Web of Relations
Carlo Rovelli, Quantum Theory, the Nature of Reality, and Getting Comfy with Weird
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And Happy Valentine’s Day to those who celebrate… I hope the rest of you are enjoying ETH Denver!
In either case, this isn’t a day for sitting alone and reading a long newsletter. It’s a day for relationships.
So I’m going to keep it short, keep it “relationship”-focused, and if you really want to read more words, recommend two mind-bending books.
Sometimes, my job here is just to be willing to get weird in case it shakes something useful loose.
Let’s get to it.
Web of Relations
If the strangeness of quantum theory confuses us, it also opens new perspectives with which to understand reality. A reality that is more subtle than the simplistic materialism of particles in space. A reality made up of relations rather than objects.
– Carlo Rovelli, Helgoland
Over the past couple weeks, I’ve been down a new rabbit hole: Carlo Rovelli books.
Rovelli is a quantum physicist who also happens to write more clearly and beautifully than most professional writers. He’s simultaneously a (very, very, very tiny) shape rotator and a wordchad. He has catapulted up to join Tim Urban in my personal pantheon of “Inspirations for Explaining Very Complex Ideas Simply.”
Lest you think you’re in the wrong place, no, Not Boring isn’t a quantum physics newsletter, but it is a newsletter about the future. Understanding some of the core ideas is useful on three levels:
Understanding the current state of the science. It’s at least interesting, if not practically useful to most of our day jobs, to understand where the cutting edge of physics is today.
Web of Relations as a useful model. Quantum theory’s main insight – that everything exists as a web of relations – is a helpful framework for many of the ideas that we discuss here.
Getting comfortable with the weird. I don’t remember a lot of the specifics from the essays I write; I can’t expect you to. Instead, I want you to walk away with an informed open-mindedness and comfort with new technologies and ideas. I’m successful here if you see something new and crazy and think, “Woah, fascinating” instead of “Yeah right 🙄.”
One of my favorite ways to get ready for the future is to read sci-fi. I read 10x more sci-fi than business books. Sci-fi helps me zoom out, take a wider perspective, and inhabit worlds crafted with authors’ best extrapolations.
Sometimes, though, sci-fact is even more mind-bending than sci-fi. That’s the world in which Carlo Rovelli researches and writes.
Today, we’ll cover two of his recent books – The Order of Time and Helgoland – but let’s make a deal: I’ll promise to keep this shorter if you promise to read these two books yourself. (Or listen; Benedict Cumberbatch himself narrates the audiobook version of The Order of Time.) Each takes less than a weekend to read, and each guides you skillfully and comfortably to some deeply counterintuitive truths about the universe.
Like the fact that time doesn’t exist…
The Order of Time
I started my Rovelli journey with his 2018 hit, The Order of Time. Rob Solomon, now the co-founder of DIMO, recommended that I read it over two years ago. I finally listened. I’d say that I should have listened a long time ago, but… time isn’t real.
Rovelli demolishes time as we know it, and then builds it back up, in three parts:
The Crumbling of Time. Rovelli walks through the history and physics of time and arrives at a strange conclusion: everything we think we know about time is false. There is no time.
The World Without Time. If time doesn’t exist, how do we make sense of this new, timeless world? Instead of a linear time, Rovelli offers in its place a “net of interconnected events, where the variables in play adhere to probabilistic rules.” Instead of time and objects, “There are only events and relations.”
The Sources of Time. Ok ok cool BUT … evolution occurs, erosion reshapes landscapes, we experience time, we have memories of the past, we can’t remember the future. Where does the sense of time’s flow come from if time isn’t real? Rovelli offers up some explanations here based on the best thinking today. Ultimately, what we experience as time is “a multilayered, complex concept with multiple, distinct properties deriving from various different approximations.”
This is trippy stuff.
Whenever I fly, I have a cranberry vodka. I’m not sure why. I don’t drink cranberry vodka on the ground. But somehow, it’s become my plane drink. So earlier this month, I found myself 1.5 cranberry vodkas deep on a flight, sitting aisle with Puja by the window and Dev asleep in his carseat between us. And I was absolutely giddy.
