A Brief Lesson on Poetry for Physicists

by Sean Miller

5 April 2016

Praise for Carlo Rovelli's international bestseller Seven Brief Lessons on Physics has been near universal. Can the reviewers all be wrong? Yes, they can.

Recently I’ve been reading two books concurrently: physicist Carlo Rovelli’s Seven Brief Lessons on Physics and Roger Crowley’s popular history of the Portuguese adventures in the Indian Ocean during the early 16th century, Conquerors: How Portugal Forged the First Global Empire. It’s striking how much Rovelli and other physics writers owe to the Iberian worldview of the early modern age.

As Crowley tells it, at the time, the Portuguese were marginal players in the European theater. But they had a couple preoccupations that would impel them to build a planet-spanning empire that yielded heretofore unimaginable wealth and prestige. The first obsession was the sea, and in particular, navigation and waging naval war, skills they had fine-tuned in the previous century corsairing along the Moroccan coast.

The second obsession was romance. Steeped in medieval tales of knights venturing forth for noble and ecclesiastical causes into the vast unknown, the Portuguese men of discovery had cultivated for generations a bearing perfectly harmonized with the task at hand: life-threatening seafaring beyond the scope of anything accomplished in recorded European history, coupled with a zeal for mortal combat. Sanctioned by the Catholic Church to wage war, accrue profits, and convert heathens, the Portuguese swept around the Cape of Agulhas into the Indian Ocean and, within a couple decades, laid waste to a centuries-old mercantile equilibrium shared among Muslims, Africans, and Indians.

So here we have the lineaments of a worldview peculiar to early modern Europe, exemplified by the Portuguese: a righteous license to discover and conquer new realms using state-of-the-art technologies—in their case, carracks, astrolabes, and artillery—all motivated by a romantic notion of individual heroism, justified material gain, and the triumph of light over dark.

At this point, you may be wondering what the Portuguese conquest of the Indies in the 16th century has to do with contemporary theoretical physics. As we’ll see, it’s not about whether we can establish an exact analogy between the two, but rather, about the broad currents of a shared worldview.

Praise for Seven Brief Lessons on Physics has been near universal. Originally commissioned as a series of articles for the Sunday supplement of the Italian newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore, the slender book has become an international bestseller, translated into 25 languages. An elder statesmen of theoretical physics, Rovelli is the head of the quantum gravity group at the Centre de Physique Théorique of Aix-Marseille University. His claim to fame within the profession is being one of the founders of loop quantum gravity, a rival to string theory, which attempts to reconcile quantum theory with general relativity.

Many of the reviewers liken the book to poetry. Nature writes that the “metaphors are vivid, the vision dramatic”. The New Statesman calls it an “absorbing, lovely book… physics as romantic poetry… beguiling”. For the New Scientist, Seven Brief Lessons captures “the beauty of nature and the excitement of its discovery”. Paolo Giordano gushes that Rovelli’s “seven lessons are as graceful, terse, and dreamy as only poetry can sometimes be”. The likes of the Economist, Publishers Weekly, and the Financial Times—even celebrities such as Alan Alda and Philip Pullman—clamber over each other to double-down on praise for Rovelli’s “joyous celebration of scientific wonder”. With a consensus this universal, they can’t all be wrong.

Yes, they can. Certainly, Seven Brief Lessons is a paragon of the genre. It combines an admirable brevity with a sweeping scope, nicely chased down with help from an easy-going narratorial voice. But the genre itself is mandarin, a victim of its own rigid conventions. When critics praise a work, any work, with this lockstep uniformity, it should make us all a bit suspicious, much as Albert Einstein was suspicious that gravity wasn’t a force that acted instantaneously at a distance.

To borrow one of its tropes, let’s then lift the veil of Seven Brief Lessons’ greatness to reveal a simpler, deeper reality. That reality is based on a worldview that Rovelli implicitly touts, one that is entirely consistent with other scientizing scribblers in the field of popular physics. It’s a worldview that shares an entangled lineage with the one that drove the Portuguese to sack Calicut in 1509.

