Interview: quantum gravity physicist Carlo Rovelli

The man who uses his writing to share his love of physics

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Our perception of science has changed. It is often the case that when we learn someone studies a science, we let out a groan or a hum of surprise. Whilst this may come from sympathy, admiration, and curiosity, the separation between scientists and the rest of us can seem vast. But this separation hasn’t always been there. Scientists used to be more occupied with literature, philosophy, and the arts. René Descartes, George Berkeley, Galileo, and Leonardo Di Vinci are some of the philosophers and polymaths who saw science as part of life’s philosophy. Science, for them, was part of life’s beauty and a tool of appreciation. The popularisation of science, through people like Brian Cox, Stephen Hawkings and Richard Dawkins has helped bring out the awe and romance for a subject that for many elicits a deep wonder.

One of the most influential, meditative, and eccentric popular science writers is Carlo Rovelli: a man inspired by the beauty of the discipline, who has reached millions of people with his insightful and accessible books.

Rovelli is an Italian physicist, best known to the public for his popular science book Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, but renowned in the academic world for his role in the creation of loop quantum gravity theory.

As well as his illustrious academic career, he has always been involved with the politics, culture, and people surrounding this subject. In recent times, he has written extensively for the culture supplements of various Italian newspapers including Corriere della Sera, Il Sole 24 Ore and La Repubblica.

As a student, he was involved with the foundation of two political radio stations and was later temporarily detained for crimes of opinion in the 1980s due to the controversy of his book Fatti Nostri. His individual, free-thinking, and rebellious approach make him a fascinating member of the scientific community.

Rovelli’s classically Italian mannerisms and eccentric enthusiasm make for a warm but engaging interview. His written responses come in frantic, clipped sentences and vividly told tales. He speaks first about his journey into physics, not with the usual one-track determinism of those who have dedicated their lives to a subject, but with a carefree respect for pure chance.

“I did not know what to do with my life when I was a young man. I did not imagine I was going to have the life I have had.” He explains. “I was very confused, attracted by all sorts of things. I was curious, rebellious and I did not like school. I was thirsty for all possible life experiences, so I read a lot and travelled.”

The picture that Rovelli paints of his school days marries up with his compelling career. He ended up studying physics at the University of Bologna in 1978, before doing a PhD at the University of Padova.

He tells me, “I chose to study physics a bit by chance, and perhaps I was attracted by the fact that it was a very general subject. It was only in my third or fourth year of university that I began to actually like physics. I was sort of falling in love with the beauty of the subject, which came from a love for life.”

Since discovering his love for physics at university, Rovelli has written multiple popular science books to share his passion with his readers, including The Order of Time, Reality is Not What it Seems, and most famously, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics. Like many things in his life, he puts much of the writing of this best-selling book down to chance.

“It all started with an article in a newspaper. I was asked to write about my own research into quantum gravity for the cultural supplement. I knew that the topic was too hard, because most people do not even know what ‘quantum’ means, let alone anything about Einstein’s theory of gravity. But my girlfriend said, ‘Well, then write three articles: one to explain quantum, one to explain gravity and the last one on quantum gravity’. At first I laughed, then I thought, why not? So I did it.”

In his anecdotal, humorous style, Rovelli continues, stressing the serendipity of his opportunities. “These articles had remarkable success, to the point that a mythical Italian publisher, Adelphi, contacted me and suggested I expanded the three articles into a book. I still thought it was a crazy idea but, I gave myself the objective of condensing the core of modern physics and my own fascination into a slim 80-page book. I put my passion for science into it, and my general world view.”

Rovelli has not limited himself to writing about the theory of physics. He has also reflected on science as a discipline, and the conflict between science and religion. In his 2011 book The First Scientist Anaximander and His Legacy, he expresses many of his views on these topics. His passion for the philosophical questions of science is clear, and he tells me that this book, out of all of them, he is “particularly attached to”.

“Each book has a different story and the process can be extremely different. My book on Anaximander simply grew out of notes that I was taking for myself when reading. I realized how amazing Anaximander had been and how immense his influence was on the subsequent development of science. My notes grew very, very slowly, while I was studying and reading.

“When one of my friends read them, they suggested I transformed them into a book, using Anaximander to detail what I think about the deep nature of science. Because I was working in this way, it took years before the book was complete.”

This book provides an insight into Rovelli himself, with provocative questions being raised throughout. Tellingly, he titles one of his chapters ‘Rebellion Becomes a Virtue’, a mantra that seems apt for his own life, as well as his understanding of the universe. He concludes the book with the idea that the success of scientific thinking is grounded in pushing the boundaries of our collective knowledge, and using acts of “learned rebellion” to break ignorance.

As our conversation moves towards his book on loop quantum gravity theory, Reality is not What it Seems, he again recants a story. He seems to have a well- rehearsed anecdote ready for the question.

“One night I was driving from Italy to France. The highway was empty as it was the middle of the night and I was thinking. Suddenly I got the idea of how to write the book and imagined its entire structure. I got excited and started putting together the book in my mind, until I realized that a police car was flashing me and I was going far above the speed limit. The policemen pulled me over and asked what the hell I was doing at such a high speed.”

Rovelli relishes the mischievousness of his rule-breaking and the theatre of the story. “I explained that I had just realized how to write my next book. The policeman smiled, wished me well for the book and let me go without a ticket. After that, the writing of the book was relatively fast. In a sense, I had been composing the book in my head for years. I just hadn’t found a way to structure it and I didn’t know where to start.”

The book reads as an account of the evolutions of science and philosophy. Rovelli stresses his core idea that, “our culture is foolish to separate science and poetry”.

He believes that science should be seen first as a lens through which to see the beauty of the universe, and not as a method that clashes with other disciplines.

He seems fascinated with communicating his complex ideas to the everyday reader and banishing the impression that science is in some way separate from our lives. But, when I ask him what the public should know more about, he gives one of the most passionate responses of our exchange.

“I think that the question should be put differently: the problem is not what the public ‘should’ know, but what people miss by not being aware of what we already know about the world.”

He expresses his frustration at people who do not approach science with the same wonder as him. “There is a beauty in all of this knowledge. There are marvellous treasures in the sciences and it is sad that so many people ignore them. It is like in music: there isn’t really music that people ‘should’ know, but ignoring music altogether means you are missing something beautiful in your life. Modern cosmology is extraordinary, and so is biology, and physics, and the list goes on.”

His animated response provides an insight into his own view of physics, but also his interest in writing popular science books on highly complex topics and agonizing over how to make them palatable for the every day reader.

As well as his popular work, Rovelli’s contributions to science have been remarkable. He has written over 200 scientific articles that have driven forward our understanding of gravity, winning an award for his contributions to theoretical physics in 1995.

This all began in the late 1980s, when in collaboration with Lee Smolin and Abhay Ashtekar he created the theory of loop quantum gravity. I ask him how he sees his popular books in relation to his ‘serious’ academic work and his feelings are clear.

“I prefer working on my science, my ‘serious academic work’. That is my true passion and what I mostly want to do. I see writing popular books as a side activity, and I hope it doesn’t absorb too much of my time.

”Despite these explicit preferences about his focus, he adds, “the books have given me contact with many people and this is a gift.”

The eccentric energy and rebellious spirit of Carlo Rovelli were apparent from our first exchange. He became animated with a boyish excitement when he spoke about his scientific work. His ability to connect with people’s childlike wonder and articulate his authentic, emotional desire to understand the universe is remarkable. Rovelli feels that chance has been the primary mover in his life, but for his readers, his ingenious skill, passion and love are what define his success.

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