At the risk of waking the baby and ruining the flight for us and everyone around us, I kept passing my iPad over to Puja, watching her reaction expectantly as she read just-highlighted sections I pointed at, like this:
Dear reader, pause for a moment to let this conclusion sink in. In my opinion, it is the most astounding conclusion arrived at in the whole of contemporary physics. It simply makes no sense to ask which moment in the life of your sister on Proxima b [a planet far, far away] corresponds to now…
The notion of “the present” refers to things that are close to us, not anything that is far away. Our “present” does not extend throughout the universe. It is like a bubble around us…
The idea that a well-defined now exists throughout the universe is an illusion, an illegitimate extrapolation of our own experience... The “present of the universe” is meaningless.
There is no universal now.
There’s not a moment that’s the same on a far away planet as the one you’re experiencing right now – not as measured on a clock, just… at all. I, too, like you might be right now, tried imagining it, and of course there’s a moment that’s happening now, there, even if we can’t access it. But, apparently, there’s really not. According to Rovelli, asking what’s happening on Proxima b now is like me sitting in New York and wondering what’s happening in Beijing here.
That’s just one of the five or six sections I passed to Puja. Non-stop brain-melters.
The takeaway: there is no one time.
Our experience of time is based on our perspective and relationship with the universe, and on our experience constantly living in the present moment, sandwiched between memory and anticipation.
In other words, there is no time independent of us.
Patrick O’Shaughnessy captured my thoughts well:
But even when time melts away, fine, alright. I mean, I can’t touch time. I can’t see time. I can’t taste time. If the concept of time falls apart at the quantum level, but I perceive and experience time in exactly the same way I did before reading the book, then fine. Fascinating, trippy, mind-expanding, but ultimately not the end of the world.
I’m still sitting in this physical chair, typing on this physical keyboard, feeling jittery from too many physical cups of coffee. That’s the real stuff, whether that social construct, time, exists or not, right?
OK, so remember from a couple paragraphs ago how time isn’t real and it doesn’t exist except in the mind of the person perceiving it?
What if I told you that nothing exists except in relation to other things?
That’s the journey Rovelli takes us on in Helgoland.
Helgoland, named after the island on which Werner Heisenberg “built the mathematical structure of quantum mechanics,” is about “Making Sense of the Quantum Revolution.”
Quantum theory describes the odd nature and behavior of particles at the atomic and subatomic level. None of its predictions have ever been contradicted by experiments. In its 97 year life, it has become foundational to theory and application:
Quantum theory has clarified the foundations of chemistry, the functioning of atoms, of solids, of plasmas, of the color of the sky, the dynamics of stars, the origins of galaxies… a thousand aspects of the world. It is at the basis of the latest technologies: from computers to nuclear power… It has never been wrong. It is the beating heart of today’s science. Yet it remains profoundly mysterious, subtly disturbing.
The math, apparently, checks out. How that math translates to what’s actually going on, however, is open to interpretation. Many interpretations. The Wikipedia page on Interpretations of Quantum Mechanics lists fifteen of them, plus “Other interpretations.”
Rovelli addresses a few of the leading interpretations – Many Worlds, Hidden Variables, and Physical Collapses. The one with the wildest implications is Many Worlds, which, as its name implies, holds that quantum theory describes a reality in which observations create new parallel worlds.
For example, in the famous Schrödinger's Cat thought experiment, instead of existing in a probabilistic superposition of dead and alive, which collapses to one path (dead or alive) as soon as the observer opens the box, the Many Worlds interpretation suggests that both states are real, and that opening the box branches the world into two: a world in which the observer sees the cat alive and another in which the observer sees the cat dead (Rovelli uses awake and asleep).
And it’s not just cats and boxes; it’s every system. Each interaction with any number of systems creates a parallel universe. Many Worlds predicts infinite universes. Although many physicists subscribe to the Many Worlds interpretation, Rovelli doesn’t.
Instead, Rovelli introduced his own interpretation in 1994: relational quantum mechanics (RQM). In RQM, the interpretation he uses throughout Helgoland:
The properties of an object are the way in which it acts upon other objects; reality is this web of interactions. Instead of seeing the physical world as a collection of objects with definite properties, quantum theory invites us to see the physical world as a net of relations. Objects are its nodes.
Observers aren’t just scientists in a lab, and observations aren’t just scientific measurements. Quantum theory, according to Rovelli, “describes how every physical object manifests itself to any other physical object.”
In one example, Rovelli lays out a thought experiment on “the most enchanted and dreamy of the quantum phenomena. Entanglement. It is the phenomenon by which two distant objects maintain a kind of weird connection, as if they continued to speak to each other from afar.” Einstein once described entanglement as “spooky action at a distance.”
