Octopus looking fine

Review: There are places in the world, by Carlo Rovelli

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Theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli’s essays leap giddily from subject to subject, celebrating dialogue between cultures, disciplines, and schools of thought. While the essays are not uniformly excellent, ‘There Are Places in the World’ is packed with wit, warmth, and brilliant science.

Following the success of books like 'Seven Brief Lessons on Physics' and 'The Order of Time' comes 'There Are Places in the World Where Rules are Less Important than Kindness' (Allen Lane, £20, ISBN 80241454688), a further departure from the conventions of pop science writing for Rovelli.

'There Are Places in the World' contains 48 “koan-like” essays, spanning physics, poetry, philosophy, psychedelics, religion, and politics. The collection is loosely based around the concept that science and humanistic achievements are complementary and in continuous dialogue: “The culture of today that keeps science and poetry so far apart is essentially foolish, to my way of thinking, because it makes us less able to see the complexity and the beauty as revealed by both,” Rovelli writes.

Some of the most memorable essays include an exploration of Nabokov’s passion for butterflies ('Lolita and the Blue Icarus'), one about the alien consciousness of octopuses ('The Mind of an Octopus'), and an essay that credits Dante for his prescient descriptions of the heavens ('Dante, Einstein, and the Three-Sphere'). Many of the essays are personal reflections – still rare in science writing – including a discussion about the “political theatre” of national identity, in which Rovelli explains how his Italianness is just one of many forces that shapes his identity.   

Despite the breadth of these essays, Rovelli is at his best when writing about science, such as in his three-part piece on black holes ('Black Holes I-III') which concludes with the concept of a white hole. He writes with such clarity and elegance that, upon finishing, the reader may look back and be startled at having been led to such a mind-bending concept.

Rovelli follows in the footsteps of the likes of Stephen Hawking and Richard Dawkins; exceptional at both doing and writing about science. However, Rovelli has carved out a niche as a gentler and less authoritative figure, and this is clearer in 'There Are Places in the World' than in his previous works. He defends philosophy. He can be righteous, but without descending into mockery.

In a similar manner to Yuval Noah Harari in his essay collection '21 Lessons for the 21st Century', Rovelli occasionally strays into essays which state the obvious to anyone remotely familiar with the subject (most notably in Why does inequality exist?). The essays which fall outside his realm of expertise – most of this collection, in fact – work far better when they read as his personal musings rather than his teachings.

'There Are Places in the World' is much like a sprawling conversation with a quick-witted uncle over dinner. It leaps between subjects and voices (lessons, debates, anecdotes, reflections) and leaves the reader’s head swirling with thoughts. This book, while not faultless, will help cement Rovelli’s credibility as a modern renaissance figure.

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