Tom Hodgkinson chats to the the physicist and writer about the intimate connection between idling and scientific advance
Quantum physicist Carlo Rovelli’s best-known work is Seven Brief Lessons On Physics, which has sold a million copies and been translated into over 40 languages. He’s also the author of The Order Of Time and, recently, a collection of essays on physics and philosophy with the title There Are Places In The World Where Rules Are Less Important Than Kindness. His new book Helgoland is published this spring. We met the professor for a “Drink with the Idler” online interview in December 2020, where Carlo spoke from his current perch at Canadian research centre, the Perimeter Institute in Canada.
TOM HODGKINSON Do you think lockdowns have given people more time for philosophical reflection?
CARLO ROVELLI One of the greatest jumps ahead in science of all time was made during the plague in London when a guy called Isaac – his last name was Newton – had to retreat to the countryside and was forced to stay alone for a long period. He came out with the basis of what is modern science today – mechanics and the gravitational theory.
TH So a period of enforced idling led him to revolutionise modern science?
CR Well, I don’t think everybody will become Newton just by staying home, but maybe there’s a little bit more thinking. At least we can hope so.
TH You also say somewhere in your work that Einstein spent an entire year wandering aimlessly. You believe that was at the foundation of his thought.
CR Einstein was still in high school and decided to drop out and go to his family in northern Italy. He spent one year doing nothing – just being lazy and reading. He would go to the university classes of physics in Pavia just through curiosity – not because he was enrolled in the university. I believe this freedom of just following his own curiosity and not staying on the rails of a formal education was absolutely crucial for his major explosion of creativity. He later joined the university in Switzerland and got a proper education in one of the best places for studying science at the time. But he did this in his own time, in his own way. It’s a pity young people today aren’t allowed to do that.
TH Science and philosophy have been at loggerheads for a very long time. In an essay about Aristotle you say that ancient Greek intellectuals attacked philosophy.
CR That’s right. Athens had many schools for the young kids to get their education. The two main ones were Plato’s and the one led by Isocrates. There was a competition between them, sort of like Oxford and Cambridge. They had different methods. Plato’s idea was that you should not teach the young men the practice for becoming politicians or lawyers or artists or writers. Rather you should teach the foundations – you should teach them how to think. What is justice, what is the truth for, what are politics, how does a group of people come together and get organised, what is beauty, what is art? And he called this – not wisdom – but the love of wisdom: philosophy. Isocrates had a completely different method. He taught the practice of being a good lawyer, a good politician, a good artist and so on. We have part of a book written by a very brilliant young student in the school of Plato arguing that Plato was right. This brilliant young kid’s name was Aristotle. He argues that asking the foundational questions helps everything. Many of my colleagues, physicists in particular, like to treat philosophy… not with great respect. I think they’re completely wrong because if you look at the history of physics and science in general, it was deeply influenced by philosophy and vice versa.
TH You came from conservative Verona to Bologna in the 1970s. Bologna was quite a hotbed of radical ideas at that point.
CR It was a cultural shock for me to move from Verona to Bologna. These are two old Italian cities [only] 100 kilometres apart but they have completely different cultures. Bologna is open-minded and Verona is the opposite. Copernicus actually started in Bologna and I’m very proud of having followed his path. He was what we would now call Polish but in the Renaissance he came to Bologna and what did he find? He found the knowledge of antiquity – the books of Ptolemy, Archimedes and Euclid, and the works of the Arabs from Baghdad, and the astronomers. In the university in Bologna there were not only the books, but also the people who could explain the books. But that’s only half of the story. In Bologna he found something else. He found the spirit of the Italian renaissance, which was: “Let’s change everything, let’s start from scratch, let’s be ready to throw away the past and invent a new way of being.” He would have read the introduction to Ptolemy: “I know that I’m mortal by nature and ephemeral, but when I trace at my pleasure the windings to and fro of the heavenly bodies I no longer touch the earth with my feet, I stand in the presence of Zeus himself and take my fill of ambrosia.” My work as a scientist is similar. Most of the time, nothing works – you’re desperate, you’re depressed. But then the wonder and the curiosity are what keep you going. So I found the same thing in Bologna as Copernicus. On the one hand, a fantastic body of knowledge, and, at the same time, the spirit of questioning that knowledge.
TH You talk about how statistics should be taught better. Over the last few months we’ve all been subjected to endless graphs, and people are starting to educate themselves about statistics. But as you say, statistics can really mislead.
CR Facts can be lies. Statistics is an incredibly powerful tool and some of the best successes today to tame the epidemics have been achieved just thanks to statistics. All of science is based on statistics, because you make measurements and you have to interpret them, so you need statistical methods. But it’s not easy, it’s tricky. I have a little story about when I was a professor in America in the physics department. An excess number of people were getting ill in the department and we all panicked, thinking there was some cause. We just didn’t realise it was a perfectly understandable statistical fluctuation. I think statistics should be taught at school much more so we have a better idea of what is the meaning of correlation fluctuations and all these kinds of things. We humans are never certain about anything, but we have a lot of partial knowledge. How to navigate with partial knowledge is what statistics allows us to do. Let me give a very simple example. Governments give us indications – “stay home”, “close the bar” – and people follow these indications. But it’s not that if we don’t follow the indication we all become ill, or that if we follow the indications it’s all fine for society. These are statistics – probabilities. If we do our best the probabilities of getting ill will be much lower and the total outcome for society will be much better. That’s one of the reasons I decided to stay here in Canada and not to travel. Irrespective of what is allowed or not allowed, I think we should all do our best. Some people have to go out – of course – because they need to. But those people who can stay home – I think they’d better stay home.
TH Let’s talk about your new book, Helgoland.
CR It’s a teeny island [sometimes called Heligoland] in the North Sea between Denmark and Germany and the UK. It is without trees, it’s windswept and very wild and rough. And in 1925 a 23-year-old man [Werner Heisenberg] had the key idea there of quantum mechanics. And quantum mechanics is probably the greatest revolution of all time because it has changed our understanding of reality. Quantum theory is the core of modern physics – more than Einstein, more than relativity, more than Copernicus, more than Ptolemy. It has taught us that matter – things, objects – are very different to the way we think about them. They’re sort of wavy, and they’re connected among themselves. It’s a very complicated story which is still much debated. The book is my attempt to explain this theory to people who don’t know much about it. I’ve spent my life trying to make sense of quantum mechanics and this book is me saying: this is what I’ve understood about what quantum mechanics is telling us about the world.
Extracts taken from Idler 77: Mar/Apr 2021