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Key insights from

There Are Places in the World Where Rules Are Less Important Than Kindness: And Other Thoughts on Physics, Philosophy and the World

By Carlo Rovelli

What you’ll learn

Carlo Rovelli is an internationally beloved rockstar of theoretical physics, but he has thoughts on subjects other than loop quantum gravity theory. In this collection of essays, Rovelli mulls over life, culture, philosophy, politics, and obscure-but-entertaining bits of history and biography. All the essays come together to form a vision of the kind of world Rovelli wishes for humanity: one defined by tolerance and kindness. 


Read on for key insights from There Are Places in the World Where Rules Are Less Important Than Kindness.

1. Aristotle’s science gets a bad rap it doesn’t deserve.

The common rendition of Galileo’s discoveries goes something like this: Galileo rejected the Aristotelian notion that objects differing in mass fall at different speeds. He blasted the Aristotelian physics (in part, to provoke—and it worked) that still drove discourse almost two millennia later. According to the story, Galileo questioned this ancient theory that had been taken for granted and proved it wrong in a famous demonstration in which he dropped two objects from the Tower of Pisa. Onlookers watched as the objects hit the ground simultaneously.

There is truth to the common story, of course, but it has become so common that it blinds us. We have become so comfortable with the lesson it teaches about doing (“don’t take inherited theories for granted as true”) that it has become the inherited wisdom we now take for granted. Just as Aristotelian physics obscured points Galileo brought to light, our admiration of Galileo has blinded us to Aristotle’s importance—not just then, but also now.

For example, did you know Aristotle wrote a work titled Physics, and that title gave us the discipline's name? The hard disconnect between Aristotelian and Newtowian physics is related to the tragic and unnecessary disjunct between physics and the humanities. The scientifically inclined tend to ignore the historical context in which Aristotle was writing, and the more humanities-oriented usually don’t care about Aristotle’s physics.

An even more profound reason for our dismissiveness of Aristotle comes from the evolution-inspired idea of paradigm shifts popularized by philosophers like Thomas Kuhn and Karl Popper. For them, knowledge moved forward through dramatic lurches toward a new way of thinking. A new way of thinking is founded on new assumptions that make it "incommensurable" with the old way of thinking.

We may be in need of a shift away from paradigms. The idea of “scientific revolutions” was an important contribution to the philosophy of science, but a tragic cultural outcome has been the loss of respect for old knowledge and how knowledge builds. Paradigm theory forgets the gradual accumulation of knowledge that’s taken place over millennia. When we call what is old “obsolete” and “irrelevant,” we miss how valuable the conversation between thinkers is, between Aristotle and Galileo, Galileo and Newton, Newton and Einstein.

We are trained to see science as a series of new revolutions outmoding the old ones. But is that what happens? Are there no threads of continuity between these thinkers? Galileo himself didn’t see things that way. He surmised that if Aristotle came back to earth and walked among us, Aristotle would embrace him as a devotee "in virtue of [Galileo’s] very few contradictions of [Aristotle’s] doctrine." Galileo considered himself indebted to Aristotle and saw his adjustments to Aristotle’s thought as relatively minor. 

The truth is that there is an important conversation between these thinkers and a slow building of ideas that the vocabulary of “rupture” and “revolution” miss. The knowledge we have today is the result of this ongoing conversation, and it would help us to see ourselves as standing on the shoulders of many others who came before us—including Aristotle. We have too blithely maligned and dismissed his monumental contributions to science.

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2. There is no such thing as absolute certainty—and that’s okay.

Uncertainty is not to be avoided at all costs—nor is certainty our ultimate goal. Instead of looking for absolute certainty—we would do better pursuing reliability.

Few have defined our understanding of certainty like mathematician Bruno de Finetti (1906- ). He was famous for his work in probability, but his acumen stretched across many disciplines, from politics to pedagogy. De Finetti was denied professorship in Milan thanks to the fascist obsession with fertility that barred bachelor professors from teaching in the academy. After the fall of fascism in Italy, he began to lecture in university settings, and it was during this time that he made his most memorable contribution to the branch of philosophy called epistemology, which explores how we come to know.

De Finetti entered the academy in the era of positivism. Positivists believed that rationality and empiricism provided a perfectly solid foundation upon which we could build our systems of knowledge. They saw absolute certainty as possible. De Finetti did not. He went so far as to argue that nothing was certain, but that was okay. The best we had was probabilities, and while uncertainty makes us nervous, it also makes life extremely interesting.

Most people have forgotten de Finetti and are unaware of how he shaped philosophical discussions, but there’s real wisdom and relief in his willingness to nudge away from absolute certainty toward reliability. Instead of seeing uncertainty as an enemy we can’t shake, we could see uncertainty as a friend who is always by our side, keeping life adventurous. Refusing to grasp at complete certainty also has a way of keeping us humble. We can find different pieces of info that we are confident about and string them together with others to form a picture of life that’s reliable. But we could be wrong about the pieces or the way we have put them together. De Finetti helps us learn to hold things a little more loosely and to stay open to new discoveries.

3. Inspiration does not really come “out of nowhere.”

Complex theorems for gravity did not really come to Newton as he sat under an apple tree. Copernicus did not simply get struck by intellectual lightning and determine that the Earth revolved around the Sun, and not the other way around. Darwin didn’t just wake up one morning with a hunch that all species share a common origin.

