Often compared to the late Stephen Hawking, Italian theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli has made a career out of making mind-bending concepts easier to grasp.
But according to him, Benedict Cumberbatch does it better.
The Imitation Game and Avengers: Infinity War star narrates the audio book version of Rovelli’s latest brain food best-seller The Order of Time, which calmly dismantles all of our misconceptions about how time actually works.
“I was shocked, because through his voice the text becomes so much better,” the Italian-born Rovelli chuckles over the phone from his home in Marseille.
“I don’t think I, myself, am a good reader, because I tend to hurry and be stressed. He has this slow-paced, convincing way of saying things and it makes everything serious enough but friendly. Listening to him I was thinking, ‘wow, who wrote this?’”
Cumberbatch is a big fan too, apparently carrying a copy of Rovelli’s Seven Brief Lessons on Physics around with him. They hit it off when they met.
“It’s a great honour for me,” Rovelli says. “We had a wonderful encounter and he is a very charming person.”
The Order of Time is divided into compact chapters illustrated with images and graphs and threaded with philosophical musings, guiding the reader through some loopy facts.
For one thing, time runs slower at sea level than it does in the mountains. Flying in a fast plane also slows time down. And that’s the easier stuff to grasp.
There are some passages in this fascinating beginner’s guide that might melt your brain.
“I think the biggest misconception about time, and what confuses everybody both in the larger public and even among the various professionals who work on it, is the idea that time is just a single clear, compact notion. It is not, it is multi-layered,” Rovelli says.
“Our own experiences of it are very strange and flexible,” he adds.
“We grow up thinking that reality is what is now, the past is gone and the future is not there, so what is real is the present. But the present is only defined next to us, at a short distance. It makes no sense to ask what is real now in a distant galaxy. That’s mind-blowing to me.”
Rovelli assures us, however, that we’re not in a Matrix-like world.
“I do think that the world is real. It’s just very different from what we think it is. We have a superficial grasp, which is probably good for our lives.”
In these occasionally anti-intellectual times, scientists can cop a lot of flak, but Rovelli also thinks the professionals need to be open to other ways of understanding our world. He regularly attends philosophy conferences and participates in conceptual debates.
“If you look at the scientists of the past, even the greats like Einstein, Heisenberg or Newton, none of them had this arrogance of thinking that they had the only access to understanding,” he says.
“Science is just one of our tools, but it is a very good tool. The dialogue with philosophy, literature and even art makes our understanding of the world.”
Indeed, watching Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey as a young man helped set Rovelli on his current path.
“For many people of my generation, it was completely shocking, like wow. The world is immense and who knows what’s out there? It gave me the dream to be an astronaut and explore interstellar space, but when this didn’t realise, I had to go to the second choice, which was to be a scientist.”
Carlo Rovelli’s The Order of Time, published by Allen Lane, is out now.