A Radical Absence of Certainty

I went to the library this week and came home with Carlo Rovelli’s Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, recommended in a recent newsletter by Austin Kleon, and written for readers with basically no scientific background whatsoever.

I do not understand physics. I read A Brief History of Time — twice! — with complete incomprehension. My one physics course at university was known internally as “physics for poets,” and still I barely managed to pass. But I’m desperate to think new thoughts, even confounding ones about the curvature of time and the idea that electrons only exist when they collide; my old thoughts have worn out their welcome, utterly and completely.

Plus I like Rovelli, who writes simply and beautifully, like the best poets. This, from his most recent book, Helgoland (also via Austin Kleon):

The search for knowledge is not nourished by certainty: it is nourished by a radical absence of certainty. Thanks to the acute awareness of our ignorance, we are open to doubt and can continue to learn and to learn better. 

Would that the search for knowledge were always accompanied by the awareness of our ignorance. We lay folk might be less inclined to assume ourselves foreign policy or public health experts if we began each search with the understanding that we know so very little about so very much indeed.

My desperation for new thoughts comes after a week of listening to the gnashing and howling over the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, a war most Americans had forgotten about until suddenly we were leaving and the President insisted it would be nothing like our departure from Saigon in 1973 but the optics said otherwise, and oh, look, here come the Bush people rising like Voldemort’s death eaters to populate the news shows and rewrite history once more.

So, yes. I needed new thoughts. Like this one:

General relativity has taught us that space is not an inert box but rather something dynamic: a kind of immense, mobile snail shell in which we are contained. (…) Quantum mechanics, on the other hand, has taught us that every field of this kind is “made of quanta” and has a fine, granular structure. It immediately follows that physical space is made of these quanta.

Where are these quanta of space? Nowhere. They are not in space because they are themselves the space. Space is formed by the linking of these individual quanta. (…) Once again, the world seems to be less about objects than about interacting relationships.

Carlo Rovelli, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics

I’ll be pondering that for a while.

Next up: Rovelli’s 2018 book, There are Places in the World Where Rules are Less Important Than Kindness. Because who can resist a title like that?

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