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The Becoming of Picasso

Maxwell Carter

Pablo Picasso in 1946. George Konig/Keystone Features, via Getty Images
By Miles J. Unger
Illustrated. 470 pp. Simon & Schuster. $32.50
In biography, struggle is invariably more interesting than success. The most irresistible memoirs prefigure celebrity entirely, from Moss Hart’s “Act One” and Emlyn Williams’s “George” to David Niven’s “The Moon’s a Balloon” and Dirk Bogarde’s “A Postillion Struck by Lightning.” These are tales of lightness, possibility and wonder. It was in this spirit that I welcomed Miles J. Unger’s “Picasso and the Painting That Shocked the World,” which traces the artist’s childhood in Spain through the creation of “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” in 1907, to the otherwise heaving shelves of Picasso literature.
“Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” 2018 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Picasso’s pre-1900 work is marked by his father’s art-school conservatism, as seen in the dark, unpainterly “First Communion” of 1896 and “Science and Charity” from the following year. Picasso was liberated from the 19th century’s heavy-handed conventions in Paris, which he first visited with his friend and fellow aesthete Carles Casagemas in October 1900. There he found inspiration in the Louvre, in the retrospectives of the flickering Impressionist generation, in his acquaintance with would-be painters and poets and, it appears, in the invigorating camaraderie of la Vie Bohème.
On the way to the hothouse, proto-Cubist summer of the “Demoiselles,” the shocker of his book’s title, Unger ably covers the El Greco-influenced “Blue” and “Rose” periods; the patronage of the Steins; and Picasso’s path-altering discovery of African art in the collection of the Trocadéro museum, the precise dating of which has divided scholars.
Unfortunately, insistent platitudes and pigeonholing tend to mar Unger’s efforts. Picasso is “bathed in the dazzling aura that surrounds all famous men”; Montmartre is the “ground zero of the worldwide avant-garde”; Picasso is compared to “an athlete before the big game,” an actor on “the stage of history” and “an ingénue making her way to Hollywood.” In one passage, Picasso’s rivalry with Matisse is described as an aesthetic “game of thrones.” Elsewhere, Picasso and Braque are said to knock Matisse “from his perch atop the leadership of the avant-garde,” imbuing painting with all the nuance of Flywheel. Unger plays up the “tortoise-and-hare” caricature of the contest of Matisse and Picasso, “the plodding striver against the facile genius, the introvert against the extroverted gadfly.” In his view, “Picasso was a born rebel, Matisse a rebel through circumstance, and a reluctant one at that.”
Pablo Picasso in his studio with versions of “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.” Paul Popper/Popperfoto, via Getty Images
When it comes to Montmartre and the “making of” the “Demoiselles,” Unger’s book pales next to the first installment of John Richardson’s three-volume (and counting) life of Picasso, Roger Shattuck’s delightful history of the prewar avant-garde, “The Banquet Years,” and the artist’s former mistress Fernande Olivier’s reminiscences, which were published in “Loving Picasso.” On the other hand, Unger appreciates Picasso’s boyhood talent without overegging its merits. He’s good on the Steins (particularly Leo’s insufferable condescension). And certain of Unger’s details were new to me. I had never, for instance, heard the rumor that Puvis de Chavannes was Maurice Utrillo’s biological father.
“Have you ever known a famous man before he became famous?” So begins Herman Wouk’s 1962 novel, “Youngblood Hawke.” “It may be an irritating thing to remember, because chances are he seemed like anybody else to you.” The young Picasso — with his otherworldly precocity and hypnotic mirada fuerte — was perhaps the exception. Writing in 1906, the year before the “Demoiselles” was conceived, the novelist and critic Eugène Marsan took his measure. An imagined interlocutor marveled at “a compelling picture” on the wall of the Lapin Agile: “‘The young artist who painted that in two hours will become a genius, if Paris does not destroy him. …’ ‘The painter of this Harlequin,’ I said, ‘Monsieur, already has a reputation. … You might call him, to help you remember, the Callot of the saltimbanques, but you’d do better to remember his name: Picasso.’”

You Share Everything With Your Bestie. Even Brain Waves.

