He had a train to catch, but we took advantage of the relativity of time to make the interview last. It must be said that talking to Carlo Rovelli is like reading wonderful poetry with a good glass of wine. It leaves you wondering and it’s tough at the same time. The man behind the smile is a physicist, professor at the University of Aix-Marseille, and inventor of “the theory of quantum gravity with loops”. A tribute to the gray streaks on her forehead? Rather a case to cut the hair in four!
In physics, quantum mechanics deals with the infinitely small. At the other end of the scale, general relativity and gravity deal with planets, stars and our daily lives. Both theories work very well and no experience has so far been able to fault them. The only problem is that these two physics are completely incompatible.
→ CRITICAL. The sweet poetry of quantum theories
To reconcile reality, some physicists are therefore looking for “quantum gravity”. The solution proposed by Carlo Rovelli has loops. “It’s not complicated to understand”, he assures before a great inspiration and five minutes of explanations full of words that would ensure victory in Scrabble. “The quantum world is difficult to approach because the scientists themselves are not yet very clear, recognizes the specialist. It always takes time, several generations, to assimilate the ideas of a revolution. “
His generation, that of a revolution
Carlo Rovelli’s generation is precisely that of a revolution. Born in 1956, he is a student when the wind of freedom blows from the hippie period. Only son of a company director from Verona, he does not see himself taking back the paternal heritage. From philosophy courses to poetry books, he wanders. Goes to the mountains and wonders about the existence of God.
“We were all looking at that time! “, he laughs. “I lived all my life with the idea that I had very little to do with religions. Having said that, I share the values of caring for others with part of the Catholic world and today, at 65, I feel less incompatibility with the way religions see the world. “
Young, he decides on a sabbatical year. “I was in college, but we weren’t doing anything, we listened to music and we smoked hashish, he recalls. I ditched everything and left to travel alone, working here and there. It was a very good experience. “ On his return, Carlo Rovelli tries the activist engagement. Almost ten years after the French May 68, Italian youth rose up in Bologna. Between free radio and brief arrest, the student believes in great ideals. Fifty years later, he recognizes “A total failure“.
“When I see the current youth revolt for the climate, much more specific, much more reasonable… Frankly, is what Greta Thunberg is asking so unrealistic compared to what we dreamed of? “, he asks himself.
→ THE FACTS. The Nobel Prize in physics for modeling climate change
Carlo Rovelli found in science “The spirit of change, of discovery, the desire for a new world”. “I realized that people like Einstein or Heisenberg had dared to think of reality differently, he recalls. It wasn’t just Rimbaud’s rebellion, very beautiful, it was a rebellion with an impact on humanity. “
His zigzagging journey makes him a rare physicist, “Easily fascinated” and open to other disciplines. He does not hesitate to tackle the French education system. “Much too specialized”, which brings him students “Geniuses in calculation, but who do not know who Genghis Khan is!” “. This despairs him: “How can we separate knowledge so much? “
He himself has no children to whom to convey his insatiable curiosity. “I tried to have it at one point in my life, and it did not happen”, he explains modestly. Before resuming with an eternal smile: “As a teacher, I live with young people all the time, and my girlfriend has a big family!“ Two years ago, Carlo Rovelli followed this Italian companion to Canada, to Ontario. The physicist then planned to split like a quantum particle, half the time in Canada and half the time in France.
The Covid-19 pandemic decided otherwise and it is in a house between the great Canadian lakes that the physicist wrote his latest book, Helgoland (1), devoted to the quantum revolution. “I traveled too much before, I was always on the plane and always tired, he sighs. I do theoretical physics so I can work from anywhere. I now hope that I can stay closer to nature in Canada.“ In the meantime, the hour has passed and really, he must resume his journey.
His inspiration.Einstein and the beatniks
He never said to himself “I want to be so and so ”. In conversation, Einstein comes back often, but Carlo Rovelli’s influences are manifold, from physicist Erwin Schrödinger to poet Allen Ginsberg. And also Werner Heisenberg, the German physicist who founded quantum mechanics.
“My youth echoes his. “ It is also in this youth that Carlo Rovelli still draws his inspiration, decades later. “I gave up a lot of ideals but something of the spirit of change of those years, of the hippie world, of the dream of a different society, remained with me. The courage to look for new ideas comes from there. “