Now reading: Ephemera

Take a self-guided tour from quantum to cosmos!


These disparate items weren’t designed to be valuable, but for Carlo Rovelli, they are what makes a life.

The red tubing extends about six feet, the words “Sideral 12×18 Antigelo – Italy” stamped in white at intervals along its length.

It coils amid a jumble of photos, papers, and objects. A multi-coloured glass pipe. Three seashells. An Instamatic camera still holding a roll of film. They are disparate pieces of an unwritten story. Carlo Rovelli’s story.

“My worst defect is the difficulty of distancing myself from the past, so these items were precious to me,” wrote Rovelli, one of the founders of loop quantum gravity. “Please handle them with care. Each is a piece of my years and my heart.”

That note was written to Krista Blake, the curator who sent empty archive boxes to dozens of people in order to create Archive Fever, a hands-on art exhibit that was featured in Perimeter’s George Leibbrandt Library in February 2015.

The boxes and a corresponding list of contributors aren’t cross-referenced. Guests don white gloves, and then grope for meaning among seemingly unrelated fragments of life.

For Blake, the process is intricately linked to science: archaeologists construct meaning from the remnants of societies; physicists craft theories from pieces of evidence.

“These throwaway items, you can assemble them and get a really clear picture of what life is like,” Blake says. “You don’t know what the objects were, but you know they had meaning.”

Objects are also impartial, Rovelli says. They are impervious to the simplification and re-arrangements of memory. Of all the items packed in his box – the pins, the toy, the scientific papers – that red tube is, for him, the most precious.

“It is the tube I used for stealing gasoline from parked cars, in the night, when I was a kid, so I could drive across Europe more or less for free. I used to leave a little ‘Sorry, thanks’ note.”

Carlo Rovelli's unpacked box for Archive Fever.
Carlo Rovelli’s Archive Fever box, fully unpacked.

The contents of Carlo Rovelli’s box in Archive Fever:

  1. Draft science papers
  2. Loop Space Representation of Quantum General Relativity, the scientific paper that “made my career”
  3. Science notes and calculations
  4. Music box
  5. Marble pipe
  6. Multi-coloured glass pipe
  7. Two shells and coral
  8. Roll of film
  9. “I’m loopy for Carlo” pin
  10. Photocopied photo prints: speaking at a peace rally; herding a goat named Lucrezia
  11. Various photographs
  12. “Errha” photography self-timer
  13. Rizla Original rolling paper
  14. Kodak Gold negatives
  15. Cable
  16. Black glass plate, marked “Athermal DIN A 777”, used to see his first eclipse
  17. Cartier box containing: Scuola Italiana Sci Livrio pin; Club Di Topolino pin (the Mickey Mouse Club); Red star-and-sickle pin; peace sign pin; small ace of hearts
  18. Adox Tessina film
  19. Camera flash reflector
  20. Blue pen
  21. Compass
  22. Projector slides
  23. Eyeglasses (broken)
  24. Veronesi Sci Club sticker
  25. Rocket toy, made by Quercetti
  26. Kodak Instamatic 50 (with film)
  27. Prop from the set of a film about Russian physicist Lev Landau
  28. Glass heart bottle containing flower and petals
  29. 6′ of red tube, used to siphon gas from parked cars
  30. Three notebooks of calculations

You’ve still got time to find the perfect gift for your favourite scientist.

/Dec 11, 2020

Famous as an author, a mentor, and a field-founding researcher, Carlo Rovelli has a new position as one of Perimeter’s Distinguished Visiting Research Chairs, and new ideas about the ultimate fate of black holes.

/Feb 26, 2020

Making music with a pendulum, 75 pounds of rice, and imagination.

/Jun 21, 2017