Natalie Angier

Keith Negley
A friend will help you move, goes an old saying, while a good friend will help you move a body. And why not? Moral qualms aside, that good friend would likely agree the victim was an intolerable jerk who had it coming and, jeez, you shouldn’t have done this but where do you keep the shovel?
Researchers have long known that people choose friends who are much like themselves in a wide array of characteristics: of a similar age, race, religion, socioeconomic status, educational level, political leaning, pulchritude rating, even handgrip strength. The impulse toward homophily, toward bonding with others who are the least other possible, is found among traditional hunter-gatherer groups and advanced capitalist societies alike.
New research suggests the roots of friendship extend even deeper than previously suspected. Scientists have found that the brains of close friends respond in remarkably similar ways as they view a series of short videos: the same ebbs and swells of attention and distraction, the same peaking of reward processing here, boredom alerts there.
The neural response patterns evoked by the videos — on subjects as diverse as the dangers of college football, the behavior of water in outer space, and Liam Neeson trying his hand at improv comedy — proved so congruent among friends, compared to patterns seen among people who were not friends, that the researchers could predict the strength of two people’s social bond based on their brain scans alone.
“I was struck by the exceptional magnitude of similarity among friends,” said Carolyn Parkinson, a cognitive scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles. The results “were more persuasive than I would have thought.” Dr. Parkinson and her colleagues, Thalia Wheatley and Adam M. Kleinbaum of Dartmouth College, reported their results in Nature Communications.
“I think it’s an incredibly ingenious paper,” said Nicholas Christakis, author of “Connected: The Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our World” and a biosociologist at Yale University. “It suggests that friends resemble each other not just superficially, but in the very structures of their brains.”
The findings offer tantalizing evidence for the vague sense we have that friendship is more than shared interests or checking off the right boxes on a Facebook profile. It’s about something we call good chemistry.
“Our results suggest that friends might be similar in how they pay attention to and process the world around them,” Dr. Parkinson said. “That shared processing could make people click more easily and have the sort of seamless social interaction that can feel so rewarding.”
Kevin N. Ochsner, a cognitive neuroscientist at Columbia University who studies social networks, said the new report is “cool,” “provocative” and “raises more questions than it answers.” It could well be picking up traces of “an ineffable shared reality” between friends.
Dr. Ochsner offered his own story as evidence of the primacy of chemistry over mere biography. “My wife-to-be and I were both neuroscientists in the field, we were on dating websites, but we were never matched up,” he said.
“Then we happened to meet as colleagues and in two minutes we knew we had the kind of chemistry that breeds a relationship.”
Dr. Parkinson — who is 31, wears large horn-rimmed glasses and has the wholesome look of a young Sally Field — described herself as introverted but said, “I’ve been fortunate with my friends.”
The new study is part of a surge of scientific interest in the nature, structure and evolution of friendship. Behind the enthusiasm is a virtual Kilimanjaro of demographic evidence that friendlessness can be poisonous, exacting a physical and emotional toll comparable to that of more familiar risk factors like obesity, high blood pressure, unemployment, lack of exercise, smoking cigarettes.
Scientists want to know what, exactly, makes friendship so healthy and social isolation so harmful, and they’re gathering provocative, if not yet definitive, clues.
Dr. Christakis and his co-workers recently demonstrated that people with strong social ties had comparatively low concentrations of fibrinogen, a protein associated with the kind of chronic inflammation thought to be the source of many diseases. Why sociability might help block inflammation remains unclear.
Researchers have also been intrigued by evidence of friendship among nonhuman animals, and not just in obvious candidates like primates, dolphins and elephants.
Gerald G. Carter of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama and his colleagues reported last year that female vampire bats cultivate close relationships with unrelated females and will share blood meals with those friends in harsh times — a lifesaving act for animals that can’t survive much more than a day without food.
Through years of tracking the behaviors of a large flock of great tits, Josh A. Firth of Oxford University and his co-workers found that individual birds showed clear preferences for some flock members over others. When a bird’s good friend died or disappeared, the bereft tit began making overtures to other birds to replace the lost comrade.
Yet when it comes to the depth and complexity of bonds, humans have no peers. Dr. Parkinson and her co-workers previously had shown that people are keenly and automatically aware of how all the players in their social sphere fit together, and the scientists wanted to know why some players in a given network are close friends and others mere nodding acquaintances.
Inspired by the research of Uri Hasson of Princeton, they decided to explore subjects’ neural reactions to everyday, naturalistic stimuli — which these days means watching videos.
The researchers started with a defined social network: an entire class of 279 graduate students at an unnamed university widely known among neuroscientists to have been the Dartmouth School of Business.
The students, who all knew one another and in many cases lived in dorms together, were asked to fill out questionnaires. Which of their fellow students did they socialize with — share meals and go to a movie with, invite into their homes? From that survey the researchers mapped out a social network of varying degrees of connectivity: friends, friends of friends, third-degree friends, friends of Kevin Bacon.
The students were then asked to participate in a brain scanning study and 42 agreed. As an fMRI device tracked blood flow in their brains, the students watched a series of video clips of varying lengths, an experience that Dr. Parkinson likened to channel surfing with somebody else in control of the remote.
They watched astronaut Chris Hadfield demonstrate how water behaves like a goopy gel in low gravity. They watched a sedately sentimental scene from a Jewish wedding between two people who happened to be gay men.
They watched the author Eric Schlosser warn of the dangers of allowing a few fast-food giants to control our food supply. They watched what my good friend Judy Gradwohl and I agreed, on reviewing the clips together later, was one of the worst music videos ever produced, about a man with an obviously fake facial deformity who is bullied at work and snubbed by his attractive female colleague but who eventually wins her heart when the bullies turn on her and he, Phony Elephant Man, steps in and beats them up.
The students watched pratfall comedy clips and an Australian mockumentary so subtle that certain viewers confessed they didn’t realize it was a spoof but liked it nonetheless.
Analyzing the scans of the students, Dr. Parkinson and her colleagues found strong concordance between blood flow patterns — a measure of neural activity — and the degree of friendship among the various participants, even after controlling for other factors that might explain similarities in neural responses, like ethnicity, religion or family income.
The researchers identified particularly revealing regions of pattern concordance among friends, notably in the nucleus accumbens, in the lower forebrain, which is key to reward processing, and in the superior parietal lobule, located toward the top and the back of the brain — roughly at the position of a man bun — where the brain decides how to allocate attention to the external environment.
Using the results, the researchers were able to train a computer algorithm to predict, at a rate well above chance, the social distance between two people based on the relative similarity of their neural response patterns.
Dr. Parkinson emphasized that the study was a “first pass, a proof of concept,” and that she and her colleagues still don’t know what the neural response patterns mean: what attitudes, opinions, impulses or mental thumb-twiddling the scans may be detecting.
They plan next to try the experiment in reverse: to scan incoming students who don’t yet know one another and see whether those with the most congruent neural patterns end up becoming good friends.
Alexander Nehamas, a professor of philosophy at Princeton University and author of a meditative book, “On Friendship,” appreciated the design of the study and its use of video clips to ferret out the signature of friendship.
“The aesthetic choices we make, the things we like, the taste we have in art, plays, TV, furniture — when you put them together they are absolutely essential components of our character, an indication of who we are,” he said. We live “immersed in art.”
Not high art, not a night-at-the-opera art, but everyday art — buildings, billboards, clothing, the dishes at a restaurant, the percussive rhythms of subways on train tracks.
“Watching TV clips is much more accurate to our everyday life than the times we go to a museum,” he said, and therefore potentially more revealing of who we are and what we hope to find in a friend.
So if you happened to catch “The Cute Show: Sloths!,” about a self-proclaimed “sloth sanctuary” in Costa Rica, and if your first thought wasn’t ooh, how adorable those little smiley sloths are, but rather, sloths are not pets to be cuddled and don’t bathe the algae off their fur — haven’t you heard of mutualism? — give me a call.
We’ll be biosnob soul mates for life.

