Carlo Rovelli, the Italian theoretical physicist, is one of our great scientific explicators. His poetic essay collection, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, sold more than a million copies in English translation in 2015 and remains one of the fastest-selling science books ever. In less than 80 pages, Rovelli clarified the troubling uncertainties of Einsteinian relativity, quantum theory and other tentative physics. Not since Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time had there been such a consensual success in the science book market; in the author’s native Italy the lessons outsold Fifty Shades of Grey.
Rovelli’s new book, a collection of newspaper articles published in Italy over the last decade, elucidates some of the key developments in physics from Aristotle to Hawking to the present moment. The laws of physics – gravity, energy, motion, time – underpin those of chemistry, astrophysics and meteorology combined. So an understanding of the world requires some basic understanding of physics. Beautifully translated by Erica Segre and Simon Carnell, There Are Places in the World Where Rules Are Less Important Than Kindness continues a tradition of jargon-free popular scientific writing from Galileo to Darwin that disappeared in the academic specialization of the last century.
Indeed, Rovelli’s newspaper journalism is an expression of the scientific desire to know and understand the world. Can it really be a sin to know? In the 17th century, curiosity-driven researchers like Galileo had dared to put divine laws to the test and were excommunicated for their trouble. Rovelli is impatient of religious fundamentalists of any denomination – but he also rejects the idea that science is ever settled. In a brilliant article, ‘Which Science is Closer to Faith?’, he extols the work of the Jesuit-educated Belgian priest Georges Lemaître who, in 1927, developed what would become known as Big Bang theory. The Catholic priest saw no incompatibility between science and religion, only mutual attraction. Nobody would claim that Big Bang theory is easy, but Rovelli writes with razor-sharp clarity of Lemaître’s “discovery” that the universe is not fixed, but ever-expanding.
In Rovelli’s view, science is not about certainty. “Whoever boasts of being certain is usually the least reliable”, he writes axiomatically. Scientists such as Richard Dawkins who pretend to atheist omniscience are no less intolerant, in their way, than Christian absolutists. In his charming piece on the late Hawking (‘Thank You, Stephen’), Rovelli commends scientific curiosity as a sovereign virtue. In 1950s California, self-experiment in the name of science prompted Aldous Huxley to take psycho-active drugs. Daringly, Rovelli suggests that LSD might provide us with a necessary breathing space, a “benediction” (he has a hippyish past.)
Along the way, Rovelli considers Vladimir Nabokov’s butterfly-collecting and the intellectual complexity of that most brainy of invertebrates, the octopus. He writes with bracing clarity on the Roman poet Lucretius, Aristotle, Dante, Newton, and muses philosophically on the current pandemic. Covid-19 is a “humbling experience” that reminds rich and poor alike of the brevity and fragility of life. A microscopic virus has the power to keep many of us locked up indoors. Yet, says Rovelli, science offers hope for human recovery and renewal.
There Are Places in the World Where Rules Are Less Important Than Kindness And Other Thoughts on Physics, Philosophy and the World by Carlo Rovelli; trans Erica Segre and Simon Carnell (Allen Lane, £20)