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Carlo Rovelli & Philip Pullman on the Science and Stories That Transform Our World

Two master storytellers discuss how it is only through our imaginations that we can truly understand the world we live in

Carlo Rovelli is the internationally bestselling theoretical physicist whose many fans include Benedict Cumberbatch, Antony Gormley, Neil Gaiman and Lily Cole. In May 2021 he came to Intelligence Squared to talk about the themes of his new book Helgoland, in which he takes us back to the birth of a revolutionary idea that has reshaped the whole of science and our very conception of the world.

Rovelli told the story of the brilliant young Werner Heisenberg who, suffering from hay fever, retreated to the treeless island of Helgoland in the North Sea where he began to glimpse a world in which nothing exists until it interacts with something else, upending our all-too-solid conception of reality. This is the world of quantum theory.

Now a century on from Heisenberg’s extraordinary insight, Rovelli has done what he dared not do before – to connect quantum theory with a panoply of philosophical ideas, including Buddhist thought, the problem of consciousness and even the discussions between Lenin and Bogdanov at the time of the Russian revolution. He explained that the way we interpret this insight has profound implications for our culture and philosophy. As he says, ‘Our ‘I’ is made of relations, as is our society, our cultural, spiritual and political life… 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, so sweet and a little intoxicating, into the whole of contemporary culture.’

Rovelli was in conversation with Philip Pullman, author of the fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials, and named by The Times as one of the 50 greatest British writers since 1945. These two master storytellers discussed how it is only through our imaginations that we can truly understand the world we live in.

Praise for Carlo Rovelli

‘With the publication of his million-selling Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, Carlo Rovelli took his place with Stephen Hawking and Richard Feynman as one of the great popularisers of modern theoretical physics’ – The Spectator

‘Physics has found its poet’ – John Banville



Carlo Rovelli

Theoretical physicist and bestselling author

Theoretical physicist who has made significant contributions to the physics of space and time. His books Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, Reality is Not What it Seems and The Order of Time are international bestsellers which have been translated into 43 languages and have sold over 2 million copies worldwide in all formats. Rovelli is currently working in Canada and also directing the quantum gravity research group of the Centre de Physique Théorique in Marseille, France.

Philip Pullman

Author best known for the His Dark Materials series of fantasy novels

Author best known for the His Dark Materials series of fantasy novels which include Northern Lights (1995), winner of a Carnegie Medal, the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize and a British Book Award, and shortlisted in 2007 for the Carnegie of Carnegies; The Subtle Knife (1997); The Amber Spyglass (2000), which was the first children's book to win the Whitbread Book of the Year; and Lyra's Oxford (2003). The novels have been adapted into a three-season series for BBC One and HBO. In 2017, Pullman announced a new trilogy, The Book of Dust. The first volume, La Belle Sauvage (2017), was shortlisted for the YA Book Prize and saw Pullman named Author of the Year at the British Book Awards. A second volume, The Secret Commonwealth, was published in 2019. Pullman believes that 'stories are the most important thing in the world. Without stories, we wouldn't be human beings at all.'

Shahidha Bari

Writer, academic and broadcaster

Professor of Fashion Cultures and Histories at London College of Fashion at the University of the Arts London, and a Fellow of the Forum for Philosophy at the London School of Economics. She is a regular presenter of the BBC Radio 3's Arts and Ideas programme, Free Thinking, and an occasional presenter of BBC Radio 4's Front Row and Saturday Review. She contributes to Aeon, The Financial Times, Frieze art magazine, The Guardian, The Observer, The Times Literary Supplement and other publications. She is the author of Dressed: The Secret Life of Clothes.


Speakers are subject to change.