​Paul Cernat despre Monica Lovinescu

Acum 10 ani (20 aprilie 2008) murea într-o clinică din Paris, după șase ani de semiparalizie, primul nostru critic-femeie de autoritate canonică, lider ideologic al exilului literar autohton: Monica Lovinescu. Cu aproape doi ani înainte murise și soțul ei - Virgil Ierunca, spitalizat după un accident casnic. Fiica lui E. Lovinescu s-a născut pe 19 noiembrie 1923, la București. O legendă neconfirmată spune că, anunțat de nașterea fetiței, E.L. n-a vrut să întrerupă lectura în cenaclu a Hortensiei Papadat-Bengescu (pe care M.L. o va antipatiza toată viața). În schimb, Ion Barbu i-a dedicat un poem. Copilă, compunea cînd și cînd proză; nu-i plăceau romanele „taticonțului", dar îl însoțea la filme. Asistentă a lui Camil Petrescu în cadrul seminarului de teatru al acestuia, tînăra frivolă emigrează rocambolesc la Paris înaintea instaurării stalinismului, împreună cu fostul troțkist (suspect pentru noul regim) Virgil Ierunca. Mama ei, Ecaterina Bălăcioiu-Lovinescu, va încerca s-o protejeze în fața autorităților comuniste, trimițînd la Paris documentele intime ale lui E.L. Arestarea și moartea sa tragică în închisoare vor deturna cariera teatrală a fiicei spre o răzbunare existențial-politică, devenită misiune și cauză, iar reîncărcarea „revizuirilor morale" ale lui E. Lovinescu pe coordonatele „est-eticii" militant anticomuniste îi va caracteriza, de acum, activitatea. În exilul parizian, ML a trăit în prelungirea României culturale pierdute, pe care a influențat-o cu o magnitudine complementară criticilor de-acasă. Deloc feministă, mica doamnă de fier cu voce baritonal-tabagică și-a cîștigat o autoritate considerată, anterior, un privilegiu masculin. Prin comparație, Virgil Ierunca face figură de prinț-consort și polemist liric, iar cuplul lor va fi numit, informal, „Monicii". Emisiunea pariziană de la Radio Europa Liberă at prelua titlul volumului camilpetrescian Teze și antiteze. Un lucru e cert: istoria intelectuală autohtonă a Războiului Rece, prelungită, prin anticomunismul postcomunist, pînă azi, are în ML o figură-cheie. Poate cea mai influentă. În 1979 cade victimă unui atentat comis de doi teroriști instrumentați de Securitate, scăpînd miraculos cu viață. Atacată vehement în presa național-comunistă din țară, a fost (inamicul E. Barbu avea dreptate) o maestră a „strategiei și tacticii" Europei Libere. Apartamentul din Rue Pinton devenise un cartier general vizitat de aliați, dar și agenți de influență. Liberal-conservatoare în linia Raymond Aron-J-F. Revel, ostilă corectitudinii politice și acuzată, uneori, de a fi privilegiat memoria comunismului în fața celei a fascismului, ML a fost o eseistă elevată, cu o „dicțiune" lovinesciană a ideilor. Moralismul clasic se combină în cazul ei cu un existențialism spiritual și o modernitate filtrată printr-un anticomunism intratabil. A sprijinit, ca o papesă a exilului, disidența românească, atîta cîtă a fost, și și-a asumat supralicitarea, faute de mieux, a ambivalenților „rezistenți prin cultură". Logica de front a făcut-o, adesea, să deprecieze nu doar moral valori intelectuale și literare importante, supralicitînd autori utili. Pe cît de mare a fost impactul ei în România, pe atît de modest a fost în Franța. A încercat, fără mare succes, să-l traducă la Paris pe I.L. Caragiale, împreună cu Eugene Ionesco. În anii 90 a publicat și un volumaș de interviuri radiofonice cu scriitori exilați – Mircea Eliade, Emil Cioran, Eugen Ionescu, Ștefan Lupașcu și Grigore Cugler (primii trei au fost figurile cele mai susținute de soții Ierunca, înaintea unor Paul Goma – renegat ulterior, Gabriel Liiceanu – fiul „de suflet", sau Gabriela Adameșteanu).

