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

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by Roger Penrose

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Roger Penrose, one of the most accomplished scientists of our time, presents the only comprehensive and comprehensible account of the physics of the universe. From the very first attempts by the Greeks to grapple with the complexities of our known world to the latest application of infinity in physics, The Road to Reality carefully explores the movement of


Roger Penrose, one of the most accomplished scientists of our time, presents the only comprehensive and comprehensible account of the physics of the universe. From the very first attempts by the Greeks to grapple with the complexities of our known world to the latest application of infinity in physics, The Road to Reality carefully explores the movement of the smallest atomic particles and reaches into the vastness of intergalactic space. Here, Penrose examines the mathematical foundations of the physical universe, exposing the underlying beauty of physics and giving us one the most important works in modern science writing.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“A comprehensive guide to physics’ big picture, and to the thoughts of one of the world’s most original thinkers.”—The New York Times

“Simply astounding. . . . Gloriously variegated. . . . Pure delight. . . . It is shocking that so much can be explained so well. . . . Penrose gives us something that has been missing from the public discourse on science lately–a reason to live, something to look forward to.” —American Scientist

“A remarkable book . . . teeming with delights.” —Nature

“This is his magnum opus, the culmination of an already stellar career and a comprehensive summary of the current state of physics and cosmology. It should be read by anyone entering the field and referenced by everyone working in it.” —The New York Sun

“Extremely comprehensive. . . . The Road to Reality unscores the fact that Penrose is one of the world’s most original thinkers.” —Tucson Citizen

“What a joy it is to read a book that doesn't simplify, doesn't dodge the difficult questions, and doesn't always pretend to have answers. . . . Penrose’s appetite is heroic, his knowledge encyclopedic, his modesty a reminder that not all physicists claim to be able to explain the world in 250 pages.”
The Times (London)

“For physics fans, the high point of the year will undoubtedly be The Road to Reality.
The Guardian

“A truly remarkable book...Penrose does much to reveal the beauty and subtlety that connects nature and the human imagination, demonstrating that the quest to understand the reality of our physical world, and the extent and limits of our mental capacities, is an awesome, never-ending journey rather than a one-way cul-de-sac.”—London Sunday Times

“Penrose’s work is genuinely magnificent, and the most stimulating book I have read in a long time.”—Scotland on Sunday

“Science needs more people like Penrose, willing and able to point out the flaws in fashionable models from a position of authority and to signpost alternative roads to follow.”—The Independent

Library Journal - Booksmack!
If the hard science at the heart of the Royal Society has made you feel ambitious, turn to this simply amazing work by Penrose, a Royal fellow. Unlike Bryson and his contributors, Penrose does not offer easy access to his topic, but he does offer the same smart, compulsive reading experience for all those readers who like science presented with acuity. Penrose examines how mathematics explains the universe in a book as elegant as the formulas he explores. In logical fashion he builds his tour on a foundation of what some would consider advanced basics and then takes off into the complex world of physics. His efforts surely fulfill the greatest aims of the Royal Society-to express, clearly and with great care, the ways of the universe. Penrose's book is very hard going but rewards the careful and attentive reader a hundred fold. Neal Wyatt, "RA Crossroads", Booksmack!, 12/2/10
Library Journal
This masterly volume will serve double-duty as a thorough physics reference and a surprisingly readable guide for independent learners. (LJ 2/15/05)
Has a book title ever been more inclusive? But despite first impressions, Roger Penrose's The Road to Reality: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe lives up to its claim. This massive tome does provide a lucid, comprehensive guide to the laws of the physical universe in a mere 1,120 pages. The distillation of a life's work by one of the world's leading scientists, this paperback reveals what is currently known about the underlying mechanisms of the physical world, from the wonders of calculus to advanced string and M theory. Penrose covers relativity theory; notions of infinity; quantum mechanics; particle physics; cosmology; the Big Bang; black holes; the Second Law of Thermodynamics; loop quantum gravity; twisters; and more. The book contains nearly 400 explanatory illustrations that help elucidate cutting-edge scientific concepts. A major intellectual achievement.
George Johnson
Penrose's new effort, The Road to Reality: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe, is his most ambitious yet, more than twice as long as ''The Emperor's New Mind'' and exponentially more demanding. Starting from scratch with Pythagoras and Plato, he dismantles what is known about the nature of the universe and then puts it back together again. The result -- if you can make your way through -- is a comprehensive guide to physics' big picture, and to the thoughts of one of the world's most original thinkers.
— The New York Times

