Why our leading physicist enjoys doing the dishes – and more

Our dish washer packed up and I have been helping with the dishes. And strangely, enjoying it. The novelist Anthony Burgess enjoyed it too. The world’s leading theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli, another in the club, has explained why. “It is,” he says, “one of those (rare) human activities where you start with a disgusting mess, immerse yourself in an easy task that relaxes your mind and end up with everything nice and clean and neat.”

Rovelli is at the cutting edge of physics and a marvellous explicator of science. His Seven Brief Lessons on Physics is a masterpiece while The Order of Time dips into Proust and The Grateful Dead (Rovelli was a practising hippie) to make his point.

“Our culture is foolish to keep science and poetry separated,” he says, “they are two tools to open our eyes to the complexity and beauty of the world.”

In a collection of essays with the wonderful title There are Places in the World Where Rules are Less Important Than Kindness, Rovelli speaks with equal authority on Dante and Einstein, explaining how the poet’s version of the shape of the cosmos anticipated the scientist’s intuition of a “three sphere” universe by six centuries. The book is a stirring introduction to the intellect, method and range of one of the great minds of our time.

It begins with a gentle chiding of the manner in which we dismissed in school Aristotle’s theory that heavier objects fall to earth faster than lighter ones when dropped from the same height. We “knew” they hit the ground at the same time. In a vacuum, everything falls at the same rate. “But,” says Rovelli, “Aristotle did not write that things would fall at different speeds if we took out all the air. He wrote that things fall at different speeds in our world, where there is air.”

From here, Rovelli moves on to Nabokov, his novel Lolita and theory about the migration of butterflies. And before we know it, we are ushered into the world of Newton the Alchemist, probability, and the nature of consciousness in the octopus whose arms can think independently. “What is it in the great game of nature,” asks Rovelli, “this ‘I’ that I feel myself to be?”

The essays can be starting points for research in the various fields, or entry points to further reading on the subjects. We meet Darwin, Marie Curie, Giacomo Leopardi, Hawkings, Penrose, Churchill, and other familiar figures, some in slightly unfamiliar form. There is too the physicist’s reaction to Nagarjuna’s Mulamadhyamakakarika, now over two millennia old.

Fear is the key to understanding movements like Nazism. That is the message from Hitler’s Mein Kampf, says Rovelli. “Those who feel weak are afraid, wary of others.” Clearly Rovelli, biographer of the ancient Greek philosopher Anaximander, is just as clued into contemporary events.

The essays are diary entries recording the intellectual adventures of a physicist who is interested in many things, writes Rovelli. Not surprisingly, he puts it best.

(Suresh Menon is Contributing Editor, The Hindu)

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Printable version | Apr 11, 2021 12:28:25 PM |

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