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The Road to Reality: A Complete Guide to the Physical Universe [Hardcover]

Roger Penrose
4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Aug. 24 2004 0224044478 978-0224044479
This is arguably the most important work of science, aimed at the general reader, to be published in living memory.

This 1000-page guide to the universe aims to provide a comprehensive account of our present understanding of the physical universe, and the essentials of its underlying mathematical theory. It attempts to convey an overall understanding -- a feeling for the deep beauty and philosophical connotations of the subject, as well as of its intricate logical interconnections.

Clearly, a work of this nature is challenging, but no particular mathematical knowledge on the part of the reader is assumed, the early chapters providing the essential mathematical background for the physical theories described in the remainder of the book. There is also enough descriptive material to carry the less mathematically inclined reader through, as well as some 450-500, mostly hand-drawn, figures. The book provides a feeling for all the key issues and deep current controversies, and counters the common complaint that cutting-edge science is fundamentally inaccessible.

• numbers and geometry in physics
• the ideas and magic of calculus
• notions of infinity
• relativity theory
• quantum mechanics
• particle physics
• cosmology
• the big bang
• black holes
• the second law of thermodynamics
• string and M theory
• loop quantum gravity
• twisters
• fashions in science

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If Albert Einstein were alive, he would have a copy of The Road to Reality on his bookshelf. So would Isaac Newton. This may be the most complete mathematical explanation of the universe yet published, and Roger Penrose richly deserves the accolades he will receive for it. That said, let us be perfectly clear: this is not an easy book to read. The number of people in the world who can understand everything in it could probably take a taxi together to Penrose's next lecture. Still, math-friendly readers looking for a substantial and possibly even thrillingly difficult intellectual experience should pick up a copy (carefully--it's over a thousand pages long and weighs nearly 4 pounds) and start at the beginning, where Penrose sets out his purpose: to describe "the search for the underlying principles that govern the behavior of our universe." Beginning with the deceptively simple geometry of Pythagoras and the Greeks, Penrose guides readers through the fundamentals--the incontrovertible bricks that hold up the fanciful mathematical structures of later chapters. From such theoretical delights as complex-number calculus, Riemann surfaces, and Clifford bundles, the tour takes us quickly on to the nature of spacetime. The bulk of the book is then devoted to quantum physics, cosmological theories (including Penrose's favored ideas about string theory and universal inflation), and what we know about how the universe is held together. For physicists, mathematicians, and advanced students, The Road to Reality is an essential field guide to the universe. For enthusiastic amateurs, the book is a project to tackle a bit at a time, one with unimaginable intellectual rewards. --Therese Littleton

From Publishers Weekly

At first, this hefty new tome from Oxford physicist Penrose (The Emperor's NewMind) looks suspiciously like a textbook, complete with hundreds of diagrams and pages full of mathematical notation. On a closer reading, however, one discovers that the book is something entirely different and far more remarkable. Unlike a textbook, the purpose of which is purely to impart information, this volume is written to explore the beautiful and elegant connection between mathematics and the physical world. Penrose spends the first third of his book walking us through a seminar in high-level mathematics, but only so he can present modern physics on its own terms, without resorting to analogies or simplifications (as he explains in his preface, "in modern physics, one cannot avoid facing up to the subtleties of much sophisticated mathematics"). Those who work their way through these initial chapters will find themselves rewarded with a deep and sophisticated tour of the past and present of modern physics. Penrose transcends the constraints of the popular science genre with a unique combination of respect for the complexity of the material and respect for the abilities of his readers. This book sometimes begs comparison with Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time, and while Penrose's vibrantly challenging volume deserves similar success, it will also likely lie unfinished on as many bookshelves as Hawking's. For those hardy readers willing to invest their time and mental energies, however, there are few books more deserving of the effort. 390 illus. (Feb. 24)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an alternate Hardcover edition.

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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A wonderful mindboggling May 23 2009
By J. Gray
Essentially, this book will appeal to two types of people: 1) those with backgrounds in mathematics/physics, and 2) those mathematics/physics enthusiasts who regularly grumble when popular science books leave OUT the equations. Belonging to the latter group, I decided to take the plunge and buy that Professor Penrose had pretty much summed up the entire idea behind the mathematical world in something the size of a phonebook. Really, it wasn't just so I could flash it about, and claim that it was bigger than any other guy's reading material-- I had a genuine curiosity, and buggeringly little formal education in the matter.

