Carlo Rovelli

The joy and suffering of writing a book

The joy and suffering of writing a book
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Spring is coming. There was snow in the garden till last week, here in Canada, where I have been spending this strange winter. But today the sky is shining blue and the sunshine is soft and warm. I guess this is what Easter is really about. Rebirth. I have spent months without going farther than the corner food shop. Zoom winter. I have never been in the same few rooms for so long. And yet I have never been so much in touch with colleagues and friends from everywhere. I feel I have partially migrated into a semi-virtual reality. It is not too bad. It is relaxing.

This week is crazy. My new book, Helgoland — about understanding quantum reality — has just been published and, because I have the best promotion person in the galaxy, I am submerged by journalists. What will I tell them? I never know what to answer to the question: ‘What is your book about?’ There is an impolite part of me that would like to answer: ‘Well, read it.’ I know it makes no sense: people are curious, they want to know whether they might be interested. That’s reasonable. But a book is exhausting. One puts all one’s life and heart and thoughts and doubts into it. Every line of writing has been joy and suffering. So, what should I answer? There is what I think about reality. There is what I think about knowledge. There is what I think about thinking. There is what I think we do not know. But these are not good answers. They are incomprehensible. So I try to tame my own book, I ask it in a low voice to pardon me, and I talk about it in a gentle, reasonable manner: hiding the truth. But I feel like Lucifer: using kind words to lure people into the hell of the deep confusion about what is real.

I am working on two articles. One is mathematical physics. Ten years ago an expression that could give the right evolution for quantum spacetime was found. But doubts were raised: some arguments seemed to indicate that the equation does not match what we know about spacetime. The issue is still lingering. I think I can see where the mistake lies. It is a subtle mathematical mistake: the assumption is that a certain limit and a certain integral can be exchanged. But they cannot. Am I on the right track? When I think I am, I am the happiest man in the world — the birds sing and spring is coming. When I suspect I may be deluding myself, I get horrendously depressed. I feel miserable. And they say that science is just about rationality.

The other paper is short, but I have been writing and rewriting it for more than two years. It is about an old fisherman who loves sunsets; the moment when the sun dives into the sea. When he learns that the sun doesn’t actually dive into the water, and in fact doesn’t really set at all — that it’s us who spin — he becomes desperate, because he can’t abide to live realising that he was so deluded. We feel the same way when we learn that our soul, our free will, our mortality, don’t work precisely the way we fancied. I am attached to this paper, but I do not know if I will end up having the courage to publish it. I am always horribly uncertain about my own ideas. While they are confused, I hesitate to write; if and when they finally become clear, they are then so obvious to me that it seems unnecessary and even foolish to write them down at all.

Back to Easter. This year it falls on 4 April. The approximate rule is that Easter falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the equinox. The exact rule is more complicated. It is not really the equinox, but rather 21 March, which is the ecclesiastical official date for the equinox (which may come earlier); and not really the full moon, but the ‘ecclesiastical full moon’, which is a very intricate notion — check out Wikipedia if you are curious. Fixing the right date for Easter has been a serious concern and source of disputes for centuries. It is incredible how humans waste their time. A disputed but widespread idea is that the name ‘Easter’ derives from Ishtar, one of the most popular goddesses of all times. But the fact is true that Ishtar, under her first Sumerian name Inanna, descended to the world of the dead and came back after three days, according to the people who adored her 6,000 years ago. Human fancies are resilient.

And so is the cycle of the seasons, thank all-the-gods. The snow has melted in my garden. Soon I’ll begin travelling again. I’ll keep a foot in that virtual world, but I hope to take my steps again in the other world, the real one. Rebirth. These three days have been long.