Reality Is Not What It Seems

Every so often, I read something that really strikes a chord with me. Today it was an article in The Guardian about author and scientist Carlo Rovelli called “Reality Is Not What It Seems by Carlo Rovelli review – physics versus certainty.

Carlo Rovelli

There is so much in the article worthy of further discussion:

  • How his book “Seven Brief Lessons on Physics” has sold a million copies worldwide (even outselling “Fifty Shades Of Grey” in his native Italy!) placing it on par with Stephen Hawkins “A Brief History of Time” in terms of scientific book successes.
  • How in his new book “Reality Is Not What It Seems” he seeks to bridge the divide between the two cultures of science and the arts: “Our culture is foolish to keep science and poetry separated,” adding: “they are two tools to open our eyes to the complexity and beauty of the world.”

What caught my attention in particular, however, were two quotes from Mr. Rovelli that I believe both reflect genuine wisdom and are of particular importance for us all to embrace in a time of such technological, economic, and political change:

“The search for knowledge is not nourished by certainty: it is nourished by a radical distrust in certainty,”

“Only by keeping in mind that our beliefs may turn out to be wrong is it possible to free ourselves from wrong ideas.”

As 2016 came to a close, I spent time reflecting on the populist uprising in my country and around the world. I thought about the reasons people pointed to for this insurgence such as globalization and immigration, and how little attention was paid to the technological change – machine learning, artificial intelligence, internet of things, etc. that has brought about self-driving vehicles, manufacturing automation, drone delivery and warfare – underpinning this unrest. However, mostly I thought about my own beliefs and how they were being challenged.

The older I got, the more I felt I had figured things out. I’ve seen a lot, and felt I had pretty good ideas about how the world worked. I felt I had some corner on the market about which beliefs were accurate and which ones were a load of garbage. This included beliefs about religion, freedoms and rights, discrimination, science, and terrorism, and what we should think and do about each. I found myself discounting the people who similarly felt they had it figured out, too, but their beliefs differed from mine. I had become mired in certainty.

So in 2017, I resolved to not be biased against those who believe differently than I do. I started to question my own firmly held beliefs, to put myself into other people’s realities and try to understand their perspectives. Media and the internet have made it possible for us to listen only to people who believe exactly the way we do, and it has polarized us. I realized that I was biased against the same people I thought were being biased against people like me. I was discounting people who believed differently than I did.

And that is why this article struck such a chord with me. I am a person of science; I embrace the pursuit of knowledge through the scientific method. In my work, I am relentlessly data driven. I test out theories, and I’m often surprised by the results. Also, what works in one place doesn’t necessarily work elsewhere. I embrace uncertainty in my work. But in other areas, I had allowed myself to get sucked into certainty in my beliefs. Thank you, Mr. Rovelli, for reminding me to have a “radical distrust in certainty,” and to always remember that my “beliefs may turn out to be wrong.”

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