And, oh, Penrose delivers. Depending on how comfortable you are, you might find it a leisure read, or something akin to climbing Kilimanjaro. Still, Penrose provides the mathematical Sherpas for you, and tosses the odd brain-warping concept your way. It comes off as a gradual ascent into the heady depths of wonderfully satisfying knowledge, and is a true gem for the curious. If you had taken "A Brief History of Time", and expanded it to include -everything- else in the world of mathematical physics (plus equations), you have a rough idea as to how The Road to Reality works. Mathematical awakenings indeed! A thorough reading of Road to Reality (and subsequent re-readings to realize just what the hell you missed) is a long-overdue step for all fans (both of them) of the Pop-Physics/Math genre.

And if nothing else, you can practically observe its intense mass pull things towards it. It's really neat.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Overall well worth the price and effort Sept. 15 2004
Despite the previous work of Roger Penrose concerning my favourite topic (neuroscience, mind-brain issues, consciousness, etc.), this is the first book of his that I have read (not quite finished yet, not that fast !). I am quite impressed overall, wanting a well discussed introduction to some of the primary mathematics and physics that have led to our current time. This, Roger Penrose functionally provides, though at times some of his discussion could be clearer. He has made a sensible and successful effort to write at a number of different levels so that those with no mathematical background can read prose for content and ideas, and those with significant previous knowledge and ability can work on proofs of various arguments, etc. This is certainly a weighty set of chapters, and I cannot comment on the appropriateness of some of the latter chapters vis a vis current arguments and the positions held by other scientists, but definitely, this is one of the most significant and important books of its type to arrive on the scene and with some significant effort on the part of the reader, should repay hansomely!
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A difficult road but well worth the effort Dec 24 2008
On occasion, the task of judging the quality of a book is made easy by comparing it against the explicitly stated intent of the author. Penrose comes right to the point in the first sentences of the Preface. He writes, "The purpose of this book is to convey to the reader some feeling for ... the search for the underlying principles that govern the behaviour of our universe." Note that it is the "search" that he proposes to shed light on more than merely the underlying principles. This book is as much about the "Road" as the "Reality". With that in mind, I feel Penrose has made a magnificent attempt at conveying the feeling for this quest.
The reader who is looking for a book where the author will do all the heavy lifting in removing the veils of mystery to expose some absolute, final principles underlying reality will be sorely disappointed. Penrose fully expects the reader to share in the labour by first gaining understanding, to some extent at least, of the abstract mathematics which is an unavoidable component of insight into the leading edge physics he surveys. And for all this effort, the reader will not find some absolute principles of reality laid bare at the end, only an honest assessment, from a distinguished and clearly passionate practitioner, of a variety of approaches that may lead to deeper insights into the current dilemma in physics, that is, an overarching theory encompassing the immiscible quantum and relativistic viewpoints. Here is where the "road" analogy is very appropriate as we have come to a fork in the road where both paths appear to lead to "reality" and must therefore reconverge somewhere. Penrose is meticulously forthright in not being content to simply beat the drum for his favoured approach to this dilemma, namely twistor theory.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant June 28 2005
While this book is essentially an elaboration of Penrose's earlier books and theories, it appears it was worth the effort (both his and the readers). I agree with reviewer Lee Carlson's comment that "The chapter on the Big Bang and its 'thermodynamic legacy' is the best in the book", though experts in other fields may enjoy (or be challenged) by other chapters.

In his chapter 27 on thermodynamics, Penrose seems to finally 'bury' dissenters who believe there is nothing unique or improbable about the universe. For instance in Vic Stenger's attack in his book Timeless Reality he says:

"The initial entropy of the universe was also as large as it could have been, since it was also the entropy of a black hole. Thus, the universe has maximum entropy at the two extremes on the time axis. In each case, the universe is in equilibrium. At each time, the univserse is in a static state of total chaos. This is a point that has been missed by almost everyone, including Penrose." [Referring to his earlier book The Emperor's New Mind.]

In his recent book Penrose counters:

"Now let us return to the extraordinary 'specialness' of the Big Bang. The fact that it must have had as absurdly low entropy is already evident from the mere existence of the Second Law of thermodynamics. But low entropy can take many different forms. We want to understand the particular way in which our universe was initially special...
It seems to me that this apparent thermal equilibrium in the early universe has grossly misled some cosmologists into thinking that the Big Bang was somehow high entropy 'random' (i.e. thermal) state, despite the fact that, because of the second law, it must have actually been a very organized (i.e. low entropy) state.
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