He comes to an understanding of entanglement that isn’t as spooky as two photons communicating instantaneously – faster than the speed of light – at great distances. It requires the introduction of a third object – “the correlation manifests itself when the two correlated objects both interact with this third object” – but, he writes, “it comes at a cost: no universal set of facts exists.”
Nothing exists except in its interactions with other things. Everything is a web of relations.
According to Rovelli, “A single equation (Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle: ΔXΔP ≥ ℏ/2) codes quantum theory:
It implies that the world is not continuous but granular.
There is no infinite in going towards the small: things cannot get infinitely smaller.
It tells us the future is not determined by the present.
It tells us that physical things have property in relation to other physical things, and that these properties make sense only when things interact.”
It’s hard to believe that this is how things work, but quantum theory remains undefeated. It’s the best science we have today. It’s more likely that this is essentially the way the world works than not. Our intuitions based on lived experience have misled us before.
People believed that the Earth was flat, until Ancient Greek scientists proved it was round (unless you’re Kyrie). People believed that the Sun rotated around the Earth, until Copernicus showed them the light. As Rovelli wrote in The Order of Time:
That which seems intuitive to us now is the result of scientific and philosophical elaborations in the past.
I have no reason not to believe Rovelli when he argues that we’re at another one of those moments, when our lived experience fails to capture the underlying reality. You shouldn’t trust my trust; I highly recommend you read the book yourself.
But for now, let’s believe him. Objects only exist in relation to other objects. The world isn’t made up of discrete objects made up of some fundamental matter; it’s a network of relations. In which case: woah.
I’m skipping some of the most magical parts of the book here, like the story of the polymath Aleksander Bogdanov, the philosophy of the 2nd century Indian Buddhist thinker Nagarjuna that correctly outlined the shape of reality, how the brain makes meaning from relevant relative information, or how our vision functions in the opposite way than we think it does. Again, just go read it.
But for now, I want to briefly discuss using relational quantum theory as a model.
The Web of Relations as a Model
Note: this section is really just me thinking out loud, and is meant to be a jumping off point.
In the last chapter of Helgoland, Rovelli writes of quantum theory:
I think it is time to take this theory fully on board, for its nature to be discussed beyond the restricted circles of theoretical physicists and philosophers, to deposit its distilled honey, sweet and intoxicating, into the whole of contemporary culture.
This is my fumbling attempt to discuss the theory in the context of the small piece of contemporary culture we cover here: technology, business, and markets. To be clear, I’m not arguing that quantum theory governs the markets or that because of relational quantum mechanics, web3 wins. “I read a book on Quantum Physics for Dummies and here’s why it means web3 will beat centralized corporations” would be the most techbro thing I could write. But as Rovelli writes:
Even if remote from our direct everyday experience, the discovery of the nature of the quantum world is too radical to have no relevance to precisely such big open questions as the nature of the mind. Not because the mind or other phenomena that we still know little about are quantum phenomena, but because by modifying our conception of the physical world and of matter, the discovery of quanta changes the terms of our questions.
Similarly, this understanding that the universe is made up of relations between objects, and that objects have no properties independent of other objects is too radical to not change the terms of our questions. I don’t have any profound insights – this is meant to be a conversation starter – but I think this is an interesting model: webs of relations versus static objects.
This might be another twist on the difference between complexity and reductionism that we discussed in The Laboratory for Complex Problems. This might be another reason that technical teardowns of new technologies often miss the mark: the object itself is less important than the web of relations it enables.
While Nagarjuna intuited the idea that there is no independent existence around 200 CE, it took science nearly two millennia to begin to prove that intuition in theory and experiment. As our tools and technology get better, and as ideas compose and compound, we’re able to operate at a resolution that makes it possible to harness intuition.
It takes technology and progress to get to the natural state of things.
Similarly, I’ve written in the past that “we’re on an inexorable march towards individuals mattering more than institutions.” I’d amend that with the web of relations model in mind to say something like, “We’re moving towards an end-state in which the web of relations among individuals will be more powerful than institutions.” Or, “We’re moving from top-down to networked models, from lower entropy to higher entropy.”
