Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

"I Thought, Wow, This Is Better Than LSD": The Rise of Rock Star Physicist Carlo Rovelli

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

"I Thought, Wow, This Is Better Than LSD": The Rise of Rock Star Physicist Carlo Rovelli

Article excerpt

At the outset of Julian Barnes's novel The Sense of an Ending, the narrator observes: "We live in time--it holds us and moulds us--but I've never felt I understood it very well." This recurred to me as I read Carlo Rovelli's new book. In The Order of Time, the Italian theoretical physicist dismantles our most fundamental assumptions about the subject.

"The sense of time flowing has nothing to do with physics and everything to do with our brain," Rovelli, 62--a short, soft-spoken man--explained when we met at his publisher Penguin's offices in London (Rovelli's last book, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, sold 1.3 million copies). The past and future, for instance, are purely human constructs; at the microscopic level they are indistinguishable. Time passes at different rates depending on place (moving faster in the mountains and slower at sea level) and motion (a runner ages less quickly than a walker).

Albert Einstein intuited this more than a century ago; technology has since confirmed his insights. "We now have clocks that clearly measure the different speed at which time goes in different places," Rovelli said. "As soon as interplanetary travel develops, it will be obvious that we can age at different speeds. The astronaut can go for a trip and come back and find her children older than her."

When we speak of "time", Rovelli's book explains, we are in fact referring to entropy: the tendency of all systems to progress from order to disorder (waves break but do not unbreak; we grow older, not younger). Entropy was lower in the "past" and will be greater in the "future".

The Order of Time is a lucid, poetic work that channels the Grateful Dead, Martin Heidegger, Emile Durkheim and Marcel Proust, and that ends with a moving coda on death ("the sister of sleep, Bach calls it"). Rovelli stands proudly in the omnivorous Renaissance tradition (in 2011, he wrote a biography of the Greek philosopher Anaximander, entitled The First Scientist).

Rovelli's determination to make quantum physics accessible--and his prodigious book sales--have led him to be labelled "the new Stephen Hawking". But he shrugs at the comparison. "It doesn't disturb me, it doesn't offend me--it doesn't particularly please me either." Rather than the new Hawking, one senses, he would prefer to be known as the first Carlo Rovelli.

Rovelli was born in Verona, Italy, and now lives in the French seaside village of Cassis. He works at the nearby Centre for Theoretical Physics at Aix-Marseille University. In his youth, the modest, amiable scientist was a radical insurrectionary. "I was in a strong personal conflict with everything around me: school, family," Rovelli recalled in the manner of JD Salinger's Holden Caulfield. "And then I realised that I was not alone--it was a common story. …

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