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An ode to quantum physics misses the chance to teach readers how to confront uncertainty

Helgoland: Making Sense of the Quantum Revolution

Carlo Rovelli; Translated by Erica Segre and Simon Carnell
Riverhead
2021
256 pp.
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The success of Seven Brief Lessons on Physics and The Order of Time has made theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli a household name. In his new book, Helgoland, Rovelli offers to the general public his interpretation of quantum mechanics, arguing that it solves the theory’s paradoxes by so profoundly redefining our notion of reality that it erases the ineffable mind-body dichotomy.

Despite its ambitious goal, Helgoland is an easy read, aimed at individuals who are more interested in the potential implications that quantum mechanics may have on their worldview than in understanding the theory itself. Rovelli keeps his style light; chapters are only a few pages long and subdivided into subsections that are rarely more than a few paragraphs. As he points out, Helgoland is not so much an exposition of quantum me­chanics as a series of meditations on it.

While this decision will probably garner Rovelli another bestseller, it makes Helgoland a disappointing read for anyone hoping to get a better grasp of quantum mechanics or engage with Rovelli’s interpretation of it. This is unfortunate. Rovelli is one of the most interesting thinkers on the topic. His decision to eschew the usual chronological textbook presentation of quantum mechanics to present the notion of quantum as arising from more fundamental considerations on observation, measurement, and probability demonstrates a rare grasp of the theory.

Perhaps fearing that a careful discussion of these issues would unnerve his readers, Rovelli’s analysis remains superficial and is interspaced by a series of uninspired historical anecdotes. These tales present, yet again, the creators of quantum mechanics as bold and radical thinkers, a trope Rovelli tries to support with an unconvincing comparison to the thought of Bolshevik revolutionary (and physicist) Aleksandr Bogdanov.

Rovelli may have hoped that, along with some personal reminiscences, these stories of defiant young physicists would encourage readers to abandon their everyday perspective and follow him as he muses about what quantum mechanics means for our notion of reality and our understanding of the human mind. But the anecdotes often seem to have been sprinkled throughout the text only to amuse the readers, not to help them progress in their understanding, thus taking precious space away from what is truly of interest in Helgoland, namely Rovelli’s own interpretation of quantum mechanics.

Known as relational quantum mechanics, Rovelli’s reading of quantum mechanics arose from the brilliant insight that the theory’s mathematical formalism suggests that variables such as position and spin are not absolute characteristics of an object but rather describe a relation between two systems in the same way that velocity is a relation between two objects. Simply put, Rovelli argues—correctly, I believe—that we must abandon our belief in a cosmos populated by objects moving through space and time. There is simply no God’s-eye perspective, nothing outside of relations between systems, no absolute account of a series of events.

This is true for material objects and, Ro­velli adds, true of the mind, which must itself be nothing but the result of a series of reciprocal interactions between systems. This view of the human mind, he continues, might be shocking, but it is far from new. Here, Rovelli cites what he interprets as comparable beliefs espoused by the first century BCE Buddhist philosopher Nāgārjuna. (Rovelli openly admits that he is not interested in what the philosopher really meant.)

This attitude illustrates the book’s main problem. Rovelli continuously encourages his readers to embrace uncertainty, to seek new experiences, and to engage with different ideas, but he largely avoids doing so himself in Helgoland. He briefly presents competing interpretations of quantum mechanics but tells readers that they can skip that section of the book, which is “full of speculations.” He does not shy away from the strangeness of relational quantum mechanics but fails to explain why so many physicists still refuse to adopt it. He scolds Thomas Nagel for not seriously engaging with materialist views of the mind but fails to offer a spirited account of the dualist or idealist positions.

While these simplifications have been done in the hope of making difficult issues accessible, in doing so, Rovelli completely misses his main goal: to show his readers how to weigh evidence, evaluate theories, and debate ideas. At a time when we are bombarded by media trying to “inspire” or “convince” us that this or that position is “right,” we need more from intellectual leaders like Rovelli. We need them to model how to honestly and openly engage with others, how to seriously address objections, and more importantly, how to live with the uncertainty of not knowing.

About the author

The reviewer is at the History of Science and Technology Program, University of King’s College, Halifax, NS B3H 2A1, Canada.