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There are Places in the World where Rules are Les Important than Kindness - Carlo Rovelli ****

This is, without doubt, Carlo Rovelli's best book. I have not been impressed by his previous popular science titles - too much purple prose and not enough depth. But in this collection of wide ranging short articles, he has found his metier, able to flit from interest to interest, often captivating with his enthusiasm for everything from Nabokov to Newton’s alchemy. And, unlike its predecessors, this book is a decent length.

Rovelli is clearly far more interested in philosophy than many physicists, rightly criticising those who make blanket denials of its value. A good number of the pieces touch on philosophy and its application to science, on subjects from quantum mechanics to consciousness. However, having as he does a scientific viewpoint, those who are put off by philosophy should still find the pieces interesting, if challenging to their prejudices. Some of the articles are solid science - for example a trio of articles on black holes. Others take us into perhaps surprising aspects of Rovelli's life, such as his youthful role as an activist. Throughout, though, most of the pieces are lively and well-written.

Admittedly, like many scientists, Rovelli's history of science can be a little inaccurate, claiming, for example that the Curies won the Nobel Prize ‘for the discovery of radioactivity’, when you only have to check the citation to see it was ‘in recognition of the extraordinary services they have rendered by their joint researches on the radiation phenomena discovered by Professor Henri Becquerel’. Or saying John Wheeler named black holes (something admittedly many of us thought until recently, but it is now widely known to be incorrect). Presumably it was a translation error that made Rovelli appear to consider carbon monoxide the primary human-sourced greenhouse gas. But on the whole the content is sound and engaging.

Some articles are a little dull, while a few are strangely na├»ve,  such as polemic berating 'baby Jesus' for not doing things that Christianity has never said he would, or when he wonders if most English people took LSD in the 60s because the arty types he meets at a book event say they did (as Rovelli did also). However, most are interesting and thought provoking - and the great thing about this format is that even if you hit a piece you don't enjoy, a couple of pages later something totally different turns up.

Is this a science book? Enough, I would say, to interest anyone who enjoys popular science. It is a collection of columns with wide ranging topics (hence the bizarre title), but it appeals to exactly the same urge that makes good popular science so brilliant: it's interesting, it makes you think and it opens your mind to the wonders of the world. Excellent stuff.


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Review by Brian Clegg


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