52 Good Books

Book Review 47 – The Order of Time by Carlo Rovelli

‘Time waits for no man.’

Think about that phrase. It means that time doesn’t stop it’s incessant tick-tock, regardless of what befalls us. It just keeps on ploughing on. In a straight line? To us time appears linear and uniform, but we have been told that it can be warped by a number of variables so that time passes at different rates in different places. It was this mystery of time and the desire to understand it better that made me pick up Carlo Rovelli’s latest little masterpiece The Order of Time.

This book is Rovelli’s attempt to structure the arguments, theories and evidence out there on time to produce one cohesive whole. He is attempting to give us a snapshot of our understanding of time today as well as provide some of his own predictions.

This is not a straightforward problem. Trying to get your head around some of the concepts that Rovelli tackles is a challenge, but I would say it is ultimately worth it for those rare light-bulb moments. By no means did I understand everything, but there was enough that I did follow to make this book worthwhile reading. So I’ll fill you in on a few of these…

The first lesson that I managed to grasp was that time passes relative to where you are. i.e. in our locality of the earth we experience time passing more or less in the same way, but a few light years away an alien will be experiencing the same quantity of time in a much shorter or larger period relative to us. So if we experience an hour and the alien experiences an hour, their hour might actually only measure five minutes over here, or it might measure a whole day. Time is relative to your environment and it behaves this way because time is slower near large masses and at slower speeds.

The next big lesson that I took on board was one of framing. Time is change. The fact that things are in a constant state of flux is in its very essence what time is. If that sounds weird then I’m afraid you’ll have to read the book. Rovelli is a master at explaining this stuff, I am woefully inadequate (having only half grasped it in the first place!)

In addition to these scientific lessons, the book also has a smattering of fun little facts such as, a train station in Paris used to deliberately keep its time behind the actual time for anyone who was running late. I know a few people who would benefit from such a set up!

In general I have found that the more scientific stuff I read, the more apparent it has become to me how much science and philosophy are linked. As well as being a scientific book, The Order of Time is also deeply philosophical. It can’t really afford not to be when dealing with a subject that is firstly unresolved and secondly so tied up with human experience. Which brings me neatly onto my next point.

One of the major themes of the book is our perception of time. The fact that we have a memory of what just happened a second ago (you read that last sentence) and in the present moment there is an extension of that event (you’re now reading these words.) This creates an illusion of an event (the reading of this blog post) as having a duration, whereas in reality they are just a bunch of separate “present moments” that we have strung together in our memory. This concept to me seems like a kind of mirage. At some moments I can see it and at others it disintegrates before my eyes. And it is in contemplation of this that I begin to think this whole time business is actually pretty weird. It’s like saying the word ‘cornflakes’ over and over until it loses its meaning and just becomes a string of unconnected sounds.

But however freaky the subject matter, this book is a masterfully put together attempt to bring scientific thought to the masses. I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in delving both into our psyche’s and into the beautiful world of physics. If you’re anything like me you won’t understand it all, but then again, neither do the physicists (yet!)

I hope you’ll join me again next Monday when I’ll be returning to one of my favourite subjects: history. Victoria of England by Edith Sitwell will be on the blog next week. See you then!

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