Spending time with theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli; familiar voices join the Koze club on Knock, Knock
A quick (or was it?) chat with physics superstar Carlo Rovelli
Do your eyes start to glaze at the mention of quantum gravity? Then you haven’t met Carlo Rovelli. The Italian scientist’s first book, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, was a runaway hit — a digestible introduction to head-spinning concepts. His new book is called The Order of Time (with Benedict Cumberbatch on audiobook duties, just FYI). He gave us some of his.
ESQUIRE: Is time travel possible?
CARLO ROVELLI: “Look, going to the future is easy — that’s what we do all the time. That’s our life. And jumping to the far future is certainly possible, it’s just an issue of money: if we build a spaceship and go near a black hole and come back, we come back in the future. But going to the past is a different story.”
ESQ: What got you hooked on the concept of time in the first place?
CR: “I was puzzled about time since I was 16. Mostly because I was that generation in which you had to take hallucinogenic drugs, and take LSD, and I had this incredible experience of being out of time. Then I discovered that there’s this field of physics where there are open questions about ‘What is time?’ and that resonated with my adolescent confusion. So I decided it would be wonderful to spend my life studying these sorts of things.”
ESQ: Were you worried this book would be too dense?
CR: “Yes. Very much. The Seven Brief Lessons had this huge success and I was afraid of writing anything else. The rock band second album theory. I wrote about time because time has been a constant concern in my life. I’ve spent 30 years going around this question. So I decided to do a book which is more difficult, which goes more in-depth,
and risk disappointing people.”
ESQ: Do you think it’s important to write with a sense of humour?
CR: “Yes, I do. Science often is on the defensive — it has to prove that it’s believable and rational. But I think science writing has been exaggerating trying to keep it dry and purely rational. We human beings are also driven by emotions, so what drives scientists is feelings and emotions, and what drives people’s curiosity is the same thing.”
ESQ: How do your colleagues respond to that approach?
CR: “One of the best reactions I got was from David Gross, who is a Nobel Prize winner, one of the greatest American physicists and an enemy of me in terms of science direction — we have insulted one another more than once publicly — and he wrote an email to me saying, ‘This is fantastic. Thank you for communicating the way I myself view science in such a wonderful way.’ It was a completely positive appreciation.”
ESQ: What do you consider a waste of time?
CR: “Oh Facebook. There’s no doubt. It’s a black hole, Facebook. It’s absorbing everybody’s time and energy into an illusion of communicating with the planet, which is not true. You’re just communicating with a teeny fraction of humanity.”
ESQ: Is there another book in the pipeline?
CR: “No. It was a lot of energy to write this one and my job is not to be a writer. My job is to be a physicist and I have things I still want to do.”
— The Order of Time (Allen Lane) is published on 26 April