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Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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6.10(w) x 9.28(h) x 1.87(d)

Read an Excerpt


Am-tep was the King’s chief craftsman, an artist of consummate skills. It was night, and he lay sleeping on his workshop couch, tired after a handsomely productive evening’s work. But his sleep was restless – perhaps from an intangible tension that had seemed to be in the air. Indeed, he was not certain that he was asleep at all when it happened. Daytime had come – quite suddenly – when his bones told him that surely it must still be night.

He stood up abruptly. Something was odd. The dawn’s light could not be in the north; yet the red light shone alarmingly through his broad window that looked out northwards over the sea. He moved to the window and stared out, incredulous in amazement. The Sun had never before risen in the north! In his dazed state, it took him a few moments to realize that this could not possibly be the Sun. It was a distant shaft of a deep fiery red light that beamed vertically upwards from the water into the heavens.

As he stood there, a dark cloud became apparent at the head of the beam, giving the whole structure the appearance of a distant giant parasol, glowing evilly, with a smoky flaming staff. The parasol’s hood began to spread and darken – a daemon from the underworld. The night had been clear, but now the stars disappeared one by one, swallowed up behind this advancing monstrous creature from Hell.

Though terror must have been his natural reaction, he did not move, transfixed for several minutes by the scene’s perfect symmetry and awesome beauty. But then the terrible cloud began to bend slightly to the east, caught up by the prevailing winds. Perhaps he gained some comfort from this and the spell was momentarily broken. But apprehension at once returned to him as he seemed to sense a strange disturbance in the ground beneath, accompanied by ominous-sounding rumblings of a nature quite unfamiliar to him. He began to wonder what it was that could have caused this fury. Never before had he witnessed a God’s anger of such magnitude.

His first reaction was to blame himself for the design on the sacrificial cup that he had just completed – he had worried about it at the time. Had his depiction of the Bull-God not been sufficiently fearsome? Had that god been offended? But the absurdity of this thought soon struck him. The fury he had just witnessed could not have been the result of such a trivial action, and was surely not aimed at him specifically. But he knew that there would be trouble at the Great Palace. The Priest-King would waste no time in attempting to appease this Daemon-God. There would be sacrifices. The traditional offerings of fruits or even animals would not suffice to pacify an anger of this magnitude. The sacrifices would have to be human.

Quite suddenly, and to his utter surprise, he was blown backwards across the room by an impulsive blast of air followed by a violent wind. The noise was so extreme that he was momentarily deafened. Many of his beautifully adorned pots were whisked from their shelves and smashed to pieces against the wall behind. As he lay on the floor in a far corner of the room where he had been swept away by the blast, he began to recover his senses, and saw that the room was in turmoil. He was horrified to see one of his favourite great urns shattered to small pieces, and the wonderfully detailed designs, which he had so carefully crafted, reduced to nothing.

Am-tep arose unsteadily from the floor and after a while again approached the window, this time with considerable trepidation, to re-examine that terrible scene across the sea. Now he thought he saw a disturbance, illuminated by that far-off furnace, coming towards him. This appeared to be a vast trough in the water, moving rapidly towards the shore, followed by a cliff-like wall of wave. He again became transfixed, watching the approaching wave begin to acquire gigantic proportions. Eventually the disturbance reached the shore and the sea immediately before him drained away, leaving many ships stranded on the newly formed beach. Then the cliff-wave entered the vacated region and struck with a terrible violence. Without exception the ships were shattered, and many nearby houses instantly destroyed. Though the water rose to great heights in the air before him, his own house was spared, for it sat on high ground a good way from the sea.

The Great Palace too was spared. But Am-tep feared that worse might come, and he was right – though he knew not how right he was. He did know, however, that no ordinary human sacrifice of a slave could now be sufficient. Something more would be needed to pacify the tempestuous anger of this terrible God. His thoughts turned to his sons and daughters, and to his newly born grandson. Even they might not be safe.

