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Books Gave Us Gravity: A Postcard from the Edge

Non-fiction for the cold, hard facts, fiction for flights of fancy. One grounds you while the other sets you spinning. Most of the time, maybe, but my experience this week perfectly inverts that paradigm.

I’ve been reading a brand-new book from Oscar-winning documentarian Errol Morris, who is best known as the filmmaker behind such projects as The Thin Blue Line (which exonerated an alleged cop-killer serving life in a Texas prison) and The Fog of War (an extended interview with former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, architect of the Vietnam War). He is also a lifelong student of philosophy; while in the graduate program at Princeton University, he studied under Thomas Kuhn, author of the legendary The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, a book opposed to the existence of a stable, consistent reality outside the human mind. Morris on the other hand is an inveterate believer in fundamental external verities, and in the early ‘70s a philosophical argument between the two men grew so heated that Kuhn flung a glass ashtray at his pupil’s head. The Ashtray is Morris’s long-simmering return of serve, a systematic takedown of Kuhnian relativism that also builds a case for what we might call truth, justice, and the American way ...

I['ve also just finished] Seven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo Rovelli. It’s a sliver of a book comprising fewer than a hundred pages, but it contains an encyclopedia’s worth of ideas. The first couple of chapters lay out the simple elegance of Einstein’s theories and the more convoluted concepts behind quantum mechanics, doing so in ways that may be familiar to anyone who’s dabbled with these matters before. Things begin to get more interesting as Rovelli examines the ways in which these models contradict each other. Even as the image of the cosmos he’s drawing grows more clear, he reveals vast territories of unexplored ignorance—he and his cohorts are learning every day how much more they don’t know ... continued