Carlo Rovelli: ‘My work in physics is endlessly creative’
Verona was a beautiful place to grow up, but the town was close-minded and provincial. Dad, a gentle and hard-working man, ran a business. Mum was intelligent and bored – a lethal combination. They encouraged my independence from a young age, which I took too far. At 14, I ran away from home and headed to France, to find like-minded, free-thinking young people.
I took my first acid in Paris aged 16, then hitchhiked across Europe. One night I slept in a small boat I found moored by a pier on the Danube. Lying down to rest underneath the immense, starry sky was the first time I felt true happiness.
Curiosity led me to the study of physics. People like to distinguish between the arts and science, but my work is endlessly creative. I read and read, converse for hours, and then sit scribbling away in my notebooks. It’s just that my goal is understanding some of nature’s greatest secrets.
Sex was about giving, not taking, when I came of age. It was the time of hippies making love not war, and I made plenty. We did it with everyone, unperturbed by age or gender. Our utopian ideas were beautiful and gentle, although free love’s reality included tears and jealousy. I believed making love as much as possible, with the largest possible number of people, was the best thing in life. I have only changed my mind about the latter.
A Canadian bear nearly ate me alive. I was 20 and hiking through the Rocky Mountains after dropping out of university. Ignoring advice, I set up camp where I shouldn’t have. From inside my tent at dusk I saw a great grizzly’s terrifying shadow. I thought I was done for, but thankfully the beast was content to eat the food I’d hung in a tree and left me alone. I ran down to the closest village immediately.
I cried last night watching the movie The Life Ahead. Tears streamed down my face when Momo, a young boy, kidnaps Sofia Loren’s character from hospital just as she wanted. Seeing that on screen moved me deeply: I did the same for a young woman, many years ago.
I’ve devoted much of my life to the study of quantum gravity: the search for answers about the properties of space and time. A calculation showing that physical space is formed by finite grains is my greatest achievement so far; today my research is focused on black holes. Fascinating as all this is, most people struggle to connect it with their lives: that is why I started to write books about science.
My political outlook is as radical as it always has been. Even if I behave more respectably as I get older, tThe views I formed in adolescence remain the same. Most of the ideals paraded as noble in our society are hypocritical. The rich are only rich through plundering the poor – that’s true both for countries and people. One day soon those who’ve gone without will make the privileged pay.
People tend not to impress me much. I think I’ve read too many biographies. Once you’ve heard the stories of Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan, ordinary people like you or me have a tough time when it comes to comparison.
I always assumed getting older would be miserable, but to my surprise life gets better and better. Once the pressure to prove yourself in youth slowly melts away, the shining sun and tweeting birds suddenly become so much more enjoyable.