Searching for What Connects Us, Carlo Rovelli Explores Beyond Physics

5th May, 2022.      //   Space Travel  // 
A new book by Carlo Rovelli, a physicist, explores questions of how we live now.

The physicist ranges widely — from black holes to Buddhism to climate change — in his new book, “There Are Places in the World Where Rules Are Less Important Than Kindness.”

The nature of time. Black holes. Ancient philosophers. The struggle for democracy. Climate change. Buddhist philosophy. In his new collection of essays and articles, Carlo Rovelli, one of the world’s most renowned physicists, broadens his writing to include questions of politics, justice and how we live now.

“I look at myself as much more than a physicist,” he said in an interview at his home in London, Ontario, on a cold, calm day in February. The new book, “There Are Places in the World Where Rules Are Less Important Than Kindness,” published by Riverhead on May 10, is the result of all his “wandering around and being curious in this space of culture at large,” he added.

There is a thread, however, through the myriad topics he covers: the interdependence of all things — and what makes that interdependence profound.

A theoretical physicist and professor at the Centre de Physique Théorique at Aix-Marseille University in France and an adjunct professor of philosophy at Western University in Canada, Rovelli has spent much of his career on the theory of loop quantum gravity, an area of theoretical physics that seeks to unite Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity with quantum mechanics.

Under the theory, the universe would not be continuous, like, say, the sea looks from the shore. Rather, it would be composed of what Rovelli calls “elementary grains” or “quanta of space.” After thinking about his books and discussing their ideas with him, I started to think of the universe as if it were a vast sea of beads, where everything that happens, each “grain,” is a bead directly affecting the next.

Rovelli’s thinking on the nature of time began much earlier — and the story, which he described in “A Stupefying Story,” a piece included in his new book, reveals much about his approach to life and writing. He first meaningfully considered the nature of time during his psychedelic experiences as a teen. The “magical nights” he experienced, he wrote, left him “with a calm awareness of the prejudices of our rigid mental categories.”

Part of what is so appealing about Rovelli’s writing, said Abhay Ashtekar, who is the Evan Pugh professor of physics and the founding director of the Penn State Institute for Gravitation and the Cosmos, is that he “has a knack for communicating to the public very deep ideas in reasonably simple terms.”

Ashtekar read and enjoyed “Seven Brief Lessons on Physics,” a previous book of Rovelli’s, and the one he is best known for. But he’d also seen that “knack” work with his family, he said.

“There was a time in which my 91-year-old mother-in-law and my 19-year-old son were reading the book,” Ashtekar said, adding that they’d picked up the book independently.

Rovelli greeted me at the door as I took off my snow-covered shoes. Looking out from under an unruly mop of gray hair, he seemed playfully affable behind his cloth mask. We made our way to a table next to tall windows. Bright, soft snow blanketed the outside.

Our conversation was as broad as the reach of ideas in his book. We started out talking about how Dante Alighieri and Einstein shared similar conceptions of the universe. (There’s a piece on this in the new book, too.) Soon after, he mentioned Che Guevara and Allen Ginsberg — heroes of his, he said.

Rovelli only started writing for the public in his 50s, after decades as a researcher. He began with articles about major topics in physics for the Italian newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore. Readers liked the pieces, which led to “Seven Brief Lessons on Physics,” a book first published in Italy in 2014, and in the U.S. in 2016. Since then, he’s written more books, including “The Order of Time,” “Reality Is Not What It Seems” and “Helgoland.”

He writes for two very different types of readers, he said: experts who want a fresh perspective and people who know little to nothing of physics but are curious about its big ideas. But he wants to go beyond just reframing those ideas, he added.

“I want to present science the way I understand it after working 40 years in it, so it’s obviously not the same because I’ve been thinking and rethinking and rethinking,” he said. “There is always a little — sometimes a strong — personal take into things.”

Perhaps it’s Rovelli’s writing style, along with his facility with ideas, that sets him apart from other popular science writers. “For some readers,” he said, “the writing in my books is what matters to them. And the truth is I use analogies, some poetical, but it’s not coloring or embellishment. It’s actually where I’m trying to go, trying to transmit some emotion, some sense of marvel, some sense of the core.”

Simon Carnell, along with his late wife, Erica Segre, translated five of Rovelli’s books, including his new one. He said in an email that he sees Rovelli’s style as “highly compressed without ever becoming dry or airless.” He added that Rovelli “has the scientific instinct to avoid and pare away every superfluous word (including of the translations of his work), but more importantly, a writerly ability to do so in the service of a style that is elegant, lively and above all engaging.”

Beyond offering Rovelli’s heady but lean synthesis of science and the humanities, his new book also features pieces dealing with politics, climate change and justice. Dean Rickles, a professor of history and philosophy of modern physics at the University of Sydney, said in an interview over Zoom that this larger project of Rovelli’s, with its theme of interdependence, is particularly compelling.

“He’s concerned now with justice and with peace and with climate. He has become a sort of very political scientist,” he said. “I think you can boil it all down, actually, to sort of a quality, like a democracy in all things … We’re all interdependent.”

Maybe the best way to think of Rovelli’s worldview is through the work of Nāgārjuna, a second-century Indian Buddhist philosopher he admires. Author of “The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way,” Nāgārjuna taught that there is no unchanging, underlying, stable reality — that nothing is self-contained, that all is variable, interdependent. Reality, in short, is always something other than what it just was, or seemed to be, he argues. To define it is to misunderstand it.

In “Emptiness is Empty: Nāgārjuna,” another piece from his new book, Rovelli writes about how the philosopher’s conception of reality provokes a sense of awe, a sense of serenity, but without consolation: “To understand that we do not exist is something that may free us from attachments and from suffering; it is precisely on account of life’s impermanence, the absence from it of every absolute, that life has meaning.”

Before leaving Rovelli’s home that day, I took another look at the concealing snow outside. Reality seemed at once more compelling and more mysterious. Hesitating, I asked him if he thought there was any grand, capital “T” truth. He indulged me, then paused for a moment.

“Capital ‘T,’ ‘the Truth’ … I don’t think it’s interesting,” he said. “The interesting thing is the small ‘t.’ That’s my take on it.”

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