From Einstein’s theory of relativity to the architecture of the cosmos, Seven Brief Lessons in Physics (Allen Lane, £9.99) is physicist Carlo Rovelli’s concise, almost poetic explanations of the wonders of his science, amounting to a vivid, accessible masterclass in how the universe works.
The book was a huge bestseller in Italy. Does the public’s interest in complex science surprise you?
I’ve been surprised by the success of the book, not by the public interest in advanced science. Seems quite natural to me that everybody wants to know what we have discovered, or are discovering, about the world – especially so for the amazing surprises of contemporary physics.
The lessons cover everything in the universe from quarks to black holes. Did you have to leave anything out?
Of course I have left out a lot. I have made an effort to focus on the core, the essential, and explain just that, but without oversimplifying.
Unifying Einstein’s general relativity and quantum physics, subjects of the book’s first two chapters, is sometimes said to be a holy grail for scientists. Will they ever be resolved?
I do think so. Several times in the past science has found itself with big problems of this sort, and it may have taken longer or shorter, but then they have been solved. For instance, there was a time of furious debates on the nature of heat. Or the position of the Earth in the universe. Now we know the answers: one of the sides of the discussion was right and the other was wrong. This is the beauty of science: it may take a long time, but we generally end up with clarity.
The last chapter focuses on what it is to be human. Has cosmology overtaken philosophy as a way of explaining the universe, as Stephen Hawking suggested in 2010?
I think that philosophy has far more useful tasks and capacities than trying to explain the universe. The best philosophers – I don’t know, Hume, or Wittgenstein – give us powerful conceptual tools, of great importance also for science. Contemporary philosophers continue the trade very effectively. But as far as explaining how the universe actually works, scientific methods are obviously most effective, as well as clarified precisely by the best philosophers. The two disciplines have much to learn from one another, and I think it is better to avoid superficial reciprocal bashing.
As a political activist in the 1970s you were charged with “crimes of opinion”. Is science inherently progressive?
I do think so, because its core methodology is the doubt of what is given for granted. Science advances by constantly subverting previous ways of thinking. Then of course individual scientists are of all political sorts.
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