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by Michael Nielsen on September 22, 2004

I’m about 100 pages into Roger Penrose’s huge (1000+ pages) new book, The Road to Reality: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe. Marketed to the general public, it promises to give an overview – with equations! – of our current understanding of the laws of the Universe.

It’s not exactly a typical popular science book, containing detailed discussions of topics like the Cauchy-Riemann equations, differential forms, fibre bundles, gauge theories, and so on, with Penrose going into quite some detail.

I’m not sure how much the book’s purported audience – the general public – will get out of it. It’s rather detailed in places, with lots of equations, and definitions of complicated and abstract mathematical objects. I’m perhaps somewhat too close to the subject matter to trust my own judgement on the extent to which he succeeds in spinning an interesting and coherent story for the lay reader.

Even with that caveat, though, I greatly admire Penrose’s chutzpah in making the attempt to tell this story in a way that is widely accessible.

I’m certainly finding the book interesting. Even in the early parts of the book, which cover (relatively) elementary stuff, I’m picking up useful tidbits of knowledge and perspectives. I suspect many of my millions… er, tens… of readers will enjoy it also.

Here’s the link to The book doesn’t appear to be out yet in the US.

From → General

  1. Suresh Venkat permalink

    According to amazon, it will be released Feb 22, 2005. One hopes the laws of physics will stay intact until then 🙂

  2. I also ordered the new tome from I found it sufficiently excellent that it “cancels out” at least one of Penrose’s books on Godel and consciousness. Despite being an ignorant computer scientist, I now have some clue about analytic continuation, the Lagrangian formalism, canonical quantization, and the Dirac equation. On the other hand, the idea (suggested in the preface) that someone who struggled with fractions in school would benefit from the book is rather amusing.

    MATH-PHOBE: Hey, this isn’t a popular book! You cheated me out of my money!
    PENROSE: See? You’re getting smarter already.

  3. Scott: “I found it sufficiently excellent that it “cancels out” at least one of Penrose’s books on Godel and consciousness. ”

    I actually quite enjoyed Penrose’s book “The Emperor’s New Mind”. I thought the central thesis – the stuff about Goedel and consciousness – was not at all compelling. But I found the background material on quantum physics, Turing machines and so on quite helpful.

    I don’t know how it’d stand up to the test of time. I was a first-year undergrad when I read it.

  4. Sandra permalink

    I’m one of the “general public” that the book is supposed to be aimed at, having long forgotten any maths and physics I learned at university many years ago. I’m in the process of revisiting high school maths and physics, and have wondered about using this book as a “guidebook” as I try to advance my knowledge of physics – I am prepared to work hard to understand the maths behind it along the way. Do you think this is a viable plan? I am also considering buying university level maths and physics textbooks to work through on my own – unfortunately for health reasons, I am unable to attend a university at this stage. Any thoughts or advice would be greatly appreciated.

  5. Hi Sandra,

    If you can, I’d strongly recommend finding the book first, in a bookstore or library, and having a good look through it. If you’re in Brisbane, I can tell you that I found my copy quite by random in a little bookstore on Boundary Street in West End (I don’t remember the name). I presume other places have it, too, although I haven’t see it anywhere else yet.

  6. PS to the previous post: If you’re thinking of self-study of physics, I’d take a good look at “Electron Blue” (link on sidebar). You might also find Gerard ‘t Hooft’s site useful:

  7. Sandra permalink

    Hi Michael and thanks for responding. Yes, I am in Brisbane, so thanks for the tip on the bookshop – I will definitely peruse the book carefully before buying it. I have already stumbled across Electron Blue (and read every entry) and the t’Hooft site – also had a look at John Baez’ “How to learn math and physics” – I know it’s a challenging road ahead, but I am determined to go as far as I can.

  8. Sandra, if you do plan to ‘revisit’ physics and maths, no better way than to use the Feynman Lectures for physics and Richard Courant’s What is Mathematics? as your sources.

  9. “I actually quite enjoyed Penrose’s book ‘The Emperor’s New Mind’.” Alright, so did I. So let’s say the new book cancels Shadows of the Mind.

  10. Sandra permalink

    Gyan, thanks for the pointers – Feynman’s lectures I already have, but hadn’t heard of Courant’s maths book before – I’ll borrow it from the local library and have a look.

    On another note, I bought Emporer’s New Mind a week or so ago – good to hear that people think it’s worth a read.

  11. Andrew permalink

    I’m a graduate with a degree in theoretical physics and I’m finding some of the abstract maths bits of Penrose’s book pretty obscure, but I’m sure the physics side will be a breeze. Excellent book though. I’d love to see similar things in other disciplines – trying to get the core of the subject into a 1000 page book.


  12. I just came across this review of the book, done by, Martin Gardner:

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