Seria postdecembristă de Unde scurte, reunind cronicile radiofonice de la Europa Liberă (anii 60-90), e o istorie in progress a literaturii române sub comunism, din perspectiva exilului militant. Iar cele șapte volume ale jurnalului ei (1981-2000) sînt nu doar o frescă morală de epocă, ci și o referință obligatorie – evident subiectivă – pentru oricine va dori să cunoascdă relațiile exilului cu intelighenția din țară. Literar, ele impresionează cînd autoarea își dezvăluie vulnerabilitățile (jurnalul e și cronica dispariției lente a unei lumi). Memorialistica din La apa Vavilonului, expresivă mai ales în secvențele despre copilărie și adolescență (scena incinerării tatălui e devastatoare) decupează din jurnalele intime anterioare, prudent distruse, varianta publică a unei vieți palpitante. Iar romanul ei experimental postum (Cuvîntul din cuvinte), semnat cu pseudonimul Monique Saint-Come, e arid și indigest – păcatele tinereților. În anii 90, a patronat editarea Agendelor literare lovinesciene – o ediție critică exemplară și un document istorico-literar inestimabil. Anii terminali i-au fost grei, cei doi bătrîni fiind acum evitați de pelerinii avizi de legitimare, care altădată nu-i slăbeau. Un interviu-fluviu dat pe patul de suferință a fost publicat postum de prietena Doina Jela, într-un volum ornat cu fotografii ale muribundei (și care au atras multe reproșuri). El rămîne totuși un document intim prețios (ultima imagine: Monica L. agonizînd în fața unui ecran cu desene animate...). O evaluare nepartizană a Monicăi Lovinescu și a lumii prin care a trecut rămîne, și azi, extrem de dificilă. Moștenirea ei intelectuală generează, încă, numeroase pasiuni pro- și contra.

Lunch with Carlo Rovelli

Waves of photons, travelling at the speed of light, left the sun on the journey towards a warm London eight minutes ago. At roughly the same time, Professor Carlo Rovelli arrived ahead of schedule for our lunch, sat down at our table, ordering a lemonade and opening a copy of the literary periodical the London Review of Books, which I find him reading, having ordered another lemonade, on my irradiated arrival.
Rovelli is among the world's foremost theoretical physicists. He specialises in quantum gravity, a theory that attempts to solve what he describes as "one of the big open problems" in physics. His work is sufficiently important for a five-day conference, "Carlo Fest", to have been held in May to mark his 60th birthday. But the reason he has joined the ranks of the celebrity scientist is his gift for popularising immensely complex science.
His book Seven Brief Lessons on Physics was a bestseller in his native Italy in 2014 and has now been translated into English. Based on a column published in the Italian newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore, it makes the head-spinning world of protons, electrons, gluons, quants, hot black holes and discontinuous time elegantly comprehensible to the general public.
At Clarke's, he is dressed in short-sleeved black shirt and trousers. His tousled grey hair grows darker at the temples, as though denoting the intense mental activity that goes on between them. He wears glasses to read the menu and resists my cajolements to let his appetite run wild — by picking, say, the Exmoor caviar for two at £67 — with a modest choice of the buffalo mozzarella salad with a salad of runner beans and purple figs, Cornish leaves and balsamic dressing. To drink, H2O is preferred over C2H6O, in this instance a glass of wine.
The location, a Kensington mainstay, is airy and whitewashed, with a hum of background conversation. Rovelli sits under a blue semi-abstract print by Howard Hodgkin called "Frost". Elsewhere, out of sight, are several drawings by Lucian Freud, who visited Clarke's almost every day.
Picked by his UK publishers, the choice of location reflects Rovelli's cultural interests, although the art goes unnoticed. It also takes account of various Rovellian dislikes. These include noisy restaurants, spicy food and — unusually for an Italian who lives in the south of France — garlic.
"In my family there was no garlic," he says in English, adding that he inherited his father's loathing of the Mediterranean staple. But his generous, open manner conforms to another aspect of national stereotype. "I'm Italian," he says with a smile, "so you can ask me whatever you want."

