Helgoland

by Carlo Rovelli

translated by Erica Segre and Simon Carnell

In my own attempts to make sense of quanta for myself, I have wandered among the texts of philosophers in search of a conceptual basis with which to understand the strange picture of the world provided by this incredible theory. In doing so, I have found many fine suggestions and acute criticisms, but nothing wholly convincing. Until one day I came across a work that left me amazed.’

The above quotation appears late on in the book. From this point, Rovelli goes on to talk about the second century CE Indian philosopher Nagarjuna. The latter’s thesis, expressed in his work, The Fundamental Verses of the Middle Way, is essentially this: There are no fundamentals in nature. Nothing exists in itself independently from something else.

Since Helgoland is a book about quantum mechanics, this seems a strange path for a scientist to follow. However, Carlo Rovelli is unapologetic. And, while claiming to be no philosopher, he clearly is one. In almost the same breath as he venerates Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg and Dirac, he quotes Anaximander, Aristotle, Mach and Lenin.

There is no contradiction. Quantum physics is a baffling science which no one really understands, and in which nothing is as it seems to be. The message of Helgoland is that the fundamentals of the observable universe, the ‘reality’ which science seeks, are composed not of objects but of relationships – a message which, in a slightly – and non-scientific – way is mirrored in Nagarjuna’s thinking.

The book’s title deserves some attention. Helgoland is an island in the North Sea where, apparently, Werner Heisenberg first had the brainwave that would result in his Uncertainty Principle, one of the core ideas of quantum mechanics: simply put, an observer cannot measure both the position and the momentum of a particle at any given time – further, that the order of measurement matters.

  • in mathematical terminology, ‘Delta X times Delta P is always greater or equal to h-bar (Planck’s Constant) divided by two, X representing position an P momentum.

‘To say that two objects are correlated means to articulate something with regard to a third object: the correlation manifests itself when the two correlated objects both interact with the third, which can check. Entanglement is not a dance for two partners, it is a dance for three.’

Helgoland is divided into three parts, the first two in the main scientific. The author describes and discusses the core ideas of the Theory, and the contributions of physicists like Paul Dirac , Albert Einstein and Neils Bohr to it. He discusses the various interpretations, such as wave function collapse and the Many Worlds theory. His expositions, including sections on the intriguing thought experiment involving Schrodinger’s Cat and on Entanglement, are always clear. However, none of the many explanations satisfy either the author – or us! We are always left wondering, what exactly is the role of the observer? Are objects and events which do not have observers real? Can facts that are real to you be unreal to me?

The third part of the book poses yet more questions and is more philosophic speculation than anything else. Rovelli, as I have discovered in other works by him, deviates from the central subject quite a lot. And, although he offers ideas – lots of them and some very deep – and personal experiences, he admits to not having the answers. However, his conclusion about the relational aspect of quantum theory is summed up very well in another quotation:

‘Everything is what it is only with respect to something else. Every vision is partial. There is no way of seeing reality that is not dependent on a perspective – no point of view that is absolute and universal.’

I always enjoy reading about quantum theory and listening to lectures on it. That its peculiar results baffle even the scientists is comforting. However, there is so much more than quantum physics to Helgoland. One might even argue that the work isn’t about quantum physics at all. Translating it must have been a horrendous task, demanding not only a super understanding of the original Italian but a competent grasp of the dual subject matter. Yet the result is yet another magical journey into the mysterious, the weird and (in this case) the metaphysical.

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