Carlo Rovelli Explains the Universe In His New Book
Itt’s a very good thing Carlo Rovelli did not get eaten by a bear in 1976—though even he admits it would have been his own fault. In western Canada, Rovelli decided to avoid spending the amount of money required to set up his tent in designated areas and instead chose to camp in the wilder parts. He set up his tent and was ready to move in when the grizzly arrived.
Rovelli had a lucky escape. The bear seemed more interested in picking up the leftover food than human prey. “I packed super rapidly,” he says, “left the food, took my tent and backpack, ran to the campsite, and was happy to pay the $2 it cost to camp there.”
That $2 ensured that Rovelli remained in the world, and—to the gratitude of millions of his modern-day readers and followers—that the world got to keep Rovelli. This turned out to have been a very good deal for everyone.
The 65-year-old research physicist now directs the quantum-gravity research group at the Centre de Physique Théorique in Marseilles, France, and is the best-selling author of seven books, including 2014’s Seven Brief Lessons on Physics—which has been translated into more than 40 languages—and the new THere are some places in the world where rules don’t matter as much as kindness, coming May 10, a collection of his newspaper columns originally published from 2010 to 2020.
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Quick-talking and small-framed, Rovelli is rather blasé about trafficking in the nearly hallucinogenic concepts of his field, from quantum theory—which involves the behavior of matter and energy at the atomic and subatomic levels, where the precepts of classical physics break down—to relativity, to certainty (which, for what it’s worth, he insists does not exist). “I’m a simple mechanic,” he says. “In Italian that’s almost a pejorative. However, I’m not the person who thinks that science is a fundamental explanation of everything. Scientists should not be arrogant. They are not the masters of today’s knowledge.”
Perhaps not. And yet, Rovelli’s life’s goal is to be the first physicist to reconcile quantum mechanics and more traditional theories of gravity and Einsteinian space-time. Rovelli, if it is possible, will be much more than an accomplished physicist. He would also become a great communicator. This would make Rovelli a legendary figure.
Tripping and hitching
Rovelli began breaking rules long before he pitched his tent in a place he wasn’t supposed to. He was born in Bologna (Italy) and fled his family at 14 to hitchhike across Europe. LSD was his first experiment. He credits it with helping him realize that the linear time we perceive as reality may not always be what it seems. The experience, he writes in his new book, “left me with a calm awareness of the prejudices of our rigid mental categories.”
This kind of thinking made Rovelli a natural candidate for philosophy and physics. He was still unsure of his decision when he entered college at University of Bologna. When it came to registering for classes, however, the line at the physics desk was shorter than that for philosophy.
“Physics was a little bit of a random choice,” he says. “I also discovered, to my surprise, that I was good at it.”
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It is indeed very good. Rovelli received his PhD at University of Padova. After that, he held various postdoctoral posts at Yale University, the University of Rome and was a professor at University of Pittsburgh for over ten years. Rovelli has come to conclude that if you want to understand how the universe works—and he would be very happy to teach you—it’s important to grasp three essential concepts. First, things don’t happen according to exact equations, but rather only to probability. Next, space-time is not a continuum but is ultimately reducible to “grains,” the smallest possible units of the universe. “We should think about space around us as if we’re immersed in a bucket of sand,” he says. “At some point, you get down to a single grain and cannot get it to break.”
Finally, Rovelli argues, all objects—even grizzly bears—do not have their own properties, but properties only insofar as they relate to other objects. “The world is not made of stones,” he says. ”It’s made of kisses.”
Explanating the unfathomable
Rovelli concedes that there’s a limit to how much sense any of what he traffics in daily is comprehensible to most people. If you work as a cardiac surgeon, it is easy to explain the job. Work as a theoretical physicist and you’re left resorting to metaphor.
The universe is clever at misleading us into believing it’s simple. This makes life extremely challenging. The ground is down there; space—which has no grains as far as we can see—is up there; time moves forward. For all of us, including physicists, the trick is to not learn new truths, but rather unlearn old lies. Galileo Galilei’s seminal book, which explained the motion of the earth, is perhaps history’s best example of that process.
“It’s meant to convince you that the earth goes around the sun and that the earth rotates,” Rovelli says. “But what’s remarkable is that the actual arguments for the earth moving take a few pages. Most of the book is devoted to trying to bring the reader out from the obvious conviction that that’s impossible.”
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Where humanity as a whole fits into the cosmos is not a matter that Rovelli addresses much—or that seems, within his science, to require that much addressing. He says consciousness and the concept of life are only a matter biochemistry and thermodynamics. “Life is a super-complicated phenomenon, but there’s no mystery here,” he says. What’s more, death brings an end to things utterly.
“I don’t like to feel consolation in the idea that I will be welcomed by God after my death,” he writes in his new book. “I like to look directly at the limited length of our lives, to learn to look at our sister, death, with serenity. I like to wake in the morning, look at the sea, and thank the wind, the waves, the sky… the life that allows me to exist.”
The stem-winding title of Rovelli’s new book comes from a 2016 essay in which he visits a mosque in Senegal. Before he enters the building, he takes off his sandals and carries them with him. A young man approaches him and points to the sandals; Rovelli realizes that the rule is actually that dirtshedding shoes should not enter the building at all. The sandals are left behind as he rushes outside. A man of old takes the sandals and places them in his bag. He then takes them into the mosque, where he will give them to Rovelli. The man’s desire to put the traveler’s mind at ease about his shoes has taken precedence over even that rule.
“I am speechless,” Rovelli writes; “there are places in the world where rules are less important than kindness.”
The universe Rovelli has devoted his life to explaining might be a cold, indifferent, even unkind one—at least insofar as it largely limits us to our tiny little beachhead of earth. But it is a clearer and more elegant one for Rovelli’s efforts. This is, in an extremely real sense, its act of kindness.
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