Am-tep had been right to fear new human sacrifices. A young girl and a youth of good birth had been soon apprehended and taken to a nearby temple, high on the slopes of a mountain. The ensuing ritual was well under way when yet another catastrophe struck. The ground shook with devastating violence, whence the temple roof fell in, instantly killing all the priests and their intended sacrificial victims. As it happened, they would lie there in mid-ritual – entombed for over three-and-a-half millennia!

The devastation was frightful, but not final. Many on the island where Am-tep and his people lived survived the terrible earthquake, though the Great Palace was itself almost totally destroyed. Much would be rebuilt over the years. Even the Palace would recover much of its original splendour, constructed on the ruins of the old. Yet Am-tep had vowed to leave the island. His world had now changed irreparably.

In the world he knew, there had been a thousand years of peace, prosperity, and culture where the Earth-Goddess had reigned. Wonderful art had been allowed to flourish. There was much trade with neighbouring lands. The magnificent Great Palace was a huge luxurious labyrinth, a virtual city in itself, adorned by superb frescoes of animals and flowers. There was running water, excellent drainage, and flushed sewers. War was almost unknown and defences unnecessary. Now, Am-tep perceived the Earth-Goddess overthrown by a Being with entirely different values.

It was some years before Am-tep actually left the island, accompanied by his surviving family, on a ship rebuilt by his youngest son, who was a skilled carpenter and seaman. Am-tep’s grandson had developed into an alert child, with an interest in everything in the world around. The voyage took some days, but the weather had been supremely calm. One clear night, Am-tep was explaining to his grandson about the patterns in the stars, when an odd thought overtook him: The patterns of stars had been disturbed not one iota from what they were before the Catastrophe of the emergence of the terrible daemon.

Am-tep knew these patterns well, for he had a keen artist’s eye. Surely, he thought, those tiny candles of light in the sky should have been blown at least a little from their positions by the violence of that night, just as his pots had been smashed and his great urn shattered. The Moon also had kept her face, just as before, and her route across the star-filled heavens had changed not one whit, as far as Am-tep could tell. For many moons after the Catastrophe, the skies had appeared different. There had been darkness and strange clouds, and the Moon and Sun had sometimes worn unusual colours. But this had now passed, and their motions seemed utterly undisturbed. The tiny stars, likewise, had been quite unmoved.

If the heavens had shown such little concern for the Catastrophe, having a stature far greater even than that terrible Daemon, Am-tep reasoned, why should the forces controlling the Daemon itself show concern for what the little people on the island had been doing, with their foolish rituals and human sacrifice? He felt embarrassed by his own foolish thoughts at the time, that the daemon might be concerned by the mere patterns on his pots.

Yet Am-tep was still troubled by the question ‘why?’ What deep forces control the behaviour of the world, and why do they sometimes burst forth in violent and seemingly incomprehensible ways? He shared his questions with his grandson, but there were no answers.
. . .

A century passed by, and then a millennium, and still there were no answers.
. . .

Amphos the craftsman had lived all his life in the same small town as his father and his father before him, and his father’s father before that. He made his living constructing beautifully decorated gold bracelets, earrings, ceremonial cups, and other fine products of his artistic skills. Such work had been the family trade for some forty generations – a line unbroken since Am-tep had settled there eleven hundred years before.

But it was not just artistic skills that had been passed down from generation to generation. Am-tep’s questions troubled Amphos just as they had troubled Am-tep earlier. The great story of the Catastrophe that destroyed an ancient peaceful civilization had been handed down from father to son. Am-tep’s perception of the Catastrophe had also survived with his descendants. Amphos, too, understood that the heavens had a magnitude and stature so great as to be quite unconcerned by that terrible event. Nevertheless, the event had had a catastrophic effect on the little people with their cities and their human sacrifices and insignificant religious rituals. Thus, by comparison, the event itself must have been the result of enormous forces quite unconcerned by those trivial actions of human beings. Yet the nature of those forces was as unknown in Amphos’s day as it was to Am-tep.

Amphos had studied the structure of plants, insects and other small animals, and crystalline rocks. His keen eye for observation had served him well in his decorative designs. He took an interest in agriculture and was fascinated by the growth of wheat and other plants from grain. But none of this told him ‘why?’, and he felt unsatisfied. He believed that there was indeed reason underlying Nature’s patterns, but he was in no way equipped to unravel those reasons.

