Carlo Rovelli
Reality? But Not As We Know It

Imagine a reality so strange, so dark and so mysterious that its basic structure eludes even the greatest minds of our time. That's where Italian Physicist Carlo Rovelli spends most of his time.

In his daily work he studies the minutest framework of our reality, the quantum universe. A place where all intuition is thrown out the window. Built upon the minds of people like Einstein, Schrödinger and Heisenberg, Carlo remains a devout believer in solving these unanswered mysteries.
He has sold over half a million copies of his runaway success Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, a whirlwind introduction into the strange world of quantum mechanics. A former left wing anarchist, his journey has been somewhat unorthodox, but this is why he remains so unique. He describes to us in his own way the tiny mysteries of the of the universe that he has spent his life furiously trying to unravel. But this is where our own reality also starts to unravel.

As a scientist your work seems to be deeply philosophical. Would you agree?

I consider myself lucky in life. I’ve had the privilege to be able to follow my curiosity since the beginning and it took a little bit of initial courage. I had an education in which I was very interested in philosophy and history. Then I fell in love with physics and with the more general, philosophical questions in physics.

One of the lines that stands out for me from your new book is, “Understanding the world better often entails going against your intuition.”

That comes from history more than anything else. Science at its best has been a sequence of beautiful discoveries, which have destabilised humanity. When Darwin figured out that we are related to the rest of the animal kingdom and the entire planet it was very destabilising for many people. People were afraid and reacted against it. When it became more and more clear that the earth moves and at such a crazy speed people were confused. Then there’s atomic physics, quantum mechanics, both in the past and very recently science has destabilised us. But that’s also science at its best, it’s what we want isn’t it? We know that we have superficial views, and we want to learn and get rid of our short-sightedness. That’s what’s exciting about it. In fact that’s what captured me in science at the beginning, the possibility of realising what is wrong with our view of the world.

"We haven’t sent anyone to the moon in decades. I don’t see a great acceleration in either technology or knowledge. There isn’t really much that we have learned in the last 10 or 20 years. Big moments like with Darwin, or Newton, or Einstein, I don’t see them."

Carlo Rovelli on the next big scientific breakthrough

Why do you think we as humans are so obsessed with uncovering these layers of reality?

I think it’s our nature. We’re curious. Our species is characterised by our curiosity and almost everything we have done is exploring. As a species we grew up on the savanna but then we wanted to go and look at the world and learn more. We read books because we want to learn about each other and the world, so I think it’s deeply ingrained in what we are. It’s our blessing and at the same time perhaps our curse. But the entire civilisation in which we live is a result of this curiosity and it’s fantastic right? We now know how immense the universe is and we can even go to the moon and hopefully Mars soon.

Do you think our curiosity is outgrowing our realistic potential? It seems as we are asking bigger and bigger questions all the time.

It’s a very good point. Actually I don’t think so. I don’t think we’re at a particularly fast moving moment. There have been moments of very fast progression in our history. The renaissance was one, and perhaps the early 20 th century. Today we are learning things, and we have some new technology, and people keep saying that things are changing fast, but are they really? My grandfather was born in a world with no electricity, no trains, no telephone. He has seen the complete change of the way of life of people around him. In my life what have I seen? Just computers, and the iPhone. The telephone was a much bigger change. The big jump I think was in the 19th and early 20th century and now we are in the aftershock of this big jump ahead in technology and knowledge. When I was a kid men were walking on the moon and everyone was convinced that this was just the beginning of something that was going to accelerate. In fact it did not accelerate. We haven’t sent anyone to the moon in decades. I don’t see a great acceleration in either technology or knowledge. There isn’t really much that we have learned in the last 10 or 20 years. Of course we are always learning but big moments like with Darwin, or Newton, or Einstein, I don’t see them.

(Pictured) Carlo’s latest book Reality Is Now What It Seems explores the underlying mysteries science faces in the quantum universe. 

It’s very clear in your work that you harbour a great reverence for Einstein. Where does he sit on the grand scale of thinkers in history?

