By Carlo Rovelli
Published by Allen Lane, 2021, £20
Reviewed by Pete Mason
Helgoland, by best-selling physicist Carlo Rovelli, is named after the barren “windswept island in the North Sea” where, in the summer of 1925, Werner Heisenberg, escaping from an incapacitating bout of hay fever, gasping for breath, unable to sleep, created quantum mechanics.
Written with much poetic gusto, it nevertheless fails both as a book of philosophy and a book of science. It falls between two stools. There is too little science to convince the reader of the truth of Rovelli’s main argument, and too much philosophy, too much poetical prose and verse, which gives the ultimately false impression that Rovelli’s ideas derive from philosophical speculation as opposed to experimentation. In philosophical terms, this would be called ‘idealism’ (not to be mistaken with the non-philosophical, common meaning of the term, a pursuit of perfection). This impression is enhanced by his embrace of Buddhism.
Furthermore, socialists will be disappointed by the third and final part of this short book. The opening section ‘Aleksandr Bogdanov and Vladimir Lenin’, is an extended ‘digression’ in defence of Bogdanov, who was leading a retreat from Marxism in Russia in 1908. The attack on Lenin is only tempered by the most remarkable political statement I have seen in a book on physics: “Whatever we think about communism, there is no denying that Lenin was an extraordinary politician. His knowledge of philosophy and science is also impressive; if today we elected politicians as cultivated as Lenin, perhaps they would be more effective”. Yes, indeed.
Matter has disappeared
In order to understand what quantum physics is saying about reality, physicists have to interpret their results. Rovelli favours the ‘relational’ interpretation, which argues that reality is “made up of relations rather than objects”. However, throughout the book, Rovelli rather carelessly conflates “understanding reality” (epistemology) through relationships, with what reality is itself (ontology).
At the subatomic level, Rovelli maintains, reality consists only of a nexus of relations. This is his extraordinary claim, and this was what Heisenberg discovered on Helgoland. Incidentally, nothing is said of forces (electromagnetic, etc) and it has long been known that it is these forces between effectively zero-sized particles that make the solid world of our common experience. This rather reduces the significance of the proposed re-evaluation of the elusive particle, to simply a nexus of relations.
Rovelli focuses our attention on the ability of electrons to leap, instantaneously, from place to place, something that contradicts the classical laws of physics. In order to enable physicists to understand this most puzzling, insubstantial behaviour of the particles composing the atom – the quantum leap – it was Heisenberg’s insight to construct tables of relations of the known physical properties of electrons (“relations between quantities that are in principle observable”). He successfully combined these tables (matrices) mathematically to make definite predictions of outcomes for the first time, while fighting for breath on Helgoland Island. A scientific method was born, which enabled us to build the technology of the modern world.
But the mechanics of this method of intertwining relations meant that there could be no talk of a single property defined on its own. There was no longer a definite position of an election in its orbit around the atom – which in any case seemed in some doubt, according to the newest, most puzzling experiments – so that today rather than talking about an electron in orbit around an atom we talk about an electron cloud. Not a cloud of electrons, but an electron that is itself a cloud, smeared out, as it were, around the atom in no specific place at any specific time.
What Heisenberg had done, Rovelli argues, was to replace objects with relations. “Physical variables [of subatomic particles] do not describe things: they describe the way in which things manifest themselves to each other”. Rovelli asks the critical question, “why is it we are not able to describe where the electron is and what it is doing when we are not observing it?”
Just because Heisenberg’s newfound quantum mechanics made apparently meaningless all talk of a position for the electron in orbit round the atom, was he correct to take that further step, and conceive that this told us something about reality itself at the subatomic level? That it was wrong to conceive of objects at all, at the subatomic level?
The purpose of Rovelli’s book is to introduce the ‘relational’ interpretation of the quantum world to the non-scientific reader. “It is a world with a fine texture, intricate and fragile as Venetian lace. Every interaction is an event, and it is these light and ephemeral events that weave reality, not the heavy objects [atoms, particles] charged with absolute properties that our philosophy posited in support of these events”.
The Columbia University philosopher David Albert asked Rovelli how he could possibly elevate his ‘little’ experiments above the foundations of philosophy, “our most rooted metaphysical convictions”. Albert is taking a typical ‘idealist’ position, elevating the ‘ideas’ of philosophy above the material discoveries of science. “The question has haunted me ever since”, Rovelli states.
And he proceeds to attack Lenin’s Materialism and Empirio-Criticism of 1908. Why? Because “precisely the issues debated by Lenin and Bogdanov have returned in contemporary philosophy. Their discussion provides a key for understanding the revolutionary significance of quanta”.
Rovelli states: “Lenin speaks of absolute certainties. He presents the historical materialism of Marx and Engels as if it were timelessly valid”. But on the contrary, Lenin wrote: “Engels says explicitly that ‘with each epoch-making discovery even in the sphere of natural science … materialism has to change its form’. Hence a revision of the ‘form’ of Engels’ materialism, a revision of his natural-philosophical [ie scientific] propositions is not only not ‘revisionism’, in the accepted meaning of the term, but, on the contrary, is an essential requirement of Marxism”. (Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, Chapter Five, p239).
It must be readily admitted that despite this correct method, Lenin insists on the outdated formula ‘matter in motion’ adopted by Engels from the latest science of the 1870s, but soon superseded by the term ‘energy’, which Engels then used in material worked up subsequently. Rovelli is correct to criticise this, and in this way and many others, Lenin’s book is only of historical interest.