I hesitate to even bring web3 into the conversation, because while I think the set of tools that we’re calling web3 today are an important piece, the long arc bends towards a web of relations model regardless. The technologies that help bring legibility and usability to those webs will be extremely valuable. Tokenomics will certainly play a role in shaping behaviors, but non-web3 technologies will play a valuable role, too. If in a century or two, everyone exists economically as a node in a global network, we’re going to need AI to handle a lot for us, for example.
More practically today, it’s worth deeply understanding that things don’t have value independent of other things. The best-designed software is worthless without users. The stupidest jpeg is valuable if others believe it is. Memes pull the web of relations in their direction. As Rovelli argues, relations are the atomic unit:
Relations make up our “I,” as our society, our cultural, spiritual, and political life. It is for this reason, I think, that everything we have been able to accomplish over the centuries has been achieved in a network of exchanges, collaborating.
There are other things to explore here, like the value of reputation and relationships. If objects (or businesses, products, funds, etc…) are not valuable independent of a network, and if that’s becoming increasingly true as everything, including our attention and tastes, are becoming more fragmented, then it would seem that maintaining a good reputation in one’s subset of the network is more valuable than ever. Cutting yourself off from the web of relations is death. That’s a good check and balance in a system with fewer centralized gatekeepers.
It’s also maybe interesting to think about yourself as part of the whole – either the universe (I’ve coincidentally been using the Waking Up meditation app for the past three weeks and it’s a great pairing) or more specifically your professional web. “If the physical world is woven from the subtle interplay of images in mirrors reflected in other mirrors, without the metaphysical foundation of a material substance,” Rovelli suggests, “perhaps it becomes easier to recognize ourselves as part of that whole.”
I’m sure you’ll think of hundreds more interpretations and extensions of this model (or you might ask me if I wrote this while hanging out with Snoop at a Super Bowl afterparty.) But I promised to be brief, and I’m starting to break that promise, so let’s move on.
Getting Comfortable with the Weird
The last point I want to make is that, at a very fundamental level, things are really fucking weird. Objects don’t have independent properties, despite all appearances to the contrary. There is no such thing as time outside of our experience of it.
Now, Rovelli builds time back up in The Order of Time, and he fits meaning into his relational model of the world in Helgoland. The discovery of quantum physics need not change our day-to-day lives at all. We can’t notice quantum properties. “At our scale,” Rovelli writes, “the world is like the wave-agitated surface of the ocean seen from the moon: the smooth surface of a blue marble.”
You can take the blue pill and go back to your normal life, right now.
But thinking about all of this should give us an excuse to pause and take the red pill, at least for a few minutes. Rovelli quotes Douglas Adams, the author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, who said:
The fact that we live at the bottom of a deep gravity well, on the surface of a gas covered planet, going around a nuclear fireball 90 million miles away and think this to be normal is obviously some indication of how skewed our perspective tends to be.
To me, understanding how much weirder the world really is than it seems, and how much different it works than even our best scientists like Einstein thought it worked a century ago, is an exhortation to embrace new, weird ideas and explore them with curiosity.
Rovelli has a series of lines in Helgoland, specifically in the “Naturalism Without Substance: Contextuality” section, on the “anti-metaphysical” spirit inspired by Ernst Mach, which he seems to have adopted as his own approach:
The “anti-metaphysical” spirit that Mach promoted is an attitude of openness: We should not seek to teach the world how it should be. Let’s listen to the world instead, in order to learn from it how to think about it.
Our prejudices concerning how reality is made are just the result of our experience. Our experience is limited. We cannot take as gospel truth generalizations that we have made in the past.
We must take seriously the new things we learn about the world, even if they clash with our preconceptions about how reality is constituted.
The best way to learn is to interact with the world while seeking to understand it, readjusting our mental schemes to what we encounter and find.
I believe that we need to adapt our philosophy to our science, and not our science to our philosophy.
Rovelli is speaking to scientists, specifically those who have a hard time accepting relational quantum mechanics because it seems off, but I think they’re much more broadly applicable. If you forget every word you read in Not Boring but print those out and put them on your wall, I’ll have done my job.
In a century, quantum physics might be replaced by science that’s even better at describing the world and all of the cutting edge technologies that we talk about here will certainly be very old news. I’d bet all of my money that what will still be valuable in that world is the ability to learn new things and take them seriously, and, of course, the ability to operate as an ephemeral node in a web of relations.
How did you like this week’s Not Boring? Your feedback helps me make this great.
Thanks for reading and see you next Monday,