I pass on clips from a piece in the 12/202/23 Wall Street Journal by Carlo Rovelli, the author, most recently, of ‘ White Holes: Inside the Horizon’
By Johannes Kepler (1634)
1 Perhaps the greatest conceptual earthquake in the history of civilization was the Copernican Revolution. Prior to Copernicus, there were two realms: the celestial and the terrestrial. Celestial things orbit, terrestrial ones fall. The former are eternal, the latter perishable. Copernicus proposed a different organization of reality, in which the sun is in a class of its own. In another class are the planets, with the Earth being merely one among many. The moon is in yet another class, all by itself. Everything revolves around the sun, but the moon revolves around the Earth. This mad subversion of conventional reason was taken seriously only after Galileo and Kepler convinced humankind that Copernicus was indeed right. “Somnium” (“The Dream”) is the story of an Icelandic boy—Kepler’s alter ego—his witch mother and a daemon. The daemon takes the mother and son up to the moon to survey the universe, showing explicitly that what they usually see from Earth is the perspective from a moving body. Sheer genius.
By Elsa Morante (1974)
2 This passionate and intelligent novel is a fresco of Italy during World War II. “La Storia,” its title in Italian, can be translated as “story” or “tale” as well as “history.” Elsa Morante plumbs the complexity of humankind and its troubles, examining the sufferings caused by war. She writes from the view of the everyday people who bear the burden of the horror. This allows her to avoid taking sides and to see the humanity in both. The subtitle of this masterpiece—“a scandal that has lasted for ten thousand years”— captures Morante’s judgment of war, inviting us to a perspective shift on all wars.
Collected Poems of Lenore Kandel
By Lenore Kandel (2012)
3 Lenore Kandel was a wonderful and underrated poet who was part of the Beat-hippie movement in California. The tone of her poems varies widely, from bliss to desperation: “who finked on the angels / who stole the holy grail and hocked it for a jug of wine?” She created a scandal in the late 1960s by writing about sex in a strong, vivid way. Her profoundly anticonformist voice offers a radical shift of perspective by singing the beauty and the sacredness of female desire.
Why Empires Fall
By Peter Heather and John Rapley (2023)
4 As an Italian, I have long been intrigued by the fall of the Roman Empire. Peter Heather and John Rapley summarize the recent historiographic reassessments of the reasons for the fall. Their work also helps in understanding the present. Empires don’t necessarily collapse because they weaken. They fall because their success brings prosperity to a wider part of the world. They fall if they cannot adjust to the consequent rebalancing of power and if they try to stop history with the sheer power of weapons. “The easiest response to sell to home audiences still schooled in colonial history is confrontation,” the authors write. “This has major, potentially ruinous costs, compared to the more realistic but less immediately popular approach of accepting the inevitability of the periphery’s rise and trying to engage with it.”
By Nāgārjuna (ca. A.D. 150)
5 This major work of the ancient Indian Buddhist philosopher Nāgārjuna lives on in modern commentaries and translations. Among the best in English is Jay L. Garfield’s “The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way” (1995). Nāgārjuna’s text was repeatedly recommended to me in relation to my work on the interpretation of quantum theory. I resisted, suspicious of facile and often silly juxtapositions between modern science and Eastern philosophy. Then I read it, and it blew my mind. It does indeed offer a possible philosophical underpinning to relational quantum mechanics, which I consider the best way to understand quantum phenomena. But it offers more: a dizzying and captivating philosophical perspective that renounces any foundation. According to this view, the only way to understand something is through its relation with something else—nothing by itself has an independent reality. In the language of Nāgārjuna, every thing, taken by itself, is “empty,” including emptiness itself. I find this a fascinating intellectual perspective as well as a source of serenity, with its acceptance of our limits and impermanence.