Why Study Hard Things?

Mental lenses, fear, and the lure of the frontier.

Why is this series called “The Road to Reality”? As I wrote in my newsletter, I’ve had an odd, intellectual fever dream going for years now; I’d like to learn enough advanced math and physics to make my way through Roger Penrose’s The Road to Reality, and not just understand it, but feel in my bones what it’s like to intuitively get our current best guess about how reality works.

This book is infamous. It was published as a popular science book, but Penrose is so miscalibrated (“optimistic”, as he puts it) about everyone else’s level of mathematical ability that he refused to cut any corners on the road to general relativity, quantum field theory and Twistor theory, his own Theory of Everything.

Why choose such an absurd target? Certainly not because of any direct effect the book will have on my career. I don’t really know anyone I can even talk to about most of the chapters.

I’m aiming at this book because I’m wired to love the experience of peering through new sets of Mental Lenses, and Roger Penrose is famous for the brilliant visual and geometric intuition he’s been able to thread through his entire working career, at every level of math and physics. He recently appeared on the Portal podcast with Eric Weinstein; I highly recommend you give this a listen, follow what you can, and delight in listening to Penrose try and convert the pictures in his head into language.

Does it matter that it’s difficult? Yes, I think it does.

I’ve also found that choosing some scary target motivates me more than more sane, smaller goals. It almost doesn’t matter if I ever read the book. It’s meant to act like a big, gravitational body, hauling me (us!!) through the high plains of Mathematics. My real goal is to be able to play at the frontiers of modern science, and get a glimpse of the future earlier than I’d be able to without these modules loaded into my brain. I’d like to be able to do research at the edges, and that’s not really possible if I don’t speak the language.

Committing to a big goal, like signing up for a 100 mile trail running race off the couch, forces you out onto the trails and scares you enough to make you do your squats and pushups, and maybe even skip the doughnuts. The Turkey Trot 5k doesn’t do that for me.

There are probably other excellent targets, like working through the Feynman Lectures on Physics, and I expect we’ll cover some of those too. The point is to choose some big, scary thing that gets you tingling for some reason you don’t understand, and commit to it, however little sense it makes.

There is one more important motivation here. I’ve felt, for years now, a compulsion to learn and teach, and I’ve been avoiding actually doing that on a wider scale than 1-1. I hope that having you all along for the ride will scare me into keeping a regular cadence.

I’m going to send one more letter outlining the sorts of topics and books that we might tackle along the (Road to the) Road to Reality, and then I’ll pick a topic and get started on the real meat.

(If you have a moment, please reply here with a note telling me what you’re looking to get out of a larger study group, and why you were attracted enough to this to come along for the ride. See you soon!)