Road to Reality-Penrose

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If one were to want to take a broad look at modern physics in a somewhat concise manner just before starting in on formal study would Penrose's book be a good attempt to do so? Apparently it is much more at the level of actual physics than any other popular books.
 

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  • #2
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It's somewhat difficult to be honest. I'm an undergraduate still and I've done a lot of reading with popular and technical stuff, but Penrose's book has been difficult for me. He explains a lot, but I'm not sure how well someone can extrapolate real meaning behind the things he explains. For example, you go through a crash course on complex analysis. I'd really like to take a class on that, so one chapter in his book isn't satisfying enough to me. I'm reading it in sections as I learn more and more about the different fields. Also, it should be noted that it's somewhat formal in the mathematics.

I don't know. What doesn't work well for me may work well for you since everyone learns differently. I like to try to really understand everything, and it's hard to do that with just this book.
 
  • #3
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I agree that it is very dense. I tried reading it before starting my physics degree and I got stuck in the chapter on complex analysis.
I just tried to continue reading it and I am now on the part on differential geometry. While the book definitely is much more rigorous than the average popular science book, it would take a lot of work on the reader's part to really understand the concepts presented. The information may all be there, but it's not easy to digest.
Of course that is a bit of an unfair critisism, to really do the material justice takes a small library (and a PHD or two) and not just one book.
 
  • #4
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I will echo the chorus above.

Although the book advertises itself as an all inclusive guide. The math prologue, so to speak, gets exponentially more dense. My experience was as follows: okay cool stuff... interesting explanation of analytic functions... crap, what the hell is all this? (a little past reimann surfaces). Although I will say it is not that useful, it is a nice experience and a nice jumping off point for private study. If you get caught up in complex analysis, check out a book about it and read up, then continue!

Also, the book has the "too big to read" problem, where I don't think any rational person would carry it around for an occasional read.
 
  • #5
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Hello everyone!

As I am reading 'Reality' at the moment (and admittedly have been for over a year on and off), I decided to reply to this thread. I remember when I was considering buying it, and I think that the information I am going to give would have been quite valuable.

First off, I have no scientific qualifications or formal mathematical education beyond AS level.

If you want to read this book, learn precalculus and calculus. Get 'Calculus for Dummies' or any similar guide and practice until you are an expert. The simple matter of mathematic thought and practice manipulating algebra will 'prime' your brain ready to read this monstrous publication! Also, keep in touch with the pop-science community, and read whatever other more manageable books you can to become a smug little armchair scientist (though I suspect most people are anyhow).

Then begin. Tackle the book a page at a time, and for the first four chapters certainly try to do the exercises. If you cannot, re-read, re-read, and re-read again. Do research and find out more. This technique should carry you comfortably up to and through chapter 6 (Calculus).

You will then, as I did and everyone else does, get frustratingly confused and stuck on chapter 7. I do not know whether this chapter is just poorly written or over-simplified, but it is by far the hardest of the mathematical chapters. Re-read it until you get the gist, but move on after you get fed up with it; it might click into place later.

The next few chapters will wash over your mind as endless waffle and equations unless you really concentrate. So do this, and read it all over again. I returned to the chapter on n-dimensional manifolds last week and realised that I had completely missed the point! However, reading it again there was nothing that I didn't understand.

If you have the time (I read it on public buses and during 'dead time') and effort to invest, then certainly 'Reality' is one of the best ways to get in touch with modern physics and graduate level mathematics without actually getting a degree. In all honesty, I cannot give any information on the actual physics part since I haven't got that far! However, the explanation of general relativity is a tantalising 80 pages away!

It is slow reading. That is my overall review. But it is invaluable for those like myself who have not (yet) taken a degree in physics but want to be able to scrawl nonsense on a blackboard. :-)
(I made myself a massive one the week I bought the book; they really help!)

If anyone wants any advice or fancies teaching me chapter 7, just say. It's a great book, but it does not live up to promises of readability. Think of it more as a guide through the material required to understand modern physics; not a tutorial.

I hope this helps,
Regards
Lepilad
 
  • #6
AlephZero
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I have a math degree (Cambridge UK) and spent my working life on "mathematical" problems in mechanical engineering (developing new computer methods for solving problems, for example).

With that background I found the Penrose book a hard read, and in fact I never finished reading it properly because it was taking up too much time (it would probably have taken me about 2 years to read all of it).

I would say it is a very good book (better and more thought provoking than Hawkings books for example) - but bedtime reading, it isn't!
 
  • #7
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it is a nice experience and a nice jumping off point for private study. If you get caught up in complex analysis, check out a book about it and read up, then continue!

That's how I've been using it, and I've found it an inspiring guide. It isn't as self-contained as the title suggests, but then, realistically, how could it be? Don't be disheartened by the thought that this is a popularization so an actual textbook must be harder: a normal textbook may deal with only part of the subject matter in one of Penrose's chapters, but at a gentler pace, methodically building up the necessary background.

It's not the sort of broad overview that an encyclopedia might give of a subject; the author can't resist delving into specifics. But that, for me, is part of the attraction. If you get stuck with a popular science book, you're left stuck. If you get stuck with this, you at least know the names of all sort of revevant concepts to persue. You also get the benefit of Penrose's enthusiam and unique take on certain subjects.
 
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