Samuel Matlack at The New Atlantis:
The question of whether and how physics can be rendered in ordinary speech is nowhere more important than in our assessment of writers who try to present a vision of the world that is wholly other than what our everyday experience would have us believe, a world that, many think, is more real. This is the spirit of the recent book Reality Is Not What It Seems by theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli, which promises to be a “magic journey out of our commonsense view of things, far from complete.”
There is something deeply paradoxical about this project. On the one hand, it is motivated by a desire to dispel everyday illusions about the physical world that contribute to our human-centeredness. “We are obsessed with ourselves,” writes Rovelli. “We study our history, our psychology, our philosophy, our gods. Much of our knowledge revolves around ourselves, as if we were the most important thing in the universe.” Physics, he thinks, can teach us better.
On the other hand, the only way to take a popular audience on this “journey out of our commonsense view of things” in writing is in commonsense language, which is intricately tied to our everyday experience of the world. Writers therefore try to make physics intelligible to the general reader by translating esoteric mathematical theories into plain terms, while at the same time trying to show how conventional descriptions of the world as it appears to us do not match up with physicists’ descriptions of actual reality. This is a vexing task.