A mind without borders

There Are Places In The World Where Rules Are Less Important Than Kindness

By Carlo Rovelli

Reviewed by Pratik Kanjilal

“To hear a cultivated person of today joking almost boastfully that they are completely ignorant about science is as depressing as hearing a scientist bragging that they have never read a poem,” writes the Italian physicist, Carlo Rovelli, in one of his newspaper columns, which have been collected in this volume. 

Before the sciences became pompous and downed the portcullis on the arts, thought was borderless. Rovelli reminds us that Dante was scientifically literate, and the universe he describes in the  Divine Comedy  is a three-sphere, a higher-order object in four-dimensional space inspired by the dome of the Baptistery in Florence. Centuries later, in 1917, Einstein intuited that the universe is contained in a threesphere. Via poetry and science, Dante and Einstein arrived at similar conclusions.

And, yet, science must be kept apart from other forms of knowledge. In another column, Rovelli writes of Newton’s obsession with alchemy, the mother art of medieval Europe. Reams of his alchemical notes were discovered and bought at a Sotheby’s auction in 1936 by his fan, John Maynard Keynes, who concluded that Newton was not only among the first scientists but also “the last of the magicians”. But Rovelli points out that Newton never published on alchemy — perhaps because he found nothing of scientific interest to report. Hermes Trismegistus’ Emerald Tablet remained the enigma it had always been. ‘As above, so below,’ is not a statement worth parsing mathematically. It’s just enigmatic enough to keep you fascinated — for a lifetime, in Newton’s case. And, yet, he respected the divide between science and his other preoccupations….