Carlo Rovelli

October 10: Flowing

I stop and do nothing. Nothing happens. I am thinking about nothing. I listen to the passing of time. This is time, familiar and intimate. We are taken by it. The rush of seconds, hours, years that hurls us towards life then drags us towards nothingness … We inhabit time as fish live in water. Our being is being in time. Its solemn music nurtures us, opens the world to us, troubles us, frightens and lulls us. The universe unfolds into the future, dragged by time, and exists according to the order of time. What could be more universal and obvious than this flowing?
Reality is often very different from what it seems. The Earth appears to be flat but is in fact spherical. The sun seems to revolve in the sky when it is really we who are spinning. Neither is time what it seems to be.

Carlo Rovelli, The order of time

Carlo Rovelli is one of the few brave souls in physics that have accepted the challenge to conjugate the quantum realm with relativity: his answer is gravity loops.

Loop quantum gravity theory describes a universe where the space-time itself is quantised. Except that for some equations of quantum gravity, time is not needed at all.

We know already from relativity that time is nothing more than an additional axis in our system of reference, with nothing more special than the fact that events move toward higher entropy. Past, present and future can all be mixed depending from which point in space you are looking at a certain event. More convincing is the knowledge that at different altitudes on earth itself, time is different (there is even an app to calculate this).

Rovelli argues that time is not only confusing and messed up, but it doesn’t exist at all. It is a construct we had to invent due to our inability to look at the world with absolute precision in every details (e.g. because of uncertainty principle). It’s our way to give meaning and causality to events.

Of course, his is only a theory. With no experimental results supporting it. However, there is more to the story. The whole thing is complex hard-core physics, and yet his books on the topic appeal to everyone. He brought these topics to the general public. And the people loved them.

For Seven brief lessons on physics (the first book that got him really famous), the publisher originally printed only 3,000 copies – who is going to buy a book about post-newton physics after all? Within a year, they sold 300,000 in Italy only. Now it is translated in 42 languages and has sold more than a million copies worldwide.

Sometimes we don’t give enough credit to society and its craving for knowledge. Weather time is flowing or not, that’s not the point. What matters is giving a voice to Science.

A beautiful elegant voice that people can love and understand, like Carlo Rovelli had.


Bonus – talking of voices: the latest book by Carlo Rovelli is The order of Time. The audiobook version is read by Cumberbatch. Is it only me, or this should already be enough to jump on it?

Bonus for Italian readers: La mucca di Schroedinger (literally Schroedinger’s cow) is a division of DiRenzi Editore that shares information on scientific publications for the general public. In the past they were even doing books giveaway in exchange for reviews (that’s how I got ‘What is time? What is space?’ by Rovelli back in 2010). Not sure they still do this, but DiRenzi definitely is worth checking.


If you wondering what’s going on here, I explained it on this blog post: Inking Science

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Glitch

I am running. Where? I don’t know. From what? I don’t know.

Think.

I am wearing a suit. Not a jogging suit. One of those suit with a tie. There is a card bouncing on my breast. A University logo. And a name. “Prof. John Williamson – Physics department”.
My hands are covered in wrinkles. I must be 60, or more. Alzheimer? Seems plausible. I turn back: no one is following. The streets are empty, and I don’t recognise them. Once again one of those glitches.

I am in an auditorium, I feel happy like I have achieved something. Around me, there are a lot of young people dressed in a cape. I am one of them, and I am holding a book: “The collapse of the wave function and the problem of conscience. PhD dissertation ”

The only conscious memories I have is me running and these glitches. But it feels like I have always been running.
I notice now that I have a bag. While I am compelled to keep running, I try to open it and look inside. There are papers. I drop a few, but I finally manage to grab one to look at. It is an academic paper, again something about quantum physics and my name is among the authors.

I am in a kitchen now, I smell bacon and eggs. An old lady kisses me and goes to the door ‘See you tonight, hon’. She must have been beautiful when she was younger.

The wind wakes me up. I am tired and yet I cannot stop running. It is getting more difficult to breathe. I have to think fast if I don’t want to die. Quantum physics feels familiar, something I should know everything about.

I am in a conference room, wearing the suit – the one I am wearing while I am running. The face of Alfred Nobel on a medallion on the wall. I am walking toward the microphone for my speech.

I know the absurdity of the quantum realm. I know the implications of the math, and at the same time, I know that there is no possibility to confirm any of these theories. We only know the measurements, we know that the equations allow us to built lasers and transistors, but we cannot observe what happens before the wave function collapses. Our conscience can only perceive its own reality and can stop the insanity of the superposition of infinite states by recognising our existence. I proved that. But in my reality, I am running.

The seats in front of me are all occupied. In the front row, there is a girl. She is sitting next to the old lady that calls me ‘hon’. She looks like her younger version, but even more beautiful. I feel this warmth filling my chest. She smiles. Everything I have done, I have done it for her.
– “Prof. Williamson” – someone next to me, maybe a journalist, starts asking – “If I understood your theory, there are infinite realities of you right now, but only one is the most likely for the wave function to collapse, and for your conscience to recognise it as your only reality…”

I am crying. I feel the tears wetting my cheeks while I cannot stop this damned run. I want to feel the love of a daughter I have and never met at the same time. I want to live your stupid life, Prof. Williamson! Mine. I cry because I know that I will never stop running and that I always have been. If only you would answer differently, fool! If only I would have said no.

– “..Therefore, is there a chance, despite how small, of a universe in which you are always… Well, I don’t know.. Let’s say, running?”
– “Absolutely.”
– “And you will never know because your conscience only exists where the wave function has collapsed..”
– “Yes, that’s correct!”
– “Aren’t you afraid I just made you conscient about your other self?”
I laugh. Everyone in the auditorium is laughing.

I am running. Where? From what? Think.


I don’t usually write stories. But this one is about quantum mechanics, and if I wouldn’t have, no one would. Actually, full disclosure: some else told a story like this, and I was deeply inspired.. but it wasn’t about me and I have shaped a new version of it.. in my own physics language.

I started this short story in November, with the aim to participate in the awesome Quantum Stories contest. Then I forgot and didn’t finish it, and honestly, I would have not been able to compete with the stories uploaded there.

So, if you want to read a great short story, I strongly recommend Run by Scott Hamill. And if you look for good stories about quantum mechanics, make sure to go check the ones shortlisted for the Quantum Stories contest and vote for your favourite. You can thank me later 😉

Let’s kick the Quantum Beat

As a newbie in the field of biophysics, I had to take some course in biology. In my case, the course, luckily, was addressed to physicists, and one of the suggested reading was Schroedinger’s “What is life?”. I did not know that Schroedinger wrote about this topic and, of course, I was curious and puzzled. I wanted to read it, and if you want to find a book nowadays, you usually type amazon.com and look for it. The problem with this approach is that Amazon, though really helpful, is sneaky and starts this evil suggestions thing in which I usually get trapped. This time the trap was more than well placed. Among the suggested readings, there was this: Life on the Edge: the Coming of Age of Quantum Biology. 

Now, if there is something you need to know about me is that the mere word Quantum must trigger something in my mind and you immediately have my fully devoted attention.

“I would like to have 200 gr of brown bread, please.”

“Classic or Quantum?”

“…”

“Would you like to have the Classic brown bread or the Quantum one, then?”

“Give me 5 kg of the quantum one!”

And it may works to let me buy things. So my mind turned blank about Schroedinger’s one (now in my wishlist) and I bought Life on the Edge instead.

Continue reading “Let’s kick the Quantum Beat”