Rovelli, like so many physics popularizes before him, assumes of his readership a scientific innumeracy: “These lessons,” he proclaims in the very first sentence, “were written for those who know little or nothing about modern science.” Although there are brief asides that allude to chemistry, evolutionary biology, and neuroscience, among others, the book is devoted to theoretical physics. By evoking “modern science” here, the implication is that physics can serve metonymically for the whole of science, since it constitutes the “pillars” on which all the others ascend. To drive the point home, later, he declares that the “whole of chemistry emerges from a single [quantum mechanical] equation”.

For Rovelli, physics is a means of lifting the “veil” of a “blurred”, “banal” reality to a reveal simpler, deeper, more beautiful reality. The quotidian is an illusion, while Einstein’s field equations and the undulating universe they delineate are real.

Accordingly, we, the masses, depend on geniuses of Einstein’s caliber to enlighten us to this deeper reality. Apart from “those who know little or nothing about modern science”, it would appear that society can be sorted into two cohorts. On the one side, there are geniuses like Einstein; on the other, “idiots” and madmen”. Carl Friedrich Gauss is the “prince of mathematicians”. Paul Dirac is a “great architect”. Niels Bohr is a “pioneer”, surrounded by a coterie of disciples, “young lions”, that are blessed with the “most brilliant minds of the century”, most prominently, Werner Heisenberg, another “genius”. Conversely, the lesser experimentalists—for example, Arthur Eddington and Edwin Hubble—are elided away from the narrative with passive verbs: “In 1919, this deviance [of light] was measured… in 1930 the expansion of the universe was… observed.”

In short, scientists are great men of reason. Scientific progress results from feats of individual (and male) genius. It’s a historical account that would make the 19th century Scottish philosopher, Thomas Carlyle, proud. Great Men doing Great Deeds for the Benefit of Mankind. Replace scientist with nobleman and reason with honor and Rovelli could be talking about the Portuguese social stratum that was the engine of the conquest of the Indies, the fidalgos. The most dubious aspect of this revisionism is that it obscures the fact that Einstein and the other geniuses Rovelli exults weren’t working in a bubble.

Sure, what Einstein accomplished in 1905, his annus mirabilis, was remarkable. While Einstein deserves a lion’s share of credit for his breakthroughs, in all likelihood, if he hadn’t made the discoveries himself, someone of his generation or the next would have. The moment was ripe. More importantly, Rovelli’s winner-take-all approach to history does injustice to all those with whom Einstein borrowed, riffed, and relied. In effect, Rovelli re-imagines, like so many other popularizers, a history of scientific progress streamlined into a patrilineal succession. Max Plank is the “father” of quantum theory, Einstein “nurtured” it. The ring passes from Newton to Maxwell to Einstein to Bohr and so on.

That’s the home economics at the heart of most popular physics. Expanding out from this ancestral seat, Rovelli, like his predecessors, adorns the estate with the customary images of grandeur. He likens his precious “deeper” reality, the one revealed to us by the pater familias, Einstein, and his glorious field equations, to a jewel or a gem. On the estate, “fog lifts” opening “windows” to reveal the “secrets” of an eternal “mystery” where the universe is both “architecture” and undulating “ocean”.

In the realm of the very small, presided over by Bohr and his pride of “young lions”, quantum theory, as it always does, “baffles”. A painstakingly compiled cartography of subatomic particles features whimsically-named creatures, like gluons and quarks, that “lurk”, “swarm”, and “teem”. One wonders, though, if it’s apt to rotely characterize the creation and annihilation operators central to quantum mechanics—essentially, mathematical procedures—using this shopworn animism.

Read enough popular physics like this and the pattern becomes painfully glaring. Stripped of its mathematical and experimental footings, it becomes antiquated poetry, a litany of clichés. First and foremost among these is the asseveration that the sacred duty of physics is to “unveil” a “deeper” reality. Here Rovelli is like the blind man who strokes the trunk of an elephant, all the while insisting that what he fondles is a snake. Yes, gravitational fields are real, and I’d rather live in a world with more stable scientific knowledge than less. However, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, often it’s the superficial things that last, since nature’s deeper truths are soon found out.

The images on display in Seven Brief Lessons bring to mind that famous admonishment of Alexander Pope from his Essay on Criticism:

While they ring round the same unvary’d chimes,
With sure returns of still-expected rhymes.
Where-e’er you find the cooling western breeze,
In the next line, it whispers thro’ the trees;
If crystal streams with pleasing murmurs creep,
The reader’s threaten’d (not in vain) with sleep.
Then, at the last and only couplet fraught
With some unmeaning thing they call a thought,
A needless Alexandrine ends the song,
That like a wounded snake, drags its slow length along.

