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The Road to Reality: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe


Author: Roger Penrose

Publisher: Vintage


Publish Date: January 9, 2007

ISBN-10: 679776311

Pages: 1136

File Type: PDF

Language: English

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Book Preface

The purpose of this book is to convey to the reader some feeling for what is surely one of the most important and exciting voyages of discovery that humanity has embarked upon. This is the search for the underlying principles that govern the behaviour of our universe. It is a voyage that has lasted for more than two-and-a-half millennia, so it should not surprise us that substantial progress has at last been made. But this journey has proved to be a profoundly diYcult one, and real understanding has, for the most part, come but slowly. This inherent diYculty has led us in many false directions; hence we should learn caution. Yet the 20th century has delivered us extraordinary new insights—some so impressive that many scientists of today have voiced the opinion that we may be close to a basic understanding of all the underlying principles of physics. In my descriptions of the current fundamental theories, the 20th century having now drawn to its close, I shall try to take a more sober view. Not all my opinions may be welcomed by these ‘optimists’, but I expect further changes of direction greater even than those of the last century.

The reader will Wnd that in this book I have not shied away from presenting mathematical formulae, despite dire warnings of the severe reduction in readership that 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. The understanding that we have of the principles that actually underlie the behaviour of our physical world indeed depends upon some appreciation of its mathematics. Some people might take this as a cause for despair, as they will have formed the belief that they have no capacity for mathematics, no matter at how elementary a level. How could it be possible, they might well argue, for them to comprehend the research going on at the cutting edge of physical theory if they cannot even master the manipulation of fractions? Well, I certainly see the

Yet I am an optimist in matters of conveying understanding. Perhaps I am an incurable optimist. I wonder whether those readers who cannot manipulate fractions—or those who claim that they cannot manipulate fractions—are not deluding themselves at least a little, and that a good proportion of them actually have a potential in this direction that they are not aware of. No doubt there are some who, when confronted with a line of mathematical symbols, however simply presented, can see only the stern face of a parent or teacher who tried to force into them a non-comprehending parrot-like apparent competence—a duty, and a duty alone—and no hint of the magic or beauty of the subject might be allowed to come through. Perhaps for some it is too late; but, as I say, I am an optimist and I believe that there are many out there, even among those who could never master the manipulation of fractions, who have the capacity to catch some glimpse of a wonderful world that I believe must be, to a signiWcant degree, genuinely accessible to them.

One of my mother’s closest friends, when she was a young girl, was among those who could not grasp fractions. This lady once told me so herself after she had retired from a successful career as a ballet dancer. I =was still young, not yet fully launched in my activities as a mathematician, but was recognized as someone who enjoyed working in that subject. ‘It’s all that cancelling’, she said to me, ‘I could just never get the hang of cancelling.’ She was an elegant and highly intelligent woman, and there is no doubt in my mind that the mental qualities that are required in comprehending the sophisticated choreography that is central to ballet are in no way inferior to those which must be brought to bear on a mathematical problem. So, grossly overestimating my expositional abilities, I attempted, as others had done before, to explain to her the simplicity and logical nature of the procedure of ‘cancelling’.

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