Ian Thomson at The Guardian:
In a superb chapter on Dante and his conception of paradise and the cosmos, Rovelli writes: “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.” Like the Italian scientist-writer Primo Levi, Rovelli sees no incompatibility between the two cultures, only mutual attraction. In Lucretius’s long philosophical poem, On the Nature of Things, he finds a luminous celebration of the mysteries of the natural world that anticipated a large part of contemporary physics. Atoms are the sole “building blocks” of the universe, Lucretius observed. Lucretius did not know it, but he was writing about the quintessential atom of life – carbon – at a time when atomic theory did not exist. On the Nature of Things only became “modern” in 1417, however, when the papal scribe and humanist Poggio Bracciolini chanced on the last surviving manuscript of the poem in a German monastery. Subsequently, the poem was translated and disseminated widely. Shakespeare struck a Lucretian note in Romeo and Juliet, Rovelli writes, where the phantasmagoric Queen Mab is believed to have a “team of little atomies” at her command.
Certainly Lucretius was ahead of his time. Girolamo Savonarola, the firebrand church reformer of Renaissance Florence, fulminated against his pagan-era theory of atoms, which seemed to militate against Christian absolutism. Throughout, Rovelli repudiates religious fundamentalists of any denomination – but also rejects the idea that science is ever settled.