Carlo Rovelli

Carlo Rovelli

Italian physicist and author
3 May 1956 —

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We are stories, contained within the twenty complicated centimeters behind our eyes, lines drawn by traces left by the (re)mingling together of things in the world, and oriented toward predicting events in the future, toward the direction of increasing entropy, in a rather particular corner of this immense, chaotic universe.

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Our present swarms with traces of our past. We are histories of ourselves, narratives. I am not this momentary mass of flesh reclined on the sofa typing the letter a on my laptop; I am my thoughts full of the traces of the phrases that I am writing; I am my mother`s caresses, and the serene kindness with which my father calmly guided me; I am my adolescent travels; I am what my reading has deposited in layers in my mind; I am my loves, my moments of despair, my friendships, what I`ve written, what I`ve heard; the faces engraved on my memory. I am, above all, the one who a minute ago made a cup of tea for himself. The one who a moment ago typed the word "memory" into his computer. The one who just composed the sentence that I am now completing. If all this disappeared, would I still exist? I am this long, ongoing novel. My life consists of it.

We are for ourselves in large measure what we see and have seen of ourselves reflected back to us by our friends, our loves, and our enemies.

If we give a description of the world that ignores point of view, that is solely "from the outside" - of space, of time, of a subject - we may be able to say many things but we lose certain crucial aspects of the world. Because the world that we have been given is the world seen from within it, not from without.

I do not fear death. I fear suffering. And I fear old age, though less so now that I am witnessing the tranquil and pleasant old age of my father. I am afraid of frailty, and of the absence of love. But death does not alarm me. It did not scare me when I was young, and I thought at the time that this was because it was such a remote prospect. But now, at sixty, the fear has yet to arrive. I love life, but life is also struggle, suffering, pain. I think of death as akin to a well-earned rest.

Our fear of death seems to me to be an error of evolution. Many animals react instinctively with terror and flight at the approach of a predator. It is a healthy reaction, one that allows them to escape from danger. But it`s a terror that lasts an instant, not something that remains with them constantly. Natural selection has produced these big apes with hypertrophic frontal lobes, with an exaggerated ability to predict the future. It`s a prerogative that`s certainly useful but one that has placed before us a vision of our inevitable death, and this triggers the instinct of terror and flight. Basically, I believe that the fear of death is the result of an accidental and clumsy interference between two distinct evolutionary pressures - the product of bad automatic connections in our brain rather than something that has any use or meaning.

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Fearing the transition, being afraid of death, is like being afraid of reality itself; like being afraid of the sun.

When we cannot formulate a problem with precision, it is often not because the problem is profound: it`s because the problem is false.

The motives by which we act are inscribed in our intimate structure as mammals, as hunters, as social beings: reason illuminates these connections, it does not generate them. We are not, in the first place, reasoning beings. We may perhaps become so, more or less, in the second. In the first instance, we are driven by a thirst for life, by hunger, by the need to love, by the instinct to find our place in human society... The second instance does not even exist without the first. Reason arbitrates between instincts but uses the very same instincts as primary criteria in its arbitration.

As human beings, we live by emotions and thoughts. We exchange them when we are in the same place at the same time, talking to each other, looking into each other`s eyes, brushing against each other`s skin. We are nourished by this network of encounters and exchanges.

In the mountains, we see a valley covered by a sea of white clouds. The surface of the clouds gleams, immaculate. We start to walk toward the valley. The air becomes more humid, then less clear; the sky is no longer blue. We find ourselves in a fog. Where did the well-defined surface of the clouds go? It vanished. Its disappearance is gradual; there is no surface that separates the fog from the sparse air of the heights. Was it an illusion? No, it was a view from afar. Come to think of it, it`s like this with all surfaces. This dense marble table would look like a fog if I were shrunk to a small enough, atomic scale. Everything in the world becomes blurred when seen close up. Where exactly does the mountain end and where do the plains begin? Where does the savannah begin and the desert end? We cut the world into large slices. We think of it in terms of concepts that are meaningful for us, that emerge at a certain scale.

The best grammar for thinking about the world is that of change, not of permanence. Not of being, but of becoming.

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.

The ability to understand something before it`s observed is at the heart of scientific thinking.

The world is not like a platoon advancing at the pace of a single commander. It`s a network of events affecting each other.


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