Physicist Carlo Rovelli explains the strange principles of relational quantum mechanics – which says objects don’t exist on their own – and how it could unlock major advances in fundamental physics
October 10, 2022
Carlo Rovelli stands in front of an exploding hangar. Fragments of its walls and its shattered contents – parts of a child’s tricycle, a record player, a shredded Wellington boot – hang in the air behind him. I came to meet the physicist and best-selling author at an exhibition at the Tate Britain art gallery in London. The scattered objects are the work of Cornelia Parker, one of the UK’s most acclaimed contemporary artists, known for her large-scale installations that reconfigure everyday objects.
For Rovelli, based at the University of Aix-Marseille in France, Parker’s work is significant because it reflects his view of the nature of reality. “I connect with the process: she came up with the idea, produced the idea, told us about it, and we reacted to it,” he tells me. “We don’t understand Cornelia Parker’s work just by looking at it, and we don’t understand reality just by looking at objects.”
Rovelli is a proponent of an idea known as relational quantum mechanics, the result of which is that objects do not exist independently of each other. It’s a concept that defies easy comprehension, so Parker’s reality-defying exposition seemed like a helpful setting for a conversation about it — and what else Rovelli does. It’s a happy coincidence that Parker’s shed is called cold dark matter, a reference to the unidentified substance that is believed to make up most of the universe. Because Rovelli now thinks he knows how we could finally pin…