Over the course of my “literary” life, I’ve encountered numerous divisions, prejudices, aversions, proclivities, and preferences. Most of them come down to taste—this school parts company from that one, fans of one writer cannot abide this other one, subject matter produces occasional extreme reactions. Then there is the endless sortings according to style or period or region. Genre can be a minefield of antagonisms, categorical dismissals, harsh critical responses, or simple disinterest. Taste, aesthetics, predilection—all personal, really, even when a case is made of a more substantial kind involving theory, academic attitudes, or even ethics, but by and large it comes down to a kind of triage: what do you want to spend your time on, that satisfies or fulfills?
In my youth, the most prominent division among those of us reading the so-called Classics was best exemplified by those who loved Jane Austen…and those who did not. I fell into the latter category. For years, Austen, for me, was a mannered, formalized, high-end kind of soap opera. I would hear people declare her genius and scratch my head. Many years later, having indulged my personal interest by way of thousands of novels and short stories in science fiction, I came back to Austen and discovered a vein of brilliance I had theretofore missed. While the “soap” aspect was certainly there, the fact is she was writing insightfully about systems. Social systems, mainly, but there were ancillary systems. She examined the social milieu of her day as sets of constraining protocols, barriers, and arrangements that dictated individual choice.
I describe that in order to explain how most divisions among the wide range of literary forms are often arbitrary, petty, and at best only serve to point us in preferential directions—here be what you like. Read widely enough, we find what we like in places we thought devoid of our preferred pleasures, and hence the distinctions are…porous.
Most of them are harmless and serve at times as sources of productive discourse. One, however, has always dismayed me, because it extends beyond the literary to permeate many other aspects of our lives. What C.P. Snow labeled the Two Cultures—the division between art and science.
As if the two are incompatible, that somehow science is anti-art, and by extension anti-human. (It is one of the underlying dismissals by some of science fiction.) At some point since Newton, this idea has become more entrenched and has led to some arguably toxic consequences.
In the 20th Century, many people recognized the negative aspects of this division and sought to bridge the divide. Notable among them were Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov, Stephen Jay Gould, Rachel Carson, Lynn Margulis, Lisa Randall, and Michelle Thaller. The ability to write and convey science in language accessible by the lay public has become something apparently deserving of celebrity status, as in the case of Neil DeGrasse Tyson.
While it is understandably difficult to convey the details of certain aspects of science, perhaps one of the problems has been that for too long it was just accepted that these things are too complex for the nonspecialist to grasp. It’s difficult to know because examples of excellent communication for the general public do seem to be rare. (Not as rare as it seems, but to know that one would have to be inclined to look, and if through life one is constantly told not only how hard science is but also, in some instances, how “inhuman” it is, the odds are good that one has been set up to be disinclined to pay attention.)
I think it is safe to say that never before has a public understanding of science been so important. After all, public policy, which has always required an understanding on some level of science, is now being directly impacted by such comprehension.
So the so-called Popularizer has never been more important.
But in order for the message to reach people, it is fair to say it must be made relevant to our humanity.
Enter Carlo Rovelli.
Rovelli is an Italian theoretical physicist (his field is quantum gravity) who over the last several years has published a handful of exemplary books, beginning with Seven Brief Lesson On Physics which, in a very short space covers much of the important history and nature of modern physics. In each of his books, threaded through the explications of science, is a humanness that renders the work emotionally accessible.
His latest, however, is something different. There Are Places In The World Where Rules Are Less Important Than Kindness is a collection of essays which share the theme of a scientist looking at the world at large and revealing the empathy through which the intellect sees. There are historical pieces about Newton and Einstein and revolution and geology, and political pieces touching on policy and the consequences of both understanding and ignorance, and travel pieces ranging from Africa to Scandinavia. Throughout it all, we see through the eyes of a scientist who loves and is delighted and laughs and is occasionally afraid—who is, basically, human.
The problem science presents for some people is the point at which it seems to throw up a wall and tells us no, you cannot do that, you cannot go there, you cannot have a particular way. Entropy is unsympathetic, and the apparently non-negotiable rejections of certain preferences can be off-putting. What Rovelli does is show us another door, because while science reveals a universe with certain restrictions, it shows us new possibilities all the time. It offers more options than we knew existed.
But it is also important, if we are to increase our understanding of the world, to learn science as a human art.
That divide I spoke about, between art and science, is the most artificial of divisions. It grew out of the point at which philosophy seemed to lose relevance in the face of answers provided by science that fulfilled certain demands for useful answers. We forgot somewhere along the line that Aristotle was as much a scientist as a moral philosopher, and that he saw no meaningful distinction between the physical world and human ethics.
Rovelli talks about that and many other “points of departure” where some healing is in order, and perhaps a few new bridges.
And he writes well. He observes very well. He conveys the essential humanness of science and somehow makes it a warmer thing to contemplate. There is hopefulness in his observations. Joy as well, and above all a kindness rarely encountered in any specialty.
Once we read this, I would recommend continuing with his other books. This is fun material as well as challenging and enlightening. Rovelli conveys an almost childish exuberance when talking about science and his own field. It is infectious and perhaps these days being caught up in the delight of exploring—which is, after all, where science begins—might just see us all through to a kinder place.