One clear night, Amphos looked up at the heavens, and tried to make out from the patterns of stars the shapes of those heroes and heroines who formed constellations in the sky. To his humble artist’s eye, those shapes made poor resemblances. He could himself have arranged the stars far more convincingly. He puzzled over why the gods had not organized the stars in a more appropriate way? As they were, the arrangements seemed more like scattered grains randomly sowed by a farmer, rather than the deliberate design of a god. Then an odd thought overtook him: Do not seek for reasons in the specific patterns of stars, or of other scattered arrangements of objects; look, instead, for a deeper universal order in the way that things behave.

Amphos reasoned that we find order, after all, not in the patterns that scattered seeds form when they fall to the ground, but in the miraculous way that each of those seeds develops into a living plant having a superb structure, similar in great detail to one another. We would not try to seek the meaning in the precise arrangement of seeds sprinkled on the soil; yet, there must be meaning in the hidden mystery of the inner forces controlling the growth of each seed individually, so that each one follows essentially the same wonderful course. Nature’s laws must indeed have a superbly organized precision for this to be possible.

Amphos became convinced that without precision in the underlying laws, there could be no order in the world, whereas much order is indeed perceived in the way that things behave. Moreover, there must be precision in our ways of thinking about these matters if we are not to be led seriously astray.

It so happened that word had reached Amphos of a sage who lived in another part of the land, and whose beliefs appeared to be in sympathy with those of Amphos. According to this sage, one could not rely on the teachings and traditions of the past. To be certain of one’s beliefs, it was necessary to form precise conclusions by the use of unchallengeable reason. The nature of this precision had to be mathematical – ultimately dependent on the notion of number and its application to geometric forms. Accordingly, it must be number and geometry, not myth and superstition, that governed the behaviour of the world.

As Am-tep had done a century and a millennium before, Amphos took to the sea. He found his way to the city of Croton, where the sage and his brotherhood of 571 wise men and 28 wise women were in search of truth. After some time, Amphos was accepted into the brotherhood. The name of the sage was Pythagoras.

Meet the Author

Roger Penrose is Emeritus Rouse Ball Professor of Mathematics at Oxford University. He has received a number of prizes and awards, including the 1988 Wolf Prize for physics, which he shared with Stephen Hawking for their joint contribution to our understanding of the universe. His books include The Emperor's New Mind, Shadows of the Mind, and The Nature of Space and Time, which he wrote with Hawking. He has lectured extensively at universities throughout America. He lives in Oxford.

