Carlo Rovelli has been hailed as 'the man who makes physics sexy'. But beyond all the hype and accolades, he’s just a humble dude trying to figure out life.
After selling over a million copies of his breakthrough book Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, Carlo Rovelli has been hailed as 'the man who makes physics sexy'. But beyond all the accolades, he’s just a humble dude trying to figure out life.
Everyone has something to ask Carlo Rovelli. There’s a certain quality about his presence – a mop of grey-and-black curls, narrow glasses and a smile of beatific calm – that welcomes curiosity.
People gather at his talks to pose questions about black holes, ancient civilisations and the nature of time.
But things can get so highbrow, so quickly, that it’s easy to forget there’s an extraordinary character behind his stature as a groundbreaking theoretical physicist.
Forty years ago, Carlo Rovelli hitchhiked across North America, taking LSD as he explored the wilderness – and himself.
University had been a turbulent time. Studying physics in Bologna during the late-70s, Carlo get swept up in a wave of radical politics.
Amid rising tension between the city’s communist leadership and its ‘new left’ students – who opposed authoritarianism and established autonomist communities – Carlo worked at Radio Alice, a now-legendary subversive radio station favoured by protesters.
He was also detained for refusing to do military service and investigated for co-authoring Fatti Nostri, a collection of political writing so controversial that it was printed in secret.
But after those nine months of self-exploration across the US and Canada, Carlo decided to pursue a different path. He began to take his studies more seriously, believing he could make a bigger impact as a scientist than as an activist.
Today Carlo is one of the world’s foremost theoretical physicists, specialising in loop quantum gravity and working as a professor at Aix-Marseille University in France.
It’s his ability to make complex scientific issues accessible to the average person, however, that has shot him to fame. Seven Brief Lessons on Physics became one of the fastest-selling science books of all time upon publication in 2015.
His current book, Reality Is Not What It Seems, aims to take readers on a “journey out of our common-sense view of things”.
So as he takes a seat in the mezzanine of a central London hotel – dressed in a navy polo shirt, jeans and Birkenstocks; speaking gently as throngs of tourists check in to their rooms below – it feels like time to keep things simple, to swap talk of electromagnetism for something a bit more down-to-earth.
When you grew up, did you feel like an outsider at all?
I’ve felt like an outsider in one way or another all my life, which has been a weakness and a strength at the same time. My family moved to Verona shortly before I was born. It’s one of those small provincial towns where if your family is not from that place, you’re a stranger even if you were born there. So even now, some 60 years later, I’m really not one of them.
I had this impression at a young age and because of the cultural environment I grew up in, I felt a little bit disconnected to society all my life. Then when I moved into academia, not many people around me had spent time in a hippy commune, so it felt like there was a fracture between my values and the common values shared by everybody else. I survived, it was okay, but I felt like I couldn’t always say what I thought. Even today, to say what I think – I’m aware that people look at me strange.
It’s funny you should feel that way because I’ve seen people applaud whenever you say something. For many, an impact like that would go to their head and empower them to say whatever they want. You don’t feel that way?
Well, let me put it like this: it has been a surprise throughout my life to find out that people listen to me. It happened first in physics, obviously. But then when I started writing for a larger public, there was a big response. People do listen and it’s a wonderful feeling – maybe precisely because I felt so disconnected. It’s not that I don’t see that, but nevertheless I still often find that there are things I have to be careful about. I meet people who think like me but very often I find myself in a small minority.
What did you learn from your time hitchhiking as young man?
One thing was that you can abandon common ways of the world and see other possibilities. That was maybe the strongest teaching. It gave me the courage to be ready to break up with things and take risks.
Why do you think you lost interest in politics and counterculture before branching into science?
Like many of my generation, we may have believed too much in the possibility of dramatically changing the world in a short space of time. Discovering that the majority of people have no interest whatsoever in changing the way we live had a big impact. All that stuff we thought we could get rid of – from war to the disparity between rich and poor – felt like it was going to stay the same. So there was a disappointing sense of, ‘We lost the revolution.’
That didn’t change my way of thinking, just my hope of being effective in political action. I have a lot of respect for people who are involved in politics, who keep fighting for ideals, but I found myself drifting into something else. I wondered if I could achieve more through science.
As a scientist, you constantly encounter failure. Most of your calculations ultimately turn into dead ends. How do you learn to be comfortable with being wrong? How do you keep the emotion out of that process?
Well, I don’t keep the emotion out of the process! [laughs] I just let them go free. In theoretical physics, it’s normal to be depressed when something is wrong. That’s fine. Somehow the hope remains that you will find something right, which is so exciting, although you don’t do science with emotions. You do it by thinking and by computing and by reading and by discussing. But the push come from emotion. And you have to be optimistic; otherwise you’d just give up.
Does being a physicist allow you to be more accepting of death than most people?
Yeah, I think so. To my surprise, people seem to be very much attached to the idea that there’s something after death. I don’t understand why. It seems so strange to me. I think the fear of death is like a mistake in our evolution. We’re obviously terrorised if a lion jump on us, right? That’s a distinctive reaction to an immediate threat; it violently motivates us to escape or defend ourselves.
But we have somehow developed this brain that can look into the future, distinguishing us from most other animals, and of course that means confronting the fact that we’re gonna die at some point. So when these two different evolutionary pressures combine, we react to a future death as if a lion is attacking us now.