I announce that I would like to start by contesting a proposition in Seven Brief Lessons on Physics with which I do not agree.
"Oh," he says, surprised. "Are you a scientist?" No, I reply with due ceremony, I am the FT's pop critic. Rovelli laughs; not in the contemptuous way of a snooty don at the high table, but in the wary mode of one who is not quite sure what he has let himself in for.
The passage from the book that I proceed to quote concerns his denunciation of "the incomprehension and distrust of science shown by a significant part of our contemporary culture". On the contrary, I suggest, the cultural standing of scientists has never been higher. Fantasies of the lab-coated geek or sinister genius have been superseded by visions of heroic intellectual achievement. Resources also favour them. In 2010, UK government funding for sciences at universities was ringfenced while humanities suffered deep cuts.
"You know, I think you're right," he concedes, hands on the table, fiddling with his dessert spoon and fork as though conducting a gentle experiment into friction. "But it's recent, I would say. And the UK is probably the country least touched by that [suspicion of science]. A lot of culture in France and Germany is dominated by high Gregorian ideas that true knowledge is not scientific knowledge, science is sort of second class. And it's worse in the US. I mean, come on, when many Americans don't believe in evolution or climate change, I think there's a problem with anti-science."
Our waiter materialises with the food, placing the buffalo mozzarella salad before Rovelli. The cheese has been flown in from Naples, as have the tomatoes that accompany my lobster salad, which arrives with a shrubbery of rocket leaves and avocado.
Rovelli pronounces his dish "good" but does not elaborate further. In terms of physics, it is the plainest on the menu, requiring the least energy in its passage from base material to upmarket restaurant meal.
"I like simple food," he says. "I live by the sea, I wake up in the morning and see the Mediterranean. I have a little boat, I go out with bread, cheese and tomatoes, and I'm happy."
Home is Cassis, the picturesque seaside town near Marseille, where he works at the Centre for Theoretical Physics at Aix-Marseille University. Previous university posts have been in Italy and the US.
"Science has different styles," he says between mouthfuls of salad. "American universities are extraordinarily open to new ideas. Disagreement is much more tolerated and encouraged. But Europe sometimes gives more space for going your own way."
The best country for conducting robust scientific debate is Germany. "That's the beauty of it. They just look you in the eye and say, 'I disagree, you're wrong.' Everything is much more complicated and foggy and muddy in France. You don't go to a big professor and say you disagree — he gets offended."
German was the main language for physics until the rise of Nazism. Is there any value, I ask, to reading a scientific text in its original language, like reading Marcel Proust in French rather than translation?
"How did you know I'm reading Proust!" Rovelli cries, shrinking back into his chair as though confronted by a scientifically inexplicable act of telekinesis.
It turns out he is currently rereading A la recherche du temps perdu, in French, having first done so when he was a student. He laughs at the uncanny coincidence. (As for reading scientific texts in the original: "Scientists don't usually do so, and it's a mistake, I think they should, to see how the idea came out.")
In Seven Brief Lessons about Physics, Rovelli compares an Einstein equation about the curvature of space to "the rarefied beauty of a late Beethoven string quartet" and places the general theory of relativity on the same level as Shakespeare's King Lear or the Sistine Chapel. In 2011 he published a biography of the ancient Greek philosopher Anaximander.
"The best part of the Italian culture has a Renaissance tradition of bringing things together, starting with Galileo," he says, forking at a fig. "Some of the literary critics in Italy believe Galileo is the best prose writer. At root is the idea that a man of learning should know all the culture, whatever he does. I'm certainly not alone among the Italian physicists who have studied Latin, Greek, history of philosophy. And that's rare outside Italy."
He was born in Verona in 1956. His father, an engineer, created a construction company, symbolic of Italy's rise from wartime rubble to modernity.
"My father is a very intelligent man, soft, not an academic," he says. "My mother stayed home, like women used to do at the time, and took care of the child, I was the only child. My mother is also an extremely intelligent woman but also very passionate. They both came from the bourgeoisie but not very high bourgeoisie."
It was an affectionate upbringing, a "perfect family", but Rovelli rejected its conventions as a teenager. "I was rebellious in the way of the 1970s. At some point I started growing my hair. I did not want to go to university, in fact. My plan was to be a beggar, like a vagabond."
The maître d', patrolling the room, glides over to refill glasses of water and offer bread, which we both accept. Rovelli returns to telling me about his winding route to theoretical physics.
He chose to study the subject at Bologna University, "a largely random" choice of degree course. To his parents' dismay, he was a listless science student, preferring to read works of literature and philosophy. He also threw himself into Bologna's radical politics. The mid- to late-1970s were a time of mounting confrontation between the city's Communist-led government and its students, leftist "autonomists" who opposed authoritarianism.
"We very naively thought we were part of a huge movement that would create more equality and justice and peace in the world," Rovelli says. "And this movement was wide because it went from Marxist-Leninist all the way to hippy pacifists smoking marijuana and singing Hare Krishna."
At 20, after one year of university, he spent nine months hitchhiking around Canada and the US, inspired by Beat writers. It was a life of Pink Floyd, utopianism and taking LSD, the whole countercultural ideal.
"Sure," he says. "LSD was important to us. It was something taken seriously. It was a very good education, to not trust the received ideas and try something a little different. That, I think, played a role. Also, the wilderness period gave me, and many others in fact, the courage to go away. And in science, you need that."

Our plates, both emptied of contents at a leisurely pace, are cleared away. "You know, I may have a dessert," Rovelli says. He quickly chooses the lemon balm panna cotta with gooseberries and croquante d'amande.
I ask for his help in picking the most advanced pudding in terms of physics. It turns out to be the affogato, in which hot espresso coffee is poured over vanilla ice cream. "It's fighting against the second principle of thermodynamics," Rovelli explains. "It's a desperate tentative attempt to stop time from happening. It's what I'm trying to do in my physics." In other words: my ice cream will melt.
Rovelli's love for physics followed a similar transfer of energy in the late 1970s, sparked as his faith in politics and the counterculture cooled.
"Science was a path for me from that," he says. "In a sense, in science you can create revolutions, things do change. Our vision of the world has changed."
The area he was drawn to is one of the thorniest in theoretical physics. Quantum gravity attempts to reconcile the two pillars of 20th-century physics: quantum mechanics, first formulated by the German physicist Max Planck in 1900, and the general theory of relativity, unveiled by Planck's friend Albert Einstein in 1915. Each insight about the workings of time, space and gravity is fundamental to modern physics. However, neither fits together neatly.
Gravity is one of the points of contradiction. A theory called "loop quantum gravity" that Rovelli has done vital work to develop with his colleague Lee Smolin, who he describes as "my best friend and collaborator", addresses that contradiction. If proven, it would represent one of the holy grails of physics.
"The theory is more or less there, it is written," he says. "There are things we don't understand yet, but the question is how you test it."
If it can be found to work, then Rovelli's peers who have spent their careers working on a rival approach, string theory — about which Rovelli is respectfully dismissive — would find all their toil and sacrifice come to nothing. "It's like playing football," he shrugs, "either you win or you lose."
Our desserts arrive. Like a tentative lab assistant ("So this is how I do it, right?"), I pour the coffee on to my vanilla ice cream under Rovelli's gaze. The second law of thermodynamics goes to work as the ice cream undergoes an irreversible process of entropic breakdown.
"That's your life, right?" Rovelli observes genially, spooning up some panna cotta.
Looking ahead, he anticipates breakthroughs in his quantum gravity research: "I used to think, 'Well, I'm not going to see it in my life.' And now, I hope, before dying, to have seen some result."
He has a girlfriend, an ex-student who works as a physicist in the Netherlands. He was married once but it ended 15 years ago. "We had a plan: life, family, children and all that," he says. The plan did not work: he has no children. He went through "a difficult period" in the aftermath of the marriage ending but that lies behind him. "My life has always been up and down. Now I'm 60 and I feel great," he says.
In October, Reality Is Not What It Seems will be published, the English translation of a 2014 book. He is plotting a new book about time, which is why he is rereading Proust. He recognises the criticism that pop-science books can be a diversion from the serious work of research. But science, for Rovelli, does not exist in a vacuum.
"If you work on something like theoretical physics, you feel like you're trapped inside a room, and there's all these writings, and outside people don't know," he says. "You have a desire to tell, a natural desire to tell, plus you're getting people who are saying 'What are you doing, can you explain?' "
The panna cotta has been polished off and the affogato's life-and-death struggle has been transferred to my stomach. A sunny afternoon in London beckons for Rovelli, then it will be back to Marseille and the efforts to transform our way of seeing the universe.
"Quantum gravity is a problem that has resisted for surprisingly long," he says. "Electricity, how atoms work, what is light — these are all big problems at which humanity has hesitated in the past, but then the solution has come up. That's the beauty of science, right?"