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4.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 9 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
For all of you who have read books like 'The Elegant Universe' or 'The Universe in a Nutshell', but strive to learn the math, this is without a doubt the book you have been looking for. For all of you who however don't care about math, or just despise it, there's a lot this book has, but you will be skipping a few pages. More than just the math (which I thoroughly enjoyed), Penrose has great philosophy and arguements throughout the whole book. He opens up with his arguement that mathematics is more than just a mental creation, to his consistent arguements for or against modern physical ideas. I have to say that the best part of this book is that it shows that you can't describe the workings of the universe in just a few hundred pages. This guy (through 8 years of work) pulls out more than 1000 pages, which do not include a single dull moment. So for any of you who have had any curiosity about modern science and the way the universe works, I highly suggest you buy this book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Just amazing writing -- clear, well thought out regarding how to relate his ideas to the reader -- almost poetic in the flow of writing. The details of the math are rigorous at times, but of any book I've read, the concepts are just so clear. One can easily skip the math and get so much out of this book due to the depth of the narative. Penrose's having dedicated 8 years to this writing shows. Absolutely 5 stars. Roger Tribble
Guest More than 1 year ago
It¿s a delicate balance for book: Encyclopedic vs well focused on a unifying theme! Penrose succeeds admirably. It¿s not boring! Books like this are few and far between. Indeed, there are preciously few authors who manage to successfully guide beginning students into serious scientific topics; and even fewer who can see the big picture, and do it all. And then keeping our attention through more than 1000 pages! Penrose¿s book is inspiring, informative, exciting; and at the same time it¿s honest about what math and physics are. It is modest when modesty is called for. You are not cheated. You do get the equations (not just hand waving!), but you are gently prepared in advance, so you will want the mathematical formulae. Penrose¿s book is likely to help high school students getting started in science; and to inspire and inform us all. There is something for everyone: for the beginning student in math or in physics, for the educated layman/woman (perhaps the students¿ parents), for graduate students, for teachers, for scientists, for researchers; and the list goes on. It is one of the very few books of this scope that is not intimidating. Not in the least! I can¿t begin to do justice to this terrific book. Get it, and judge for yourself. I will also not give away the ending, other than saying that the title of the book is a good hint. And you will be able to form your own take, and your own ideas on the conclusion. Like with all good and subtle endings, they can be understood and appreciated at several levels. I came across Penrose¿s book in my bookstore by accident, and I was at first apprehensive: The more than 1000 pages, and the 3.3 pounds are enough to intimidate anyone. But when I started to read, I found myself unable to put it down. And I didn¿t: Bought it; and I had several days of enjoyable reading. I am not likely to put it away to collect dust either. It is the kind of book you will want to keep using, and to return to. It will not surprise that one of Penrose¿s unifying themes is the compelling and pleasing geometric images that underlie both the mathematics (roughly one third of the book: modern geometry, Riemann surfaces, complex functions, Fourier analysis, visions of infinity), and the physics: Cosmology (the big bang, black holes), gravity, thermodynamics, relativity (classical and modern: loop quantum gravity, twisters), and quantum theory (wave-particle duality, atomic spectra, coherence, measurements). The pictures: In fact, this semester, I was just teaching a graduate course, and I had a hard time presenting of Riemann surfaces in an attractive way. It¿s a subject that typically comes across as intimidating in many of the classical books: Take Herman Weyl¿s book, for example. I also found it refreshing to see that Roger Penrose gave the many illustrations his own personal and artistic touch; as opposed to having flashy pictures generated by the latest in color-graphics and special effects. I think readers will relate better to Penrose¿s own illustrations: They isolate and highlight the core ideas and they are not intimidating: We sense that we ourselves would have been able to make similar pencil sketches. Or at least we are encouraged to try! The common theme in the pictures serves to bring to life the underlying and fundamental ideas;--- another attractive feature of the book! It is otherwise easy to get lost in some of the equations, and in the encyclopedic panorama of topics. Review by Palle Jorgensen, February 2005.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I say person because this book is definately of value to layman like me and most likely of value to the more advanced too. As physics progresses it is discussed more and more in terms of very advanced mathematics. Wonder what all the math means? Well here it is. The problem, of course, is the conundrum of whether math is discovered or invented. Mathematicians like Penrose would no doubt say it is discovered and he has dedicated his math abilities to discovering it in physical reality. Physicists would say it is invented to model physical reality and they tend not to have too much respect for rigor that is applicable elsewhere. I understand Penrose is losing some respect in the physics community in this reguard. Never the less this book appears to stay in the bounds of where math has been proven to be of value in physics. I find it so complete that it will probably get a couple of Feynman type rereads to make sure I have everything down pat. As a final word: just as I was taught in my engineering classes that the Bohr model of the atom was obsolete and I should be learning quantum physics instead, I should have also learned complex analysis to cover more than R*3. Well, here it is.
umh1972 More than 1 year ago
This is a super good book. The only negative thing about it is that it is only on paper. In my opinion, it is the best math book ever!!!
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Guest More than 1 year ago
Roger Penrose presents a vast panorama of modern knowledge. He starts with the mathematical instruments that cast light on the road to the elusive physical reality. These instruments allow appearance of singularities, which make the current understanding of the universe incomplete. We cannot know for sure what was the universe before the big bang and how it will evolve. These questions find amazingly elegant answers in the book Theory of Interaction by Eugene Savov, where space experiments are considered and afterwards equations are drawn. I highly recommend these two basic books to everyone who is interested in the creation and the unfolding of the universe and in the application of mathematics to these great mysteries.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book paves a road to reality, which is much deeper than what modern mathematics can appreciate. Math cannot answer how the laws of nature are created. It only describes phenomena as they appear in our minds. Math is how we describe nature at different scales ¿ Euclidean geometry, relativity and quantum theory. A physical approach is required to reveal the structure of reality and to show how it appears in our minds.