I think he is definitely one of the top thinkers, along with Newton and Aristotle and also along with people who were not scientists like Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky. But let me make this straight. I have been blamed by people who read that book of giving an account of the development of science as being the result of a few geniuses. I’ve been correctly blamed of that, it’s true. But the growth of knowledge is not the making of a few super geniuses, it’s a collective enterprise and it’s civilisation as a whole that grows. However, there is also no doubt that there are some people who, through building on everyone else’s work, have suddenly seen further than everyone else. The steps ahead that Newton and Einstein took were immense. They saw things that maybe other people would have seen, but it would have taken a lot longer. My fascination with Einstein is the fascination with an incredible mind that could bring together everything around him and make this huge leap, and it’s also a fascination in him as a human being. He was sweet but rebellious, dependent and soft, a pacifist, he was a lot of things that I like.

(Pictured) Albert Einstein remains a huge influence on the work of Carlo Rovelli

In your younger years you immersed yourself in left wing politics and were quite radical. Do your interests outside of science must help in the way that you see the world.

Yes absolutely, they help a lot. I think that in my own small work it was crucial to absorb and do things that were outside the mainstream because that gave me new perspectives and new tools. Einstein read philosophy and was interested a wide variety of things. Darwin went on this famous trip for many years and this complete break with the environment around himself was essential for him.

Your book makes me realise that science can be totally wrong about certain things and that discoveries are made by constantly improving on each other’s theories, and other times it’s not until someone has a serious stroke of insight that we manage to find the truth.

Yes, in recent years the cumulative aspect of science has been neglected in this regard. People tend to say, well science provides a theory and it is never definitive. Yes, it’s never definitive but each one is a better view of than the previous one. Every time we learn something new we really learn it. The Earth is not the centre of the universe, it’s true and it’s true forever. So there’s this cumulative aspect of science, which builds on itself, which corrects and rethinks previous ideas. But in a sense the previous ideas are not wrong, they’re just not wide enough.

"We learn when we are excited, and when we find beauty."

Some of the lines in your book are really profound. You are very poetic in the way that you write, for instance referring to the strange reality of quantum mechanics you write, “It’s as if god had designed reality with a line that was not heavily scored but just dotted it with a faint outline.”

Yes I’m glad you caught this, I was talking about precisely this in the physics department this morning with a senior physicist John Clowder. It’s one of the cores of quantum theory, the fact that it seems to give a picture of reality, which is less complete. It’s like little points instead of lines and at the same time I think these are the kind of things that we do understand better if we let them resonate in us. I think that knowledge is not just abstract rationality, its abstract rationality coupled to emotions. We learn when we are excited, and when we find beauty. Every teacher knows that to teach students one has to connect to them emotionally before intellectually.

There seems to be a subtle frustration in your work in the sense that you really want to understand the minute scale you’re working in but it seems out of your reach?

Yes, absolutely. Quantum gravity is the main subject to which I have devoted my scientific life and that means studying what happens in the super small. It brings together quantum mechanics and relatively, all things that we don’t yet know.

Quantum gravity is a theory that we are looking for that describes space and time at the smallest possible scale. It must be a theory that takes into account all of the discoveries of last century and we don’t have that theory yet, but we’re working on it. The sense of frustration that you correctly pointed out is there because we’re searching without knowing that we will find anything. Sometimes we are very excited because it comes closer and it seems like we are nearly there, and all we need is a confirmation from nature, but we haven’t got it yet.

Einstein spent his whole life not knowing if the things predicted by his theories, gravitational waves, black holes, etc. really exist. He died not knowing.

“There are 20 explanations of dark matter and no one knows which is right.” – Carlo Rovelli

The big question that I was left with was, can we build a conceptual framework that we understand about the minute world of quantum mechanics or would we have to throw everything we know out the window?

Yes and no. Yes in the sense that the further we go the more we are in unusual territory, and so the more things look strange and different from our intuition. So yes, we go into a picture of reality, which is further away from our common view of reality. There’s all the strangeness of quantum mechanics, all the strangeness of relativity, so space and time are not what we think they are, and matter is not what we think it is, it’s all very strange. However on the other hand if it looks so disconnected it’s because we haven’t figured out the details of how to connect it to our experience.

"Real objects don’t exist if not as notes in a net of relations."

You hint at this fascinating concept in your book about how we weave interconnected realities together and how they relate to each other

Yes absolutely. The relational aspects of reality I think are emerging from all sorts of corners in science. We don’t understand things in isolation, we understand things in a net and we have to learn that the network of relations are more important that individual objects. Real objects don’t exist if not as notes in a net of relations. It’s true in our psychologies and its true in quantum mechanics, so yes the same strangeness in quantum mechanics, where particles seem to exist only when they hit something else, is related to the fact that the human being after all is a set of his interactions with his fellow human beings around him. We have learned I think that the world can be better understood if we get away from the idea that it’s a collection of things. It’s not a collection of things, it’s a network of interactions and the things are just the notes of these interactions.