When the distinguished theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli was a student, he didn't spend much time studying: he was too busy trying to overthrow the government. Bologna in 1977—and Italy throughout the decade—was a stage for intense political struggle, and the leading players were the extra-parliamentary groups of the New Left. With the Italian Communist Party in terminal decline, the New Leftists in Bologna occupied universities, fought fascists in the street, and established autonomist communities. They were all, in their own way, oriented towards revolution. "It was very fragmented," says Rovelli, "some of us were Marxist-Leninist or Trotskyist; some were hippies into sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll; and some were just into the mystical Far East."
Although Rovelli was involved with Metropolitani Indiani, a group of hippies who dressed like Native Americans and were "a lot more show than substance," his radicalism also found meaningful expression. He worked at Radio Alice, a subversive radio station that provided information for protesters, sparking riots when it announced the death of a student shot in the back by police. He also co-wrote a book about the so-called "Movement of 1977" called Fatti Nostri, made up of radio transcripts, political documents, and zealous essays. The police tried to ban its publication and, after it was secretly printed, searched his parents' house and launched an investigation into the editors, which was eventually thrown out by a judge.
Ultimately the Movement of 1977 was a "totally failed revolution." Too many of its participants were the children of the bourgeoisie and had a "suspicion of any attempt to impose structure" on their action: its ephemerality was built-in. So, Rovelli left the barricades and began working out how to avoid spending the rest of his life in an office job. "It's funny," he adds, "now the problem for young people is to find a job. In my generation the problem was how to not find a job." It was at this juncture that he "fell in love with science," seeing it as an ideological terrain "where revolutions actually succeed, revolutions in thinking."
But revolutions in theoretical physics are quieter than those in politics: once completed, public life carries on undisturbed. It took a century for the Copernican Revolution to leave the province of academia and become common knowledge. Likewise, the two physical revolutions of the last century that invalidated Newton's ruling ideas—Einstein's general relativity and Bohr's quantum mechanics—appear arcane to a contemporary audience. "If you go into any high school and ask students about space and time, you get an answer which is basically Newtonian," Rovelli explains. Our intuitions dictate that space is completely empty, time flows in a straight line, and gravity operates like a metaphysical force of attraction, but this hasn't reflected scientific understandings of the universe since Einstein, and it explains why Rovelli wrote Seven Brief Lessons on Physics. If Fatti Nostri was propaganda for a revolution manqué, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics is propaganda for the two revolutions, general relativity, and quantum mechanics, that have passed us by.

It's his first book for a popular audience and has been a tremendous success in Italy: Sette Brevi Lezioni di Fisica sold 140,000 copies in six months, outselling Fifty Shades of Grey for two months and surpassing the publisher's expectations. It has been translated into 24 languages and the English version, published by Allen Lane (Penguin) was released this October. When I meet Rovelli at Penguin's offices, he is friendly and inquisitive, asking straight away about the etymology of the word "Strand," the central London road running outside. (I didn't have an answer, but it turns out to be derived from an Old English word for a beach or shore, tied to the road's position parallel to the Thames.) He is short, carries a backpack, and has black-and-gray curly hair that he fiddles with when in thought. Like the scientists he writes about in his book, he is decisively equivocal—alloying confidence with doubt, qualifying assertions about the universe with "at least it seems to me..." Despite his success, it becomes clear he eschews the arrogance of those other public spokespeople for science—figures like Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Brian Cox—that the English-speaking world is obsessed with, which is a relief.