Knowledge penetrating deeper
But nevertheless, Lenin is not fazed by the discovery that matter has disappeared. If socialists wish to be guided by this work of Lenin – since Rovelli has introduced it – it is clear that Lenin would not advise opposition to Rovelli’s claim that objects have been replaced, at the subatomic level, with relations – that matter has disappeared.
Under the heading ‘Matter has disappeared’, Lenin writes: “‘Matter is disappearing’ means that the limit within which we have hitherto known matter is vanishing and that our knowledge is penetrating deeper; properties of matter are likewise disappearing which formerly seemed absolute, immutable, and primary (impenetrability, inertia, mass, etc) and which are now revealed to be relative and characteristic only of certain states of matter. For the sole ‘property’ of matter with whose recognition philosophical materialism is bound up is the property of being an objective reality, of existing outside our mind”. Lenin further states: “The destructibility of the atom… the mutability of all forms of matter and of its motion, have always been the stronghold of dialectical materialism. All boundaries in nature are conditional, relative, movable, and express the gradual approximation of our mind towards the knowledge of matter”.
This, Lenin says, is the dialectical way to approach materialism. Bogdanov appeared on the contrary to be altogether junking the materialist dialectic of Marx and Engels for the latest craze, the empirio-criticism of Ernst Mach. In doing so, he was endangering the survival of the Bolshevik party after the defeat of the 1905 revolution.
This quote completely contradicts Rovelli’s assertion. Rovelli is criticising the fossilised, undialectical Stalinist revision of Lenin. His assessment of Lenin’s Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, with its misunderstanding of Mach, is too one-sided. Many philosophers have contemptuously dismissed the philosophy of Marxism by picking up incorrect philosophical phrases from this work of Lenin. Rovelli should have seen more.
Genuine Marxists do not deify Lenin and Lenin’s later works show greater philosophical maturity. Rovelli has not understood that the purpose of Lenin’s attack was not a philosophical debate but a dire warning of the danger of the abandonment of Marxism by the leading Bolsheviks.
Rovelli is also wrong to assert that Lenin condemns Mach as an idealist. Lenin calls Mach an “agnostic” by which he means someone who “vacillates” between materialism and idealism. Lenin came to this view because he partially recognised Mach’s materialism, but could not understand his most important conceptual breakthrough, the relativity of space. Philosophers conflated this concept, at the time Lenin was writing, with the notion that space is subjective, that is to say, in the mind. So Lenin incorrectly argues that Mach slips between a materialist and a subjective idealist position.
Even today, 116 years after the publication of Einstein’s Relativity in 1905, people struggle with the statement that space is relative. It is somewhat counterintuitive. Building on Mach’s insights, the principle of the relativity of space formed the basis of Einstein’s Relativity. It seems to me entirely forgivable that Lenin could not independently form a view on it and was misguided by the common misconception of it, as idealist, at that time.
But it is less forgivable that, as a scientist, Rovelli does not perceive this visible confusion, nor, more importantly, highlight the fact that Lenin clearly describes Einstein’s Special Theory of Relatively as a materialist concept, against the prevailing trend.
Support for Einstein
Rovelli correctly states “The influence of [Lenin’s] philosophical thought [on this issue] is due more to his… elevation to heroic status under Stalin than to the profundity of his arguments. Mach deserves better”.
The Stalinist bureaucracy that arose after Lenin’s death and the isolation of the Russian revolution of 1917, in its ignorance used Lenin’s book as a basis to attack not just quantum mechanics but Einstein’s Relativity as well, (since Einstein made clear his debt to Mach), in complete contradiction to Lenin’s express statement.
It is disappointing that Rovelli does not discover that Lenin defends modern science as materialist, while condemning the overwhelming desire of those interpreting that science – not just philosophers but some prominent scientists too, such as Arthur Eddington – for the idealism they openly embraced:
“But however much both [the French Philosopher Abel] Rey and the physicists of whom he speaks abjure materialism, it is nevertheless beyond question that mechanics was a copy of [ie a model of] real motions of moderate velocity, while the new physics is a copy [model] of real motions of enormous velocity [Einstein’s Relativity]. The recognition of theory as a copy, as an approximate copy of objective reality, is materialism”. (Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, p253) This and other references make clear that Lenin is referring precisely to Einstein’s Relativity, defending the new discoveries in science against the idealists. And he is putting into practice a ‘revision’ of naïve materialism to allow for the bending of space and time.
In his consideration of the philosophy of Marxism, in 1914, Lenin places first above all else the following: “the determination of the concept out of itself [the thing itself must be considered in its relations and in its development]”. Taking his cue from the great philosopher Georg Hegel, Lenin argues that in order to understand anything – anything at all – one must consider it in its relationships to other things and its historical development. Of course, Lenin is discussing understanding (epistemology), not the nature of reality itself. He leaves that to science and scientists. But Rovelli makes no reference to the more philosophically developed works of Lenin, which ironically also support his own outlook.
Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, as Carl Sagan stated, and Rovelli is making an extraordinary claim in this book. While this author supports his claim, the extraordinary evidence, for which quantum experiments provide a rich vein, is either absent or presented in no more than cursory form. If you are new to the science, you will likely be unconvinced. If you are familiar, you will be frustrated.
* For an extended discussion on the issues in this review written in 2010, see Science: Quantum mechanics and dialectical materialism, on the Committee for Workers International website at https://www.socialistworld.net/2010/12/26/science-quantum-mechanics-and-dialectical-materialism/