“7 Brief Lessons on Physics” by Carlo Rovelli is a publishing success story. Released in October 2014, it has sold more than 300,000 copies in Italy alone and has been translated in dozens of countries worldwide. It is a short, concise book written in a very pleasant style. A book that explains complex phenomena like Einstein’s theory of relativity and quantum mechanics in a simple way also (and especially) to those that know nothing about physics.
In a video interview in which he talks about his book, Rovelli remains faithful to his style and states:
“What is time? We don’t have the final answer yet. At the minute we can say that time is counting the change of things. I don’t think that time exists in itself, but exists only when something changes. Time is linked to the way we relate with space and the way things relate with one another”.
This way of understanding the world – says Rovelli – is essential for the technology in which we live. It is physics, not philosophy. And it has an immediate practical repercussion on our lives. For example, we make computers work using semi-conductors because we know quantum mechanics.
In this universe, regulated by laws that are as complex as they are fascinating– that we only partially understand – what is left for human beings?
“Everything is left. We are making a mistake if we think that we are beyond nature. We are governed by the laws of nature, a large part of which we ought to understand better. We are a part of nature”.
In addition to relativity and quantum mechanics, “7 Brief Lessons on Physics” talks of the cosmos, elementary particles, gravity, black holes and the role of humans. With his fascinating arguments and fluid style, he manages to transmit the dizzying idea to the reader that we are part of a reality where all things – us included – are interconnected and linked to one another. A concept that, surprisingly, Rovelli discovered several years later in a Buddhist philosopher that lived 18 centuries ago in India called Nagarjuna.
“Nagarjuna’s philosophy is centred on the idea that nothing exists in itself. Everything exists only because of something else, in relation to something else. The term used by Nagarjuna to describe this lack of essence is ‘emptiness’: things are ‘empty’ in the sense that they do not have an independent existence, they exist thanks to, on account of, in relation to, from the perspective of, something else”.
This perspective helps us to think in a way that is consistent with quantum mechanics, where objects appear to exist only by influencing other objects.
“Nagarjuna knew nothing of quantum physics, obviously, but nothing stops his philosophy from offering useful insights for sorting out modern discoveries. Quantum mechanics does not tally with a naive, materialistic realism or any other kind of realism; even less with all forms of idealism. How can we understand it? Nagarjuna offers a tool: you can think of interdependence without the autonomous essence of things. Rather interdependence – this is his key argument – requires forgetting about the autonomous essence of things. Modern physics is full of relational notions, not only in quantum physics: the speed of an object does not exist in itself, it exists only in relation to another object; a field in itself is not electric or magnetic, it only is in relation to the other, and so on. Perhaps an ancient Indian philosopher offers us some more conceptual tools to disentangle ourselves….We always learn from others, from what is different: and despite millennia of uninterrupted dialogue, East and West still have something to say to one another. Like in the best marriages”.
Perhaps Rovelli’s success, the appeal in his way of disseminating science, lies in this idea of culture as an exchange of knowledge, where, in order to understand the reality surrounding us, there is the need to unite East and West and to make all fields of knowledge converse with one another, from philosophy and mathematics to literature.
In a recent interview (Corriere Innovazione, October 26, 2018), Rovelli said:
“It isn’t that physics is important for everyday life. We live perfectly well even without knowing about quantum mechanics, we can be great engineers or doctors. It is the same for history or philosophy. And yet….And yet you don’t become a complete person without also knowing about science, or without reading novels”.
And he concludes:
“To learn, boredom has to make way for marvel”.