I jog his memory of the "failed revolution" of 1977 by presenting a pamphlet, titled "Memories of a Metropolitan Indian," written by a participant—he peers at it before exclaiming, "Oh! My youth!" He reminisces fondly about his revolutionary days, so I ask whether he keeps in touch with his comrades. "Yes, I do. A surprising number of them live in the memory of it, which I think is totally stupid," he says. "The idea was we would change everything: get rid of family, cops, and money... But you have to basically take the world as it is, changing it here and there." He might no longer be committed to a widescale political transformation of society, but traces of the student that was are visible in the book: the clearest sign of a radical mind in Seven Brief Lessons on Physics appears when Rovelli defines his research into the fringes of theoretical physics. "In the vanguard," he writes, "science becomes incandescent in the effort to imagine what has not yet been imagined." This reads less like science, I suggest, and more like the definition of utopian political thought. Rovelli is bemused but agrees. "It's funny you ask this because I don't usually talk about it. It's always in the background. There's an aspect of rebellion in my work that is definitely rooted in that ideology."
Seven Brief Lessons on Physics begins with the theory of general relativity. Einstein's revision of Newton's model of empty space and gravitational force is, Rovelli writes, "breathtakingly simple": the gravitational field is not a magical force within space but is space itself. This picture is complicated by quantum theory, which holds that "electrons do not always exist" but only do so when they interact with something else. After lessons on the shape of the universe, the particles that compose it and the illusory nature of time, we learn about Rovelli's contribution to the field: an attempt to resolve the contradictions between general relativity and quantum theory called "loop quantum gravity." This is where his work becomes animated by the utopian. As director of the Centre de Physique Théorique in Marseille, he has pioneered a theory that claims space is made up of minute "grains of space," interwoven like chainmail. When describing these grains of space with mathematical equations, the constant time—which is usually present in these calculations—is omitted: Rovelli's universe is literally timeless. "It is a huge conceptual leap," he says, one that he and colleagues reached "by avoiding the tendency in theoretical physics to follow the crowd."
The subject matter is complex but rendered in simple prose. The chapters are short, the book a mere 80 pages, and Rovelli says most of his time writing was spent editing: the content of a theory is reduced to its simplest proposition and the implications of its conclusion are given an elegant, philosophical gleam. But there are omissions and the reader is left wanting, such as on the emergence of the book's central characters. Although the book describes a time-less and space-less universe that transcends individuality, there are great individuals who populate it: the geniuses. It's a term Rovelli uses a lot, applying it to Einstein, Bohr, Maxwell, and Heisenberg. The geniuses burn bright with hubris and doubt, increasing scientific knowledge in real terms but forever dissatisfied. Rovelli attempts, in line with that ideology of youthful rebellion, to explain where geniuses come from—"Einstein attended occasional lectures as a student for pleasure, without being registered or having to think about exams. It is thus that serious scientists are made"—but they remain mysterious creatures, so I ask how geniuses are made. Shouldn't a history of science look at the historical conditions of an era and how they contribute towards the emergence of breakthroughs rather than focusing on a few great men? Doesn't scientific knowledge have a sociohistorical character, operating within society like the rest of us?
He pauses for some time. He replies that it might be the case that there are certain ideas that "happen to coalesce" around certain individuals, but then hesitates: "But if that were true, how was it possible that Einstein did so many things? He didn't do one great thing, he did six or seven. So obviously he had the right tools." He's worried that emphasizing the historical truth of a claim to knowledge leads to relativism, according to which one can't say what is objectively true. It's the first unsatisfying response that he's given in our time together, and he senses it. "Look," he adds, "Einstein developed special relativity, which is all about simultaneity, while working in a patent office on projects for French, German, and Swiss trains that had the problem of synchronizing their clocks between stations. So the technological problems of his time impacted his theory. Likewise, thermodynamics came out when people in England started making steam machines and were able to see heat in action. More than that, the entire ideology in your head affects the way you think about the world. But, with all this, you understand what heat is—and it remains true! You understand the earth is a sphere and it's not a sphere because feudalism went down, it's a sphere, period! Maybe it's true we understood it once we freed our minds from feudalism, but it remains a fact that it's a sphere, and it's going to be a sphere forever!"
Having made a world-renowned theoretical physicist explain to me that the Earth isn't flat, I look down at my notes. There's one more topic scribbled and it's likely to cause as much discomfort: God. "In Italy," he says, "the Catholic religion is so dominant that I think people appreciate, in my book, a simple story, and a plain way of understanding humanity without nonsense." But despite being a "rationalist atheist," Rovelli is sympathetic towards the divine: in the book he refers to space as "the heavens" ("An accurate translation" from the Italian edition, he assures me); and often presents cosmic concepts from a messianic perspective—sometimes denoted as "God," sometimes as a "hypothetical supersensible being"—to help the reader understand them. He resists my suggestion that his work leaves conceptual space for God ("No, no, it's just a way of explaining things!") but is not blind to the anti-intellectualism of contemporary atheism, telling me that he's "against the agenda of people like Richard Dawkins" who go around saying that everyone who believes in God is stupid. "Religiosity is part of who we are and there's nothing wrong with that." But when I ask, a few days later via email, what he really thinks of the New Atheist trend, he is diplomatic to the point of parody: "I think it is good that ideas, good and bad, are made visible. Then people can listen, think, choose, develop..." The decorum, however, is understandable when I discover that he's sharing a stage with Dawkins at a public talk a few weeks later.
Hippie, revolutionary, theoretical physicist... I end by asking what he makes of his fourth career: public intellectual. Now that he tours the world delivering TED Talks, writes columns for Sunday newspapers and gives interviews to global punk conglomerates, has his vocation changed? Healthily, he is unimpressed by the prospect. "Writing books is not my job. What I really like and love in life is when I shut the door, turn off the internet and do my little calculations. That's when I'm happy," he replies. "Recently I've been doing too many..." he doesn't finish the sentence and smiles, possibly not wanting to offend the representative from Penguin who's just entered the room.

