Bob Henderson

Weinberg, who wrote a book titled “Dreams of a Final Theory,” mused by phone with me about the possibility that quantum mechanics really is the truth, such that the ultimate theory that physicists dream of would only address human experience and say nothing about nature beyond that. “That would, to me, be horrible,” he said. “In fact, I might almost conclude that if that’s what it is, the hell with it.”

Still, largely because quantum mechanics has passed so many extraordinarily precise tests, collapse models are generally dismissed when considered at all, and few physicists think Bassi will succeed. Even Weinberg, on the phone, characterized his quest as “interesting” but “to some extent whistling in the dark.”

The day after his lecture in Trieste, Bassi was driving me in his blue, weather-beaten Peugeot to his hometown, Colloredo di Prato. As the saw-toothed Alps sliced by in the sky out the passenger window, I asked what things were like when he was growing up.

“There was this moral aspect of working,” he said, “which now in a sense is lost.” Young people now, he said, are too concerned with “success” and “being known.”

“Success is nothing,” his father taught him. “Proper work is what counts.”

Although Colloredo di Prato and Trieste are just an hour’s drive apart, they are, he told me, “really two different worlds.” Trieste, created ad hoc as a port, is a city of merchants, of buying and selling. His home region, farther inland and with a longer history, is instead a place of artisans and farmers, of making and growing. And you could just as well say “really two different times” about Bassi’s early childhood, which was practically preindustrial. His first home was a two-story brick-and-fieldstone apartment block — the same his father grew up in — where a handful of families lived and shared a courtyard for their horses, pigs and cows. A stone outhouse still stands there today, and although indoor plumbing had come by the time Bassi was born, television hadn’t. His first memories include running old-fashioned errands with his mother, to the local grain mill and cheesemaker. One of his first friends was a chicken. Bassi’s older sister, Ivana, fondly recalls the way little Angelo would sit in the middle of their country street and “pamper his beloved hen.”

His father was a blacksmith, his mother a nurse. His father died four years ago, but Bassi calls his mother every day, and they speak, as they always have, in Friulan, the once-dominant language of the area that is now fast being displaced by Italian.

Standing in his childhood courtyard, surrounded by the plaster-patched stone walls of empty haylofts and abandoned apartments, it is tempting to draw a line between Bassi’s Old World upbringing and his unfashionable views on physics. Not to mention the church, not a hundred yards away, whose bell tower still looms over the whole charming but decaying scene. Bassi is a practicing Catholic and a believer in God, something he says is “unusual” but “not rare” among his colleagues at the university. Einstein called his own belief that reality could be understood “religion,” and I wondered if there’s a connection between Bassi’s religious faith and that in what has become essentially a far-right position in physics. I asked him at the picnic table in Zagreb.

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