Rovelli’s gratuitous Alexandrine—a line of poetry with six instead of five feet—is his seventh “lesson”. In it, he veers from the romance of physics of the proceeding six lessons to meditate on free will, before settling into a lamentation on the impending tragedy of “our species”, whom Rovelli predicts “will not last long”. Tucked into the previous lesson is a dig against postmodernists, whom he stereotypes, like all too many other scientizers, as cynical relativists who “dismiss [physics] as a misleading form of knowledge”. With the reader’s arrival at the seventh, we can read between the lines as to who’s to blame for humanity’s imminent extinction: that unholy alliance, conjured by the scientizers themselves, between postmodernists and religious fundamentalists.

Despite his reluctance to risk dumfounding us with math, Rovelli is all too willing to offer up his armchair epistemology. This takes the form of a Boolean oversimplification where he sorts the “images that we construct” in language as either “free and fantastic stories” or “following traces in order to find something”. All of human narrative, he continues, can be reduced to “the antelope hunted at dawn” or the “antelope deity in that night’s storytelling”. Needless to say, Rovelli, ever the empiricist, reminds us that “if we find the antelope, we can eat”. Ungrateful antelope moochers who prefer fabrications over pragmatism are apparently the ancestors of those today who indulge in the “incomprehension and distrust of science shown by a significant part of our contemporary culture”.

“To trust immediate intuitions,” Rovelli chides, “rather than collective examination that is rational, careful, and intelligent is not wisdom”. Postmodernists and religionists, therefore, bear with them “the presumption of an old man who refuses to believe that the great world outside his village is any different from the one that he has always known”. Senile provincials, we skeptics of scientism are.

In his panegyric to Einstein in the first lesson, Rovelli writes that he “cannot resist giving here… a simple equation, even though you will almost certainly not be able to decipher it”. The condescension is breathtaking. At once, he offers physics as tantalizingly accessible—yet off limits. He then tells us that “you would need, of course, to study and digest Riemann’s mathematics” in order to “read and use this equation”. Of course. He reassures us, though, that to do so, all it “takes is a little commitment and effort”. “The reward,” he cajoles, “is sheer beauty and new eyes with which to see the world.”

To return to the Portuguese excursions east in the 16th century: scientizers would most certainly scoff at the association of early modern European conquest with scientific enlightenment. I’ll leave it to historians of science to prove them wrong. My point in making the comparison is not to defend a perfect correspondence between the two. It’s to highlight the cavalier indifference to the cultural contexts of their worldview that I find so annoying in Rovelli and like-minded scientizers. It’s a truism that we deploy the familiar to colonize the unknown. It’s also true that our unexamined assumptions about how the social world works color the images we choose to describe the natural world. Rovelli certainly wouldn’t try to use semi-classical mechanics to formulate a theory of quantum gravity. He might bring the same attitude to his imaginative writing.

Ezra Pound once famously exhorted poets to “make it new”. It’s advice that Rovelli and other popular physics writers should take to heart. On the one hand, they offer us the hackneyed poetry of popular physics. On the other, when they do deign to enlighten us beyond mere images, they foist upon us the austere proceduralism of physics textbooks.

There are rare exceptions. For years, Walter Lewin taught modern physics at MIT in a way that was both imaginative and rigorous. A few years back, Roger Penrose made an admirable, if failed, effort to incorporate more mathematics into his epic Road to Reality. But it seems that the majority of physicists writing for a non-professional audience suffer from what Chip and Dan Heath call the “curse of knowledge”. It’s hard for them to empathize with those who haven’t already been indoctrinated into their Pythagorean cult of expertise.

A challenge worthy of Rovelli’s formidable intellect would be to scrap the bad poetry of Seven Brief Lessons and start with Einstein’s equation. If he could make the actual mathematics of tensor algebra come to life, then he’d be accomplishing something truly new. It would be a gem worthy of acclaim in the realm of popular physics. In the meantime, this reader grows sleepy from his western breezes that whisper through the trees.

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