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13 January 2021

Carlo Rovelli Q&A: “I am a very slow thinker with zero memory“

The theoretical physicist on the political ideals of Alexander Bogdanov and why he would fail if he competed in Mastermind.   

By New Statesman

Carlo Rovelli was born in Italy in 1956. He was politically active as a student and detained in 1987 for refusing military service. He is a theoretical physicist and writer working in quantum gravity.

What’s your earliest memory?

A snowfield in the mountains where I am walking alone, having escaped from the hotel where my family is staying for Christmas.

Who are your heroes?

Alexander the Great. I wish I could have a teacher like his: Aristotle.

What book last changed your thinking?

Heidegger’s Being and Time. I despise his politics, do not like his philosophy, and yet it has changed some of my thinking.

Which political figure do you look up to?

Alexander Bogdanov: intellectual, revolutionary, poet, scientist, doctor, writer, thinking mind of the Russian Revolution, pioneer of blood transfusion techniques, great science fiction writer. His ideas are at the root of systems theory and cybernetics. His political ideals still shine. He was too radical for either side of the Iron Curtain to be properly appreciated.

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What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

I had to look up on Wikipedia what “mastermind” means here. I think I would fail at any such game. I have zero memory; I am a very slow thinker. I usually find the answer a couple of days after I hear a question… If forced, I would choose quantum gravity (counting on the ignorance of those writing the questions).

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

I think the true answer is none. There are other times and places I would like to see. But when it comes to “living in”, my answer is here and now.

What TV show could you not live without?

I haven’t watched any TV for 20 years.

Who would paint your portrait?

If I cannot have a statue by Michelangelo, maybe David Hockney.

What’s your theme tune?

Janis Joplin’s “Me and Bobby McGee”, when she sings “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose”.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

“Beware advice, go your own way.” Yes, I have followed it.

What’s currently bugging you?

What happens to a black hole at the end of Hawking radiation. We know it shrinks, but what then? Many assume uncritically that it just pops out from existence, but this makes no sense to me.

What single thing would make your life better?

One more day.

When were you happiest?

Yesterday morning, in the early hours before twilight. If you do not mind, the reason is private.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

Alexander the Great’s. It wouldn’t be easy, however.

Are we all doomed?

Of course yes, because we shall die, and sooner or later humankind will be wiped away. And of course no, because it is not the distant future that motivates us: life is precious now. 


“There Are Places in the World Where Rules Are Less Important Than Kindness” by Carlo Rovelli is out now. “Helgoland” will be published on 25 March (both Allen Lane)

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This article appears in the 13 Jan 2021 issue of the New Statesman, American civil war