May 17 2021

Book: Fundamentals: Ten Keys to Reality

I’ve been reading hard science fiction lately, along with some actual science. The hard sci-fi includes Dragon’s Egg and Starquake by Robert Forward (wow – awesome) and Nova by Samuel Delany (also awesome). The science includes The God Equation: The Quest for a Theory of Everything by Michio Kaku and Fundamentals: Ten Keys to Reality by Frank Wilczek.

In between runs this weekend I finished Nova (I was listening to it on Audible), Fundamentals (I was reading it on Kindle), and read most of Starquake (It’s only available in physical form.) I also started listening to Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir. The only thing that would have made this weekend better would be a third day to it, instead of the Monday in front of me.

Frank Wilczek is a legendary physicist who won the Nobel Prize in 2004 for “for the discovery of asymptotic freedom in the theory of the strong interaction.” with David Gross and David Politzer. His office at MIT is in the same hallway as Bernard Feld, my MIT namesake (Prof B. Feld, something I never became.) He also happens to be a spectacular writer.

Fundamentals is extremely accessible. After reading Michio Kaku’s The God Equation, I realized that I knew a lot of surface-level physics (and science in general), but there was a layer down, especially from the past 20 years, that was elusive. Kaku’s presented it in a way that one could understand without any deep quantum physics knowledge, so I went looking for more.

Wilczek delivered. The first part of the book, called “What There Is”, has five chapters.

  1. There’s Plenty of Space
  2. There’s Plenty of Time
  3. There Are Very Few Ingredients
  4. There Are Very Few Laws
  5. There’s Plenty of Matter and Energy

It’s brilliant.

As I read hard sci-fi, the entanglement of known science at the time (Nova was published in 1968; The Dragon’s Egg was published in 1980) along with speculation of where things were going (e.g. each book took place far in the future) created a contextual backdrop for me for Fundamentals that helped bring what we know, and what we don’t know, to the surface. Or, more specifically, what we knew (in 1968, 1980) that was right, and what doesn’t seem right anymore because it wasn’t known, or understood.

The shocker is how much is directionally correct. When I read Asimov from the 1950s (I, Robot is a good place to start), or Philip K. Dick from the 1960s (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is a good place to start) I have the same feeling. Many details are completely wrong (e.g. how data is stored on auxtape) but others are completely correct (e.g. massive underground data centers). Hard sci-fi takes more risks on this dimension, and both Forward and Delany do an amazing job of both the science and the storytelling.

In the last 20 years, I’ve read a lot more sci-fi than science. That’s a miss on my part. Going forward, my diet will include both. And I hope to someday meet a Cheela. And a Shrike.