Physics Moves in Mysterious Ways – Carlo Rovelli’s “Seven Brief Lessons”

I’ve been largely offline for a week visiting Florence, and in fact did very little reading whilst I was away. Florence was too fascinating. So, Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s “Black Swan” and “Antifragile and Simon Blackburn’s “Truth” and “Hume remain incomplete and un-reviewed despite enjoying the gist I’d already gleaned from all four. Their styles could hardly be more different. Taleb writes like he tweets, aggressively and bluntly, if a little repetitively. In Blackburn on the other hand I hear his suggestion of Hume’s studied Edinburgh accent in everything he writes.

Rab C. Nesbitt meets Miss Jean Brodie? Tempus fugit however, and I may never now get round to completing those tasks.

Conversely, lying in bed ths morning, I read Carlo Rovelli’s “Seven Brief Lessons on Physics in one sitting. I’ve been a fan, intrigued anyway, by Rovelli for several years, since he seemed to hold enlightened views on where the gaps in the foundations of knowledge really lie. Apart from noting his book had become a surprise “cult” best-seller, I’d not actually read any reviews, so was surprised to find how short and “primary” it is, aimed at the total novice lay-reader, with a limited attention span alluded to several times. A collection of articles from an Italian newspaper Sunday supplement apparently. Everything of his I’d read before has been much more technical and, whilst I might not agree with – or understand in sufficient detail – everything he says, I always feel he is on the right track.

His Seven Brief Lessons itself is an up-to-the-minute potted history of fundamental science. For me very little “new” in any objective sense. The summary of Loop Quantum Gravity (combined with zero mention of string theory, and only passing reference to super-symmetries) (*) did give me actual new knowledge. For anyone having read Gribbin & Charlesworth’s “Cartoon History of Time” and having grown-up with the inspiration of Carl Sagan and Jacob Bronowski to read about the likes of Einstein and Galileo, Bohr and Heisenberg, Gell-Mann and Feymann, and then embark on a life (60 years and counting) of wanting to understand more, then I’m not really Rovelli’s target audience. For me, everything Rovelli writes evokes Sagan (eg: we are stardust, evoking Lucretius and Blake and the hippies) and Bruno (eg: on the unfortunate Bolzmann).

We are stardust.
We are golden.
And we’ve got to get ourselves.
Back to the garden.
(Joni Mitchell – Woodstock)

However, I read Seven Brief Lessons in one sitting, without making any notes, so I will almost certainly go back, re-read and gut it for more jumping-off points of interest. For, despite being 99% “old hat” for me in terms of raw content, and plenty of points of disagreement on what he chooses to say, the brief narrative is full of important messages.

Firstly the relative estimates of what is unknown vs known with any “scientific” certainty about the natural world is huge.

“on the edge of what we know,
in contact with the ocean of the unknown”

Myth (and vision & imagination, neither of which are exclusive to or excluded from science itself) cover far more of the natural world than does science fact. Even leaving aside any debate about whether anything is ultimately unknowable to science, or any definitions of truth and knowledge or science per se, the scientifically unknown may always be shrinking, but always very large. Significantly so if, like Rovelli, you believe humanity has a very short and insignificant life-span on cosmic scales.

I say, we are literally special, as in individuals of a species of a genus.

Time (past, present & future, and even causation itself) really is the weirdest and least understood fundamental concept. Great that the Loop Quantum Gravity model brings it within, rather than beyond, natural science so we have some chance of evolving their understanding.

I can see why Smolin rates Rovelli’s work.

Bringing brief summaries across several schools of physics (and wider topics of psychology and philosophy) it is noticable, and in fact Rovelli warns, that use of language cannot be uniquely defined across all. Not even the word “reality”, with which I wanted to disagree with Rovelli’s use on a couple of occasions. There are boundaries between fields of study for practical management reasons – philosophy and physics to name but two – but these boundaries are “porous”. They are fences and not walls, so to use Robert Frost’s words “good fences make good neighbours”. Good scientists understand the value of their friendly neighbourhood philosophers.

The border is porous.
Myth [and vision and imagination] nourishes science.
Science nourishes myth.

Really noticable is that new theories that got taken-up and thrashed-out in detail by armies of future scientists, were often just ideas. Inspired in the sense that they came to someone – creatively and imaginatively – as a new way to visualise some existing problem, but nevertheless one of an infinity of possible (better) hypotheses. Those new ideas can come from outsiders and appear madness to existing experts in the field. One person’s annoying “autodidact” in their field, may be an experienced expert in another meta-field. Remember those fences. History is written by those that win, and winning is simply being useful for a generation or three.

Seemingly impossible madness we can do anytime, but hindsight takes a while.

In the model I appear to share with Rovelli, the whole natural world is one of continuing interaction and flow of information – even those things we call objects, even the fundamental particles –  and somehwere, somehow, time is about the entropy of information and causation the force driving it. It is also noticable that Rovelli is comfortable using the word God for unknown causes, yet I don’t for a moment believe he believes in any omnipotent supernatural being as a personal causal agent.

Causation moves in mysterious ways.

Fascinating to be reading Rovelli after our week in Florence. The amount of relgious devotional art and reliquaries of bones and artefacts of the saints is absolutely staggering. Shocking in a salutory way. Of course patronage was part of the politics of its times. But that patronage of religious-wealth and power-politics preserved in its buildings and their collections is a history lesson in both art and science as well as the human players. [It’s got me researching where the Medicis crossed paths with the Borgias and Savonarola again.] Wonderful irony that the Galileo museum holds and displays his fingers as preserved religious relics. I have a general downer on the particular Galileo myths – history written for the convenience of the victors and all that – but there can be no doubting that the ceilings of the Medici’s Uffizi record a breathtaking scope of art and science history as well as religion.

The Large Hadron Collider was not built in a day.

To conclude, and the reason I had to write this meta-review right now without having collected any notes and references, Rovelli closes with his take on the “I” of free-will. After earlier chapters rasing the apparent subjectvity of time and the apparent subjective distinction between reality and the known, Rovelli reveals he is essentially a compatibilist like Dennett and myself. My will is real, as is the I of me and my. We’re built of determinist physics, evolved and living, chemistry and biology. It may be a hard problem – impossible even, I suggest – to explain subjective experience in an objective way, but that doesn’t mean it’s not real. Questions like “Could I have done otherwise?” – with hindsight – are meaningless because the true nature of time and causation in the best accepted standard models of physics remain problematic, not because me and my will are unreal.

Carlo Rovelli’s “Seven Brief Lessons on Physics is a great little (80 page) read, even if, it seems, you’re not his target audience; “written for those who know little or nothing about modern science”. The content is brief, but the style is enthusiastic and inspiring.


[Post Note (*) To be clear, Loop Quantum Gravity is the branch of fundamental physics research that Rovelli is promoting. Rovelli’s later and more challenging “Reality is Not What it Seems” reviewed here. Will say more about other public scientist writers backing other horses. Never forget it’s all a sport – the game of life – which brings me back to Hume. See next post.]

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