On Magic Re­al­ism

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There are ab­so­lute mas­ter­pieces that move us in­tensely: Mozart’s Re­quiem; Homer’s Odyssey; the Sis­tine Chapel; King Lear. To fully ap­pre­ci­ate their bril­liance may re­quire a long ap­pren­tice­ship, but the re­ward is sheer beauty.…

Ein­stein’s jewel, the gen­eral the­ory of rel­a­tiv­ity, is a mas­ter­piece of this or­der. I re­mem­ber the ex­cite­ment I felt when I be­gan to un­der­stand some­thing about it. It was sum­mer. I was on a beach at Con­d­o­furi in Cal­abria, im­mersed in the sun­shine of the Hel­lenic Mediter­ranean, and in the last year of my univer­sity stud­ies. Undis­tracted by school­ing, one stud­ies best dur­ing va­ca­tions.

I was study­ing with the help of abook­thathad­beeng­nawed at the edges by mice, be­cause at night I’d used it to block the holes of th­ese poor crea­tures in the rather di­lap­i­dated, hip­py­ish house on an Um­brian hill­side where I used to take refuge from the te­dium of univer­sity classes in Bologna. Ever so of­ten I would raise my eyes from the book and look at the glit­ter­ing sea: it seemed I was see­ing the cur­va­ture of space and time imag­ined by Ein­stein.

As if a friend was whis­per­ing into my ear an ex­tra­or­di­nary hid­den truth, sud­denly rais­ing the veil of re­al­ity to dis­close a sim­pler, deeper or­der. Ever since we dis­cov­ered that the Earth is round and turns like a mad spin­ning-top, we have un­der­stood that re­al­ity is not as it ap­pears to us: ev­ery time we glimpse a new as­pect of it, it is a deeply emo­tional ex­pe­ri­ence. An­other veil has fallen.

From “Seven Brief Lessons on Physics”

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