magical. As Rovelli puts it: “Precisely because of its impermanence, because of the absence of any absolute, the now has meaning and is precious.”

4 stars out of 5
Ian Thomson
23 Mar 2021

"a deep-thinking, restlessly inquiring spirit who sees no incompatibility between physics and philosophy – only mutual attraction."

Nobody said that post-Newtonian physics was easy, but Rovelli’s gift is to bring difficult ideas down a level. His books continue a tradition of jargon-free popular scientific writing from Galileo to Darwin that disappeared in the academic specialisations of the past century. Only in recent years has science become, in publishing terms, popular and attractive again... Undeniably, the book is hard going at times. (“I hope I have not lost my reader,” Rovelli says at one point.) The American physicist Richard Feynman presumably meant it when he said that “nobody understands quantum mechanics”. In his trademark lucid prose, Rovelli does his best to explain why this might be so. Known for his work on loop quantum gravity theory and the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Anaximander, Rovelli is a deep-thinking, restlessly inquiring spirit who sees no incompatibility between physics and philosophy – only mutual attraction.