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Physicist and Author Carlo Rovelli Would Like to Explain the Universe to You

7 minute read

It’s a very good thing Carlo Rovelli did not get eaten by a bear in 1976—though even he admits it would have been his own fault. Camping alone in western Canada, he decided to save the money it would have cost him to pitch his tent in a designated area, and picked instead a wilder part of the wilderness. No sooner had he set up camp and prepared to settle in than the grizzly appeared.

Fortunately for Rovelli, the bear was more interested in the easy pickings of the food supplies he had left out in the open than it was in human prey. “I packed super rapidly,” he says, “left the food, took my tent and backpack, ran to the campsite, and was happy to pay the $2 it cost to camp there.”

That $2 ensured that Rovelli remained in the world, and—to the gratitude of millions of his modern-day readers and followers—that the world got to keep Rovelli. It turned out to be a good deal all around.

The 65-year-old research physicist now directs the quantum-­gravity research group at the Centre de Physique Théorique in Marseilles, France, and is the best-selling author of seven books, including 2014’s Seven Brief Lessons on Physics—which has been translated into more than 40 languages—and the new There Are Places in the World Where Rules Are Less Important Than Kindness, coming May 10, a collection of his news­paper columns originally published from 2010 to 2020.

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Quick-talking and small-framed, Rovelli is rather blasé about trafficking in the nearly hallucinogenic concepts of his field, from quantum theory­—which involves the behavior of matter and energy at the atomic and subatomic levels, where the precepts of classical physics break down—to relativity, to certainty (which, for what it’s worth, he insists does not exist). “I’m a simple mechanic,” he says. “In Italian that’s almost a pejorative. However, I’m not the person who thinks that science is a fundamental explanation of everything. I think scientists should be humble. They are not the masters of today’s knowledge.”

Maybe not. And yet, Rovelli’s life’s goal is to be the first physicist to reconcile quantum mechanics and more traditional theories of gravity and Einsteinian space-time. That work, should he achieve it, would make Rovelli more than just an accomplished physicist and a gifted communicator. It would make him a legend.

Hitching and tripping

Rovelli began breaking rules long before he pitched his tent in a place he wasn’t supposed to. Born in Bologna, Italy, he ran away from home at age 14 and hitchhiked across Europe. At 16, he began experimenting with LSD, which he credits with first allowing him to understand that linear time, as we experience it, may not be all there is. The experience, he writes in his new book, “left me with a calm awareness of the prejudices of our rigid mental categories.”

That kind of thinking predisposed Rovelli as much to philosophy as to physics, and when he enrolled in college, at the University of Bologna, he had yet to decide firmly. But when it came time to register for classes, the queue at the physics table was much shorter than the one for philosophy.

“Physics was a little bit of a random choice,” he says. “I also discovered, to my surprise, that I was good at it.”

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Good indeed. After earning his PhD at the University of Padova, Rovelli held postdoctoral positions at numerous schools, including Yale University and the University of Rome, and taught for a decade at the University of Pittsburgh. Rovelli has come to conclude that if you want to understand how the universe works—and he would be very happy to teach you—it’s important to grasp three essential concepts. First, things don’t happen according to exact equations, but rather only to probability. Next, space-time is not a continuum but is ultimately reducible to “grains,” the smallest possible units of the universe. “We should think about space around us as if we’re immersed in a bucket of sand,” he says. “At some point, you get down to a single grain and cannot get it to break.”

Finally, Rovelli argues, all objects—even grizzly bears—do not have their own properties, but properties only insofar as they relate to other objects. “The world is not made of stones,” he says. ”It’s made of kisses.”

Explaining the inexplicable

Rovelli concedes that there’s a limit to how much sense any of what he traffics in daily is comprehensible to most people. Work as a heart surgeon and you can explain straightforwardly what your job involves. Work as a theoretical physicist and you’re left resorting to metaphor.

What makes things really challenging is that the universe does a good job misleading us with what appears to be simplicity. The ground is down there; space—which has no grains as far as we can see—is up there; time moves forward. The trick for all of us, physicists included, is not learning new truths but unlearning old falsehoods. Galileo Galilei’s seminal book, which explained the motion of the earth, is perhaps history’s best example of that process.

“It’s meant to convince you that the earth goes around the sun and that the earth rotates,” Rovelli says. “But what’s remarkable is that the actual arguments for the earth moving take a few pages. Most of the book is devoted to trying to bring the reader out from the obvious conviction that that’s impossible.”

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Where humanity as a whole fits into the cosmos is not a matter that Rovelli addresses much—or that seems, within his science, to require that much addressing. Consciousness and life itself, he says, are a trick of biochemistry and thermodynamics and not a whole lot more. “Life is a super-complicated phenomenon, but there’s no mystery here,” he says. What’s more, death brings an end to things utterly.

“I don’t like to feel consolation in the idea that I will be welcomed by God after my death,” he writes in his new book. “I like to look directly at the limited length of our lives, to learn to look at our sister, death, with serenity. I like to wake in the morning, look at the sea, and thank the wind, the waves, the sky… the life that allows me to exist.”

The stem-winding title of Rovelli’s new book comes from a 2016 essay in which he visits a mosque in Senegal. He removes his sandals before stepping inside the building, as directed, but carries them inside with him. A young man approaches him and points to the sandals; Rovelli realizes that the rule is actually that dirt­shedding shoes should not enter the building at all. He hurries back outside and leaves the sandals behind. An old man picks the sandals back up, places them in a bag, and carries them into the mosque himself to hand them back to Rovelli. The man’s desire to put the traveler’s mind at ease about his shoes has taken precedence over even that rule.

“I am speechless,” Rovelli writes; “there are places in the world where rules are less important than kindness.”

The universe Rovelli has devoted his life to explaining might be a cold, indifferent, even unkind one—at least insofar as it largely limits us to our tiny little beachhead of earth. But it is a clearer and more elegant one for Rovelli’s efforts. That, in a very real sense, is its own act of kindness.

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Write to Jeffrey Kluger at jeffrey.kluger@time.com