Pure creative genius without hard work is a stubborn fable. The truth is that only by sitting with a body of knowledge and marinating in it—walking up and down the theoretical roads that connect and block competing ideas—that breakthrough comes. These new ideas don’t come from nowhere. They come by sitting in the tensions for a long enough period of time that you find a gap in the structure that has yet to be explored. Finding those gaps usually requires deep familiarity with the structure beforehand.

As the legendary mathematician-physicist and Nobel Laureate Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar told Rovelli over dinner at a conference, "You know, Carlo, in order to do good physics, what is needed most is not to be very intelligent. What matters most is to work very hard."

4. A nation’s version of history is patently absurd—to everyone except the people who live there.

For someone brought up in France, the most important historical moment ever was the French Revolution. For the American, the War of Independence ushered in an unprecedented era of democracy and freedom. For an Indian, the subcontinent is the cradle of civilization and religion itself. For an Italian, Ancient Rome and the Renaissance shaped the world like nothing else.

When we look at the national histories of other countries, we are tempted to laugh at the outsized contribution that a country presumes to have made on the rest of the world (invariably for good, of course!). National identity is a powerful and perhaps necessary tool for unifying diverse groups under a shared identity. It encourages a sense of cooperation, and cooperation always accomplishes more than conflict and competition.

It is crucial, however, to see national identity for what it is: a useful fiction, but ultimately a farce. National identity is an artificial construct that exploits our deep hunger to feel like we belong somewhere. Whatever the immediate benefits of drumming up national pride, history is replete with stories of national fervor ostracizing those who did not fit the profile or did not join the frenzy.

Borders between countries, drawn by those who came before us, obscure the lines that connect us to people from other parts of the world. For example, Rovelli is Italian, but he finds much more in common with people from the same social class living on the other side of the world than with Italians from a different social background. He’s thankful for the influences of Dante and Leonardo di Vinci who inspired him as a boy, but he’s just as thankful for Dostoyevsky and Shakespeare. His identity is shaped by the family he grew up in, but it has also been profoundly influenced by his web of friends from around the world.

Ultimately, national identity is a thin but toxic veneer over much deeper shared identity: Homo sapiens. And ultimately, our visions of life, our values, our cultural passions, the books we read, and the ideas we saturate ourselves with have much greater power to unite us than arbitrarily drawn state lines. These larger goals toward which we strive transcend nationality and remind us of our common humanity.

5. Anyone who persuades Einstein and a pope to his way of seeing things has something important to teach the rest of us, too.

Have you ever proven a Nobel Prize winning physicist wrong? What about the pope? What about both? There may only be one man who could tell you exactly what that felt like: the late theoretical physicist and Jesuit priest Georges Lemaître. Lemaître discovered that the universe is expanding. Intrigued by Einstein’s theory of general relativity, Lemaître took the theory to places that Einstein himself had not been bold enough to venture. By building on the observation that light turns red as it grows distant, he saw that stars do the same. These are not static points of light in the sky: The universe is huge and growing! His discovery was published in a small French journal and forgotten. When Einstein came across Lemaître’s findings, he had to concede that Lemaître was right.

Pope Pius XII made a glowing statement about the discovery years later in 1951, saying that scientific findings continue to illuminate the existence and majesty of God. As the pope saw things, a universe with a beginning needed a creator to start it. Lemaître spoke to Pope Pius XII via the Vatican’s scientific advisor and urged the pope to say no more about it, begging him to preserve the mystery between religion and science. There are some things that both domains would be overreaching if they tried to speak to them.

The pope never said another word about the topic, and to this day the Catholic Church has remained mostly reticent on the Big Bang or connecting it to a God. It’s largely in pockets of North American Protestant settings that the argument continues to be trumpeted.

If it’s possible, Lemaître's character outshines his accomplishments. When Edwin Hubble reached Lemaître's same conclusion about expansion of the universe several years later, the world took notice and mistakenly attributed the discovery to the American. A controversial translation of Lemaître’s findings into English further obscured where credit for the discovery was due. The translation mysteriously excised all passages that showed Lemaître was clearly the first, ahead of Hubble. Whether it was an honest mistake or a conspiracy to keep Hubble the man of the hour, Lemaître didn’t care enough to pursue it. He told the editor of the American publication as much in a letter, that Hubble’s figures were more accurate and thorough than his, and he saw no need to press his case further. The truth of the expanding universe was far more important to Lemaître than expanding his reputation.

6. Epidemics are bracing reminders that life is short, and we should find beauty where we can.

The global epidemic has put some matters into perspective for us. One of those things is that Western confidence has been shaken. The power, problem-solving skills, and strong health care systems have not taken us as far as was expected or hoped. When word was circulating the globe about the virus, China felt like a long way off. It would not come to Italy, and if it did, the excellent Italian health care system could handle it.

But then it couldn’t. Hospitals were overwhelmed. Places outside the West, like Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore, fared far better at containing the spread, and countries considered politically wayward by the West, like Cuba, Russia, and China came to the aid of floundering Italy.

The epidemic has also instilled another, still-deeper lesson: Life is short. And precarious. Even when there isn’t a virulent contagion circling the globe. There are moments and seasons when we manage to convince ourselves that we are immortal, that despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, we are impervious to death’s touch. This illusion has been brusquely blown away. We have before us an opportunity to take stock of what matters most to us, and to remember though it is not endless, life is beautiful. Hopefully we learn to struggle beautifully and nobly together, working in solidarity to lengthen the lives of those around us in the ways we can.

Endnotes

These insights are just an introduction. If you're ready to dive deeper, pick up a copy of There Are Places in the World Where Rules Are Less Important Than Kindness here. And since we get a commission on every sale, your purchase will help keep this newsletter free.

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