To glimpse the wonders that underlie our very existence is a rare privilege not granted to previous generations.
One of Carlo Rovelli's previous books, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, is a bestseller that has been translated into more than 40 languages. That says a lot about his ability to describe fascinating yet extremely complicated matters in a way an ordinary reader can understand and appreciate.
The Order of Time may well enjoy the same popularity but it is a little harder to read, not because Rovelli's talent at explanation has faded but because of the sheer complexity of the concepts involved; in Rovelli's own opinion, time is perhaps the greatest mystery in the universe.
The book is divided into three parts. In the first of these, Rovelli summarises what modern physics understands about time. In the second part, he describes the world as consisting of events, not of things. He points to the difficulty of understanding concepts without an adequate grammar to even think about them. The third part, as Rovelli points out, is the most difficult to comprehend because, having demonstrated in the first two parts that time does not exist, he now goes on to show what gives rise to the time that we believe we experience and are accustomed to.
In the process of working through these three parts the reader is entertained with the amazingly wise scientific insights of Sophocles, Anaximander, Aristotle, Isidore of Seville, the Venerable Bede, St Augustine and others. Of course, Newton and Einstein and other great minds are also referenced.
Rovelli's field of research is called 'quantum gravity' and he admits that there is not yet a theory of quantum gravity that has been generally accepted by the scientific community. But he believes his approach is a step – perhaps even a leap – in the right direction. To better understand his thesis, he gives some helpful examples. Rovelli points out that when an electron travels from point A to point B it can be perceived at point B by what it interacts with, but on the way from point A to point B, the electron is in an indeterminate position, it is nowhere in particular, it is all over the place… and this is referred to as its ‘superposition’. It is concepts like superposition that the reader needs to understand and accept as real. With similar clarity Rovelli explains what ‘entropy’ is and what is meant by a ‘singularity’.
Rovelli concludes that we perceive the world, and indeed the entire universe, the way we do because our vision is blurred, so that we only see part of something that is particular to us and we do not perceive the whole. He points to the fact that not so long ago, people felt it was obvious that the sun went round the earth. So he suggests we suspend disbelief in the apparently counter-intuitive because the wonders revealed and explained in this book are worth the effort required to do so. In such a way, readers are more likely to accept such intriguing concepts as time going more slowly at sea level than at the top of a mountain, and time going more slowly if you move at a high speed relative to someone moving at a lower pace.
The book has excellent endnotes aimed at readers with some understanding of physics. It also has a good index. And some of the concepts are illustrated by excellent diagrams. Furthermore, the book is beautifully bound in hard cover that will withstand much handling.
That may be needed but will prove worth the effort, because to gain a better understanding of what is now known about the fabric of the universe, to glimpse the wonders that underlie our very existence, is a rare privilege not granted to previous generations.
5 stars: ★★★★★
The Order of Time by Carlo Rovelli
Translated by Erica Segre and Simon Carnell
Hardback, 224 pages
Allen Lane 2018