Difficult Dichotomies

Seven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo Rovelli

Ever since the chemist and novelist, C.P. Snow, proposed the notion of two cultures, science vs. the humanities (e.g., arts and literature), I have found myself, when talking about matters scientific, doing so with the caveat, “I may not be a scientist but…”  Ah!  that all important, tookus-covering “but!”

One of the areas of science that has long fascinated me is that of astronomy, and I often rue the fact that I don’t have the language—advanced mathematics—to understand some of its subtleties.  It is akin to being asked, “Do you have Spanish?” when approaching Don Quixote in the original, only the language distinction is far more divergent than that—physics rather than our multitudinous mother tongues.  However, when I saw a suggested read on one of my many sites, Seven Lessons on Physics by Carlo Rovelli, I could not help but rush to get the book.

Rovelli is himself an Italian theoretical physicist whose above-mentioned book has been translated, since publication in 2014, into forty-some languages. Yes, it is and was widely read, to Rovelli’s great surprise; but there’s a good reason for this (and for my suggestion that you read it, too.) The language is clear and not at all condescending and lauds genuine interest outside the narrow confines of the classroom:

..science is above all about visions. Science begins with a vision. Scientific thought is fed by the capacity to ‘see’ things differently than they have previously been seen.” (Seven Lessons, 31)

And do not we humanists, for lack of a better term, seek out visions—metaphor, the what ifs of speculative fiction and, for that matter, of a good novel no matter what its genre, getting inside the skin of a character whom we might never meet in real life, but who changes something essential within? All right, science seeks fact, ‘reality’, that which is demonstrable (even when some of their proofs, scientific formulae, go right over our heads). Nothing, in that regard, is more intoxicating, headier, than physics. Take Einstein’s notion of space-time:

“…space curves where there is matter….A vision—that space curves—became a equation.” (15-16)

Einstein’s theory went on to describe how “space bends around a star” thus controlling the planets orbit around a star, how light itself is not straight either. Time curves, too.  Further, his theory also “…contends that space moves like the surface of the sea.” (gravitational waves.) (17 – 18)

I could go on (and perhaps will in a later issue, in looking at this “two cultures” business a bit further.) However, for now, sit back in your beach chair and try Rovelli for a fascinating and adventurous summer read.

— Bronwyn Mills

Carlo Rovelli is an Italian theoretical physicist and writer who has worked in Italy, the United States and, since 2000, in France. He is also currently a Distinguished Visiting Research Chair at the Perimeter Institute, and core member of the Rotman Institute of Philosophy of Western University. See a BBC Radio 4 interview, Desert Island Disks, regarding the book and science for us common mortals. It also includes some of his choice of music.