To bring in a controversial subject, religion obviously wouldn’t see it that way.

Well I don’t know. I am not religious at all. I consider myself happily and serenely atheist. But I’m not sure. The word religion comes from a Latin word that means ‘to tie’; religion is a relation between one thing and something else. If I understand anything about religion, and I probably don’t and should shut up, it’s that it’s not all about god. Most things don’t make much sense by themselves. It’s about the relationship between humans and gods, not about either one in their solitude.

I heard you give a talk about why philosophy is so integral to the understanding of science. You talked about the fact that some of our greatest scientists read a lot of philosophy, and that’s been lost in today’s world.

Yes, I gave a talk in London a couple of months ago on the relation between philosophy and science and one of the points I made is that if you look back on some of the greatest scientists, many of them were very much interested in philosophy. Not only that but they made it very clear that what they did was strongly influenced by their philosophy. Sometimes it’s completely transparent. The birth of quantum mechanics with Heisenberg is clearly influenced by his reading of philosophy, it’s transparently there.

In the second half of the last century there has been, in some areas of science, in particular physics, a tendency of saying – ok let’s stay away from philosophy because it’s misleading, and confusing, and gets us nowhere. I think that’s wrong and I think some of the recent instability comes from a lack of philosophical awareness, because everyone has a philosophy. Every scientist is a realist or an empiricist and this is good, there’s nothing wrong with that. But one should be aware that one is using some assumptions that might work in some cases and might not work in other cases. So those scientists who say philosophy is useless are like a painter who has only one colour.

(Pictured) German scientist Werner Heisenberg who won the Nobel Prize for his contribution to the understanding of quantum mechanics integrated philosophy into his work.

What has been the most beautiful or most astonishing piece of knowledge that you have been met with or grappled with in your work?

I have had a particular happy moment with my friend Lee Smolin with whom I’ve done a lot of work. We stumbled upon the theory we were working on which was trying to predict that space is made up of pieces of grain, little chunks of space. We had very vague intuitions about that and at some point, to our amazement while we were in Italy using the mathematics of Roger Penrose, the equations started talking to us saying this is how nature is. Space is not continuous; little chunks make it. It was amazing. My hope is that this is going to be confirmed one day experimentally. That’s one of my hopes in life.

"Nature has been very conservative lately and has told us humans; look, your basic ideas are right, some of the new things you’re trying to guess are wrong."

On the future endeavours of science

We’ve seen some amazing discoveries in the last few years, including gravitational waves and the Higgs Boson. What do these new developments mean long term? Do they pave the way for many more discoveries?

We are just coming out of a fantastic sequence of discoveries. Gravitational waves and the Higgs Boson are two of the major ones. But they’re peculiar in the sense that they are not surprises. I would say the big surprise of these discoveries is that no surprises have come out. Nature has been very conservative lately and has told us humans; look, your basic ideas are right, some of the new things you’re trying to guess are wrong. These are all very powerful theories, and they seem to predict and explain very clearly everything that we see. The greatest surprise is dark matter, which we don’t know anything about.

I heard recently the axion particle could have something to do with it?

Yes, with Dark Matter it’s not that there are no explanations. There are 20 explanations and no one knows which is right. The one I prefer is that there are many small black holes, but like the other theories nobody knows if this is true. But we’ll see. This is a beautiful moment in which we need to think, and observe, and try, and wait.

I think not knowing is the perfect way to end this discussion.


Carlo Rovelli’s new book ‘Reality Is Not What It Seems:
The Journey to Quantum Gravity’ is available now

Original Images by Benjamin Bechet – Picturetank

This is one of the greatest books written but it’s not very well known in Europe. A classic of Japanese literature, written 1000 years ago. It’s marvelous.

On The Nature Of Things. This is a Roman poem about science. It’s full of beautiful images and ideas. It had an immense role in the renaissance of science in the modern era and it was written 2000 years ago.


Tanzania and Namibia

I loved the experience of going to visit some people in these countries who still live in the old traditional style of hunter-gatherers. They are living a pre-agriculture lifestyle. They are great people and they have a life that is totally natural. It looks as though it would be a comfortable way for human beings to live.