We finish the interview and try to leave Penguin's labyrinthine offices, getting lost more than once on our way out. I'm still thinking about the politics of his youth, as is he. He starts talking about Herbert Marcuse and the philosophers of the New Left he used to read. Marcuse taught him, he tells me, how people in the West were less free than those in the Soviet Union precisely because of the individual liberties they were indulged, blinding them to the social tyranny of the free market.
We part ways and I dodge tourists on the busy Strand—which, weeks before, had been busy in a different way, blocked by thousands marching towards parliament—thinking about how political convictions can change over a lifetime. I think of the disappointed radicals of Rovelli's generation who either live in nostalgia for an impossible revolution or have repurposed their ideas to become pragmatic reformists. I think of the theoretical physicists applying principles of utopia to their work, not to imagine or create better worlds, but to more accurately describe the one we live in. It's a fascinating profession but I can't help feel it begs a political question, the kind Rovelli abandoned considering years ago: what's the point of describing the atomic structure of a world as squalid and senseless as ours?

Baby Boomers Reach the End of Their To-Do List

Life, if you’re lucky, is divided into thirds, my father used to say: youth, middle age and “You look good.” The dawn of that third stage is glinting right at me.
It isn’t simply that at this point more life is behind me — behind any middle-aged person — than lies ahead. Middle-aged? Who am I kidding? Who do you know who’s 144?
It’s not just about aging. By the time you’ve worked long enough, hard enough, real life begins to reveal itself as something other than effort, other than accomplishment. Real life wishes to be left to its own purposeless devices.
This isn’t sloth. It isn’t even exhaustion. It’s a late-arriving awareness of consciousness existing for its own sake.
The to-do list that runs most lives through middle age turns out, in this latter stage of existence, to have only one task: to waste life in order to find it. Who said that? Or something like that. Jesus? Buddha? Bob Dylan? Somebody who knew what’s what.
Mine was the first year of the notorious American baby boom, 1946. The year three of our recent presidents were born: Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Donald Trump. “You’re a boomer!” we were always told, as if we were named for the bomb, that midcentury annihilator.
We got all the good stuff.
The postwar hope and determination of our Depression-era parents was piled upon us, the fossil fuel of earlier generations we burned up without a care. We had a preposterously long sense of our own youthfulness.
But now the boomers are approaching the other side. Not death necessarily (though the time has begun when no one will say we were cut down too early). We’re reaching the other side of striving.
You should try meditating or maybe yoga — yoga’s good,” someone said when I mentioned my fevered to-do lists, the sometimes alarming blood pressure readings, the dark-night-of-the-soul insomnia.
But meditating is just another thing. Yoga? Another task, another item for the to-do list.
This battle between striving and serenity may be distinctly American. The struggle between toil and the dream of ease is an American birthright, the way a Frenchman expects to have decent wine at a reasonable price, and the whole month of August on vacation.
Maybe it goes all the way back to the Declaration of Independence, our founding document. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. How proud I’ve always been, through the years of protesting, the radical this and progressive that of my 1960s generation, to think of those words.
That unlikely word — happiness — made me proud to be an American, not just for my own sake, but that everyone was enjoined to find a personal project of delight. Of course happiness is an illusion. Still, I’ll pledge allegiance to it.
But happiness is the only word in the Declaration of Independence triad that doesn’t stand alone. Happiness is not, like life and liberty, a given. Happiness in the American credo is a job. It must be pursued. It may not be clear what happiness is, but you better get hold of it. Your fault, sucker, if you can’t somehow nab it for yourself.
The essential American word isn’t happiness. It’s pursuit.
This is where the struggle is engaged, happiness as a national enterprise. Its pursuit is the loneliness coiled within the heart of the American dream.
Even a postmodern to-do list is not the answer. Go ahead — meditate, do yoga, eat probiotic foods, all that.
But how about just giving up? What about wasting time? Giving up or perhaps giving over. To what? Perhaps what an earlier age called “the life of the mind,” the phrase that describes the sovereign self at ease, at home in the world. This isn’t the mind of rational thought, but the lost music of wondering, the sheer value of looking out the window, letting the world float along. It’s nothing, really, this wasted time, which is how it becomes, paradoxically, charged with “everything,” liberated into the blessed loss of ambition.
Other cultures labor, but what other nation implores each citizen to tackle happiness as a solo endeavor, a crazy paradox of a hunt for something that cannot, after all, be earned but can only be bestowed from the mysterious recesses of life? Give it up. Waste the day.
That’s what that great American lounger Whitman did. “I loaf and invite my soul,” he wrote. “I lean and loaf at my ease, observing a spear of summer grass.” In this way he came to his great conception of national citizenship for Americans, “the dear love of comrades.” His loafing led to solidarity.
It’s no coincidence that our most American poet handed out this contrary notion — to loaf — amid what he called our “democratic vistas.” There’s not much said about American vistas these days. Instead, there are plans to militarize a wall on our southern border.
Loafing is not a prudent business plan, not even a life plan, not a recognizably American project. But it begins to look a little like happiness, the kind that claims you, unbidden. Stay put and let the world show up? Or get out there and be a flâneur? Which is it? Well, it’s both.
Maybe this is what my father’s third stage of life is about — wondering, rather than pursuing. You look good — meaning, hey, you’re still alive, you’re still here, and for once you don’t really need to have a to-do list.