To be afraid of death is complete nonsense. It’s like being afraid of life or afraid of the sun or afraid of the grass. It’s just the way things are. This desire to project outside our life – it’s meaningless. Life is exploding with meaning just as it is. A human being is something that wants to go places, wants to survive, wants to love, wants to learn. We don’t need any more meaning than that.
So what do you think happens to us then when we die?
Well, I know what happens to our atoms, to the kinetic energy in us. But the subjective perspective from which I look at the world, with which I identify myself, it just not will exist – just at it did not exist before I was born. Each of us is like a vessel of memories, subjective perspective and awareness, right? We can sort of understand that in terms of physics, chemistry, biology, psychology. But a lot of it we do not understand. We’re a horrendously complex machine.
Just as there’s a limit to the universe, could there be a limit to the human mind in terms of how much we can possibly understand?
Yeah, that’s a very good question. I think there are all sorts of limits because the human mind is weak. It’s not complicated. In fact it’s easy to build machines that do so many things better than us, like playing chess. We think very, very hard and this little piece of plastic can outsmart us in an instant. But I don’t think there are a priori limits.
It’s a bit like in sport: are we ever going to run two kilometres in 10 seconds? No. But every year, there’s somebody moving faster than the fastest man or woman before. Even if we’re never going to run faster than a leopard, we can keep pushing our limits. Similarly, I think we’re never going to understand everything about the universe, but we can understand better and better.
If there were somehow a supreme being who created us – and it’s a big ‘if’ – what if the bigger picture is beyond our comprehension by design?
I can’t imagine the meaning of a supreme being that created us. I just can’t conceive it. Maybe, I don’t know. I mean maybe we are just the product of a butterfly’s dream. Could it be? Yes. But it doesn’t teach us anything. We can’t learn from that. I think it’s more interesting to explore things that can help us understand better.
When I was a child, I learned that the universe is constantly expanding. And then it hit me: this incredible idea of how the galaxy is growing. I remember lying in bed and thinking, ‘Well, the heart is expanding – going bigger and smaller, bigger and smaller – so maybe the universe is the heart of a huge giant.’ And could it be? Well, why not? Do I believe it? No, obviously. We can tell impossibly poetic stories without being able to disprove them, but I don’t think they’re interesting.
I think when people talk about God, they’re talking about something completely different. They’re talking about their own interior life and their power of relating to something outside of it – and that’s a true experience that people have inside them. We understand so little about ourselves that that’s meaningful. But trying to use these interior experiences as way to understand the universe at large, I think that’s a mistake.
Since you dreamed of travelling through space as a kid, I wanted to ask you about Fermi’s paradox: if there is intelligent life out there, then why haven’t they made contact with us?
The well-known answer is because they’re intelligent, so why should they come talk to us? [laughs] No, there actually is an answer to Fermi’s paradox. It disregards the fact that the distance between galaxies is so immense. Imagine that there are millions of civilisations somewhere. The likelihood that there is one nearby is very small, so the time it would take for one to come to us and communicate is incredibly long – long enough for civilisation to come and go.
You said that you we may be the first species to knowingly watch our own demise. Given that we’re at a time when people believe science is under attack, when some are even questioning whether the earth is round, is it possible that we could slip into a dark age of reason and undo all the progress we’ve made?
I think that danger is real. We shouldn’t panic too much, but I think we should be careful because civilisations have collapsed in the past. When that happens, knowledge is thrown away. Today I see a lot of anti-reason, anti-science, anti-enlightenment ideology gathering force.
Whether it’s global warming, nuclear weapons, war or inequality – there are lots of reasonable people fighting against these things but there is also a force pushing in the opposite direction. In fact I do see humanity moving more towards tribal thinking – ‘them’ against ‘us’ – with religions fighting one another.
I think we need to preserve the possibility of developing knowledge. We should be careful of all the irrationalism percolating society, [the attempts] to convince people that choices which are not based on reason can be better. Reason is not overly powerful – it’s weak – but it’s good for not making mistakes. That’s an incredible tool and we should rely on it. We don’t. In my opinion, that is not a good direction for society.
When you were asked about what you would do if you could rule the world, one of the things you said was that you’d abolish schools. I think that would surprise a lot of people. So what alternative would you envision?
I think that in an absolutely ideal society, everybody would teach and everybody would learn without the need for governmental structures like schools, which have a very constraining effect on people. School is a means through which knowledge passes from one generation to another. But in modern society it does much more than that. It teaches children to stay in their place, to not talk when they are not supposed to and so forth. Society’s need for order can compress children’s creativity and freedom. If I ruled the world, I would preach indiscipline.
What do you think the 20-year-old Carlo would think of the 60-year-old Carlo?
It’s great question: the kind that you ask yourself in the night when you look at the ceiling and say, ‘Oh boy, where am I going?’ And I don’t know! I mean life has been better than I expected. It has surprised me. I was able to keep a lot of freedom which seemed very difficult to me at some point. I’m happy, so far. Tomorrow, who knows?
I also expected that my life would be shorter and one reason is, while I’m not afraid of death, I am afraid of being weak and ill and stupid. Maybe I am old and stupid without even realising! But I think the 20-year-old Carlo would look at me, smile and say, ‘All right, it’s not so bad; not too bad at all.’
Carlo Rovelli’s Reality Is Not What It Seems: The Journey to Quantum Gravity is published by Penguin.