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Carlo Rovelli    

Italian Theoretical Physicist and Writer

Carlo Rovelli (born 3 May 1956) is an Italian theoretical physicist and writer who has worked in Italy and the USA, and currently works in France. His work is mainly in the field of quantum gravity, where he is among the founders of the loop quantum gravity theory. He has also worked in the history and philosophy of science. He collaborates regularly with several Italian newspapers, in particular the cultural supplements of Il Sole 24 Ore and La Repubblica.

Carlo Rovelli was born in Verona, Italy, in 1956. In the 1970s, he participated in the student political movements in Italian universities. He was involved with the free political radio stations Radio Alice in Bologna and Radio Anguana in Verona, which he helped found. In conjunction with his political activity, he was charged, but later released, for crimes of opinion related to the book Fatti Nostri, which he co-authored with Enrico Palandri, Maurizio Torrealta, and Claudio Piersanti.

In 1981, Rovelli graduated with a BS/MS in Physics from the University of Bologna, and in 1986 he obtained his PhD at the University of Padova, Italy. Rovelli refused military service, which was compulsory in Italy at the time, and was therefore briefly detained in 1987. He held postdoctoral positions at the University of Rome, Trieste, and at Yale University. Rovelli was on the faculty of the University of Pittsburgh from 1990 to 2000. He is currently at the Aix-Marseille University, in the Centre de Physique Théorique, in Marseille, France. He has also long held the post of Affiliated Professor in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science of the University of Pittsburgh. He is the first president of the Samy Maroun Center founded in 2014.

In 1988, Carlo Rovelli, Lee Smolin, and Abhay Ashtekar introduced a theory of quantum gravity called loop quantum gravity. In 1995, Rovelli and Smolin obtained a basis of states of quantum gravity, labelled by Penrose's spin networks, and using this basis they were able to show that the theory predicts that area and volume are quantized. This result indicates the existence of a discrete structure of space at very small scale. In 1997, Rovelli and Michael Reisenberger introduced a "sum over surfaces" formulation of theory, which has since evolved into the currently covariant "spinfoam" version of loop quantum gravity. In 2008, in collaboration with Jonathan Engle and Roberto Pereira, he has introduced the spin foam vertex amplitude which is the basis of the current definition of the loop quantum gravity covariant dynamics. The loop theory is today considered a candidate for a quantum theory of gravity. It finds applications in quantum cosmology, spinfoam cosmology, and quantum black hole physics.

In his 2004 book Quantum Gravity, Rovelli developed a formulation of classical and quantum mechanics that does not make explicit reference to the notion of time. The timeless formalism is needed to describe the world in the regimes where the quantum properties of the gravitational field cannot be disregarded. This is because the quantum fluctuation of spacetime itself make the notion of time unsuitable for writing physical laws in the conventional form of evolution laws in time. This position has led him to face the following problem: if time is not part of the fundamental theory of the world, then how does time emerge? In 1993, in collaboration with Alain Connes, Rovelli has proposed a solution to this problem called the thermal time hypothesis. According to this hypothesis, time emerges only in a thermodynamic or statistical context. If this is correct, the flow of time is an illusion, one deriving from the incompleteness of knowledge.

In 1994, Rovelli introduced the relational interpretation of quantum mechanics, based on the idea that the quantum state of a system must always be interpreted relative to another physical system (like the "velocity of an object" is always relative to another object, in classical mechanics). The idea has been developed and analyzed in particular by Bas van Fraassen and by Michel Bitbol. Among other important consequences, it provides a solution of the EPR paradox that does not violate locality. Rovelli has written a book on the Greek philosopher Anaximander, published in France, Italy, US and Brazil. The book analyses the main aspects of scientific thinking and articulates Rovelli's views on science. Anaximander is presented in the book as a main initiator of scientific thinking.

For Rovelli, science is a continuous process of exploring novel possible views of the world; this happens via a "learned rebellion," which always builds and relies on previous knowledge but at the same time continuously questions aspects of this received knowledge. The foundation of science, therefore, is not certainty but the very opposite, a radical uncertainty about our own knowledge, or equivalently, an acute awareness of the extent of our ignorance.

Rovelli discusses his religious views in several articles and in his book on Anaximander. He argues that the conflict between rational/scientific thinking and structured religion may find periods of truce ("there is no contradiction between solving Maxwell's equations and believing that God created Heaven and Earth", but is ultimately unsolvable, because (most) religions demands the acceptance of some unquestionable Truths, while scientific thinking is based on the continuous questioning of any truth. Thus, for Rovelli the source of the conflict is not the pretense of science to give answers—the universe, for Rovelli, is full of mystery, and a source of awe and emotions—but, on the contrary, the source of the conflict is the acceptance of our ignorance at the foundation of science, which clashes with religions' pretense to be depositories of certain knowledge.


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